By Tony Attwood
If you’ve ever clicked on the links that I sometimes throw in at the end of articles you might have found your way onto the Woolwich Arsenal web site www.blog.woolwicharsenal.co.uk
The site covers, in a very erratic and idiosyncratic manner, the history of Woolwich Arsenal from its foundation as a professional club, up to the move to Highbury (and because it is such a great story) the 1919 promotion, although we were firmly “The Arsenal” by then.
It is being added to day by day, and I rather suspect that no other club in the country has a web site dedicated to its history 100 years ago. It may seem to many as being as nerdish as collecting train numbers, but it keeps me happy.
I’m not going to repeat stuff that I have thrown at the Woolwich Arsenal site here, but I would like to make an observation about our club’s history.
There are loads of histories of Arsenal – some official, some the work of dedicated enthusiasts. There’s also a fair amount of stuff on the internet.
What’s interesting however is just how much evidence seems to be missing, how many histories just repeat the text that crops up in other histories (and I put my hand up, I do this too) and how many names have been relegated to the edges of our club.
I felt this particularly about Norris, who (repugnant man though he was in many ways) did save us from oblivion in 1910, and took us to Highbury, got us into Division I, set the foundations for eternal life in the top league, changed the club’s name (twice) and gave us Chapman.
Yet despite this, the club were ready to do nothing about this anniversary of the foundation of the modern club, until I managed to sneak in a piece about Norris into the programme during the past season. He was then later given a double page spread which even though it contained some horrible errors, was still a step forward.
Moving on, or to be more precice, moving backwards I have been doing some pieces on the managers of Woolwich Arsenal.
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Much of this is well known, and for the later days of Woolwich Arsenal there’s a fair amount of detail around, but for the early days the record is unsure, and various writers have expressed different opinion. In fact the whole period of 1891 to 1897 is uncertain.
What’s more, it is a period where the tiny number of facts that are available are clearly all copied from one or two sources. Someone says, “he was a Scot who brought the quick passing game of the Scottish League to Arsenal” and every other book copies the same passage. At the same time, some really interesting nuggets that can be found by working through the team sheets are ignored. And there’s the fact that the club was already full of Scotsmen. From its foundation as a pro-club it brought in lots of Scots who had arrived to work in the armaments factory.
Much the same is true on the issue of crowds. Virtually every set back for Woolwich Arsenal is put down to poor crowds. And yet an analysis of the situation in the second division at the time shows that Arsenal were not doing too bad on that front, and much of the time had above average crowds for the day and the league.
Anyway, what has struck me as I have done this work, reading up everything I can find on the early days of Woolwich Arsenal, one name keeps coming up: Jack Humble.
He was one of the guys who founded our club – he was there in the Dial Square days. He was a totally committed socialist from the days when the Labour Party was the political voice of the trades union movement, and was getting its first seats in Parliament. He was also arguably the first manager we ever had (and it is an argument, not a fact).
But there’s much more to it than that, because whereas others moved on from the club either to leave football or to work for other teams, Jack stayed. And while the Norris revolution of 1910 which brought the old company to an end and set up the club we have today cleared out a lot of people Jack Humble stayed on then too. I don’t think he was a shareholder, but he was certainly a director.
As I have been putting the story together I have to say I have found this fact quite extraordinary. Jack Humble, the socialist who didn’t even want the club to be a limited company since it would set it apart from working men, and Henry Norris, working class bully property developer who joined the Conservative Party, owned Fulham and Arsenal, was an active Mason, became Mayor of Fulham, and then got knighted for his effort in the war at recruiting young men to fight in the trenches.
Can you even start to conceive what the board meetings must have been like? And this is the sort of history I like – not just the repeated phrases handed down by every book as authors just copy from each other, but the step back from the facts; the moment we think – “Hang on a moment, what the hell was happening here?”
Those two together is just impossible to imagine – and yet not only did Jack Humble stay on as a director when the new company was formed, he stayed through all the events that followed – right until the 1929 court case when Norris sued the Mail and lost, and the FA finally got its chance to hit the club, Norris and Humble. (Humble was utterly innocent, but the FA managed to get him out anyway).
And there’s no doubt that the FA wanted to get at Jack Humble, for he was one of the gang who against all FA wishes made Woolwich Arsenal a professional team – and kept the team professional even when the FA banned everyone else from playing us in order to destroy our club before it had even started.
I’ve only just started scratching the surface on the life of Jack Humble, and my first commentary on the Woolwich Arsenal site (The two men who turned Dial Square into Arsenal) – is very incomplete and undoubtedly full of inaccuracies. But that’s the glory of the internet – I can put it up, people can write in and tell me that I am a complete loonie for not knowing various facts – and then I can correct it and the history is taken forward.
But my main point here is not just this. The Ems is a much better place for all the giant pictures around the stadium, and I fully support Arsenalification. And it is probably right that we don’t want to glorify Norris with his image, despite being the founder and benefactor of the modern club. He was a bugger, and no mistake.
But surely we should be doing something to hold up the names of some of the men who went through every form of tribulation and difficulty to ensure that we have a club to support today.
I don’t have any clear ideas on this at the moment – although a monument at the site of the old Manor Ground to point out that this was the site of Woolwich Arsenal would be nice. And I would also like a monument to Jack Humble. There is a picture of him (I have reproduced it on the Woolwich Arsenal article noted above), so we could do something.
The giant Ems picture of every player who ever played for the club at Highbury is brilliant. I just want to go further.
I’m going to have a bash at getting something done, via Arsenal Independent Supporters Assn. It may seem awfully trivial to many fans who are more concerned about what happens at the start of next season – and indeed as the new round of games starts I’ll be focussed on 2010/11.
But there is something inside me that deeply regrets that we do not honour our origins more than we do. Maybe it is just me, but reading up on the Jack Humble story, it really seems important.