Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday March 10 2013
Arsenal have been in Islington for 100 years this year. I`ve written about what inspired them to make this quantum geographical leap before. But I have yet to write in detail about a seminal date in the Arsenal calendar. The date of September 6th, 1913. It ought to have been rather inauspicious in truth. Arsenal were relegated from the First Division in the 1912-13 season, having finished stone bottom of the First Division. In May 1913, Woolwich Arsenal finished their campaign with 3 wins, scoring only 26 goals and having suffered the ignominy of a 23 game winless streak in the league. A record that still stands at the club. They also had precisely £19 in the bank the day they tumbled back into the 2nd Division.
September 6th 1913, on paper, was simply Arsenal`s first home game back in the Second Division. Behind the scenes, Arsenal chairman and Tsar Henry Norris reshuffled his boardroom during the summer. Mr. G.E. Davies and Colonel Charles Doland Crisp joined as directors. John Peters arrived as Assistant Secretary and stayed at the club for 35 years. The boardroom had been sparsely populated following the resignation of George Leavey in 1912, leaving Henry Norris and William Hall as Arsenal`s main creditors and shareholders. This was an extraordinary burden for a floundering club whose finances were in such a state of disrepair. Crisp was a local ex head teacher and financier who showed a flair for cricket, swimming, running, football and boxing. He had held a number of administrative posts within the Middlesex F.A. and had earned a reputation as a solid footballing administrator.
Arsenal finished their 1912-13 season with a listless 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough at the Manor Ground, a game watched by only 3,000 people. It wasn`t just the poor quality of the football that kept the crowds away that day though. In February 1913 Arsenal took out an advert in the Kentish Gazette advising the locals that their ailing football team was moving to Islington. Norris shifted the blame onto locals, citing poor crowds as one of the reasons for the audacious move. Norris` eye had fallen on an area of land by the St. John`s College Divinity College in Highbury. The land was used by priests and would be members of the clergy and contained 2 cricket pitches, 2 football pitches and a dozen tennis courts.
Norris also saw the potential of planting his football team in an area with such prominent transport links to populated areas such as Hackney, Holborn, King`s Cross, Finchley and Holloway, not to mention having the bright lights of the West End a short tube journey away. The St. John`s ecclesiastical committee were sceptical when Norris first approached them. They were anxious that a football team in the locality may invite 'ungodly` behaviour, such as drinking and swearing. But Norris, through his work as a property developer, his interest in wine soirees and model car exhibitions, as a freemason and Tory party member, was a well connected enough man to circumnavigate the stuffy collars of the Islington clergy. He counted the Archbishop of Canterbury as a personal friend. The Archbishop signed off the £20,000 21 year lease himself on the proviso that no intoxicating liquors were sold on the premises and that no matches would be played on holy days. Norris relented from selling booze at Highbury for all of 12 months before ignoring the agreement, Arsenal stuck with the agreement not to play on holy days until 1925. Incidentally, the college buildings on Avenell Road were destroyed by fire at the end of World War I and a high rise block of council flats stands in their place.
Having shaken hands with the church, Norris went about identifying an architect to build him the stadium he wanted. Norris reached for his contacts book yet again. Archibald Leitch had just finished designing Manchester United`s Old Trafford and, as a result, had moved his practise from its Glasgow base to Manchester. Norris was good friends with James Whitting, Mayor of Manchester. Through Whitting, contact was made with Leitch to design the stadium. Leitch had attended the World`s Fair in Paris in 1912 and had become hugely influenced by the Gaelic charms of the art deco craze. It was a fad that guided his hand in the design process and its influence is still prominent on the Highbury flats we see today.
The whys and wherefores of the move were far from just structural. Norris faced swathes of opposition, both from Woolwich based Arsenal fans and from other clubs in the North London locality. Tottenham had just spent £40,000 on improving White Hart Lane and they, along with Clapton Orient and Chelsea, complained to the Football League Management committee in a bid to stop the move. The committee met in March 1913 to discuss the legalities of such a relocation project. The official minutes of the meeting concluded that, "The Committee are of the opinion that there is ample population and opportunity for three league clubs in the area." Local journalists in Edmonton and the Middlesex area resorted to press campaigns begging local people not to go and see "The Woolwich Interlopers." The Tottenham Herald even printed a cartoon of Norris dressed as one of the Hounds of the Baskervilles, prowling a farmyard in an attempt to destroy the Tottenham Cockerel.
The Tottenham Herald wasn`t the only journalistic opposition Norris faced. The Woolwich Gazette accused him of "kidnapping Kent`s only son." Norris` response was to say that Arsenal were more a part of London than Kent in any case and he effectively held the local fans responsible for not turning up in significant enough numbers. The Woolwich Gazette had tacitly suggested that Norris deliberately starved the team of funds during the 1912-13 relegation season to strengthen his case for relocation. Such a suggestion is not impossible, but also not terribly likely considering the move to Highbury came at a personal expense of £125,000 for Sir Henry. Islington locals initially weren`t impressed by the prospect of a large football stadium on their doorstep. Norris found them rather easier to persuade. He pointed out the economic benefits to their businesses with a migration of football fans to the area every other week.
He was also savvy enough to encourage his players to begin using the local pubs and attending functions in the area during the spring and summer of 1913. Norris hired local tradesmen to build the ground (Gunners striker Jock Rutherford was a carpenter by trade and he helped to build the West Stand). He even ran a competition in the Islington Gazette for readers to dream up possible names for the new arena. Typically, he ended up ignoring all of their suggestions when he plumped for "Highbury Stadium." Through his experience of property regeneration in Southwest London, Henry knew exactly how to play to the NIMBY crowd. There was an iron fist inside the velvet glove of local ingratiation. Journalist Henry Waller was probably the most vocal opponent to the move. He published a number of columns in the Daily Gazette accusing Norris of being a heartless venture capitalist tearing the soul from a proud local football club. He was mysteriously sacked in the summer of 1913 and history does not record him writing for another newspaper thereafter. Norris charmed the local opposition and suffocated the denigrators of publicity.
The construction itself would prove to be equally as troublesome, with just less than 6 months allotted for erection of Highbury. The pitch was sloped in an ungainly fashion. The north end of the pitch had to be raised by eleven feet and the south end was lowered by five feet using picks and shovels. The terracing was levelled out using clay from the renovation of nearby Gillespie Road tube station and literally stamped into the ground by the feet of the construction workers. 2 houses had to be purchased and demolished by Norris. The Council Office on Holloway Road expressed some concern about a high retaining brick wall on the construction site. Their concerns seemed to curiously vanish soon after even though the wall remained. In the programme for the Liverpool game in September 1963, commemorating 50 years at Highbury, assistant architect George Kearney said that the council "Didn`t know the difference between a retaining wall and a retaining fee."
Islington folklore had it that during the construction of the old North Bank, a coalman`s horse and cart ventured to close to the edge of the precipice of the construction of the College End and fell into a gaping hole under the terracing. The story goes that the workmen were unable to retrieve the horse and it was buried where it lay. It`s thought that the story emanated from a Finchley grocer at the time, who was fond of a tall tale. However, when Highbury was renovated into flats in 2007, construction workers from Robert McAlpine found two horseshoes deep in the foundation of the terrace, along with some timber which may have come from the cart.
Despite the enormous pressure on the foremen and the workers to get the stadium finished on time, working conditions were better than most labouring jobs at the time. Norris paid for the workers` meals whilst they were on site, providing them hot tea and porridge in the morning and soup and bread for lunch. At lunchtime on Saturday, 6th September 1913, with the stadium set to open its doors for the first time, Norris took all of the workers and foremen for an expensive Italian meal on Blackstock Road to thank them for their hard work. However, Highbury was still in a state of disarray come the morning of the game. The dressing rooms were still building sites, there was no running water and the tradesmen accidentally left a gate open, granting free access to much of the crowd.
10,000 programmes were hurriedly printed on the morning of the game. The front cover, still bearing the name 'Woolwich Arsenal` bid all attendees "A Hearty Welcome." The inside cover oozed optimism, promising "good football in return for your generous patronage." Norris knew there was still work to do in buttering up the Islingtonites. (He reportedly continued to write personal letters of thanks to all Arsenal season ticket holders until well into the 1920s). Having been on the biting end of many a cartoonists pencil as the move progressed; Arsenal inserted some artistic propaganda of their own. A sullen looking man named "Doctor Highbury" can be seen reviving a patient named "Gunner" in a hospital bed as a bemused looking "Dr. Plumstead" looks on. "Another 12 months under my colleague here and all would have been up with you" Dr. Highbury is seen cautioning the patient. Club captain Percy Sands was well versed in the party line in his programme notes, "Necessity knows no law and we are in a brand new home in a densely populated area." For the curious, there was a further advertisement in the programme for season tickets. The price? 21 shillings. Manager George Morell`s home address is printed for the correspondence.
Morell had been under huge pressure himself in the hot seat as Arsenal manager, with funds so limited. But he maintained the backing of Henry Norris at this point. In 1912, Morell had applied for the job as Leeds City manager, perhaps sensing Arsenal`s impending relegation. But Norris talked Morell round. The job at Leeds City instead went to a chap named Chapman. You might have heard of him. Despite Highbury looking somewhat like a building site, it thrust open its doors for the first time for a 2.30pm kickoff against Leicester Fosse on 6th September, 1913. In fact, conditions were still so primitive that when George Jobey got a kick in the back during the game and had to go to hospital as a precaution, he was transported to and from the emergency ward on a borrowed milk cart.
Arsenal lined up as follows: 1.Joseph Lievesley, 2.Joe Shaw, 3.Joseph Fidler, 4.Percy Sands(c), 5.Angus McKinnon, 6.George Grant, 7.George Jobey, 8.Thomas Winship, 9.David Greenaway, 10.Wally Hardinge, 11.Archibald Devine.
Joseph Lievesley and Wally Hardinge were making their Arsenal debuts after summer moves from Sheffield United. Hardinge also had the distinction of having scored over 35,000 runs for Kent in county cricket. He was a solidly built poacher who had played in 5 F.A. Cup Finals for the Blades, scoring the winner in the 1910 final v Barnsley. George Jobey had also joined from Newcastle United following Arsenal`s relegation. He had made his career as a half back, but Arsenal played him upfront due to their lack of striking options. Joe Fidler had played for QPR and Fulham- whom Norris had tried unsuccessfully to merge with Arsenal. Angus McKinnon replaced veteran Roddy McEachrane, who left Arsenal in the summer of 1913, after 11 years at the club that included 313 appearances and 0 goals. Percy Sands took over as captain.
Leicester Fosse`s line up was: 1.Ronald Brebner, 2.Thomas Clay, 3.Samuel Currie, 4.Douglas McWhirter, 5.James Harrold, 6.Horace Burton, 7.Thomas Waterall, 8.George Douglas, 9.Henry Sparrow, 10.William Mills, 11.Thomas Benfield.
The match itself was apparently unremarkable. Players washed in bowls of water due to the lack of dressing rooms and half of the West Stand was still unusable even by health and safety standards of the early 20th century. Thomas Benfield put Leicester Fosse ahead in the first half, but George Jobey equalised when he headed home Thomas Winship`s corner. Archibald Devine notched the decisive goal from the penalty spot for Arsenal after a handball in the area by James Harrold. 20,000 people went home happy with a 2-1 win for the home side. Protestors apparently did line the turnstiles at Highbury for the first few games, most of whom were Woolwich regulars. But Norris was friendly with the local police and picketers found themselves the victims of hard line policing.
The Gunners eventually finished 3rd in 1913-14, but their money problems continued. Especially as the rent was very high at Highbury and tradesmen that were still required to bring raw materials into the ground to touch up the construction "accidentally" left gates open granting thousands of fans the chance to forego the 6 pence entry fee . The First World War hit Arsenal hard in 1914, denying them four years of gate money just at the time to Norris needed to pay off the overheads. But as unremarkable and inauspicious the game over Leicester Fosse had been, Norris had scored a huge victory over the NIMBYs, the journalists and Clapton Orient, Chelsea and Spurs in realising the move. There would be trouble ahead, but the long term benefits of transplanting Arsenal from their Woolwich womb was a tremendously far sighted achievement from Norris and Arsenal. Crudely drawn and cynical as it was in its intentions, the cartoon depicting 'Dr. Highbury` reviving the patient 'Gunner` wasn`t a million miles from the truth. LD.
This article was researched with great help from Jon Spurling`s book 'Highbury, The Story of Arsenal in N5`, the work of Andy Kelly and Tony Attwood at AISA and Bernard Joy`s seminal book 'Forward Arsenal.`
Date:Sunday March 10 2013
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