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GCR Books

Who invented the nickname “The Gunners”, and when was it first used?

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”.

6 September 1913 Arsenal v Leicester Fosse programme page 2

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.

14 comments to Who invented the nickname “The Gunners”, and when was it first used?

  • I’ve found an earlier reference.

    11 September 1897 – Leicester Chronicle

    Then Newcastle United accounted for Woolwich Arsenal by four to one after the “Gunners” had obtained a similar victory over Grimsby Town…

  • Tony Attwood

    So it does continue the theme that the away crowds and papers called us the Gunners, but that was THEIR nickname for us. In that case it is a rather more tasteful version of what happened to Tottenham where the away crowds called Tottenham “Y**s” but now this is outlawed, while some of the hardcore of WHL continue to use that word.

    I wonder if this has happened elsewhere, where parts of the country have renamed a club, and the club has eventually accepted that name.

  • nicky

    On the subject of how the nickname of Gunners originated, surely the answer is that the Club started at Woolwich, the Depot of the Royal Artillery whose own nickname was the Gunners.
    I believe the RA are still there.

  • Nicky,

    In our “book Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football” on pages 55 and 56 we expanded the gunners nickname information quite abit but it was the case that it was not until 1905 that the club referred to themselves as the “gunners”, and previously and indeed continued to also refer to themselves as the “reds”.

  • nicky

    Mark,
    Point taken but I would still have thought that with the birth of the Club being at Woolwich Arsenal, its close association with the Artillery and some of its gunners probably being in the original team, the nickname (awarded, if not chosen) was inevitable.

  • According to Google Maps, “Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum” is on Major Draper Street, off Duke of Wellington Avenue, with a postal code of SE18 6ST. It is mere steps from the ferry between the Royal Arsenal Woolwich and North Greenwich Piers. Not to be confused with the Wenger Out Piers (Morgan).

    I can’t say for sure that this is a “famous ferry.”

  • Nicky,

    I can assure you there were no artillery gunners in the original team, and very very few Scots. This aspect of who were the actual founders and their socio-ocupational make up will be fully covered in our forthcoming book “Royal Arsenal: From the Common to the Manor”.

    Uncle Mike,
    Firepower is a great museum very close to the old Royal Gun Factory where the Dial Square workshop was attached. The Dial Square team most probably did travel to the first game in a Steamboat from the ferry pier on the Royal Arsenal side directly to Millwall on 11th December 1886.

  • nicky

    Mark,
    While I fully accept your assertion that there were no gunners in the original team, the association with the Royal Artillery HQ, the rank of gunner and the (eventual) cannon emblem is, IMO, too great a coincidence to ignore.
    The Army has always had the habit of bestowing nicknames on its members e.g.Dusty Miller, Knocker White etc and Arsenal fans around Woolwich would have automatically followed the local soldiery and referred to the team as the Gunners.

  • Nicky,

    The main reason Royal Arsenal FC were never referred to as the “gunners” was because there was already a team playing locally who were nicknamed the “gunners”. This team was the Royal Artillery football team.

    The gunners tag for Arsenal came about from opponents after they changed the name to Woolwich Arsenal and became far bigger on the national footballing stage.

    In our “book Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football” on pages 55 and 56 we expanded the gunners nickname information quite abit but it was the case that it was not until 1905 that the club referred to themselves as the “gunners”, and previously and indeed continued to also refer to themselves as the “reds”.

    I am aware that services have nicknames, as my father who spent 10 years in the Navy has told of some very amusing nicknames.

  • Richard Elliis

    There is no doubt as to the origins of the nickname “Gunners” for the Royal Arsenal Football Club.

    When they were first formed, their first meeting place was a public house (probably ‘Beasleys’) in Plumstead Road called “The Gun”. It was a small place built in a terrace of other houses and shops, and situated between the second and third gates.

    Their first “Playing Field” was down on Plumstead Marshes.

  • the greatest club in england with great passion

  • Mick Allen

    I don’t see any mention of why the Gunners play in red and white though, I know, do you?

  • George Eitasi

    The only club that has associated with its support base and dress code wonderful!

  • Mick Allen – the normally told story is that some of the men who formed the club at Dial Square were previously associated with Nottingham Forest, and were able to get some red kit from them. Arsenal were then known as the Reds – the white sleeves came much later as a design change by Chapman.

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