Date: 20th December 2010 at 10:23pm
Written by:

Having exhausted all of Highbury`s nooks and crannies, in assessing the places and landmarks that make the club the Arsenal Football Club you see today, it`s time to perhaps blow the dust off of the history books and recall one of the Arsenal`s first landmarks. In fact, it could be argued to be their very first landmark. It was the first field upon which Royal Arsenal played regularly and the first piece of land the club ever purchased. The team played their home games here for two periods, from 1887-1889 and then 1893 to 1913. I speak, of course, of the Manor Ground, Plumstead.

Having been formed by Scottish munitions worker David Danskin and Durham socialist Jack Humble in 1886, Arsenal played their first ever match against Eastern Wanderers on 11 December, 1886. The game was not played in Woolwich; in fact, it wasn`t even played in South London. Instead, the players hopped on the Woolwich Ferry to Tiller Road in Wapping, near the local dockyard. (The site is now a leisure centre and indoor sports complex). With no kit, Arsenal, who it is thought took to the field under the name Dial Square, wore a fetching selection on multi coloured knickerbockers. The pitch had no markings, the goal had no crossbars (crossbars weren`t introduced by the Football Association until the following year) and the field had a large open sewer running all the way around it, meaning the match ball was “dunked” dozens of times in sewage, making for something of an unpleasant health hazard. Given the lack of pitch markings and crossbars, it is difficult to see how any erstwhile official recordings were made, but history decrees that Dial Square won the match 6-0.

Having surmounted the obstacle of observing its first fixture, the Dial Square munitions factory team needed a name (they decided on Royal Arsenal, an amalgamation of their munitions factory and their favourite local pub), a kit (goalkeeper Fred Beardsley sequestered a set of red jerseys from his old side Nottingham Forest) and somewhere to play. The embryonic club was finding its feet and didn`t have funds to spare, so they needed a place that would be free of charge and accessible for the men. Danskin, Humble, Beardsley and club secretary Elijah Watkin decided on nearby Plumstead Common, as it met the criteria as a public playing field. However, the playing surface was far from ideal; it was not level and was beset with rocks. The grounds were used by the Royal Horse Artillery for their rehearsals, so the pitch had the marked distinction of being covered in wheel ruts, holes and horse dung. Not too dissimilar to Stamford Bridge in winter…… Royal Arsenal played out the remainder of the 1886-87 there, winning eight of the ten fixtures they played on the hazardous playing surface. The team needed a more viable long term solution.

During the summer of 1887, the club decided to play their games at the nearby Sportsman Ground in Plumstead, less than a mile away from Plumstead Common. The grass was slightly more becoming, being as it was, an old pig farm; it was well tended and untouched by the public. However, the field had a nasty habit of water logging into an unplayable quagmire, even under the slightest sprinkle of precipitation. In February 1888, Royal Arsenal were due to play host to their fierce local rivals Millwall Rovers, but club officials turned up on the morning of the game to find the pitch submerged once more. With a big crowd expected, the club did not want to postpone the match. Eyes fell upon a field on Manor Road, next to Plumstead Station and less than a mile away from the Sportsman Ground. The club took the decision to play the fixture, an entertaining 3-3 draw, there and assumed permanent residency. Royal Arsenal officials promptly renamed Manor Field the Manor Ground. The patch had the added bonus of being adjacent to the Royal Arsenal East workshops, exposing the team to the labourers there and instilling a local fan base.

The pitch was cordoned off using wagons and ropes from the nearby barracks, marking out a playing area and a barrier between pitch and spectators. However, the ground was a less than salubrious place to visit on a Saturday, with the adjacent engineering works billowing out toxic chemicals and a putrid gas that turned the air a smoggy yellow. The back of the playing fields were also enveloped by the Southern Outfall Sewer pipe, which people could stand on and watch games if they wanted to eschew the admission price. In the game’s early Victorian days, it was not unusual for teams to play in what would be regarded as modern day health and safety hazards. Tottenham Hotspur played on a marshland in Northumberland Park around the same time, resulting in the natives favourite pass time of throwing large clusters of squidgy mud at their underperforming players. The Manor Ground had logistical handicaps too, it had only two exits for supporters, both of which funnelled spectators out onto private roads, which the club needed London County Council`s permission to use on a match by match basis. Originally, the players used either the Royal Oak tavern or the nearby Railway Tavern as a changing facility, but as crowds rose and the establishments became a hotbed of spectator activity, the team had to use a disused railway hut to change.

As crowds of 5,000 began to cram into the cramped confines of the Manor Ground, the club made its first ambitious move. It`s telling that the club could never really settle in Plumstead, even in its earliest days. They always seemed to be craning their necks around the local landscape and stroking their chins, wondering where in this sleepy Kent suburb they could help the club realise its full potential. In September 1890, Royal Arsenal moved across Plumstead High Street to the Invicta Recreation Grounds, which had corrugated iron stands and concrete terracing that could hold 8,000 spectators. But despite regular crowds of 8,000, the move was unsustainable. The club battled a moral dilemma and decided to try and go professional in the early 1890s; causing their founder David Danskin to turn his back on the club that he felt should stay amateur. The costs of trying to establish the club professionally and in applying to the Football League became astronomical. In anticipation of possible professional Football League competition, Invicta Ground landlord George Weavey raised the rent. The club, now known as Woolwich Arsenal, were paying £200 for an 8 month lease when most other league clubs were paying less than half that extortionate rate.

In 1893, Woolwich Arsenal took its hanky and bindle and moved back home to the Manor Ground. But this time, they purchased the land for £4,000, landing them 5 acres. The financial outlay had reached deep into the club`s coffers and they still had significant redevelopment work to do to get the ground into an acceptable state. With money too tight to mention, Woolwich Arsenal went cap in hands to its fans in the summer of 1893. Local residents levelled the rickety playing fields with clay trodden in by hobnail boots, low level iron fencing was erected around the sides of the pitch, a 5 tiered terrace underneath an iron hut was also built for supporters, as changing rooms for the home and away side and a modest press box were also forged on the South side of the stadium by the hands of the fans. The club dreamed up new and innovative ways of raising the capital for the improvements, holding fetes and competitions, whilst also foreshadowing David Dein`s Bond Scheme of some 99 years later, forming a limited company, creating 4,000 shares at £1 each. Though they struggled to meet the costs, the renovations were complete by the start of the 1893-94 season. The directors simply needed to hope that supporters would keep on clicking their way through the gates and keep the coffers, not so much swelling, as sustaining. They were unwittingly helped by the Empire, as the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa led to Britain boosting their arms, resulting in thousands flooding to Woolwich for work in the Dial Square armament factory.

Though Woolwich Arsenal found more supporters flowing through the gates, their popularity outside of North Kent could hardly have been more prostrate. In a heavily Northern-centric league, Woolwich Arsenal, situated as it was in an inaccessible nook in the North of Kent, was hardly the favoured away game for opponents. Usually, the fixture was an overnight affair for travelling teams, so sparse were local transport links. In the days of the amateur game, need for extra expenditure for clubs seeking accommodation were unwelcome. Local hotels and bed and breakfasts were thin on the ground and did not look kindly on teams of working class oiks from the North besmirching the reputations of the premises. The Liverpool Tribune described Woolwich Arsenal as “the team that played at the end of the earth” whilst the Newcastle Echo was slightly less given to diplomacy, describing excursions to Woolwich Arsenal as “the annual visit to hell.” Even the journey from central London was trying, so future Arsenal manager George Allison had little competition from fellow journalists when offering to write up Woolwich Arsenal`s games and ended up covering their every home match, forging an emotional bond with the club that would see him become one of its most distinguished servants.

Not only was the journey to the ground torturous for opposing sides, but the team were unaccommodating, playing a physical brand of football in front of a crowd comprised mainly of squaddies and factory workers. Language amongst the fans could be somewhat industrial, even in the conservative Victorian era. During a league game against Wolves in 1896, six fans ran onto the pitch and attacked the referee, himself an ex Wolves player. The ground was closed for six games as punishment. The club muddled on living hand to mouth through the early 20th century, struggling to establish itself in a game dominated by sides from the North. The club was mired in debt and could not afford to make simple ground accommodations; the pitch became such a quagmire that supporters began refusing to pay the one shilling fee and instead took to watching home games from the nearby sewer pipe. This caused crowd disturbances between paying customers and the admission price rebels who squabbled during matches. The club went into voluntary administration in 1910 with debts of £12,500. With England preparing for a global conflict, munitions workers worked long shifts and were largely precluded from attending Saturday afternoon fixtures. The club simply could not continue like this and looked set to join the legions of other clubs that could not survive the Darwinist throes of Victorian football and seemed destined to tumble into extinction.

The club were given a reprieve of sorts in late 1910, when Fulham property entrepreneur Henry Norris bought 37.5% of the club, a controlling stake. The directors knew his connections and upwardly mobile outlook were the last resort for an oscillating football club. Foiled in his attempts to merge Fulham and Arsenal, Norris knew Arsenal needed to escape the claustrophobic, mud strewn pitch and yellow air of the Manor Ground. He knew Arsenal needed to tap into the thriving Greater London population if the club were to have any chance of surviving. History tells us Norris held surreptitious meetings with Battersea and Haringey councils to try to initiate moves. In the 1912-13 season, Woolwich Arsenal finished rock bottom of the First Division with just £19 in the bank. Contemporary conspiracy theorists posited that Norris had told his team to deliberately underperform that season, so that the desperation of Woolwich Arsenal`s situation was dilute any opposition to moving the club out of North Kent. What we do know for bon fide fact is that, in the summer of 1913, Norris was struck by some playing fields at St. John`s Divinity College at Highbury. The Manor Ground had been the club`s lung through its early years, but Norris knew the lung was black with cancer. He made his move and the club was never to be the same again.LD.

>> Arsenal Tube Station
White Hart Lane
The Marble Halls
The Halfway House
Royal Oak
The Clock End
The North Bank