100 years ago London had three Division I clubs – Woolwich Arsenal (who were actually in a small town in Kent), Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
All three were having a tough time of it, and the only things that were keeping all three from being relegated were
a) In those days, only two clubs went down
b) Bad as the London teams were, Bolton was worse.
So Chelsea v Arsenal on Easter Monday 1910 was a big one. When the three London teams played each other the crowds were always much bigger than for other games, and when relegation was an option, this added to the tension.
Chelsea’s position in the league was one of the most disgraceful that there could be, for they were one of only three teams (Bradford City and Thames were the only other two I know of) who were simply given a place in the league for political reasons. When Chelsea fans try and point the finger at Arsenal over the promotion in 1919 they not only ignore the facts of the 1919 situation (the match fixing etc) they also like to “forget” their own origins.
In 1904 the Mears brothers bought the freehold of Stamford Bridge Athletics Ground as a speculative venture when the previous owner died. Their aim was to get Henry Norris at Fulham to move his club to the ground. Norris however was always more interested in intrigue than straight opportunities, and when he announced in 1904 that Fulham was leaving Craven Cottage, it was a ploy to get the rent on his ground (owned by the Church Commissioners) reduced.
When Fulham did a new deal with the church for a lower rent on the Cottage the Mears brothers they did a deal with Great Western Railway who wanted it as a coal dump but then renaged on that and decided they could make more money out of the football club. (There is a story, almost certainly untrue, about a dog causing the change of mind, but there’s no real evidence of anything quite so bizarre. Money was almost certainly the key).
So Chelsea Football Club were founded on 10 March 1905 and they applied to play in the Southern League. Tottenham objected – which was bizarre in the extreme, and shows the oddity of Tottenham’s approach at the time. There was no reason why the existence of Chelsea in the Southern League could help Tottenham, and the objection was well noted when Arsenal moved to Highbury in 1913. “Tottenham object to everything” was the call, and the club’s reaction in 1913 was treated with derision. Tottenham in fact, shot themselves in both feet.
Stuck with a ground and no league to play in Chelsea applied for a place in the Football League, and got in. One might wonder how and why the League was so willing. Certainly the League wanted to extend its influence and ensure that the Southern League became weaker – so having more London clubs in was helpful. Certainly Chelsea had a big (although very badly built) ground. And certainly the League was a highly corrupt organisation – even then.
On 29 May 1905, having no players, no history, no supporters, no nothing save a ground, they got a place in the league.
Despite a lack of real success, the crowds would turn up, and the first Chelsea Arsenal match got 55,000 in the ground.
But there was never any thought of Chelsea winning anything, any more than there was of Woolwich Arsenal winning something, and Chelsea against Woolwich Arsenal on Easter Monday 1910 was nothing but a relegation match.
The book “Making the Arsenal” covers the history in 1910, including the role of Archie Leitch who was the architect for the stand at Woolwich Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham. There’s quite a bit of detail in the book about the state of the Chelsea ground in 1910, and for the game against Arsenal sections of the terracing were roped off because of problems. You can read more in the book, which takes the form of a diary of a football journalist.
(c) Tony Attwood 2010