From Humble Beginnings
You may or may not remember that last summer I produced a weekly series profiling the most pivotal characters in Arsenal`s rich and varied history. Well, ever a creature of habit and still entirely indifferent to the whole transfer rumour tittle tattle circus, I`m going to produce yet more episodic memoirs this summer. This time I will be focussing more on the administration of the club as a whole and taking a look at the events that have forged Arsenal into the Champions League dwelling, corporately endorsed brand we see today. There are a great any incidences which shift and shape the fortunes of an entire club. Some of them are serendipitous or seemingly innocuous events which go onto assume greater significance than anyone could ever imagine. When a group of Scottish munitions workers met in the Prince of Wales pub in Woolwich in 1886 to proposition starting a football club to pass their leisure time, I scarcely believe they realised that their club would still be running some 123 years later with people paying four figure sums to spectate. Some incidences are measured and calculated, bold, brazen moves knowingly incepted to speed up the evolution of the football club, the moves from the Manor Ground to the Invicta Ground and back again, the relocation to Highbury and of course, latterly the sojourn to the Emirates Stadium. Some decisions have, by hook or by crook, worked out for the best- the appointments of Messrs Chapman and Wenger, David Dein`s decision to buy £13,000 worth of Arsenal shares in the mid 80s, memorably provoking Peter Hill Wood to scoff that the investment was "dead money." There are also episodes of scandal and moral indignation that have emanated from the Marble Halls, Henry Norris`, ahem, "persuasive" tactics, George Graham`s decision to take Rune Hauge`s little brown envelope and David Dein`s controversial bond scheme. Arsenal Football Club is and has for long been an innovator, a mover and a shaker at the upper echelons of the sport, so every weekend until the season begins again I will be taking a chronological saunter through the marbled halls of our history and picking out the key moments. I begin with the very origins of this great football club.
Arsenal are viewed today as the establishment club. Concierges, plump cushioned leather in the Director`s Box, a Cuban cigar smoking Etonian chairman, supporters that use semi colons in their banners. Tradition With Vision is the club`s preferred strap line nowadays; therefore it is almost ridiculous to comprehend the very meagre and humble beginnings of this football club. In fact, the beginnings were so inauspicious that one of the co founders of Dial Square FC was named Humble! The seed in the loins of Arsenal Football Club was planted quite some distance from the tree. In 1863 in Fife in Scotland, a man named David Danskin was born to a working class family in the town of Kirkcaldy, eventually becoming an Apprentice Engineer Fitter. By 1885, England was locked in an arms race that would precipitate the outbreak of the First World War. Danskin responded to the swelling need for munitions factory workers and engineers by moving down to Woolwich to take a post as a Mechanical Engineer at the Woolwich Arsenal. Danskin had developed a deep love for the relatively embryonic sport of association football, turning out as a player for Kirkcaldy in his teens. Danskin would spend a good deal of his days on the production lines gabbing endlessly about his favourite pass time. Woolwich, situated in Kent, the Garden of England no less, was very much a cricket and rugby stranglehold and football fans were somewhat persona non grata in this South East London satellite. Therefore, it was not surprising that Danskin`s initial suggestions of the Woolwich Arsenal starting a football team that the region lacked were largely met indifferently.
However, his suggestions would fall on more receptive ears in 1886, when Nottingham Forest footballers Fred Beardsley and Morris Bates moved "daaan saaaaf" to work at the Woolwich Armoury. Beardsley and Bates had previously worked at the Chilwell ordnance factory which backed onto Nottingham Forest`s old Trent Bridge ground. Like Danskin, they had ventured South in response to the growing need for munitions workers. Beardsley and Bates warmed quickly to the idea of starting a football club. But one more charismatic figure was to enter the fray and join the band of four enthused men. Jack Humble was a radical left wing activist who had moved from his impoverished County Durham home to Woolwich in order to look for work. Legend has it, that Humble was so poverty stricken, that he walked the 300 or so miles from County Durham to Woolwich in search of employment. Humble secured himself a job at the Woolwich Arsenal and, ever the rabble rouser, fiercely supported the proposition of a football club, not only in acknowledgement of his own passion for the game, but as a staunch trade unionist, Humble felt workers should have rights to more leisure activities as well as a cutback on their 50 hour plus working weeks. England`s establishment club was being forged by a Scot and a socialist. Others would soon latch onto the idea of a football club as the four men canvassed their colleagues. In October 1886, David Danskin, Fred Beardsley, Morris Bates, Jack Humble, Elijah Watkins and Richard Pearce each contributed 6d (about 2 and a half pence in today`s money), recruited fifteen of their colleagues and set up a football club. Danskin put in an extra 3p of his own money to buy a football so that the players could practise during allotted lunch breaks.
Despite the general apathy of Woolwich to the sport at the time, the British Government were very keen to get more young men playing sport as opposed to spectating. In football`s early days, the concept of supporting a single team loyally and unwaveringly had not yet materialised. Working class people went to boxing, football, cock fighting etc to be part of a spectacle, most of the excitement generated from viewing was driven by gambling- which concerned the British Government. The concept of charging people for admission to games had only just arisen and it is not unreasonable to suggest that Danskin felt he might even make a little enterprise for himself out of starting a football club. But there were more pressing concerns first, having successfully obtained the means and the funds to start a team, they now needed some opponents. Danskin arranged a game against Eastern Wanderers, to be played on December 11, 1886. Though Arsenal would find a home in Plumstead, their first ever fixture was actually played in the Isle of Dogs on an expanse of land that is now Tiller Road in Wapping. The players would have travelled to the game via the Woolwich Ferry. The pitch was a public health hazard as it had an open sewer running across the back of the field where the ball would be submerged several times in the game. The team did not have a strip or an official name, though it is widely thought they informally called themselves Dial Square for this match, after the iconic sundial in the courtyard of the Woolwich Arsenal. Of course, the game was unrecognisable in 1886, crossbars, penalty kicks and pitch markings were future innovations at this point and the goalkeepers could handle the ball anywhere on the pitch. History holds that Dial Square won the match 6-0, but given the lack of goal nets, crossbars and pitch markings, it is impossible to know for surety that that is true. Though given the fact that the ball was covered in sewage for the entire match, I would not have blamed the Eastern Wanderers goalie for letting it fly by him unchecked with such regularity. The team for this historic fixture was as follows: Beardsley; Danskin(c), Porteous, Gregory, Bee, Wolfe, Smith, May, Whitehead, Morris, Duggan.
Enthused by their first game, Humble, Beardsley, Bates, Danskin, Pearce and Watkins met in the Royal Oak pub in Woolwich on Christmas Day of 1886 to address the ongoing needs of the team. The three priorities of the meeting were to decide on a name, obtain some kits and decide on a ground. Fred Beardsley called in a favour from his old club Nottingham Forest, who donated twenty red shirts for the team to wear. There were no regulations in those days affirming that all team members had to wear the same coloured shorts, nor that goalkeepers had to wear a different coloured shirt to their team mates. Players often wore their own knickerbockers to complete the ensemble. Next, the men discussed a name and finally settled on Royal Arsenal. The reasons for the name are unknown, though many posit that it was simply an amalgamation of their workplace and the name of their favourite local watering hole, the Royal Oak. Despite the regal allusions of their name (or should that be illusions?), Royal Arsenal did not have a home venue, nor anything close to the funds to rent one. It was more necessity than choice which caused them to plump for the local public playing fields at Plumstead Common. The conditions were hardly ideal, an already heavily sloped, unctuous surface was laid siege to as the Royal Horse Artillery used the common and large divots and wheel marks were commonplace on the field of play. However, the team gamely continued and played their first game as Royal Arsenal on January 8th, 1887, beating Erith 6-1. By the season`s end, Arsenal had lost only two of their ten games. For the 1887-88 season, they moved to the Sportsman Ground in Plumstead. There were trying times ahead for Royal Arsenal, who would become Woolwich Arsenal in 1891, manfully struggling on in a catchment area that was not accessible in an area that had not been endeared to the sport, until Henry Norris grabbed an ailing club by the scruff of its neck and transplanted it 9 miles North in 1913. But for now, the industry and investment- both financial and emotional- of Danskin, Humble, Beardsley and Bates had been infectious enough to start a humble football team, for that, we all owe them immeasurably. Humble, Danskin, Beardsley and Brown all lived to see Arsenal win their first major silverware by winning the 1930 F.A. Cup. The mind boggles at how they would view the fruits of their labour in its current incarnation.LD.