Early years (1886–1910)

Arsenal were founded as Dial Square in 1886 by a group of workers employed by the Dial Square workshop at the Royal Arsenal, an armaments factory in WoolwichKent (formally part of the new County of London from 1889). They were led by a Scotsman, David Danskin, who purchased the club’s first football, andJack Humble. Among their number was the former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Fred Beardsley, who would later along with Morris Bates obtain a set of red kits from his old club, thus giving Arsenal the colours they still wear today.

Arsenal were founded as Dial Square in 1886 by a group of workers employed by the Dial Square workshop at the Royal Arsenal, an armaments factory inWoolwichKent (formally part of the new County of London from 1889). They were led by a Scotsman, David Danskin, who purchased the club’s first football, andJack Humble. Among their number was the former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Fred Beardsley, who would later along with Morris Bates obtain a set of red kits from his old club, thus giving Arsenal the colours they still wear today.

Dial Square played their first match on 11 December 1886 against Eastern Wanderers on an open field on the Isle of Dogs, which they won 6–0. The club were renamed Royal Arsenal soon after, reportedly on Christmas Day. Initially the club played on Plumstead Common, but soon sought alternative homes, firstly the Sportsman Ground in Plumstead before moving to the adjacent Manor Ground in 1888. Unhappy with the Manor Ground’s poor facilities, the club moved to the nearby Invicta Ground in 1890, before returning to the Manor Ground three years later as the Invicta Ground’s rent proved too expensive.

During this period, Royal Arsenal started to win local trophies, winning both the Kent Senior Cup and London Charity Cup in 1889–90 and the London Senior Cup in1890–91; they also entered the FA Cup for the first time in 1889–90. However, the gulf between Arsenal and the professional sides from the North soon became apparent, and Arsenal faced the threat of their amateur players being lured away by the money professional sides could offer; after Derby County had played Arsenal in an FA Cup tie in 1891, they attempted to sign two of Arsenal’s amateur players on professional contracts. Royal Arsenal’s move to professionalism in 1891 was frowned upon by many of the amateur southern clubs, and they were banned from participating in local competitions by the London Football Association. With friendlies and the FA Cup the only matches available for Royal Arsenal, they attempted to set up a southern equivalent of The Football League, but the move failed. The club changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 when it formed a limited liability company to raise capital to purchase the Manor Ground. Woolwich Arsenal’s future looked bleak until the Football League came to their rescue by inviting them to join in 1893. Arsenal were the first Southern club to enter the League, initially joining the Second Division; in response, some of the club’s amateur players who rejected professionalism and wanted a workers’ team to represent just the Royal Arsenal, broke away to form a short-lived alternative side, Royal Ordnance Factories.

Woolwich Arsenal (in dark shirts) playing Newcastle United (in striped shirts) in an FA Cup semi-final – the club’s first  – at the Victoria GroundStoke on 31 March 1906; Newcastle won 2–0.

Woolwich Arsenal played in the Second Division for eleven seasons, and generally occupied mid-table before the appointment of Harry Bradshaw as manager in 1899; Bradshaw and his star signings, including goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft (Arsenal’s first England international) and captain Jimmy Jackson, won promotion to the First Division in 1903–04. However, Bradshaw moved on to Fulham in May 1904, before the Gunners had kicked a ball in the top flight. Despite some strong performances in the FA Cup – the club reached the semi-finals in 1905–06 and 1906–07 – Arsenal were never able to challenge for the League title, only twice finishing above tenth place in the First Division between 1904 and 1913.

The chief cause of this decline was the club’s ongoing financial problems; despite the boom in football during the early 20th century, the club’s geographic isolation, in the relatively underpopulated area of Plumstead (then on the outskirts of urban London), meant attendances and thus income were low. To stay afloat, Woolwich Arsenal were forced to sell their star players (including Ashcroft, as well as Tim Coleman and Bert Freeman), and slowly started to slip down the table, which compounded their financial situation as crowds fell. By the end of the decade the average attendance at Manor Ground was 11,000, a little over half of what it had been in 1904. The club were close to bankruptcy, and in 1910 went into voluntary liquidation before being bought out by a consortium of businessmen; the largest shareholder amongst the new owners was the property magnate Sir Henry Norris, who was also the chairman of Fulham.

The novel Making the Arsenal by Tony Attwood, (published by First and Best, http://www.woolwicharsenal.co.uk) includes the argument that crowds at Woolwich Arsenal were down in 1910 because of the closure of the torpedo factory and its removal to the Clyde that year. It also suggests that after Norris failed to get an agreement to amalgamation with Fulham he instead sought to have Woolwich Arsenal play at Craven Cottage on alternative Saturdays. This plan was abandoned when he was forced to agree that Woolwich Arsenal would stay at the Manor Ground for at least two years from the summer of 1910.

Dial Square played their first match on 11 December 1886 against Eastern Wanderers on an open field on the Isle of Dogs, which they won 6–0. The club were renamed Royal Arsenal soon after, reportedly on Christmas Day. Initially the club played on Plumstead Common, but soon sought alternative homes, firstly the Sportsman Ground in Plumstead before moving to the adjacent Manor Ground in 1888. Unhappy with the Manor Ground’s poor facilities, the club moved to the nearby Invicta Ground in 1890, before returning to the Manor Ground three years later as the Invicta Ground’s rent proved too expensive.

During this period, Royal Arsenal started to win local trophies, winning both the Kent Senior Cup and London Charity Cup in 1889–90 and the London Senior Cup in 1890–91; they also entered the FA Cup for the first time in 1889–90. However, the gulf between Arsenal and the professional sides from the North soon became apparent, and Arsenal faced the threat of their amateur players being lured away by the money professional sides could offer; after Derby County had played Arsenal in an FA Cup tie in 1891, they attempted to sign two of Arsenal’s amateur players on professional contracts. Royal Arsenal’s move to professionalism in 1891 was frowned upon by many of the amateur southern clubs, and they were banned from participating in local competitions by the London Football Association. With friendlies and the FA Cup the only matches available for Royal Arsenal, they attempted to set up a southern equivalent of The Football League, but the move failed. The club changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 when it formed a limited liability company to raise capital to purchase the Manor Ground. Woolwich Arsenal’s future looked bleak until the Football League came to their rescue by inviting them to join in 1893. Arsenal were the first Southern club to enter the League, initially joining the Second Division; in response, some of the club’s amateur players who rejected professionalism and wanted a workers’ team to represent just the Royal Arsenal, broke away to form a short-lived alternative side, Royal Ordnance Factories.

Woolwich Arsenal (in dark shirts) playing Newcastle United (in striped shirts) in an FA Cup semi-final – the club’s first  – at the Victoria GroundStoke on 31 March 1906; Newcastle won 2–0.

Woolwich Arsenal played in the Second Division for eleven seasons, and generally occupied mid-table before the appointment of Harry Bradshaw as manager in 1899; Bradshaw and his star signings, including goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft (Arsenal’s first England international) and captain Jimmy Jackson, won promotion to the First Division in 1903–04. However, Bradshaw moved on to Fulham in May 1904, before the Gunners had kicked a ball in the top flight. Despite some strong performances in the FA Cup – the club reached the semi-finals in 1905–06 and 1906–07 – Arsenal were never able to challenge for the League title, only twice finishing above tenth place in the First Division between 1904 and 1913.

The chief cause of this decline was the club’s ongoing financial problems; despite the boom in football during the early 20th century, the club’s geographic isolation, in the relatively underpopulated area of Plumstead (then on the outskirts of urban London), meant attendances and thus income were low. To stay afloat, Woolwich Arsenal were forced to sell their star players (including Ashcroft, as well as Tim Coleman and Bert Freeman), and slowly started to slip down the table, which compounded their financial situation as crowds fell. By the end of the decade the average attendance at Manor Ground was 11,000, a little over half of what it had been in 1904. The club were close to bankruptcy, and in 1910 went into voluntary liquidation before being bought out by a consortium of businessmen; the largest shareholder amongst the new owners was the property magnate Sir Henry Norris, who was also the chairman of Fulham

The novel Making the Arsenal by Tony Attwood, (published by First and Best, http://www.woolwicharsenal.co.uk) includes the argument that crowds at Woolwich Arsenal were down in 1910 because of the closure of the torpedo factory and its removal to the Clyde that year. It also suggests that after Norris failed to get an agreement to amalgamation with Fulham he instead sought to have Woolwich Arsenal play at Craven Cottage on alternative Saturdays. This plan was abandoned when he was forced to agree that Woolwich Arsenal would stay at the Manor Ground for at least two years from the summer of 1910.

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