By Tony Attwood
If ever there was a defining moment in the history of Arsenal FC it came in the summer of 1890 when the decision was taken to move the club from the Manor Field to the Invicta Ground.
At the time this would have seemed just a natural progression for the club as it had already changed grounds several times, playing at
- Plumstead Common (1886/7)
- The Sportsman’s Ground (1887/8)
- Mr Cavey’s Field (later to be known as the Manor Field), (played 30 March 1888 as a one off due to flooding of the Sportsman’s Ground)
- The Manor Field (1888/90)
- The Invicta Ground (1890/93)
So one more move was no big deal – especially as the grounds were all in the same area – the Manor Field being virtually opposite the Invicta. But in fact the consequences of that move were enormous – although they were not to be seen until three years later.
Sadly most information about the Invicta is missing. Hundreds of books and web sites mention the Invicta but almost all, suffering from the plague of plagiarism, repeat the same phrases. All comment on the fact that some of the old terraces of the ground still exist in the gardens of houses that were built where the ground stood, but many other facts are either missing or wrongly stated.
So let’s start at the beginning. Why did Arsenal want to move out of the Manor Field?
We’ve already seen the answer in the last article in this series in which I highlighted the extraordinary growth in Arsenal’s crowds. Although we have to be careful with crowd figures since some (many in the case of the first two seasons) are missing, and all are estimates, the growth is extraordinary
- 1886/7: 600 recorded for one game
- 1887/8: 600 top figure recorded for two games
- 1888/9: 1500 recorded for one home game, 2000 for a game on neutral ground
- 1889/90: 8000 recorded for a home friendly against a London Caledonian/Clapton combined XI
Some books and sites state that Arsenal moved to the Ivicta with crowds of just 1000, but this wasn’t true. Crowds were variable, but the final season at the Manor had seen great steps forward. There is much more on this in the article on Arsenal’s 4th Season.
From what we know of the Manor Fields at this time, it was never intended to cope with numbers like this, and so a move elsewhere was obvious, and across the road was perfect.
All the commentaries on the Invicta suggest that by the time Arsenal arrived there it was a “proper stadium” with a stand, terracing and changing rooms, as opposed to the Manor Fields where (it is also said) wagons were brought in as stands and there was, in the early days, no terracing.
But this raises the question – why? Why was this stadium built when by far the biggest football team in the area was playing in other locations? What happened there before Arsenal moved in?
We know, from subsequent events, that the owner of the ground, George Pike Weaver, was not a man who was shy about making money when the opportunity arose. But was he really a man who would invest a considerable sum building a sports ground on spec?
The logic would suggest that this was a brand new ground, and this is confirmed in The Book Of Football that was published in 1905. A brief history of the club was written by Arthur Kennedy, a director of the club.
Now the only problem with taking that commentary as proof that the Invicta was built for the Arsenal, is the fact that notion that Buist was involved in the game against Derby was quite wrong. He didn’t sign for Arsenal for another eight months. Writing history from memory (as is regularly pointed out by readers of my ramblings on this site) is more than likely to generate errors.
I’ll come back to the professionalism bit later, but let’s stay with the stadium.
Now we also know that George Pike Weaver, the owner of the Invicta, was a man whose business was in making bottles – one report suggests he was involved in mineral water (these being the days before all of London was on the main water supply, and so bottled water was important). Elsewhere he is called a “magnate”. So why did he have the land, and what was he doing on it, and why was it available for stadium building?
Some evidence comes from looking at the satellite map of the area, which includes Hector Street – the street which contains the houses whose back gardens have the remains of the Invicta Ground terracing. You will also notice that to the north and west of Hector Street is Mineral Street. Andy and Mark in their tour of the area note the Invicta ground was on the intersection of Hector Street and Mineral Street. Elsewhere it is noted that the ground was on the south side of Plumstead High Street, with the Manor Field on the north side.
I can’t find a photo of the Invicta Ground, Hector Street or Mineral Street, but this picture shows a view from the west along Plumstead High Street sometime around 1900. The Red Lion public house is on the left and the entrance to Mineral Street, is on the right.
The source of the picture however says that Mineral Street was then known as Butcher’s Lane. But the Old to New Street names web site suggests that in 1912 part of Mineral Street became Hector Street and Butchers Lane became Mineral Street, so it seems the Mineral Street name goes back further and this suggests the connection with the Weaver family and its mineral water connection is longer lasting.
Certainly the book “The London Football Companion” mentions “George Weaver, of the Weaver Mineral Water Company” and there is one internet reference I have found to a bottle of Weaver’s mineral water from around the period.
But if Weaver had a flourishing mineral water bottling business, why did he build a football ground?
We know that Weaver had a connection with Arsenal (see below), and maybe the land the Invicta was built on was not being used, or maybe the mineral water business was in decline.
Certainly at the end of the 19th century water supply was in the hands of private companies, and although by then the Metropolitan Water Act stopped companies extracting water from the tidal reaches of the Thames, this did not apply to Plumstead. A mineral water company would have had a lot of trade at the time.
London certainly had artesian wells (the fountains at Trafalgar Square were “powered” by one) but I can’t find a record of them in Plumstead. So, one possible scenario is that the Weaver family were well placed in the bottling side of the bottled water business, but with the area moving into London and coming under the London County Council in 1889 (which meant a rapid expansion of control on the quality of water and the expansion of mains water) the Weaver family started to look for new uses for their land.
My working premise therefore is that the Invicta Ground was not already in existence but was built in negotiation with Royal Arsenal following the huge crowds that had been experienced in Arsenal’s fourth season.
It seems likely that Weaver was either on the committee that ran Royal Arsenal, or close to men who were (as the events of 1893 – as revealed in “Woolwich Arsenal; the club that changed football” show).
The other interesting question is that of the name “Invicta” – which is the motto of the county of Kent. But Plumstead was no longer in Kent when Royal Arsenal moved in. But maybe Weaver (whose subsequent actions show him to be a difficult and obstinate man) was against the move of Plumstead into London – and certainly if he saw this move as damaging his water business, that could well be true.
Now we also know that Weaver spent £8000 on the Invicta Ground getting it ready for Arsenal (“Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football”, page 7). This is equivalent approximately to £9m today. When Arsenal moved in Weaver charged around £160 a year rent – considerably more than other teams had to pay in the area, but still only a 2% return on his investment in doing up the ground. It seems the rent went up each year, and what eventually happened was that in 1892 Weaver told Arsenal he wanted more like £400 a year. Arsenal would not pay, and this resulted in the club buying their own ground for the first time.
But of course all that is in the future. For now – starting in 1890 – Arsenal seemed very pleased to have moved into what may be called their first purpose built ground. And in passing we can remove the talk that appears on some sites of Arsenal having crowds of 1000. They needed a bigger ground, because they were already past that point, and expecting 1890/1 to deliver even more.
The first game at the Invicta was a friendly on 6 September 1890 against the 3rd Highlanders. 7000 spectators turned up. On 11 October a second game against the same side was viewed by 10,000 fans. The record attendance came two years later on 19 November 1892 when 12,000 saw the local derby in the FA Cup which ended Arsenal 3 Millwall Athletic 2. (Reference is made in some sources to the match against Heart of Midlothian on 30 March 1891, which attracted 12,000, but our records show the crowd that day of 10,000.)
Now associated with all this is the issue of Arsenal going professional, and of changing its name. It is often said that Royal Arsenal became Woolwich Arsenal in 1891, which is quite untrue. But Arsenal did become a professional club in 1891, one year after moving into the Invicta but they always played at the Invicta under the name Royal Arsenal FC
That move into professionalism, however, should be part of the next article.