As we are about to play against a team whose last match involved some serious confrontation between rival fans and the police, I thought this a good moment to think about Arsenal, and the crowd behaviour at our games.
In fact Arsenal has the utterly dubious record of being the first ever league club to have its ground closed because of crowd behaviour!
This fact comes from the book ‘The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC’ a book based on the research carried out by Mark Andrews of the Arsenal History Society.
In fact the work was done for his dissertation called ‘The Crowd and Crowd Behaviour: Arsenal Football Club at Woolwich, 1893-1913’.
Rather charmingly this was written while he was living with his good lady at Plumstead Common, about 200 yards from where Royal Arsenal first played at home, and while drinking at the local pub the ‘Who’d a thought it’ which was owned in the early Twentieth Century by Woolwich Arsenal director, William ‘Jock’ Craib.
The problem with the history of football crowd violence and behaviour is that it has been hijacked by sociologists, whose main theory of a direct link between the hooliganism of the 1960s-80s and that of pre World War I Britain is encapsulated in the recent statement: “Although football hooliganism only rose to widespread public attention in the 1960s, it had been with the sport since its earliest development.”
This mantra is based around the belief that football hooliganism only “appeared” to start from the 1960s as the media then began to concentrate on it to sell papers, and the media had unaccountably previously ignored it.
Indeed from the 1960s to early 1990 there was a large amount of hooliganism (Hooligan was not a word in the English language until 1897), the main aspect being violent assaults on other team supporters.
The findings of this new book based around our fine club were quite different, and it soon became apparent that the dissertation would have been very, very short if I had relied on violence alone when Arsenal were at Plumstead; because there was so little of it between 1893–1913. So the topic was expanded to deal with crowd behaviour in all its guises at Woolwich.
The Woolwich Arsenal supporters, our precursors, were fans who enjoyed a huge “session” away from home and verbal abuse of the home team [the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal existed even then], away side and officials at their manor.
Much in the way our ancestors had enjoyed the pre-industrial traditions of drinking, inversion of the social order, antagonism to outsiders, dancing and music these supporters had far more in common with old English misrule traditions than as the beginning of a new tradition of organised football hooligans.
Especially true of this was the relatively large away support Woolwich Arsenal took to many away games in Nottingham, Bristol, Leicester and the Midlands.
This away support was made up of many different supporters especially from the Royal Arsenal workshops and was initially organised by director George Lawrance and his wife. The mainstay were the artisans from the Torpedo Factory who regularly, during the period of First Division football, took government sponsored fireworks to games and let them off at games and on the journey to games. They also drank and sang a lot.
Once this section of workmen had been shipped off to Scotland as part of the government’s centralisation of the torpedo manufacturing process the mass away support evaporated, and shortly after, the club moved to Highbury.
Having said all the above, as I noted, Woolwich Arsenal were the first club in the whole of English football to have their ground closed – in 1895 for 6 weeks, when the crowd beat up the referee after a fractious game against Burton Wanderers on 26th January.
They couldn’t wait for Walter’s review and meted out a short, sharp, shock to an inept official. The original sentence proposed for Arsenal, was that their ground would have been closed for the rest of the 1894/95 season. However, the “compromise” of a mere 6 weeks suspension was agreed upon by the FA.
However, an almost identical episode of ref bashing at Wolverhampton Wanderers next season in October 1895 led to their ground being closed for only 2 weeks. At least one non local reporter put the disparity in the harshness of the sentences from the FA, down to Arsenal’s role as the pre-eminent southern professional team.
There were also some altercations with Tottenham, the most serious being when the Spurs goalkeeper (ex-Woolwich Arsenal) punched a fan who was subjecting him to “foul and insulting language” from behind the goal.
Most of the findings point to a predilection for verbally abusing anyone and everyone, including the home team when they played poorly. Unlike today, the majority of supporters worked on the Saturday morning and only had that afternoon and Sunday as time off work, and also had very little annual leave. So this leisure time was precious in a way that, over a hundred years later, is very hard to appreciate.
They paid their 6d and saw it as their entitlement to exercise their verbal volleys at whoever they wished. If it was a home player who was the subject of their displeasure it was generally because pre-WW1 the crowd had an intense feeling of belonging and bond to that the club as a representative of “their” town. If the player was letting down the whole area with their uselessness, they were informed in no uncertain terms.
I cannot over state the role of Andy Kelly in getting this to publication. Andy Kelly has a phenomenal amount of knowledge and resources about Arsenal History. He is also Renaissance man as he has proofed and set the formatting, re-sized cartoons and photos from the original.
Bizarrely during my time in the newspaper library at Colindale in 1990 reading newspaper after newspaper, a similarly minded Arsenal supporter, namely Andy Kelly, was in the same location beginning his collection of recorded Arsenal games, by researching early games, team line ups and scores.
“The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC” is available now from the publishers price £12.95 plus post and packing. Or you can order by phone during office hours (with a credit card) on 01536 399 011.