22 February 1913

On this date Gillespie Road was named in the press as Arsenal’s new home, for the first time.

Yes, today is the 108th anniversary of the naming of what became known as the Gillespie Road ground (and later “Highbury”) in the press as the new stadium for Woolwich Arsenal FC (later to be renamed The Arsenal, and then Arsenal).

On the pitch, at this time, things were going from appalling to worse as Woolwich Arsenal FC suffered their worst ever season.  But elsewhere there had been rumours and counter rumours for weeks as to where Henry Norris was taking the club.

When Henry Norris had paid off the debts of the club to stop it going into liquidation, he had given a promise that he would keep Woolwich Arsenal playing in Plumstead for at least one year to give the fans a chance to show that they would support their local team.  Later he expanded that promise to two years.   In fact he kept the club at Plumstead for three years but all that happened was that the crowds went down and down and down.

During the 1912/13 there was a lot of speculation that Arsenal would certainly move at the end of that season, and as time passed there was a general agreement emerging in the press that it was going to be either Islington or one of the adjacent boroughs to which Arsenal would move.  

However this day was the very first day that we knew for sure, not just that it was Islington, but that it was Highbury.

But to go back to the start, Henry Norris had started the season by saying that he would not move the club during the course of the season, and in this he was true to his word.

However it was clear the club had to move to survive, as the crowd at Plumstead sank to an average of 9,357 – generating nowhere near enough income for the club.  And it had been established with the League that Norris was free to move the ground anywhere he wished, as the League regulations had no mention of where a club might play.

That the move was a success is shown by the fact that in the first season at Highbury Woolwich Arsenal gained an average crowd of 22,974 to watch the club come 3rdin the Second Division – an astonishing achievement given that the ground wasn’t anything like complete at the time of the season’s first game.

But to go back and complete the story… by October 1912 rumours had been everywhere that Arsenal were moving – and indeed the highly regarded Athletic News ran a story at that time that Arsenal had bought land by Harringay Park railway station; land that would eventually be developed into Harringay Stadium.

Neither Norris nor Woolwich Arsenal had in fact bought such land, but it is more than likely that Norris had made enquiries thereabouts while also opening discussions concerning the land in Highbury.

It was not until November 1912 that Henry Norris settled on the site of the new home for the club, and even then it took months of painful negotiation with the religious foundation that owned the land before he could purchase a lease on the property and was able to start turning the land into a stadium.

The land Norris found was part of the sports facility owned by St John’s College, Highbury, a religious centre that trained young men for the church. The college (a private foundation) was unhappy about the possible change of use, but they had financial problems of their own and Norris turned out to be their only viable solution.

The college’s income was declining as the Church of England had changed the rules for the qualifications that men needed to become ordained meaning that clergy now needed degrees.  The men the college trained tended to be dedicated to the faith, but lacking in educational qualifications, and thus the college’s courses were less attractive than before, since they could not lead to a guaranteed C of E job.

Fortunately for them the land had been given to the College by a benefactor without restrictions as to its use and thus selling or leasing some of the land was not only a viable way of raising money, it was just about the only way the college had to raise the extra funds it urgently needed. With no one else interested in taking the lease, Norris must have seemed to the college as (if you will excuse the expression) a Godsend.

The story of Arsenal’s move was kept secret until this day – 22nd February 1913 – when journalists finally hit on the fact that Norris was in Gillespie Road.  Given that there is only one site in the street which could possibly have been turned into a football ground the obvious conclusion was reached. 

But there is one other factor that is normally forgotten in the telling of this tale but which gives a real insight into Henry Norris.

Neither Norris nor the club bought the land in February 1913 – the land was leased from the College.  According to the terms of the lease, at the end of the lease the College could ask for the land back IN ITS ORIGINAL STATE if it wanted to end the agreement.  In other words Norris and Arsenal were taking an almighty (again, excuse my phraseology) gamble.

Everything spent on the stadium could well be money thrown away if the College decided to ask for the ground back.  In such a case Norris and Arsenal would need to remove the grandstand and terracing, the offices and everything else, to return the arena to its original state upon handover.

But fortunately for us all, it never came to that. Ultimately, Arsenal bought the land, and it became Arsenal’s home, until the next move, just round the corner.