The boys from Dial Square: 1886-1891

Given the sporadic nature of newspaper reports, and the absence of any surviving eyewitnesses or visual evidence, it’s hardly surprising that there is conjecture about what really happened 125 years ago, when what became known as Arsenal Football Club was born.

Stories and tales which did the rounds at the time were committed to print, regurgitated in assorted Arsenal histories, and established as “gospel truth”, but upon closer inspection many remain unsubstantiated. The story which has been handed down over the generations is that on 11th December 1886, a group of footballers from the Dial Square workshop in the Woolwich Arsenal crossed the Thames on the “famous” Woolwich ferry, and walked to a piece of land which one of them had discovered on the Isle of Dogs.

The boys from Dial Square, playing on a rough and ready surface (club secretary Elijah Watkins commented: “Talk about a football pitch! I could not venture to say what shape it was...a portion was – I was going to say a ditch, but I think an open sewer would be more appropriate.”) won 6-0, and then went back to Woolwich.

Recently, Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Tony Attwood have challenged this version of events, and suggested that the waters are murkier than first thought. Official histories have mentioned there were other Woolwich Arsenal armament factory clubs which pre dated Dial Square, but as no written evidence exists of their respective playing records, historians have taken it as red that Dial Square were the distant forefathers of Arsenal FC.

The fact that Dial Square also travelled to the Isle of Dogs ( an arduous journey and a venue with precious little municipal land at the time) also appears curious, given that, if other clubs from the factory did pre date Dial Square (and there was nearby Plumstead Common) there must surely have been some football pitches nearby, even if Woolwich was predominantly a rugby playing area at the time.

There is also the fact that the Woolwich ferry wasn’t actually there until 1898, that there is no record anywhere of Eastern Wanderers, and that the evidence we have surrounding that first match hinges on the testimony of one onlooker – Elijah Watkins.

Despite the uncertainty, other elements of the club’s formative years appear much clearer. Given that there were no licensing hours for pubs at that time, and that Christmas Day was a paid holiday, it’s entirely possible that the majority of the Dial Square side met in the Royal Oak pub on Christmas Day morning in 1886, and formally established the Royal Arsenal Football Club, and the club, struggling to establish itself, moved around North Kent trying to establish itself.

Of those early Royals stars, it was Scottish midfielder Jimmy Charteris who was arguably the most notorious. He came from a troubled background. As a child, he’d seen his bigamist father jailed, and was palmed off to various member of his extended family. For opting to venture south to play for Royal Arsenal, he was virtually ostracised by his neighbours in Kirkcaldy, Fife. The local press issued the warning: “There is little honour playing for some of these English clubs.”

There was also Morris Bates, a pugnacious defender who was supposedly capable of heading the old fashioned football half the length of the pitch. The team had played in red ever since Nottingham Forest kindly lent the team their kit (Bates and goal keeper Fred Beardsley also ventured south from Forest), and quickly began to enjoy success on the pitch, securing the Kent Senior Cup in 1890 (3-0 versus Thanet in the Final), the 1890 London Charity Cup (3-1 v Old Westminster) and the London Senior Cup in 1891 after they defeated St Bartholomew’s Hospital 6-0.

Their cult following grew, as the Kentish Independent reported: “...there was shouting and singing everywhere all evening and, we fear, a good deal of drinking was mingled with the rejoicing and exaltations” after success on the pitch.

The principal reason why Royal Arsenal survived those testing early years, and why the history of the team becomes gradually clearer, is due to the sterling work of the club’s founding fathers, Jack Humble and David Danskin. Both men remain original working class heroes. In the mid 1880s, Danskin ventured south from Scotland to take up a post at the flourishing Woolwich Arsenal armaments factory. The recently passed Factory Acts gave Danskin and his co workers Saturday afternoons off, and the Scot quickly discovered that plenty of his co workers shared his passion for football.

Given that Kent had always been regarded as a rugby stronghold, the chances of a team based in Woolwich being anything other than an opportunity to keep fit and to socialise were remote, but Danskin was nothing if not determined, and he used his contacts north of the border to ensure that talented footballers were found work inside the Woolwich Arsenal. Those early Royal Arsenal sides contained a number of burly, moustachioed Scots. Already the cohesion, robustness and structure required for survival in a dog eat dog environment was beginning to take shape.

Danskin and Jack Humble (both men appeared for Royal Arsenal in the early days) were a formidable pairing. Humble, born in County Durham, grew up in poverty, and although the story claiming that together with his brother Arthur, he walked 400 odd miles south looking for work may well be apocryphal, he believed passionately that working class men  should be able to enjoy more leisure time.

Humble was a member of the Radicals, later a fully fledged member of the emerging Socialist Party, and was also an active member of the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society. Within the organization, both Humble and Danskin were able to raise the profile of the team, and despite the financial and geographical constraints, push the club forward. By March 1891, Royal Arsenal had already won silverware, were attracting a great deal of publicity in the local area, and were being steered by two hugely influential individuals. But events were about to take a dramatic turn....

Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source
5 Dec 2011