Deserter ex-girlf, Roxy, always said that as a South Londoner, I should support Arsenal, like her. 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.
Woolwich Arsenal 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. 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 foreigners for the Queen. The birth of the club that would become Arsenal is celebrated with a football statue and a few historically inaccurate words about the team’s first match, on a plaque. They are outside a pub serving Hop Stuff Pale Ale though, putting it straight into my top ten memorials of the month.
The plaque was illegible so they put another one in front of it that was legible, but repeating the same inaccuracies. Furious, Roxy went inside to tell the manager, without explanation, that he was a ‘feckless berk’.
The club’s first home pitch was on Plumstead Common, the tree-lined green space not far 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 afternoons worth getting out of bed for.
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. The pub had clearly fallen on hard times, but was not without its charms. Still, it could do with a USP. It smelt a bit like your granny’s and was heated by gas fires and stoics. But, apart from the lack of Arse guff, Roxy loved it.
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 run by serial fucknuts Serco, with appalling levels of (private) violence.
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:
‘Their throw, ref!’
They lasted 18 months before, as if by magic, someone built 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 won three cups. The following year, Derby County tried to poach two of their players after knocking them out of the FA Cup. They realised they had to turn pro, as nice as it was working in a factory with bombs.
Barred from local competition for becoming professional (!), they could only play in the FA Cup and in friendlies. The future looked bleak until the Football League accepted their application to join the big boys in 1893.
The owner of the Invicta then nearly doubled the rent so they told him to stick it up his bollocks.
‘Stick it up your bollocks!’ they said, possibly.
The ground 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, something that is specifically forbidden in the Deserter constitution, which we must get round to writing.
Manor Ground, Plumstead
For their first league season the club changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal. They joined the Second Division with three other newbies; Liverpool, Newcastle United and Manchester City. It is not known what became of them.
Now owned by the fans, they bought the Manor Ground and sorted it the fuck out, with a proper stand, hot Bovril, roasted peanuts and everything. Woolwich Arsenal would play at the Manor Ground for the next 20 years, apart from a couple of games 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.
‘To be fair, the ref’s not done himself any favours,’ said Roxy, channelling her inner Andy Townsend.
In 1901, Harry Bradshaw became manager, bringing in a short passing game with fluid movement. Three years of tippy-tappy later they were promoted to the top flight. 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.
The team was exciting, coming 6th in 1909, but the club was continually forced to sell their best players to keep afloat. Woolwich was a town with rubbish transport and one major employer, one that often housed its workers, so when jobs went, so did residents. The Arsenal was being ‘downsized’ and more work was going to private contractors. After all, it wasn’t as if the world was about to go to war. Also, in the 1909/10 season Chelsea and Tottenham joined them in Division One, meaning Woolwich was no longer the only place in London you could see the best teams in the land.
Attendances suffered and Woolwich Arsenal went into voluntary administration. Henry Norris, who also owned Fulham, tried to buy the club. His first proposal was to merge the two into ‘Fulham Arsenal’, though I would have preferred Fularse or Arseham. The Football League told him to arse off.
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.
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.
‘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 (even if it was Kent at the time), 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: March 2016
The Star is no longer smelly, having been taken over and refurbed, rather smartly. The lovely old bar has been retained though and now serves Hop Stuff ales and decent pub food. It even hosts a comedy club whose inaugural funny man was none other than Stewart Lee.
Although the new landlord is a Gooner, there’s still no Arse shrine, possibly because it’s been a Charlton boozer for so long. Their web site does make reference to its place in football history however and the beautiful game is a big part of the pub’s offering.
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Image credit: Hector Street terrace image used with the kind permission of Derelict LondonTags: