Delving into our criminal past (and its got nothing – well not much – to do with Arsenal…)

Who are the Untolders?

by Blacksheep

Tony suggested to me that while we try and cope with the paucity of real football over the next few months it might be interesting (to one or two readers at least – I hope!) to find out a little more about what the Untold ‘crew’ do when we’re not writing articles about football.

I appreciate that at this point many people will press ‘off’ button (or its blog equivalent) and simply wait for Tony, Walter or Andrew’s next Arsenal related post to be published. So I’m sorry to have kept you this long if that’s you…  but there is actually an Arsenal connection in all this – you just have to read through a bit of writing to find out what it is.

So, welcome back to all those who are interested [er, that’s just you and me… Ed]

When I’m not ‘sitting’ in the North Bank I earn my living as a university lecturer in history. In fact that’s how Tony and I met (he recognized my email in the comments and sent me a message…several years later he’s still talking to me [amazing innit. Ed]

I specialize in the history of crime and punishment and I’ve written a few books that focus pretty much on London crime in the period 1750-1900. At the moment I’m writing a new one which will offer a new solution to that age-old question ‘Who was Jack the Ripper?’

Whilst I teach university students I also enjoy taking people on walks around London and showing them sites and places associated with crime. Just this week I took 30 German school children on a crime-themed tour around Holborn and Lincoln’s Inn, and treated them to the gruesome story of ‘Sweeney Todd the demon barber of Fleet Street’.

Inspired by Untold’s success and Tony’s huge commitment to writing (it isn’t easy folks, to write 2-3 articles a day – especially when there’s no football going on) I decided to start my own blog. It’s a daily affair at present with a short post about crime in the past.

In it I ‘visit’ the police courts of London in the 1800s and find interesting or amusing (well to me at least) cases to write up. It’s called the Police Magistrate and you can find it here if you fancy having a look.

One thing that always strikes me about the history of crime is how similar it is in many ways to our own society’s problems. They often weren’t as sympathetic and they were certainly harder on criminals then but they had the same issues to deal with. Given that the early players of Woolwich Arsenal lived in the late 1800s I find it interesting to think about the society they experienced.

Nowadays petty theft is unlikely to land you in gaol, unless it is accompanied by violence or you are unfortunate enough to steal (say) a bottle of water during a major riot. In the 1890s even a relatively small theft would bring short spell in prison, and many thieves could expect a long stretch inside.

Prisons then weren’t soft options either: expect to be set at hard labour, or turning the crank or walking the treadwheel, all on meagre rations and then a night on a board with no comport at all. The Victorians believed in the mantra of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.

Drunkenness and fighting was a fact of life in London’s tough working-class communities; the men at the Woolwich Arsenal were no shrinking violets and 90 minutes on a Saturday probably represented a more healthy outlet for their frustrations.

Work was hard and often hard to come by. This was a society with little support for those that fell below the poverty line, so work you did. The alternative was the workhouse and the breaking up of families. Mind you some of the women may have wondered what they had done wrong to keep their men given that so many of them ended up beaten and bruised by them; domestic violence was also a characteristic of Victorian society (and not just amongst the lower classes). We are blessed to live in a much more equal world (for the most part at least).

But before we get too complacent I think its useful to look backwards at the world we’ve supposedly left behind. I’ve unearthed violence (including lethal violence), thefts, frauds, confidence tricks, fare dodging, dissolute and riotous behaviour in the Police Courts, all of which would have their parallels today. We might think we’ve moved on, become more ‘modern’ but a quick look here would suggest otherwise.

And do remember, professionals in the early days of the Football League would have have part time jobs during the season to make up their wages, and most likely full time jobs during the summer, when they were paid a meagre retainer by the clubs.  That meant these men who played a game that was in many regards unrecognisable in its ferocity and violence from the football we see today, would then be working in regular part time employment after training.   A few drinks of an evening, and then…

Maybe that is what happened to a few of the players who are noted in the Arsenal History Society review of players in our first league season as coming and just as quickly leaving without trace of their playing elsewhere.  A spot of theft or some other minor crime would result in prison, and the end of a promising career.

Thanks for reading this far, do check it out if you have a spare 5 minutes online do take a look.

Footnote: if anyone else who writes regularly or occasionally for Untold would like to reveal what they do in the real world, please send your article in to the usual address.

On the Arsenal History Society site

22 Replies to “Delving into our criminal past (and its got nothing – well not much – to do with Arsenal…)”

  1. It’s a bloody crime that Ihave had to read that dribble! What the hell is going on with untold! A piece from Walter about the history of Belgium? Or Tony talking about his experiences in the 1st world war! I even miss the ref crack pot conspiracy posts

  2. Stevie P.

    I think there is a slight misunderstanding herre, and I am very sorry that we have caused you such distress. I think that the answer however is quite simple. You don’t actually have to read it.

  3. Sorry Tony, but I come on this website to read what I consider to be relevant and truthful things about Arsenal F.C.
    I agree with Stevie P that, perhaps, one might be beginning to think that they are bigger than the Untold website.
    I have never been critical of anything that has appeared before and I did read the article thinking that something relevant about the club might be forthcoming.
    I am sorry Blacksheep if this is harsh on you personally, but please let’s keep Untold as the leading light on all things ARSENAL.
    Still the best website to inform real Gooners the facts!!!

  4. Well Ken I disagree – the way things were for people in the 19th century is highly relevant to Arsenal because that is where our club comes from. It was just about the only club in the League that was formed by and for the workers, rather than the mill owners or church leaders or the toffs, and they had to learn how to run the show in the world that existed.

    When Arsenal split in two in 1892, one group were the workers, the people who had founded the club, and the people with a close affinity to those who worked in the munitions factories. The other group said that these people were not men of stature and therefore unable to run the club.

    One of the most important people in the history of the club was Jack Humble seemingly walked from Durham to Woolwich to find work – and was the one only person who worked with the club from the Royal Arsenal days onto Highbury.

    Now as it happens Blacksheep works by studying the lives of these people and has an interesting insight into the world in which our club was formed, and it seems to me highly relevant. But even if it doesn’t to some readers, there are two points to note. One is that Blacksheep makes it quite clear what he is writing about from the start, so anyone not interested can turn away, and the other is that this is “Untold” where as a policy from day one we have gone into all sorts of other areas of the world if they have a connection with our central theme – even if that connection is tenuous.

    For me, the club is not just today, and not just the club I first saw as a child with my father, but it is what happened to the ideas and ideals of a bunch of regular working guys in the 1880s, and knowing what their life was like is relevant and informative. Indeed the book by Mark Andrews which I was very pleased to publish a few years ago about the Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal is about the men who came to the game in the early days more than it is about the club.

    To my mind, if we don’t have context we don’t have understanding.

  5. blacksheep,

    Wow PHD Historian, that is interesting and amazing to be honest. I checked out your link to your book, and its very highly rated 🙂

    And by any chance are you ‘the’ lecturer that is mentioned on the site of University of Northampton?

  6. There are already early signs of withdrawal symptoms among the natives.
    And who can blame them.
    A season of great promise has just ended when, against all the the odds of dodgy refereeing, the absence of key players at key times and downright poor play at times….we enjoyed our best finish since 2004.
    And now we have to endure a few months of meaningless friendly internationals as well as being bombarded with mountains of spurious rumour and counter-rumour about new signings.
    And no Emirates Cup to break up the boredom.
    The answer?
    If you are old like me, hibernate, in the coldest approach to Summer I can recall in many a year.
    And have patience. Remember others are worse off than we are.
    Man Utd are lumbered with the obnoxious Moringnho (the self-styled Special Something, which he sure is). Spurs pipped at the post yet again. No ghastly qualifying for next season’s CL.
    And we are at last in a buying mood in the Summer Window.
    Count your blessings, folks, football-wise we have a lot for which to be thankful. 😉

  7. Off topic:
    Watched the Toulon Under 21 between Japan vs England, couldn’t believe Callum Chambers got mistakenly yellow carded, the player who should have received the yellow card is Rob Holdings, the kid who is linked (you guessed it) to Arsenal. Are the refs against Arsenal players even in international competitions?

  8. Stevie P & Ken.

    I just don’t understand your thinking. These sort of articles are quality and most interesting and as Tony says they are relevant. No one is more boring than someone who can only discuss one subject. I love the Arsenal but I also have plenty of other interests and follow them fervently. Especially in the football recess it does no harm to broaden our horizons a little and this proves that Untold is the best Arsenal site by far.

  9. Am glad that Tony suggested this topic of us Untolders getting to know the regular writers of the esteem blog . And glad to know the path that Blacksheep is trudging .

    My oldest son is majoring in history , but not quite English history . May be one day he could have the oppertunity to pick your brains .

    I do also love history , and may have passed my interest on to him .
    Thank you for sharing this with us .

  10. Tony/Nigel,
    If you read my comments, I also believe that Untold is the only site that reports factual goings on at Arsenal.
    Nigel, not once have I said I can only discuss one subject as you infer.
    I have supported Arsenal for over 60 years and know some, if not all, of the clubs history. That is for each individual to find out and learn about if they want to.
    What I am interested in is the present and how our brilliant club and manager are thinking today.
    An example being: Does Ramsey want to leave and are Barca really interested in Bellerin?
    Hope that clears up any query about my initial comment, but we are all entitled to our own opinion even if some fellow gooners disagree.

  11. This a fantastic article, not like it please.

    How could those who claim amongst other spurious declarations to be
    “against modern football” pretend to claim otherwise.


    In an age where some broadcasters insist the top division only began in 1991/2 who would want to argue otherwise?

    Football clubs, their roots reflect a relevant aspect of the cultural life of people in the UK these past one hundred years. Forget that and the sport might end up going the same why as its other 19th century competitions horse racing and rowing – Whatever you do just don’t mention the fixing and the doping alongside the history and contex, anything but that please neighhhhh *stomps hooves in anger*

  12. It’s good to know about the writers on untold and I love history of any kind so I could this really interesting. Will be on your site Blacksheep as I really interested. Thank you.

  13. Ken

    Apologies. The point I was making is that we need not be too narrow in our subject especially at this time of the year. There are people who can only talk one subject but I am assured your not one of them. Keep well.

  14. Enjoyed the article, blacksheep. I look forward to another. And I agree with Tony re a historical context for the founding of the Club. Often there are articles here that have no interest for me. I don’t read them.

  15. One of the beautiful aspects of Untold is the diverse subjects that are posted as well as discussed in the comments. I know the preference is to stick to the subject but life has so many inputs to create humanity that I just enjoy all the social aspects of this site.

  16. Not surprised at all by Blacksheep’s day job.
    I had always felt that UA’s regular writers, as well as most of the regulars in the comments section have be be well educated, intellectual sorts – given their rich vocabularies, independence of thought and confidence in their independence.
    However, in this day and age, these seem to be a dying species that the rest of the society seem eager to be rid of. This tension is mirrored in the reactions of the anti-UA types who visit occasionally or manage to escape Tony’s veto. What they lack in articulation, research or logic, they make up for in vehemence, intransigence and abuse.
    As a lover of detective stories, including Sherlock Holmes, I shall surely visit your site to enrich my perspective.

  17. Life is not really fragmented in any way, we just fragment it for organisatory purposes.

    It is all inter-connected and “specialising” as society does now causes loss of information and creates so called “experts” who are only proficient in their one discipline without ever seeing the whole.

    That said and as mentioned above, read what you are interested in and ignore the rest.

  18. Hello Blacksheep.

    What do you think of Bruce Robinson’s recent book about who he thinks Jack the Ripper was?

  19. I’m next up for an article about my background,love of Arsenal and other related information! Well done Blacksheep. Those bothering to read should realize that most of us will not likely get to meet the writers face-to-face and therefore depend on what we see on UA to get to know them as people and supporters!

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