Having produced a number of history series over the last few years on the site and in the midst of the international break, it feels like a good time to introduce another episodic foray. Having rather exhausted the retrospective route in the factual sense, I have decided to embellish our rich and fascinating history with a sense of geography. After all, an institution that has stood for some 125 years is likely to have a varied fixity of places, locations and buildings which are steeped in its ways. Indeed, Arsenal`s topography is more contentious than that of most football clubs being as we are one of the few surviving professional clubs that forsook its original locality when the club moved from Kent to North London in 1913. The series will look to delve into the importance of seminal locations, such as Highbury`s legendary halfway house, the marble halls, Gillespie Road tube station and Islington Town Hall and look to place them in the pantheon of the last 125 years and how they have contributed to the ongoing legend that is Arsenal Football Club.
My first feature will commemorate the very origins of the club. A place in which the seed of the club was first sewn and that must indelibly be looked upon as the embryo of Arsenal Football Club. It was the scene of the brainchild and, as well as that, a place the upwardly mobile forefathers of Arsenal liked to go for a big piss up. The Royal Oak pub in North Woolwich still stands today, modestly set amidst a panoramic composition of housing estates. It has changed slightly in appearance since it served the innovators of Arsenal`s creation thanks to an unsolicited demolition courtesy of the Luftwaffe in 1942. Now its green tiled exterior and net curtains mark it out as your average South London local. In early 1886, Scottish munitions worker David Danskin journeyed south to find work at the Woolwich Arsenal munitions factory. Likewise, Sunderland native Jack Humble had joined the large number of unemployed in Northern England and, legend has it, his poverty was such that he took the journey from Sunderland to Woolwich on foot. With the British army looking to stretch her empire ever more, the Boer War in South Africa made the Woolwich munitions factory an attractive prospect for job seekers. Humble and Danskin became good friends, they bonded over a mutual love for Association Football, which was beginning to take off in the North of Britain. Both were frustrated by their incarceration in Kent`s exclusively rugby territory. Danskin and Humble met for a quiet after work pint in the Royal Oak one evening in 1886 and Danskin suggested petitioning their colleagues with the idea of starting a football club. Humble, being the determined, upwardly mobile individual he was, agreed. Humble was also a staunch trade union activist who rabidly campaigned for greater options for leisure activities for workers.
The two men sat in this less than salubrious Kent boozer and sketched out their plan of action. Danskin sent a subscription list to his colleagues asking that those that share the desire to start a football club pay a contributory fee. 15 men contributed 6d each so that they could buy a ball. Danskin raised the other 10s and 6d himself and the men had their starting point. In December 1886, Danskin, Humble, Elijah Watkins and Richard Pearce would meet again in the Royal Oak hostelry to sketch out their action plan. It was in there that they realised that two of the men interested in joining the club- Fred Beardsley and Joseph Bates (who would tragically die in 1894 due to an on pitch incident in which his arm was so badly broken that it got infected on the quagmire of a pitch and, despite an amputation, he would die in hospital four days later) had previously played for Nottingham Forest. The four men agreed that they would need to call upon the experience of Beardsley and Bates. Whilst in the Royal Oak they discussed setting up their first game. They set plans in motion to play the now defunct Eastern Wanderers in Wapping in the Isle of Dogs on Christmas Eve, 1886. Arsenal won the game 6-0.
Now the first obstacle had been overcome, Danskin, Humble, Pearce, Watkins and Beardsley met in the Royal Oak once more, on Christmas Day 1886. It was here that Watkins was coerced into being Arsenal`s secretary. Some pressing matters needed to be surmounted. According to accomplished Arsenal historian Bernard Joy, it was at this meeting in the Royal Oak where the five men decided to play their games on Plumstead Common. (The pitch they had played on in Wapping had an open sewer behind one of the goals which the participators in the game were none too fond of). Danskin raised the matter of equipment too, the men could not afford to buy their own kit, so Beardsley pledged over his pint to write to his old club Nottingham Forest to see what charity they could provide. Beardsley was good to his word and Nottingham Forest generously donated 16 red shirts. But the importance of the pub was alluded to in a much more explicit way when it came to the other order of business. The team needed a name. It is not known for 100% certainty why the men decided on Royal Arsenal, but it is not a fantastic leap of logic to suggest that they`d amalgamated their place of work with the name of their favourite after work public house.
As the club got on its feet and began to establish itself amongst the host of more illustrious Northern football clubs, the Royal Oak stayed at the centre piece of Woolwich Arsenal`s early years. The players would often use it on Saturday evenings after home matches. The club was the bastion of working men who earned their corn with hard manual labour and liked to play as hard as they worked. The team had a reputation for being incredibly physical (a synonym for "psychotically violent" no doubt, you know, like when Stoke describe themselves as "competitive") and were noted for loutish drunken behaviour in the Royal Oak with their fans after matches. Centre half Bobby Buist apparently ended most Saturday nights after home fixtures standing on the Royal Oak tables with ale in hand, leading his colleagues in song. The players even reportedly used the pub to change before some home games. The pub still stands today on Woodman Street, a short stroll from North Woolwich station. There is no insignia to suggest its cultural importance; I would chance most locals that drink there are entirely unaware of its cultural currency. Though the club still recognise it as a cornerstone of their history, the main conference suite in Club Level bears the name Royal Oak. Motown dominates the jukebox in the Royal Oak nowadays and the pub`s darts side is very decent I`m told. Other than that, it is rather unremarkable save for its sentimental value to Gooners. If you are ever in Woolwich, I hope you raise a glass to the place and its cask of fine ales which lubricated the brain cells that bore the club.LD.