Arsenal, Dial Square and when it all began

Drew Gray takes us back to 1886

As I’m sure you all know Arsenal FC date their creation to the year 1886 when they were founded as Dial Square, a works team at the Woolwich Arsenal in South East London. They formed a team in answer to an advertisement by Eastern Wanderers, based on the Isle of Dogs. 

The advertisement that led to the formation of a team that called itself Dial Square

While we don’t know the exact date, Tony Attwood, chair of the Arsenal History Society, says we can narrow it down to somewhere between 1 and 5 December 1886.

So given that we have a week to play with, I thought I would see what was happening in London, Britain, and the world at the time The Arsenal was conceived.

The Conservatives were brought down by splits in the party

First the ‘big’ stuff: It will come as no surprise to most if not all of you that Queen Victoria was on the throne in December 1886, and in the following year she would celebrate her golden jubilee (50 years as Queen, and 10 as Empress of India). That year saw two men hold the office of Prime Minister: Lord Salisbury (Conservatives) was forced to step down in late January 1886 and replaced by the Liberal William Gladstone, but regained power in late July. Salisbury’s defeat was brought about by the splits in his party caused by Irish Home rule, something Gladstone was in favour of. In April he introduced a Home Rule bill to create the first devolved assembly for Ireland. It was defeated in the Commons in June and Gladstone called a general election. The Home Rule bill split the Liberals, one section of whom (The Liberal Unionist Party) eventually merged with the Tories in 1912 (so now you know where the Conservative and Unionist Party comes from).

All that is big news: very big if you, like me, have been trying to understand why sections of the Island of Ireland (and the North in particular) hate each other, and have been engaged in factional fighting for well over a century.

1886 – the year Yorkshire tea was brewing

But what of other big stuff, what else was news in 1886? Well, depending on your preferences, I would expect that the founding of Yorkshire Tea would count as important news. In other forms of culture, Robert Louis Stevenson found time to publish both Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr  Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was also published in 1886, as was Henry James’ The Bostonians. On December 5 1886 the florist Constance Spry was born. You may not know her, but if you enjoy Coronation Chicken you have her to thank for that. You’ll need to look her up to find out why!

In that particular week in early December 1886, what can we glean from reading the pages of the Sunday paper Lloyd’s Weekly, which claimed ‘the largest circulation in the world’? Leaving aside news from Ireland which dominated the front page, the paper reported a mix news from a revolt in Mozambique (then run by the Portuguese), the wounding of a colonel in the Rifles in Burmah [sic, now Myanmar], and the ‘strange disappearance of a lady’ whose clothes were found on the banks of the Thames at Richmond.

There was also fighting in Senegal (French), and five French soldiers had been murdered by pirates in Franco-China (modern day Vietnam). France’s neighbours, Belgium were also having trouble in the Sudan where rebels attacked a railway bridge. It is useful reminder that in 1886, large swathes of the world were governed from Europe by colonial masters. Not surprising then, that today so many of these countries (Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands) have large numbers of citizens who can trace their ancestry back to Africa, Asia, South and Central America and the Caribbean. And why so many of our footballers have deep colonial roots as well. As one commentator quipped: ‘We are here because you were there’.

Billiards champion pockets £30

In sport, there was a billiards match at the Westminster Aquarium which offered a prize of £30 (about £2,000 today). In Football, Sussex were beaten 5-1 by Cambridge University in a match at the Oval, while Preston North End put 7 goals past West Brom and Bolton Wanderers went one better, beating Rossendale 8-0 in the Lancashire Cup.

In London that week, a devastating fire broke out at a stationers’ wholesalers in Knightrider Street in the City. The fire spread to the roof of St Mary Magdalen’s church, several other warehouses, and 32 houses. It took 20 fire engines to bring it under control. No one died there but in Battersea another fire killed a woman and nearly killed her six year-old son as well. 

A tragedy of a different sort occupied nearly all of page three as the divorce of Sir Colin and Lady Campbell unfolded So-called ‘crim-con’ cases like this were popular with the Sunday reading public who liked to pour over the lives of the wealthy as their scandalous behaviour was exposed (just like in the recent BBC drama, A Very British Scandal). Maybe our ancestors weren’t so different from us in their tastes.

Page four was dedicated to crime news, detailing the cases that had come before the various magistrates courts in London, and at other courts elsewhere. It also listed those executed that week: James Murphy a miner and ‘notorious poacher’ who was hanged at York for killing a policeman near Barnsley. Apparently he ate ‘a hearty breakfast’ before William Berry dispatched him. James Banton was also executed that week, for a similar crime, the murder of PC Barratt in Leicester. Berry, as was usual, begged the condemned man’s forgiveness. “Oh yes”, Banton replied, before ‘taking great interest in the pinioning process’. As a historian of crime I’ve read a lot of reports of hangings and the very matter-of-fact nature of them is still quite unnerving.

‘The most extraordinary water display ever witnessed on stage.’

On a lighter note, the paper also reported what was on at the capital’s many theatres and entertainment venues. One stands out: The East theatre was staging A Dark Secret, which included a scene of Henley Regatta complete with real swans, ‘dozens of rowing boats’, and a  ‘steam launch’, which made it ‘beyond all question the most extraordinary water display ever witnessed on any stage’.  The plot concerned a crime mystery, and it was female actors who stole the show. The Royal Albert Hall was serving up a ‘Caledonia’ special with all sorts of Scottish music including the ‘Macgregors’ Gathering’ and the ‘Highland Slumber Song’. Sounds well worth avoiding! Perhaps James Gordon was there. He made the paper by completing an incredible journey from London to Dundee and back pushing his barrow. It took him 60 days and he wore out his boots twice. Why the 48 year-old porter chose to do this (having never been to Scotland in his life) is not recorded.

Finally a new invention was demonstrated at the West India docks that week. Lord Beresford and other military men were present to see a ‘new submarine torpedo boat’ be put through its paces. It was cigar-shaped and about 60 feet long, and was able to submerge and rise up again quickly. The paper stated that the boat was ‘intended chiefly for harbor defences,’ but that it had sufficient air supply to support a crew of three for up to three days. It may sound basic but this is just under thirty years from the outbreak of the First World War when submarines first made a real impact. Given Arsenal’s connection with the Woolwich Arsenal and the munitions that fuelled that conflict (and many others), this is probably a good place to leave this week of news.

And what was the result of that first match. Here’s the match report:

If this is something members enjoy I can do more of them. In the meantime, for more focused Arsenal FC history, please do check out Tony’s work for the AISA Arsenal History Society.

Drew Gray (Chair, AISA)

Click here for more on Dial Square’s formation,

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