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100 years ago Arsenal went bust. But it wasn’t because of small crowds.

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By Tony Attwood

Just how big a club was Woolwich Arsenal?

As we know, Woolwich Arsenal did not win anything.   The club got promotion from the first divsion by coming second, and got to two FA Cup semi-finals, but nothing more.

So, was Woolwich Arsenal a little team in a big pool, or a big team that never quite made it?  It is an interesting question, for the common belief is that Woolwich Arsenal ultimately had financial problems because it only got small crowds.  I am not at all sure this is the right story – which is what this piece is about.

Of course the results speak for themselves, so on that basis, the club was not that much of a power house.  It was London’s first professional team but that was about it.  However if we look at some other aspects of Woolwich Arsenal’s life a few slightly different stories appear.

Consider the first football league season of 1893/4.  During that year the club played in front of 10,000 people or more three times – in the first match against Newcastle, on Christmas Day against Port Vale and on Easter Saturday against Notts County.

What is interesting is that all three games were at home.  Away from home we were playing to much smaller audiences – the lowest being 900 at Port Vale.

In the following season the pattern was the same – the only game with over 10,000 present was the home game against Notts County.  The away game in Nottingham attracted just 2,000 people.  Indeed it was not until September 4 1897 that Arsenal actually played in front of 10,000 people outside of their own ground – that was away to Newcastle.   That season however Woolwich Arsenal broke their own record for home attendance getting 14,000 to the game against Luton Town on October 9.

But if we turn away from the league, from which all these figures have been taken, and look instead at the FA Cup, we find even more amazing crowds.

November 25th 1893 (in our first league season) 20,000 recorded for the home match against Millwall Athletic and 15,000 for the home game against The Wednesday.  In fact the first 10,000 plus crowd away from home was a Cup game on 16 January 1897 in the quaintly named “supplementary round” where 14,000 turned up against Millwall (not the same club I think).  20,000 was reached again for the home match on 1 January 1899 in the first round of the cup against Derby Couty.  (We lost 0-6).

So in the 19th century we can say that within the terms of the second division we were one of the best supported clubs around.  (I am hedging my bets here a bit because I don’t have figures for all the clubs – if you have records for another team in this era, do let me know.  But from all I can see, the statement is true – one of the best supported clubs.)

Certainly some of the smaller teams must have been struggling, with their crowds of under 1000.  But sometimes our numbers slipped to.  The famous 12-0 victory over Loughborough Town on March 12 1900 had a crowd of only 600.

Numbers were clearly related to the opposition, and to our position in the league.  And they must have been influenced by the weather as well – although I have not gone so far as to check that.   In 1902/3 when we put in the first challenge for promotion, numbers started hitting over 10,000 on a regular basis, although our crowd was exceeded by the first league game in front of 20,000 plus – 25,000 in fact for Manchester City away on December 20, 1902.

As for 1903/4 the year we went up, our figures really were on the up.  On October 3 1903 there were 20,000 for the Manchester United home game, followed by 1,000 for the next away game (Glossop), 3,000 for the following game (away, Port Vale).

But bigger numbers were starting to appear everywhere.  Man U had 40,000 (at their pre-Old Trafford ground) in January for example.  Our second round cup game against Manchester City at home had 30,000.

By any analysis of crowds Woolwich Arsenal was a big player by the time we entered the first division, but then suddenly we were playing in a bigger pool.  Instead of being one of the best supported clubs, we were more top third.  Some teams were doing a lot poorer than Woolwich Arsenal (Bury had 8,000 for the visit of WAFC,  Stoke 4,000), but there were a lot of clubs around getting 20,000 as a matter of course.

But by 1906/07 there were signs that maybe the local support was fickle. Only 6,000 showed for the home game with Manchester U on March 16, and a pitiful 2,000 turned up for the final home game against Derby on April 27 – and that in a season when WAFC got to the cup semi-final and ended up 7th in the first division – our highest place.  Maybe after the cup excitement everyone had had enough.  Maybe it snowed.  Maybe they forgot to advertise the game.

In 1907/08 Woolwich Arsenal played in front of the highest ever crowd for the club until that time – 65,000 in the first match away to Chelsea.  30,000 crammed into the ground for the home game, and only two games tipped below the 10,000 mark at home all season.

1908/09 saw a similar pattern with our crowds being above average for the league, with a few big numbers along the way including 32,000 for a home cup tie with Millwall in February, and in 1909/10 just a little lower.

Now I am going to stop at this point, because, as you may recall, Woolwich Arsenal went bust in 1910.   It is generally said in the history books that this happened because we had low crowds, and there is talk of there being difficult transport out of London to Plumstead – with the tram company not willing to put on extra vehicles to carry fans.

And yet, we were still getting better crowds than many teams in the league. True, by 1910 some big grounds were open (Old Trafford opened that year, and Chelsea had been huge from its inception as an invented club in 1905).

But at this time the home club did not keep all its income from gate money – it shared it with the away team.  I don’t have a figure for the percentage, but I have a recollection that the away club got something like 30%.   Woolwich Arsenal was not getting the crowds that some teams got, but neither were we at the bottom of the list.

In effect the crowds of 1909/10 were only a little down on the crowds of the previous year.  So whatever the problem, it was not that we were getting much smaller crowds than elsewhere in the first division.

I have argued elsewhere that the problem was in part the decline of the natural audience for the club with the closure of the torpedo plant in the munitions factories in 1910, and I think this had something to do with it, but even with the decline in 1909/10 we were getting middle-range crowds for the first division.

No, Woolwich Arsenal went bust in 1910 for a different reason.  I am just not quite sure what it was.

Arsenal’s past as described in Making the Arsenal

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4 comments to 100 years ago Arsenal went bust. But it wasn’t because of small crowds.

  • Andy Kelly

    Tony, I’ve got the club’s accounts for 1902/3, 1905/6, 1908/9, 1910/11 and 1911/12. It will take a few days to write them up. Hopefully it will give us an idea where things went wrong.

    Another to bear in mind that was in the club’s favour was the maximum wage. I assume that this barely changed from one season to the next. Therefore, even a small downfall in attendances shouldn’t have had that much of an effect on finances.

    What I can tell you now is that in 1912/13 Arsenal’s income was £6,020. Tottenham’s was £18,351!

  • Andy Kelly

    Here are some more figures to keep you going. Average home attendances:

    1903/04 – 13,765 (Promoted from Division 2)
    1904/05 – 20,932 (1st season on Division 1)
    1905/06 – 16,316
    1906/07 – 17,000
    1907/08 – 13,079
    1908/09 – 12,921
    1909/10 – 11,579
    1910/11 – 11,970 (Club liquidated, Norris takes over)
    1911/12 – 11,513
    1912/13 – 9,414 (Last season at Plumstead, relegated)
    1913/14 – 22,974 (1st season at Highbury)
    1914/15 – 13,158 (World War 1 breaks out)
    1919/20 – 32,667 (1st season after WW1 back in Division1)

  • Andy Kelly

    In 1910/11 Tottenham finished 15th in Division 1, 5 places below Arsenal. Their average home gate was 23,251.

    Even as a Southern League team in 1907-08 they were averaging 600 more per game than Arsenal who were a Division 1 team.

  • As you said, Tony, you haven’t checked to see if weather was a factor — if, perhaps, these were exceptionally cold winters in the British Isles. But if the figures provided by Andy are correct (and I have no reason to suspect otherwise), then attendance was rather steady and can’t be a viable excuse.

    In America, the 1900s and 1910s were “the Progressive Era,” when a lot of reforms went through that made life easier for the non-rich, and despite a panic on New York’s Wall Street in 1907 there was no real economic downturn between 1897 (when the depression caused by the Panic of 1893 ended) and 1920 (when a post-World War I recession began). I’m much less familiar with Britain’s economic history: Is it possible that national (or imperial) financial markets, or something else, may have caused a serious drop in Woolwich Arsenal’s revenue that led to the 1910 liquidation? Did the owners, for reasons related that, or perhaps due to another investment that went bust, lose a lot of money that might’ve otherwise gone back into the club (as happened to Tom Hicks who just lost control of Liverpool)?

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