One step forward, two steps back: 1896-1901

Woolwich Arsenal chugged along during the 1896 to 1901 period, finishing 10th, 5th, 7th, 8th and 7th respectively in the Second Division. The club’s progress in the FA Cup was similarly disappointing, leading one disgruntled fan to write to the Kentish Gazette and claim: “The club isn’t pulling up any trees, and as far as I can see, it isn’t showing any signs of doing so either.”

Speaking ten years after he left the club, striker David Hannah described the Kent club at the time as “...drifting along. Occasionally, we were beaten heavily. Sometimes, we thrashed the opposition. Mostly we won some and lost some. One step forward, and one step backwards. For myself and several of the other players, it seemed that we were always battling against the fact that Kent was so far out of the way.” 

Hannah’s point was perfectly illustrated by a remarkable series of results between October 17th and Christmas Day 1896. Woolwich Arsenal scored 32 goals and conceded 34 in just 9 games. The run included an 8-0 thrashing at Loughborough and a 7-4 tonking at Notts County, and then a 6-1 destruction of Gainsborough and a 6-2 win over Lincoln City.

It remains the most spectacular goal scoring run in the club’s history, but it illustrates the club’s wildly inconsistent form. With the lack of success on the pitch, it was essentially an era of painful home truths being delivered, and a realisation that being the Second Division’s Southern most club was very much a double edged sword.

The Manor Ground’s crowds, consisting largely of factory workers and soldiers, appeared to have been regarded with suspicion by visiting Northern clubs. A letter of complaint penned by one disgruntled supporter to the Kentish Independent noted “the conduct of fans who spouted foul language and coarse abuse.”

After Newcastle United visited the Manor Ground during the 1897 – 1897 season, the Newcastle Echo described the Geordies’ trip to the Manor Ground as a “visit to hell.” The Kentish Independent reported that the disruptive element at the Manor Ground was spread throughout the demographic. “These were not weedy uneducated hooligans, but well dressed middle aged gentlemen,” one journalist wrote, after the home supporters dished out stick to a visiting side. This is not to suggest that the Manor Ground was always a bear pit (only three brief newspaper extracts highlight the edgy nature of the crowd) but nonetheless, it never ranked highly on the list of favourite away destinations for rival Second Division outfits.

Undermining the club’s progression was its geographical location. Although Woolwich, as the crow flies, is relatively close to the middle of London, the River Thames effectively sliced the club’s radius of support in half. It was 20 minutes further out by tram than the nearest major club (Millwall Athletic), and although the Manor Ground was located across the road from Plumstead Station, it was exceptionally tricky to reach by rail.

George Allison, then a junior sports reporter with Hulton’s, had been given Woolwich Arsenal as his regular team. He became known in journalistic circles as “George Arsenal,” and he recalled the journey down to watch Woolwich Arsenal: “From Fleet Street to Plumstead was heavy going. Other sports writers were more than happy when I offered to undertake all the reporting of Arsenal’s home games. The trains stopped at every station. There were the same halts on the return journey, with the added difficulty that no one knew where the trains were going.”

Added to this was the development of other clubs within the Southern area. There were a range of good Southern League clubs including Millwall and Crystal Palace, and strong local amateur outfits like Clapton and Dulwich. Fulham and Clapton Orient were making excellent progress, and these two clubs were a strong draw for young local football talent, and supporters. Then Tottenham Hotspur won the FA Cup in 1901, becoming the first non-League club to do so.

It was estimated that a jubilant crowd of 20,000 lined the streets to welcome back the Spurs players to North London. Woolwich Arsenal were highly unlikely to ever be fortunate enough to draw on such a reservoir of support. Its position of strength of being Southern England’s first professional outfit had become eroded extremely quickly. Tottenham’s cup win was a clear sign that Woolwich Arsenal’s title as the south’s most cutting edge and progressive club was in danger of being wrestled away. The club’s lack of success in keeping hold of their best players merely reinforced the fact.

When goalkeeper Harry Storer was chosen to represent the Football League against the Scottish League, he became the first Arsenal player to win representative honours, but he departed a year later to Liverpool. The superbly named Caesar Llewellyn Jenkyns became the club’s first full international when he was picked for Wales against Scotland on March 21, 1896, but a year later he departed to Newton Heath, the forerunners of Manchester United. Jenkyns, with his wrestler physique and aura of raw power, later became a policeman, and his mere presence in the team was reckoned to add another 2,000 to the gate.

Estimates from the time suggest that around 50 per-cent of the crowds at the time were connected in some way to the military, and the general perception at the time was that the onset of the Boer War was as damaging for Woolwich Arsenal as it was for the British Government.

The all consuming need to preserve Britain’s empire impacted massively upon the munitions industry. Saturday afternoons at the football were no longer an option for many supporters, as compulsory overtime was introduced in the factory. In the early part of last century, a report had suggested that crowds crashed by over a half at the Manor Ground during the conflict, but upon closer inspection, the fall is roughly equivalent to 20 per-cent – serious but not catastrophic.

Nonetheless with an average gate of around 3,500, the club’s options were limited. A paltry 900 watched the club’s record 12-0 victory over Loughborough in March 1900. It’s one of the most bizarre coincidences in the club’s history that they’d lost 8-0 against the same opposition three seasons earlier (see page 51 for more).

One giant step forward, one enormous step backwards.

HISTORY BRIEF

1. Arsenal’s Third Qualifying Round FA Cup match against New Brompton went to four replays with Arsenal eventually losing 1-0 at neutral Gravesend. New Brompton became Gillingham FC.

2. In the 1895/96 season, the club wore a short lived strip of red and light blue stripes.

3. A disastrous FA Cup defeat by non-League Millwall in 1896 prompted the club to appoint a secretary-manager, TB Mitchell from Blackburn.

Woolwich Arsenal league record (Division Two)
P W D L F A Pts Position
1896/97 30 13 4 13 68 70 30 10
1897/98 30 16 5 9 69 49 37 5
1898/99 34 18 5 11 72 41 41 7
1899/00 34 16 16 14 61 43 36 8
1900/01 34 6 6 13 39 35 36 7
FA Cup record
1896/97 Fifth Qualifying Round
1897/98 First Round
1898/99 First Round
1899/00 Third Qualifying Round
1900/01 Second Round
Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 6 Dec 2011