It may seem that the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal (the AAA) is a recent phenomenon, Indeed that is how the AAA like to portray themselves with their “I have been an Arsenal supporter for 50 years and I have never seen a team this bad” stuff (forgetting perhaps in 1974 we spent a period bottom of the league – see the article on that moment here).
But in fact this summer we are celebrating the 120th anniversary of the birth of the AAA. And it is something I can write a little about having for the past two years been involved (with two colleagues from the Arsenal History Society) in researching and writing “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football”.
The AAA began in 1892 when two Arsenal committee members (Alf Singleton and Henry Stewart) were thrown off the Royal Arsenal FC committee. We don’t know all the details of this but we do know that there were accusations of scurrilous and despicable slander being used against the Royal Arsenal chairman. Subsequently members of the “clique” were thrown out of the committee that ran the club.
These AAA founders then worked with George Pike Weaver, who was the landlord of Arsenal at the Invicta Ground. He then (most likely as a response to his chums being exposed for what they were) demanded a massive increase in the rent Arsenal paid for their home ground – an increase that more than doubled the club’s costs, and gave Weaver all sorts of power over Arsenal’s affairs.
It was Weaver who created the approach that we now see today as the hallmark of the AAA – blunt statements, no discussion. The “this is the truth, and there’s no point debating it, if you don’t see it then you are an idiot” approach which is everywhere on AAA websites was in fact born 120 years ago.
As one example, when setting out his demands for the new rent Weaver said to Royal Arsenal, “It is a matter of life or death to you. If I don’t meet you over the ground the club breaks up.”
Oh how the AAA must wish for such power today! If only they owned the Emirates!
But whereas the AAA today lay out their views on blogs in the 19th century the debate was conducted through the local daily newspapers such as the Woolwich Gazette, Kentish Independent and Kentish Mercury. And it is a good job that the AAA today doesn’t do much historical research – for boy could those 19th century correspondents hurl abuse.
Royal Arsenal fought back, Weaver went public, and the anti-committee group called the committee men at Royal Arsenal “nobodies” and suggested they were ruining the club. Royal Arsenal however had a fighter of their own – Jack Humble – the man without whom there would probably be no Arsenal today.
For under Jack’s leadership Singleton and Stewart were isolated, and the “offer” of the new ground was rejected. William Bradbury Jackson (another forgotten hero of Arsenal) suggested that the club become a limited company, and the Arsenal decided not to bow to pressure but instead to move to the Manor Ground. Meanwhile the AAA of the day set up their own club – Royal Ordnance Factories FC (ROFFC). (Plumstead was not a big town at the time – and the notion of two significant clubs next door to each other was extraordinary, but that’s what they tried to create).
It is amazing how the battle between Royal Arsenal FC and ROFFC is similar to that which we see today. ROFFC used rumour as a prime weapon – suggesting that Royal Arsenal could not have the Manor Ground (quite untrue) and arguing that the committee’s policies will soon ruin the club.
Behind the scenes they were appalling people, attempting to bribe the current tenant and landlord of the Manor Ground not to allow Royal Arsenal to be there, or indeed to let them build the stand they needed, and then eject them, so as to bankrupt the Royal Arsenal men.
The level of vitriol and abuse was astonishing – but Royal Arsenal won the day. They got their new ground, and indeed got into Division II of the Football League, and changed their name to Woolwich Arsenal FC. ROFFC battled on, joining the Southern League, but they were never a success and lasted just a few years before ignominiously resigning part way through a season.
But the inward looking, moaning and bitching AAA spirit battled on. It was there when the club won promotion to the first division, complaining like mad because Woolwich Arsenal did not go on and win the league the following year, it complained when Woolwich Arsenal reached the cup semi-final twice, but didn’t win the FA Cup, it complained when Henry Norris saved the club by paying off all the old debts of Woolwich Arsenal from his own money, it failed to buy shares in Arsenal when Norris offered to step down and let the locals take over, and it failed to support the club enough to keep it in Plumstead.
It was ever thus.
The story of Woolwich Arsenal’s foundation and the full details of its battles with the original anti-Arsenal grouping, are giving in more depth than ever before in the first chapter of “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football”. I do hope you will buy a copy and through this support the work of the Arsenal History Society.