Off to Highbury: 1911-1916

Foiled in his plan to merge Fulham with Arsenal, Sir Henry Norris Norris set about rejuvenating the ailing Woolwich Arsenal. It was a painful, painful process. The team finished 18th and 10th respectively in 1910 and 1911.

The primitive facilities at the Manor Ground were also becoming more evident. After a game against Spurs, a local newspaper described the ground as: ‘a perfect quagmire, as water lay in a pool along the touchline’.

On that day, the weather was so appalling, that factions of the crowd refused to pay the schilling entrance fee, preferring to stand on the sewer pipe and watch the game from there instead. On two occasions that season, the opposition team failed to reach the ground on time, due to heavy traffic and poor accessibility.

These embarrassments reflected poorly on Norris, and he wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly. The club was relegated in 1913 with the (at that time) worst ever record in Division One: P38 W3 D12 L23. For Norris, there was only one option.

In early 1913, Kentish Independent readers read the following front page headline: ‘ARSENAL TO MOVE TO THE OTHER SIDE OF LONDON’. In an official statement, Norris pointed out the benefits to the club of moving to a district which had a population of 500,000. The relocated club could tap into the huge reservoir of supporters in Finsbury, Hackney, Islington and Holborn.

Through his contacts in the church, he found that six acres of land at St John’s College of Divinity at Highbury were available. Where better to move than a spot which was only ten minutes away by tube from London’s West End? There was a strong reaction from Woolwich Arsenal’s hard core supporters.

Norris mentioned the ‘push’ factor from Woolwich; that people from the region simply did not turn up at games in large enough numbers. Mr Walter Bailey’s letter, published in the Kentish Independent, stated: ‘There is, and has been, sufficient support to run the team on a business basis….. Many clubs in different parts of the country would be glad of such support. Woolwich has been found guilty of apathy….. because it cannot furnish the huge gates that Tottenham and Chelsea get. The most distant part of London to which they intend moving will effectively prevent those who helped to make the club, and can morally claim it as their birthright, from having anything further to do with it. Is this right?’

The local press ran a series of cartoons, one of which, in the Woolwich Gazette, claimed Norris was kidnapping Kent’s ‘only son’. He countered, and further fanned the flames, by claiming that he’d always regarded Woolwich as part of London anyway, not Kent, and that it was about time the club enjoyed the capital’s spoils. In London, representatives from Orient, Spurs and Chelsea were quick to protest, ‘in the strongest possible terms’, about Norris’s proposal to move Woolwich Arsenal to Highbury.

They were worried that another London club could erode their traditional fan bases. An FA enquiry was set up to investigate the whole affair. Norris furnished them with some useful facts. Birmingham, with a population of 400,000, and Sheffield with 250,000 housed two top flight teams each. Why couldn’t an ever-expanding London – population two million – house four? The committee ruled that the opposition had ‘no right to interfere’. The Tottenham Herald placed an advertisement begging its fans: ‘…….not to go and support Norris’s Woolwich interlopers. They have no right to be here’.

A formidable group of Highbury residents, quivering with righteous indignation about ‘undesirable elements of professional football’ and ‘a vulgar project’ on their doorstep also had to be won over. Mr A. Bailey of Avenell Road wrote: ‘There will be considerable annoyance and inconvenience suffered by the residents in Avenell Road as a result of the erection of lofty stands by the Woolwich Arsenal Football Club. Can the council please help us on this matter’.

Norris launched a charm offensive on locals, assuring them that 30,000 plus fans in the district every other Saturday would be excellent for local business. This was enough to convince several members of the opposition, many of whom stood to gain from the construction process. Norris also won over the Ecclesiastical Committee, after promising them that no games would be played at Highbury on holy days, and no ‘intoxicating liquor’ sold at the stadium.

By 1913, Norris’s Arsenal (the Woolwich was now dropped - permanently) had indeed completed the move to their home for the next century or so.

According to the Daily Gazette, Woolwich Arsenal secured “the area South of the London College of Divinity bounded by Avenell Road, Highbury Hill and Gillespie Road” on February 20th 1913. The Athletic News, on the other hand, reckoned it happened at some point in March. The month’s difference is largely irrelevant.

The facts were that Norris had roughly six months to galvanise assorted local tradesmen, and commission an architect in order that the new stadium would be ready for the opening game of the 1913/1914 season. Norris took the scheme to the very top.

In the early part of last century, Archibald Leitch, an engineer and architect, moved his practice from Glasgow to Manchester. Leitch had been behind the construction of Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground, one of the few stadia constructed inside a symmetrical perimeter wall.

The club placed an advert in assorted local newspapers, inviting locals to write in, and suggest names for the new stadium.  Mr W Dykes of Camden Town thought that Avesbury Park – a combination of Avenell Road and Highbury – would be a suitable choice, but the club decided to simply name the ground “Highbury Stadium.” After several months of frantic construction work, the ground was somehow (just about) ready for business for the opening game of the 1913/1914 season.

The match against Leicester Fosse kicked off at 2.30pm on September 6, 1913. Due to the novelty factor of “the interlopers” finally completing the move from Woolwich to London, a crowd of 20,000 turned up. Goals from George Jobey and Archie Devine (pen) saw Arsenal win 2-1, but despite their more upmarket London environs, by May 1915, the club remained mired in Division Two.

Promotion back to Division One had seemed a possibility, but a dreadful run of results saw the crowds fall away. Just 10,000 turned up to see Arsenal crush Nottingham Forest 7-0 in the final game that season. Although the diehards could never have predicted it, they’d just witnessed a piece of history. This was to be Arsenal’s last ever match outside English football’s top flight.

HISTORY BRIEF

1.    During the first ever Highbury match, Arsenal trainer George Hardy was forced to commandeer a milk float to take scorer Jobey back to his lodgings to treat his injury.
2.    The Tottenham Herald published a cartoon in 1913 portraying Norris’s Arsenal as a ravenous hound, poised to wolf down its rivals’ food.
3.    When Highbury opened for business on September 6th 1913, workmen left the exit gates open, and it would have been easy for hundreds to stampede in, and avoid paying an entrance fee. “It says much for the sportsmanlike atmosphere of the day that fans still queued patiently,” recalled construction worker David Yates.

Woolwich Arsenal/Arsenal league record
P W D L F A Pts Position
1911/12 38 15 8 15 55 59 38 Div One - 10th
1912/13 38 3 12 23 26 74 18 Div One - 20th (R)
1913/14 38 20 9 9 54 38 49 Div Two - 3rd
1914/15 38 19 5 14 69 41 43 Div Two - 5th
1915/16 Arsenal finished 3rd in a London Combination, Wartime League
FA Cup record
1911/12 First Round
1912/13 Second Round
1913/14 First Round
1914/15 Second Round
1915/16 FA Cup postponed due to World War I
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 25 Oct 2011