Deserter ex-girlf, Roxy, always said that as a South Londoner, I should support Arsenal, like her. My family, however, contend that I should support anyone but the club that left South London over 100 years ago. We spent a day arguing about it, having pints and pushing each other in bushes, as we toured the sites that provided the foundations of the North London giant.
‘South London giant,’ she insisted.
The club spent 27 years in South London, had four home grounds, one promotion, several international players and two FA Cup semi-finals as it trailblazed a path for professional football in the south of England. Though this part of their history is often regarded as a mere footnote, they had become one of the world’s most famous football clubs even before they crossed the water in 1913. In 1906, Dr Petric, the president of Sparta Prague (then Athletic Club Sparta), visited England and took a set of Woolwich shirts home with him. Sparta Prague continue to wear their colours to this day, honouring South London on a field of play 800 miles away from the nearest Morley’s chicken shop.
And it all started when a bunch of lads had a whip-round for a ball, in 1886.
Dial Square, Woolwich
The club’s origins as Dial Square FC, a workers’ team from the munitions factories of the Royal Arsenal, are commemorated outside the Dial Arch pub, near where the players made stuff to blow up foreign types for the Queen. The birth of the club that would become Arsenal is celebrated with a football statue and a few words about the team’s early history, on a plaque. Being outside a pub serving lovely ale, put it straight into my top ten memorials of the month.
‘Are we going to have a pint, then?’ said Roxy. ‘You know history makes me thirsty.’
The club’s first home pitch was on Plumstead Common, the tree-lined green space a mile from Woolwich. As well as having plenty of sweet spots to pause and smoke a fatty, there’s a choice of pubs, all part of what is known as The Five Idlers of Plumstead Common – The Star that doesn’t shine, The Woodman that never felled a tree, The Ship that never sailed, The Mill that never grinds corn and the Who’d a Thought it!. All, other than the Woodman, are still going (The Woodman’s now an Indian. Bonus!). The Old Mill is a loud and lively local – the kind of historic ale destination that makes it worth getting out of bed of an afternoon.
The workers’ team had become Royal Arsenal FC and would change into their kit, blagged from Nottingham Forest, at the Star Inn, then go thrash somebody on the Common.
Even as a non-Arsenal fan, I was surprised there was nothing in the Star to commemorate its part in the history of one of the biggest football clubs in the world. When we visited it, the pub had clearly fallen on hard times, but was not without its charms. It smelt a bit like your granny’s and was heated by gas fires and stoics. Since then, The Star has been taken over and refurbed, rather smartly. The lovely old bar has been retained though and currently serves Hop Stuff ales, brewed on the Royal Arsenal site, along with decent pub food. Although the new landlord is a gooner, there’s still no Arse shrine, possibly because it’s been a Charlton boozer for so long (see May 2019 update below).
The Lord Raglan, Plumstead
If some of the details of the club’s early history are vague it may be down to their centre back, Richard Price, who is said to have destroyed the records and minutes of its first year ‘while engaging in drunken revelry’ at the Lord Raglan, a distinctly locals’ pub that is still going, near the Common. We can only commend his commitment to the importance of admin.
The Sportsman Ground, Plumstead
The next year, the club moved to the Sportsman Ground, an oft-waterlogged marsh named after a nearby pub. Depending on which source you believe, The Sportsman Ground is now either a prison, or a bus garage. Thameside sounds like a lovely little place, but apparently it’s not. It’s a private prison. Not private as in say, your own room, slippers and a special nurse to clean up your mess. Private as in ‘if we give you some wedge will you look after these right nasty bastards for us?’ Roxy preferred to believe the ground became Plumstead Bus Garage. She liked to think the buses were red out of some sort of respect for Arsenal’s heritage, the crazy dreamer.
Invicta Ground, Plumstead
With the Sportsman proving unsuitable, the club moved to the nearby Manor Ground, which was muddy and smelly, due to the open sewer running down one side. It must have been the only ground where throw-ins were contested with the cry: ‘Came off me, ref. Their throw.’
They lasted 18 months before George Pike Weaver, a local publican who had made his fortune from mineral water, offered them the Invicta Ground, a football stadium in Plumstead, right near the station, with stands, terraces, changing rooms and no access to raw sewage.
The year they moved into the Invicta, 1890, they began winning regional cups and established themselves as a force in the south. Derby County tried to poach two of their players after knocking them out of the FA Cup in Plumstead. They realised they had to turn pro, as nice as it was working in a factory with explosives.
Barred from local competition for becoming professional, they could only play in the FA Cup and in friendlies. Those friendlies included games against Deptford, Brixton Rangers, Champion Hill and something called Tottenham Hotspur.
The owner of the Invicta, having spent a fortune on the ground, then tried to double the rent, so the club told him to stick it up his Arsenal. They hurriedly formed a limited company, sold shares, bought the Manor Ground with the money raised and moved back. The club were admitted to the Football League, making them the first club south of Birmingham in the League. The south, at this time, was considered the very opposite of football’s heartland (the arseland?).
The Invicta soon became housing. All that remains of it is a few rows of terracing in the back gardens of Hector Street. A disappointed Roxy said:
‘I was expecting some kind of Arse World. With inflatable Henrys and Journeys to the Mind of Tony Adams.’
Thankfully we were spared that dark voyage. Occasionally, intrepid gooners find their way onto the old terraces. For us to gain access, however, it would have required some forward planning and possibly correspondence, so the whole idea was virtually impossible.
Manor Ground, Plumstead
For their first league season the club changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal FC. They joined the Second Division with three other newbies; Liverpool, Newcastle United and Rotherham Town.
Locals helped knock the Manor Ground into shape, fit for league football, with a proper stand, hot Bovril, roasted peanuts and everything. According to Tim Myerson, biographer of prolific Woolwich goalscorer, Tim Coleman, ‘The North versus South rivalry was about far more than football. It was about two different Englands.’ Sounds familiar.
Woolwich Arsenal would play at the Manor Ground for the next 20 years, apart from a six-week period when it became the first ground to be closed due to hooliganism. The Woolwich crowd were a rowdy bunch, known for drinking, singing and abuse of the opposition. They had a large away following that were notorious for letting off fireworks during matches. They would even abuse their own side, if they performed poorly. Plus ça change…
The ground closure was ordered when the crowd beat the crap out of a referee whose performance dipped below the standard they expected, knocking him unconscious. Arsene Wenger claimed he didn’t see the incident.
In 1899, Harry Bradshaw became manager, bringing in a short passing game with fluid movement. Supporting the club became a way of life for people in and around Woolwich. Three years of tippy-tappy later and the London upstarts pipped Manchester United to win promotion to the top flight, remaining unbeaten at home and outscoring their opponents in Plumstead, 67-5. The celebrations were wild. Fans climbed on the dressing room roof and refused to leave until the players celebrated with them. The Morning Leader claimed that the Woolwich Arsenal team ‘will be remembered in the annals of league football as one of the most expert and dashing teams that ever went on the field.’ So much for that. Most of us can barely recall anything prior to the advent of the Premier League, whenever that was. Around 2012, we think.
They developed the ground, building a second stand, nicknamed the Spion Kop, thought to be the first Kop in the country.
‘I’ve always thought that Liverpool fans should be forced by law to call The Kop, “a Kop”,’ mused Roxy.
Woolwich was a town with rubbish transport and one major employer. When the business of mass slaughter was thriving, workers wouldn’t even get Saturday afternoons off to watch a game, causing crowds to dip by as much as 40%. Furthermore, garrisons would be sent off to fight, when they were really needed to watch football in South London. Then, after the Second Boer War, the Arsenal began a process of ‘downsizing’. After all, it wasn’t as if the world was about to embark on a massive war.
Even then, the crowds were healthier than most. But by the 1909/10 season, unemployment and poverty were widespread in the area, plus Chelsea and Tottenham had joined them in Division One. Woolwich was no longer the only place in London to see top, top football.
The team was exciting, coming 6th in 1909, but the club was continually forced to sell their best players to keep afloat, a practice that saw form, crowds and finances dwindle. Despite many fundraising events, the club was in the brown and smelly and ended up in voluntary liquidation.
Henry Norris, who also owned Fulham, tried to buy the club. His first proposal was to merge the two into ‘Fulham Arsenal’, though clearly Fularse or Arseham would have been better. The Football League told him to arse off.
He then suggested a ground share at Craven Cottage. The League accepted the proposal – and with it the precedent that clubs were not tied to their place of origin – but the Woolwich board would not countenance leaving South-east London. Norris got pelters from locals, who saw him as an outsider hellbent on taking the club away from its constituency. Woolwich Arsenal were globally famous even then and Norris had enough vision to realise their value.
The sale eventually went through when Norris committed to keeping the club where it was for at least two years. After two years and a month, he announced he was moving the club to Highbury, a more affluent area with several Tube stations within easy reach.
Locals were furious, but powerless. My grandad was 13 when his football club was taken away from him and moved north to Islington. He wasn’t bitter, though he did pass on bilious invective on the subject for the next 70 years. Indeed, his deathbed cry of ‘Fuck the Arse!’ caused consternation throughout the infirmary.
The last bitter season South of the Thames ended with Woolwich relegated, bottom of Division One, in front of just 3,000 souls at the Manor Ground. In fairness to Norris, he did implore the railway to provide a better service to Plumstead on matchdays, to open up attendance to non-residents. Naturally, they refused, on the grounds that they couldn’t be bothered.
Then again, Charlton Athletic, who developed in the void left by the departure of WAFC, attracted a bigger home crowd (75,031) than Arsenal ever did in their tenures at Highbury, Wembley or the Emirates. They just didn’t trouble the silver polishers as much.
‘One last stop, Roxy. Your spiritual home.’ I told her.
‘We’re going to Highbury?’ she said, excitedly.
‘Nope. The Manor Ground. Or, as it’s now affectionately known, West Thamesmead Business Park.’
It’s a shame there is not more to commemorate the original South London team, mostly, I think, for Plumstead, a place that eludes most visitors to the capital of the world. Still, who needs a world famous football club when you’ve got the Plumstead Common Idlers?
Update May 2019:
The Ship has been taken over again, this time with a modern refurb, but one that comes with a warm welcome. The focus is more on music and pizza, but there’s good beer on offer and one of the bars has retained its wood-panelled beauty.