23 March 1910

When Tottenham Hotspur tried to buy Arsenal

At the end of March 1910, the financial position of Woolwich Arsenal had reached breaking point, and on 23 March there was a major talking point: Tottenham Hotspur were looking to buy Woolwich Arsenal.

Dr John Clarke, the head of the local fund raising committee was seen on 20th March going round offering share documents to anyone who would listen in the pubs of Woolwich and Plumstead. 

When questioned Dr Clarke refused to talk about the position of Henry Norris, a director of Fulham and the deal that he was proposing, which it was suggested could involve Arsenal merging with Fulham or playing at Fulham’s ground.

Instead he dropped a bombshell and told anyone who wanted to listen that Tottenham Hotspur were looking to buy into Woolwich Arsenal.

Now I must admit that the historic evidence on this is not great.  There is a mention in a couple of newspapers in Tottenham and Wood Green of Spurs’ interest, but there is nothing official in any of the records.  But then the official records all round tell us very little and since neither Henry Norris nor Mr Leavey, who had been financing Arsenal of late, but now wanted to stop, left a diary or autobiography, we have no other source.

At the start of 1910 there were three London teams in the first division, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea (the latter being relegated at the end of the season).  In the second division there were two: Fulham and Leyton Orient, and that was it as far as London was concerned.

What no one really knew was how far fans were prepared to travel to watch a team, and at this time Tottenham seemed to have the view that having a range of clubs diminished the crowds that they could get.  Certainly they had worked hard to stop Chelsea entering the Southern League, while they (Tottenham) were in that League.

Maybe however Tottenham remembered the way in which Arsenal had come to their rescue in the summer of 1908 by voting for Tottenham when they applied to join the Football League, having already left the Southern League.  At that moment, Arsenal’s vote was the decider.

But Norris’ plan was clear – buy Arsenal and move the club to Fulham.  But what would Tottenham do?  Keep the club in Plumstead?  Move them to WHL?  Close them down?

Certainly crowds for matches between Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea were far higher than any other during the season of 1910 – for while the clubs existed on anything from 5,000 to 15,000 the London derbies would get 30,000 to 50,000.

It has been suggested that Tottenham wanted Woolwich Arsenal as a nursery club which could nurture young talent and bring it through – with the best players moving onto Tottenham.  This was attractive in that Woolwich Arsenal tended to pick up quite a few players from the armaments’ factory, and indeed munitions locations across the kingdom.  Tottenham had no such links.  This – and the desire to warn off Norris from buying the club – were the most likely reasons.

Certainly in 1910 all three London teams were looking likely to go down to the second division – and in fact only the poverty of arrangements at Bolton were keeping two of them out of the bottom two through the season.

Neither the Fulham nor Tottenham takeover happened, Norris bought Woolwich Arsenal and moved the club to Highbury which displeased Tottenham very much indeed.  But it was a story for a couple of days.