Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday October 25 2010
Building on the article some weeks back on the Royal Oak pub in Woolwich, the next Arsenal landmark I shall be casting a retrograde eye over will be Arsenal tube station. (Because in my 19 years going to Arsenal, pubs and train stations have basically been the staple build up to any home match). The Arsenal tube station is one of the most notable, yet quirky relics of Arsenal`s topographical history. On the face of it, Arsenal tube station is merely a station on the London Underground network in travelcard zone 2, served by the Piccadilly Line, wedged between Holloway Road and Finsbury Park. But dig a little deeper into its sloping undergrowth and terracotta tiling and the station unveils a fascinating insight into Arsenal Football Club`s history.
The station was opened by Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway on 15th December, 1906. Of course, it started out life by the name of Gillespie Road station. Back then it granted access to St. John`s Divinity College on Highbury Hill, as well as serving the sleepy streets of St. Thomas` Road, Avenell Road and Blackstock Road, which were just beginning to see rows of terraced houses appear. Those of you familiar with the London Underground will realise its par of the course for a tube station to have at least one bus stop outside of it. Arsenal tube station, to this day, does not have a bus stop within half a mile which is a testament to its sleepy roots. However, in 1913, its usage was to escalate dramatically. When looking to rid Arsenal of the shackles of the commuter`s nightmare that was Woolwich, Sir Henry Norris was struck by the nearby playing fields at St. John`s Divinity College. But it wasn`t just the playing fields that had Norris` attention. Norris recognised that the catchment area for a ground in this area was significantly widened by the fact that Gillespie Road tube station provided precious and quick links to Holborn and King`s Cross, which made the ground very accessible to a wider support base. Gillespie Road tube station and its link to the ventricle of the centre of London was a large part of the reason Arsenal moved to Highbury in the first place.
But not satisfied with ushering the sleepy urban tube station into centre stage and subjecting it to the whims of thousands of hobnailed feet every other Saturday, Arsenal gave it a facelift. To cope with the extra crowds, some of the terraced housing the station was precariously sandwiched between was knocked down and the tunnels down onto the station platforms were widened. Even today, the station is very unique as it has no stairs or lifts. Instead, the floor slopes upwards as you make the journey from platform to street level. Those that use the station with regularity will be familiar with the final steep incline and the sharp intake of breath one must gulp in before becoming reacquainted with level ground again, as your knee joints recoil in terror. But the post first world war, pre second world war Arsenal were an ambitious lot, they weren`t just interested in a tummy tuck and a breast augmentation for this piece of hallowed land. They wanted an identity shift to match the cosmetic transition.
Norris and Herbert Chapman in particular, were incredibly keen to rename the station. "Whoever heard of Gillespie Road?" Chapman told the press incredulously, "It`s Arsenal round here." The interlopers were sticking their flag into the ground. When Norris was banned from football for financial irregularities in 1930, Chapman was given free reign as the benevolent dictator and new chairman Samuel Hill Wood allowed the Yorkshire genius a free reign. Having built a team that had won its first trophy with the F.A. Cup in 1930, followed by the league title in 1931, Chapman set about building a club. He lobbied with the authorities long and hard and in November 1932, his wish was realised. Gillespie Road station was renamed Arsenal (Highbury Hill). (The Highbury Hill suffix was eventually dropped in 1960). This was a quite remarkable feat. One`s mind boggles at how Chapman persuaded London Underground to go to the trouble of reprinting maps, timetables and even reconfigure ticket machinery. But Chapman had pulled off a quite unique piece of club branding, especially when one considers Arsenal`s origins did not lie in the area and, at this point in time, a great many people would still have considered Arsenal a South London province. The renaming of the station was the final knitting needle that allowed Arsenal to weave themselves into the fabric of Islington.
The renaming of the station was part of Chapman`s grand project to turn a sleepy corner of North London into a footballing Mecca. In 1932 the famous 45 minute clock also appeared at Highbury and at Chapman`s behest, Arsenal redeveloped their ramshackle uncovered West terrace and turned into a palatial £45,000 shrine to supporter decadence. Herbert was stamping his legacy onto the club and in doing so, was leaving Arsenal`s footsteps firmly ingrained into the soil of North London. His stalwart defender of the time, George Male, would opine, "Above all, Chapman was a showman. Everything came second to his team putting on a show." The renaming of the station was the great ringmaster pulling down the curtain on his show. To this day, Arsenal is the only tube station in London to bear the sole name of its football team. Arsenal, I remind you, is not a geographical location whatsoever; the area has always been known as Highbury. The terracotta tiling at platform level still bears the legend Gillespie Road, a reminder of its past. But the station is still fixed into our present. The Emirates stadium is slightly nearer to Holloway Road station, but due to access issues, that has to remain shut on match days. So Arsenal station is still the most used access point for the 60,000 that descend upon the stadium for every home game. Arsenal tube station is a small, but significant monument to a time when Arsenal and Chapman were building the greatest football club in England, the station is part of that legacy and it has the unique distinction of continuing to service the wants of the newer, shiner stadium we inhabit. One of Arsenal`s preferred strap lines is "Tradition With Vision." If the club wanted a small emblem of that incantation, they could do worse than to look at this quaint London Underground station.LD.
Date:Monday October 25 2010
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