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GCR Books

Hugh MacDonald was my grandfather and he played for Arsenal

We have just published a couple of articles in the “My grandfather played for Arsenal” series.  Third third story has been published in outline before, and following the article I received this note…


Hugh MacDonald was my grandfather. I never knew him as he died in 1920 after suffering the effects of poison gas in the trenches during the first world war. Apart from the fact that he had a pub in London (Where my father was born) I know very little else about him but would be keen to find out more.

David MacDonald

Below is my original article, plus a little extra information that I have deduced on looking at the whole thing again…

The strange case of Hugh McDonald

Hugh McDonald was a goalkeeper who signed from the Scottish club Beith in the 1905/6 season.  He is one of hundreds of players who played for Arsenal and whose lives and histories are now forgotten.

But Hugh McDonald deserves to be remembered – and he is a player of whom we really ought to know more.

According to Arsenal: The Football Facts, McDonald was born in 1884 and died aged just 36 in 1920.  He worked his way around a range of Scottish clubs (Ayr Westerlead, Maybole, Ayr Academicals, and Beith) before coming to Woolwich.  Beith were a Scottish Football Combination club (roughly around the level of a third division in Scotland, which they later joined). Although there is a junior league club with the same name now, it is not linked club Mr MacDonald played for).

So my guess is that Hugh MacDonald was amateur or semi-pro in Scotland, but came south as part of the general exodus of men who either worked in the munitions plants or played for the club.

In 1905/6 he played two games for Arsenal, before moving on to Brighton and Hove Albion of the Southern League, Oldham Athletic (who were elected into the football league 2nd division in 1907 but were in local Manchester non-league football in 1906) and Bradford Park Avenue (who won the Southern League in 1907/8 and gained entry to the football league.  He was back at Woolwich for the 1908/9 season when he played in every game.

Trying to piece this together I think the most likely (but I stress most likely, not definitive) history is

1905/6 – a reserve for Arsenal, getting a couple of games

1906/7 – Southern League with Brighton.  Southern League clubs had no “retain and transfer” system which tied Football League players to clubs like serfs, so Hugh MacDonald may have had enough of the club, or vice versa, but it was easy for him to leave.  I suspect he registered with Oldham, but quickly moved on to…

1907/8 – Southern League with Bradford PA, who became Champions

1908/9 – Arsenal – playing every game

Thus he had been developing as a player around the clubs, before hearing that Arsenal were again on the look out.  Do remember that at this time, the movement of players was massive.  There was no “loan” system, and transfers could happen any time at all.  Through the summer players were either not paid or only paid half wages, and so had every inducement to travel and find any sort of work to keep going.

There was a huge amount of rumour about work at the time, and undoubtedly Woolwich Arsenal benefited from this, since there were always stories that the armaments factories were recruiting.  This was a period when invasion stories were everywhere – there was ever increasing feeling that Germany was about to attack across the North Sea, all the popular magazines ran stories about how village postmasters were actually Germans in disguise, and how the nannies of the rich in London were all again, German spies.

In such an environment it was inevitable that people would believe that the most famous collection of armament factories in the UK (Woolwich Arsenal) would be building more and more boats in order to counteract the German menace.  There was no real way of checking the stories (no phones of course) so there was the endless movement of young men to Kent, looking for work.  This could well have attracted Hugh McDonald back twice.

The following season he played 36 of the matches for Arsenal – missing two through injury.   It was clear that at this point Woolwich Arsenal rated him highly because when he got injured in the 3-2 win over Chelsea on September 25 1909, he nevertheless played in the following match against Blackburn a week later, despite (according to local newspaper reports) not being able to jump up or bend down!.  Apparently it was his knee that was injured – he was obviously afraid of the jumping for fear of the landing.

He did then miss two games, before returning on the 16 October, and then staying in goal for the rest of the campaign.

But then at the end of the season he was transferred again – this time to Fulham.  And this is where it starts getting a bit murky.  Because by the summer of 1910 when he left the club, Henry Norris was owner of both Fulham and Arsenal.  In other words Norris transferred a player from one of his clubs to another.

This is the first case I can find of Norris using his newly purchased power to move players around.

Making the Arsenal – the story of 1910 has a lot more about the invasion fever of the era, and provides a background to the period through the work of a fictional Fleet Street reporter.

Read an extract

Read the most unusual interview in the history of interviews in which the author interviews himself

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