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History of Arsenal F.C. - Origins

Updated on May 8, 2013
The first Arsenal team crest (1888).
The first Arsenal team crest (1888).

The Foundation: Dial Square

The football team that would eventually morph into the mighty Arsenal began as a tiny club in Woolwich with no kit to wear and no pitch on which to play. Woolwich, in southeast London, was the site of an armaments factory dubbed the Royal Arsenal. A few workers there decided to band together and start a football club. David Danskin, a Scotsman who was employed at the Woolwich "Dial Square" factory, played an integral role in forming the early version of Arsenal. He is reputed to have purchased the first football used by the club. His factory also lent the use of its name to the fledgling club, so that during its first game on 11 December, 1886, the club was known as Dial Square.

The kit problem was solved by another founding member of the club, Fred Beardsley. Beardsley had previously played football for Nottingham Forest, so he made use of his contacts at his former club. Nottingham obliged the request of the budding club and duly sent them a set of spare red kits. Once draped in red, the stage was set for the emergence of a great club.

The Royal Arsenal squad of 1888.
The Royal Arsenal squad of 1888.

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The Royal Arsenal

Dial Square managed to survive, playing on borrowed pitches against other amateur teams, but they quickly rose to the top of amateur football in southern England. Within months, the team had changed their name to "Royal Arsenal," a name that set the tone for the coming years.

The original crest adopted by the Royal Arsenal reflected the occupation of their founding members, who were workers in the Royal Arsenal armaments factory in Woolwich. The crest bore three cannons, along with lion's heads.

The 1889 season was a season of both change and success for the Royal Arsenal. After winning a treble of trophies in local amateur competitions, the Royal Arsenal entered the FA Cup for the first time in their history. Their success in the southern football circles led to their decision to turn professional. At that time, all of the professional teams were found in the North. The Royal Arsenal became the first London club to turn professional, a move which they made in 1891. Royal Arsenal were ahead of the times, as their turn professional led them being shunned by many of the local amateur clubs which they had competed against. They were banned from the London Football Association, an event which drastically reduced their opportunities to play.

In response, the Royal Arsenal attempted to form a southern version of the Football league, asking teams such as Tottenham and Millwall to join them. When no one joined, Royal Arsenal applied to the already existant Football League. They subsequently changed their name, this time to Woolwich Arsenal, a reflection of their origin. They hoped to gain enough capital to purchase their own pitch, at Manor Ground in South London. To their relief, Woolwich Arsenal were granted entrance into the Second Division of the Football League for the 1893 season.

Action during Woolwich Arsenal's first FA Cup semi-final appearance. Newcastle won the 31 March, 1906, match by a score of 2-0.
Action during Woolwich Arsenal's first FA Cup semi-final appearance. Newcastle won the 31 March, 1906, match by a score of 2-0.

Promotion and Stagnation

Woolwich Arsenal languished in the Second Division for the first decade of their professional existence. Harry Bradshaw became Arsenal manager in 1899 and helped Arsenal gain promotion following the 1903-1904 season. Although they advanced deep into the FA Cup several times during the early 20th century, Woolwich Arsenal saw very little success during the first decade of their First Division existence.

Sir Henry Norris & Highbury

After a relatively droll existence in the First Division, Woolwich Arsenal began to lose money faster than they could make it. Much of the cause for their financial position stemmed from the location of their grounds, as Manor Ground sat in Plumstead, an area on the outskirts of urban London. By 1910, had to enter liquidation with the expected result being bankruptcy and the end of the club. Enter Sir Henry Norris. Norris, along with several other businessmen, bought the club during its liquidation. Sir Norris was the majority shareholder, as well as the owner of a rival Football League club, Fulham.

Norris' first attempt at solving the profitability problem at Woolwich Arsenal saw him attempt to merge his two teams into one. That merger was blocked by the Football League. Now desperate for a way to move the club he'd just bought, Norris began to look for a new ground to house Woolwich Arsenal. He eventually decided to build his team a new ground in the Highbury section of North London. The move was opposed by most of the people involved, but Norris forced his will and the team moved to its new grounds in Highbury during the 1913 season. The same season had seen them relegated back to the Second Division.

The facade of the Arsenal Stadium at the team's home in Highbury.
The facade of the Arsenal Stadium at the team's home in Highbury.

The Arsenal, Promotion, and Rivalry

After moving to Highbury, the team changed its name once again, this time dropping the erroneous locator and adopting nothing in its place. "Woolwich Arsenal" became simply "The Arsenal FC." Arsenal again occupied the Second Division, and struggled to gain promotion back to the top tier of English football. World War I intervened, but Arsenal managed to regain promotion following the 1919 season. This single season played a huge role in shaping Arsenal's history and rivalries.

The Football League had decided to expand the First Division from 20 teams to 22 teams after the 1919 season. In the First Division, both Chelsea and Tottenham had finished 19 and 20 ,respectively. Chelsea was given the 21st spot in the First Division for the following season, and arguably, Tottenham should have been given the 22nd spot. Instead, Norris managed to persuade the Football League directors to award the final First Division spot to Arsenal, which had finished a measly fifth in the Second Division. His claim was that Arsenal should be rewarded for its "long service to league football," since it had been the first London club to join the Football League. Although no such collusion has ever been proved, many suspect that Norris colluded with other owners and directors of the league in order to bribe them and gain his team promotion. Either way, Tottenham felt robbed of their rightful place, and the event sewed the seeds for a rivalry that remains one of English football's strongest rivalries.

Sir Henry Norris, the controversial owner of Arsenal during their move to Highbury.
Sir Henry Norris, the controversial owner of Arsenal during their move to Highbury.
The Arsenal club of 1920-21 at their grounds in Highbury.
The Arsenal club of 1920-21 at their grounds in Highbury.

Setting the Stage for Success

The move to Highbury and the club's promotion to the First Division did not initially result in any success. The club did, however, begin to see financial success thanks to the location of their new ground and the fanbase which it attracted. The club's pocketbooks began to grow, providing them a means with which to attract better talent.

Their first few years following the 1919 promotion saw little success,and in the 1924 season, Arsenal came perilously close to relegation. Norris, never satisfied with mediocrity, ousted the manager and went on the hunt for new leadership in the dressing room. He landed the services of the onetime Huddersfield Town manager, Mr. Herbert Chapman. Arsenal has never since been the same.


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    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for this well written hub on my beloved Arsenal! I'll be linking to this in my latest season review. Voted up and interesting!