There were all sorts of good reasons for the Woolwich Arsenal’s move to Islington in 1913, not least the fact that the new stadium could boast about being the most ‘get-at-able’ in London, served by tubes and railways at Finsbury Park, Drayton Park and Gillespie Road stations.
Certainly a large proportion of the 20,000 crowd that witnessed the new Arsenal Stadium’s opening game – against Leicester Fosse on September 6, 1913 – arrived at those stations. The Metropolitan Railway reported an increase of 5,000 in customers alighting at Drayton Park alone that Saturday afternoon.
Until well into the 1950s, getting to a ground for a 2.30 or 3pm kick-off was a challenge, unless you happened to work around the corner. Most men still worked on Saturday mornings before their weekend began. Being able to jump on the tube anywhere in London and step out on the stadium’s doorstep made supporting the Arsenal a practical proposition in a way distant Woolwich never was.
Gillespie Road station, for example, was less than 50 yards from the steps up onto the Laundry End. Once the palatial new West Stand opened in 1932, it was a straight walk up to its entrance on Highbury Hill. By the early '30s, Herbert Chapman had transformed Arsenal’s fortunes, on and off the pitch. In terms of fresh ideas and exploiting the Arsenal name, 1932 was a particularly significant year. As well as the West Stand being officially opened by the Prince of Wales, a clock was erected over the South Stand for the first time and – somehow or other – Arsenal’s visionary manager persuaded the operators to change the name of the tube station which had opened as Gillespie Road in 1906.
Arsenal (Highbury Hill) was the new name, advertising both the Club and the address of its swanky new grandstand at the same time. The change was an expensive one, involving the re-printing of tickets and maps, and was further complicated by the fact that the different lines were still independently run at that stage; the entire tube network only became London Underground the following year. Chapman’s promptings, though, did the trick as far as all the paperwork was concerned, even if the tiles on the station’s tunnel walls still read Gillespie Road. It probably did the Club’s cause no harm that Arsenal had already paid for improvements to a station little-used on all but busy matchdays. It wasn’t until 1960 that the Highbury Hill suffix was dropped and Arsenal station became the only one on the tube network named after a football club rather than a geographical location.
There can’t be many fans who haven’t used Arsenal at some point in their lives: the long, sloping tunnel leading up from the platforms; the narrow, fenced-in passageway used by the odd passenger travelling in the opposite direction to the football crowd; and – some things never change – the endless queues lining Gillespie Road to get back into the station after the game...
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