By Tony Attwood
Today is my birthday. Of course as one gets older birthdays get to mean less, and indeed one can readily wish that they didn’t have to happen quite so often.
And birthdays get a bit more spread out. I saw one of my daughters and her children last weekend, I’ll see another of my daughters and her children next weekend, and had a lovely chat on the phone with my third daughter who lives in Australia.
But this has nothing to do with my headline. For if you ever look at the anniversary list that we publish each day (that is each day apart from the days when I get the dates confused and put the wrong list up) on the home page, you might have noticed that there are some other rather interesting moments.
The one that really pleased me when I realised it happened on my birthday occurred on 22 June 1893 It was the first AGM of Woolwich Arsenal was held under the chairmanship of Jack Humble as the club’s first directors were elected ahead of entry into the Football League for the first time.
I suspect most fans don’t know just how near to the edge Arsenal came in 1892/3 – the committee that ran the club split along what seems to have been class lines, the middle class men having as their prime ally the owner of the club’s Invicta ground. Arsenal were already paying a rent way beyond the norm for a football club and he announced that rent would rise dramatically next season.
It was a take it or leave it situation, and undoubtedly set up to force the current committee out, to be replaced by his allies. But the working men who made up the bulk of the committee retaliated, applied for a place in the Football League (which they got), and found a new ground (The Manor Ground) virtually opposite the Invicta.
The landlord of the Invicta ground, then conspired with others to make arrangements so that he would buy the Manor Field, but not until the Arsenal men had spent all their money preparing it as a football ground. It was a thoroughly evil plot since it would have bankrupted most of them had the plan succeeded. Fortunately the owner of the Manor Ground had more honour than the middle class rebels, and refused to do the dirty deed. Arsenal pushed their plans through and on 22 June 1893, the newly formed Woolwich Arsenal Football Club Ltd had its first AGM under the chairmanship of Jack Humble – one of the men who had steered Arsenal through from its earliest beginnings to this moment.
Moving on, 22 June 1901 was a sad day in the world of Arsenal as George Lawrence, benefactor extraordinary to the Woolwich Arsenal, and the club’s very first historian, died of a heart attack. He is one of the men, without whom there would have been no Arsenal because through his generosity of money and time he kept the club going in the hard times, for no reason other than he believed in it.
He is also the man who arranged the first away trips to matches and the first “days out” for supporters of the club, in which they would hire a train and for a day and travel to the coast or other place of interest. The first of these was on 14 July 1894 when his excursion to Hastings was patronised by 400 people.
George Lawrence’s early history of the club is also vital to our understanding of Arsenal and how it developed. He took over his father’s newsagents and turned it into a flourishing business, became a Conservative member of the Borough Council, and a Patron of the Cottage Hospital Committee and Woolwich Soup Society.
He was a shareholder in Arsenal, was involved in the move to professionalism, was involved in the rejection of the outrageous demands of the landlord and he was the man who signed all the documents to transform Royal Arsenal FC into Woolwich Arsenal FC. He also personally paid for the deposit on the Manor Fields to secure it for Woolwich Arsenal. He then bonded £1500 as part of the way to secure the £4000 mortgage on the Manor Fields ground.
And if that were not enough he published the first ever Arsenal Handbook. A copy of the 1894/5 “Woolwich District Foot ball Handbook is still in existence and contains a founding account by Fred Beardsley – very handy since it was almost a contemporary account.
There is a more complete account of George Lawrence and the other directors and shareholders of the era in the book “Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football” – details below)
Then I come to the third vital anniversary on 22 June 1925: Herbert Chapman took up the job of Secretary Manager of Arsenal FC. I think every Arsenal supporter will know that this was a moment of supreme importance within the club, ranking alongside the move to professionalism in 1891, the application to join the League in 1893, the rescue of the club by Henry Norris in 1910 and the move to Highbury in 1913.
Chapman came to Arsenal at a time when the club had just escaped relegation for two seasons in a row. In his first season he took Arsenal to second in the league, and in 1927 to their first cup final.
But I think some people believe that Chapman then delivered trophies straight away – and this is wrong. It was not until his fifth season at the club that Arsenal won the FA Cup, and before that on 5 April 1929 Herbert Chapman resigned from Arsenal after a 1-2 home defeat to Newcastle, feeling he had not achieved what he had promised. Fortunately Sir Henry Norris rejected his offer and told Chapman to carry on. The following season Arsenal won the FA Cup for the first time, and in 1931 won the League for the first time.
After another cup final and another runners up spot in 1932, Chapman won the League again in 1933 but tragically died in January 1934. However so massive was his legacy that first under Joe Shaw and then under George Allison Arsenal won the league again to make it three in a row. Indeed Allison copied Chapman’s record of two league trophies and the FA Cup, before the war called a halt to such matters.
Just as it is quite likely that there would have been no Woolwich Arsenal had not George Lawrence been there to take on the club’s landlord and his fellow travellers on the Committee, so it is likely that there would have been no Arsenal glory in the 1930s without Herbert Chapman. More likely Arsenal would have finally succumbed to relegation and joined Tottenham in the second division, instead of becoming the first London club to win the league.
So three 22 June dates: 1893, 1901, 1925, two marking the start of the next part of the adventure, one marking the death of a man now forgotten in the annals of the club but one of the massive heroes who ensured the club continued; one of several from the early days who deserves his own statue somewhere in the grounds of the Emirates Stadium.
Of course it being my birthday helps me remember these particular events, but that is not the point. It is much more important that we do remember our club’s history, and recognise the huge achievements of those men who came in generations before ours, and through whose work we now have the club that we support.
Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews. The book that turned our understanding of Arsenal’s history totally upside down, cataloguing the club’s split into rival factions, its bankruptcy, its revival, and the all-important move to Highbury.