First references to Woolwich Arsenal FC as the Gunners.
by Mark Andrews
Mark is one of the three authors working with Tony Attwood and Andy Kelly on the forthcoming book “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football“. The book is planned for publication early next year and more details will be announced here soon.
We were debating outside the pub before the Udinese game (as one does) the word “Gunners”, and when the term was first used by Arsenal and Arsenal fans.
I’ve now had a chance to look through my source material and found the following:
The original references to the Gunners are from opponents’ papers. There is one home reference I could see in the Woolwich Gazette but none in the Kentish Independent. There may have been earlier ones – I am not saying my search is definitive, but I think this gives a good indication of how the name came about.
A cartoon in the Kentish Independent has the canon figure representing Arsenal is called “redshirt”, and in the main Woolwich newspaper references are made to the “Reds” during the whole period. Woolwich Arsenal were usually called “Reds”, Londoners, Cockneys or Woolwichites by other regional papers.
Here’s some examples:
1 Yorkshire Sports 13th and 20th February 1904
Away versus Bradford. Match abandoned at half time due to rain. A large excursion of 2,000 had travelled up since late on Friday night. Most importantly, it is the first reference found to link the name Gunners and Arsenal and it is related to the supporters not the team.
The article on 13th Feb is called “The Gunners at Valley Parade”, and the second article on 20th February adds…
“No football event of any kind in Bradford ever excited more interest and was looked forward to with more eagerness than this visit of the famous Gunners of Woolwich… early Saturday morning saw Bradford invaded by a big army of Gunners”
2 Nottingham Football News 17 Dec 1904
This article refers to Woolwich Arsenal away versus Notts County with Arsenal winning 5-1. A large excursion meant that the Arsenal following was again at least 2000 and possibly 3,000. The reports show that fireworks were let off after every Arsenal goal. Most importantly, it also links the name Gunners and Arsenal and it is related to the supporters not the team.
“Fireworks, Likewise Thunder and Blitsen, Wreckage by those terrible Gunners”
“Gunners at home and gunners away, these terrible Arsenal people ! They carry canon, crackers and other violent explosives about with them and gave us the liveliest display at Trent Bridge this afternoon I think I’ve ever seen….and what a fine thing this enthusiasm, this noise and exuberance of spirits is!.”
3 Manchester Evening News 9 March 1906
Previewing the forthcoming game between Manchester United and Woolwich Arsenal in Manchester.
“The famous “Gunners” are assured of a large following, not withstanding that the excursion fares are not what may be termed cheap, and that means a journey of very little short of 400 miles inside 24 hours”.
4 Bristol Evening News 13 Oct 1906
Away versus Bristol City. WA won 3-1. Part of the large excursion are Torpedo factory fireworks – who are also highlighted in a cartoon from the paper. (Note – we are hoping to reproduce some of these cartoons here shortly).
“The success was greeted by loud cheers by the red-hatted brigade, and the rattles and choruses indicated the delight of the Gunners followers…eventually 3-0 up”
5 Woolwich Gazette 15 Feb 1910.
Home versus Blackburn Rovers. WA lost 0-1 to an offside goal, which was reported to have caused considerable crowd consternation. Accompanying the report was a cartoon with a character called Gunner. In the cartoon he is shown presenting the referee with the FA laws of the game, whilst the Rover goes off with his bag of “2 offside points”. We should note too that by this time Arsenal were using the word “Gunner” – as with the Gunner’s Mate column in the programme. George Allison took this column over in September 1910 under that title.
6 1st programme at Highbury 6 September 1913.
On page 2 there is a cartoon titled “On the high road to recovery; featuring Doctor Highbury, Doctor Plumstead and Gunner”. Doctor Plumstead is represented as an ashen faced, grey and almost sinister character, while Doctor Highbury explains the ground move to Gunner as:
“…a very narrow escape indeed. Another 12 months under my colleague here and it would have been all up with you. His treatment would have killed anyone with a less robust constitution. However, I have been called in time and with a change of air and plenty of visitors to cheer you up, there is no reason why you should not regain all your former vigour”.
So after the first references by opponents there appears to be an acceptance by Woolwich Arsenal of the nickname “the Gunners”, and by at least 1910 had started to expropriate the name for themselves. However, this must be heavily caveated by the fact that the period of acceptance may have been earlier than the date I have given.
Provisionally, I would say the Gunners was not a club inspired nickname, but a monicker given to the team and supporters, by their opponents or by journalists in other towns writing about Woolwich Arsenal and their support. Certainly it seems that the support was notorious, and the fireworks gangs from the Torpedo factory were as instrumental in the name being used from 1904 as the team. Indeed as a final point we might note that the Torpedo factory was a section of the Royal Gun Factory (RGF) within the Royal Arsenal.
So our working hypothesis might well be that the fans were called Gunners, and the team were called “The Reds” (which we certainly know to be the case) during the early days, with the name “Gunners” being applied first by the opposition fans and/or journalists.
That at least is the working hypothesis – if you have any alternative ideas or information, please let us know.