By Tony Attwood and Gerry McLeod
Woolwich Arsenal’s first ground at the Manor in Plumstead could hold a maximum of around 32,000, although it was rarely full. Twice in the 1905/6 season gates of 30,000 were recorded – on April 13 1906 against Aston Villa in the league and for the 5-0 thrashing of Sunderland in the FA Cup on 24 February 1906.
This figure was exceeded on February 2 1907, again in the Cup, against Bristol City, when 31,300 were crammed in, and finally on 6 February 1909 when 32,000 is recorded for the attendance for the cup match against Millwall.
Arsenal’s crowd in those days was at the upper end of the scale for matches, but even so they could not match the potential of grounds such as Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane. Tottenham’s 5-0 defeat of Arsenal at the Lane on 25 December 1911 was watched by 47,100, while Chelsea’s victory by 1-0 at the Bridge on 28 March 1910 was recorded as having a crowd of 40,000. But even this was not a record for an Arsenal game as 50,000 had turned up in West London on 28 November 1908 to see Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1.
As Chelsea and Tottenham had found, large crowds did not bring instant success – but they did generate money, and that was certainly what Arsenal needed by the time they moved to Highbury, not least to cover the costs of the leasing and purchasing of the new ground (the old ground not have been sold and thus not generating any income of its own to help with the move).
In the first Highbury season the top crowd is shown as 35,000 for the derby game with Clapton Orient on April 18 1914 but inevitably in the second season on the outbreak of war crowds dropped dramatically.
However the resumption of football in 1919 saw an increase once again, and the first match in the first division in 1919 (the first in a sequence of first division seasons that continues to this day) was watched on August 30 1919 by 40,000 people. Arsenal lost 0-1 to Newcastle.
Two more records were broken that season. On 6 December 1919 The Arsenal changed its name to Arsenal as the club drew 1-1 with Chelsea at Highbury in front of 50,000 – the first time Arsenal had played in front of such a crowd – and an interesting comparison with the previous game on 29 November when only 6000 showed up at Notts County for the 2-2 draw with Arsenal.
But even this crowd for the Chelsea game was exceeded on 24 January 1920 when Arsenal 0 Aston villa 1 recorded a crowd of 55,000.
Arsenal first played in front of 60,000 at Chelsea on 4 December 1920 for Chelsea 1 Arsenal 2.
These crowd figures are of course rounded – and our source here is Fred Ollier’s book, “Arsenal a complete record”.
It is hard to say how accurate these figures were. Clubs paid tax on their profits at the same rate as individuals, at this time, and so there was a need for accurate accounting of income, but not of crowd numbers. What’s more, the rounding of the figures suggests that a fair amount of estimating (rather than a counting of every 3d piece) was going on. Clubs clearly had an incentive to reduce their estimates of cash received in order to reduce their liability, just as they had incentives to make underhand payments to players who were limited in what they could earn by the maximum wage agreements in football (a system which, incidentally, Sir Henry Norris spoke against on several occasions). Taking a certain amount out of the gate receipts and handing some of it on to players before it reached the bank, was a temptation for clubs, and a welcome move for players (who would not have to pay income tax).
So, if anything we might take it that these figures were under rather than over-estimates of the actual number who turned up – and that is before we start counting how many people gained illegal entry to the ground by climbing barriers and walls.
But for now and without any further evidence, 6 December 1919 seems likely to have been the first date on which Arsenal drew a crowd of 50,000 to Highbury.