Arsenal v Brighton United – and an unexpected glimpse of the class struggle within football

By Tony Attwood

On 31 October 1898 Woolwich Arsenal played Brighton United in the third and final season of the United League.  Arsenal won 5-2 and the crowd was 2000.

Arsenal’s team was Ord, McPhee, Fyfe, Haywood, Anderson, Dick, Cottrell, White, Hunt, Hannah and Daily.  The team, as was common with United League games, was pretty much the first team and the fact that Arsenal regularly played in two first team competitions was a reflection of the fact that playing the game was more important at the time than training.  Tactics were still pretty much non-existent – it was a case of going out and playing.

The prime factor recorded about Brighton United is that they played away to Southampton  in the first ever match at The Dell – that club’s ground through the 20th century.   The match was started by G.J Filling, Esq, Mayor of Southampton.  I have seen a picture of this but can’t reproduce it for copyright reasons.  But it is interesting to see the terraces fairly full, but a lot of space in the stands.

Brighton United not only joined the United League in 1898, but also the Southern League.  By 1897/8 the Southern League had been a two division league for five seasons, but Brighton, along with other clubs through this era, catapulted themselves straight into the first division.  Some clubs moved between the two divisions, but mostly the two leagues were kept separate – although I am not sure why.

In their first season in the Southern League Brighton United came 10th out of 13.  Tottenham Hotspur were four points above them in 7th as the league was won by Southampton in their new ground.

Looking at the Brighton team at the time we find three ex Woolwich Arsenal players, John Caldwell, Patrick Farrell and Francis McAvoy.    Farrell and McAvoy have been cited on this site as Arsenal’s first substitute pairing.

Given that the leading light in Brighton United was a photographer, William Avenell, there are a number of photos of Brighton players that have survived – but the club did not.  It is reported that Brighton United started the 1899/1900 season but failed to complete it because of financial troubles and retired in March.

So now we have two links between Brighton U and Woolwich Arsenal – the United League and three players.   But there is another – more tenuous in the sense that it reminds us of Arsenal’s history rather than being a real link – but interesting nonetheless.

A key figure in Brighton’s development, as noted above, was William Avenell, a shareholder and fundraiser for Brighton United.  He was something akin to George Leavey at Woolwich Arsenal.

Such was William Avenell’s love of football that he also formed Brighton and Hove Rangers, only that club collapsed in 1901 – just a year after Brighton United, although it was Rangers that eventually became Brighton and Hove Albion.

Now Avenell was both chair and treasurer of Rangers, and as such was subject to an enquiry by the Football Association following the demise of two of his clubs in quick succession.   He said that the reason Rangers failed was the predominance on club committee of “working men” who held a “diversity of opinion”.

Team photo of Brighton United 1989/1899

As an explanation it only stands up if the notion of “working men” on a committee was seen as an approach that is liable to lead to chaos and dysfunction.   And this explanation is what drew me to the story, because it is just the sort of thing that one could imagine the men who caused all the trouble at Royal Arsenal saying.  These men were those who tried to take over Arsenal in 1892/3 and who, upon being beaten in their various schemes, formed Royal Ordnance Factories which also played in the Southern League from 1894.

The full story of the split at Arsenal in 1893 is told in Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football, and I won’t repeat the story here.   And yes, there is only one comment reported by the man who was instrumental in setting up and running Brighton United and Brighton and Hove Rangers, but it does remind me so strongly of the views expressed by George Pike Weaver and his allies in the battle for the heart and soul of Arsenal in 1892 and 1893.

I wonder that if we were to dig around in the history of other clubs of the era we might find the same middle class view that working class men were simply not capable of running a football club – although they were certainly capable of playing for the club.  I suspect we would and it would give us an additional insight into the class prejudice that bedevilled the age.

Finally I’d like to express my strong admiration for the Spartacus Educational site which has so much valuable information about early football on it, and on which I found the William Avenell quote and the team picture.


The books…



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *