28 February 1913: the first admission that Arsenal will move grounds

The story that Arsenal were going to leave Plumstead had circulated for some time but it was not until 22 February 1913 that Gillespie Road (which of course became the home of the stadium later renamed as “Highbury” was citred in the press for the first time as the site of Arsenal’s new ground.  

Henry Norris was not planning to reveal the site of the new ground on that date – and it only came about when two local journalists found him at the religious College in Gillespie Road which currently owned the land.  Given the rumours circulating about Arsenal’s move, and the fact that there was only one site in the area which could possibly have been turned into a football ground the obvious conclusion was reached.  Woolwich Arsenal were going to Highbury.

Not that Norris was planning to buy the land, because it was clear the College wouldn’t sell, but he knew the College was in financial trouble, and so needed some extra income.

The following day, 23 February, Tottenham Hotspur went on the attack, demanding that the Management Committee of the Football League state that Woolwich Arsenal could not move to Highbury.

Tottenham were aided in this by Clapton Orient and on one front it looked like they might have a case, since clearly the region already had two clubs.  Clapton Orient had joined the League in 1905, and Tottenham had joined the League in 1908.  A third they argued, was too much.

But Norris had chosen carefully.  First, he relished the transport links.  Although he had actually opposed the introduction of trams to Fulham (as a Unionist mayor of Fulham he was obliged to listen to his party, and they were resolutely against the move), he knew that the transport issue was key.  Even 100 years ago, the days of the fan walking along a couple of streets to see his/her local team had gone.  Now fans were travelling by train, underground and bus.  Indeed an important part of Woolwich Arsenal’s support in Plumstead came from a group of fans in Rotherhithe.

Gillespie Road had transport options ready-made: Finsbury Park rail and underground services were working by 1913, as was Gillespie Road (later Arsenal) underground station.

What’s more Norris knew that Tottenham had no ability to object to the move, because Tottenham had been down this road before.   When both Chelsea and Clapton Orient had applied for places in the Southern League in 1904 and 1905 respectively, Tottenham had objected.  The Southern League, having accepted Clapton in 1904, rejected Chelsea in 1905, in response to Tottenham’s pleadings, but then Clapton and Chelsea jointly applied to join the Football League and were accepted and here Tottenham could have no objections since they played in the Southern League until 1908.  When Tottenham joined the League in 1908 it was Clapton Orient who could have objected on the grounds of proximity, but they chose not to.

But these arguments had been rehearsed from 1910 onwards and Tottenham’s request for the League Management Committee to hear the case was rejected at once, since the Management Committee were perfectly aware that their rules, re-iterated in 1910, were clear: they did not control where clubs played.

Sally Davis reports that then, on Monday 24 February, a director from each of Tottenham and Clapton Orient “went uninvited to the scheduled meeting of the Football League management committee to ask them to prevent any move by Woolwich Arsenal to north London from going ahead.”  

On Friday 28 February the Kentish Independent published Norris’ response to the paper’s suggestions that Woolwich Arsenal were on the move but by that time the letter had been overtaken by events.  But nonetheless the paper ran it, as it said that if the directors of Woolwich Arsenal were to move the club to a more populated area of London they could scarcely be blamed for doing so with gates at the Manor Ground as low as they were.

But mostly what was on Norris’ mind was the case of Chelsea.  In the season 1909/10 Chelsea had been relegated to the second division, and there they stayed for the next two years.  In 1912/13 they were back in the first division but came just one place above Notts County who went down with Woolwich Arsenal.  But their crowds throughout were above 24,000 – they were the best supported club in the league irrespective of their league position.

And so on to Friday 28 February in Glasgow where the league committee gathered prior to the Scottish Football League v English Football League fixture.  This time the issue of Arsenal was on the agenda, and as a result of the discussion the League issued at statement on Saturday 1 March, saying that it was recognised the for clubs to move was unusual (the last big move was Manchester Utd going to Old Trafford in 1910), but not unheard of, and that they could not stop the move.  

There was nothing new in that, but this time they went a lot further saying that if it was North London that Arsenal wanted to move to, then north London was perfectly able to support three football clubs.But there was something else.  The point was made by Arsenal that the vast majority of teams were in the Midlands and the North of England, and they came to London by train.   Having arrived at Kings Cross or Euston, as most did, they could now get an underground train straight to Gillespie Road instead of making a second long journey to Plumstead.   Thus, rather craftily Arsenal suggested that although Tottenham might not like it, virtually every other team would find Arsenal in north London an improvement.

Indeed it was probably mentioned in passing that Bradford had two league clubs, as did Sheffield, as did Birmingham.  Bradford had a population of under a quarter of a million at the time, and north London was about eight times that size.  Tottenham’s argument was poor to say the least.

Certainly the northern based Athletic News found itself in Arsenal’s camp, recognising that crowds did not just follow success (a popular misconception) but that they came because of the location of the ground.   The magazine also now published the exact location of Arsenal’s new ground and  Arsenal admitted the truth of the matter at a press briefing in Covent Garden on Tuesday 4 March,

In his arguments in favour of Arsenal’s freedom to move Norris stated that Arsenal had been in the Football League for 20 years, and through this made the point that whereas at the start the footballing public stayed true to their local club, now with improvement transport Arsenal’s local support were going to other grounds, rather than Plumstead.

There was no debate.  The Tottenham and Orient statements had been made by their clubs, and so a vote taken.  The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Arsenal as it had to be, because the committee had no power to stop Arsenal moving, as they had already said.

The Times made an interesting point too, saying that, “It has been the experience when professional football has been established in any quarter that a new public has been created for the game.  Chelsea is a case in point.

“It would be a thousand pities if a club like the Arsenal had to put up its shutters for lack of support, seeing that for twelve years they were the only members in town of the Football League, and most people will wish the Arsenal good luck in their pluck endeavour to keep the flag flying under the most disastrous conditions in recent years.”

Tottenham however would still not let go and continued to argue that there should be an emergency general meeting of the League to discuss the issue.  There is no doubt that they also encouraged either the setting up of, or the development of, the Highbury Defence Committee which was formed by local residents to oppose the move.  The Committee launched a petition, and did manage to persuade a majority of members on Islington Council to oppose the development.  But Islington Council itself had limited powers in the affair, and there was never any chance that they could have an effect on developments, no matter how much noise local councillors made.

But so strong were the anti-football claims that came out of the Highbury Defence Committee that football fans from across the country began to respond to the accusations, and for some time Athletic News was full of denouncements of the residents of Islington.  Whether Islington residents noticed this backlash or not is not recorded, but it certainly did nothing to raise the positive profile of the area – but Arsenal emerged looking like the heroes, defeating the backwoodsmen and ultra-conservatives.