By Tony Attwood
On January 8th Arsenal played their first undisputed match. It is “undisputed” because the details of the game were carried in the press. It is the “first undisputed” because the game normally considered the “first” (against Eastern Wanderers) is covered in mystery and uncertainty.
The mentioning of Royal Arsenal v Erith in the press shows that the name of the club was invented or changed BEFORE and not after that match.
There is no information about this Erith club that I can find, and the contemporary club with the same name was formed much more recently. Erith was a small town at the time of the match against Royal Arsenal, with a population of probably around 2500 or so.
It was described in 1840 as ‘composed chiefly of two streets, one leading down to the water side, the other branching off to the left towards the church’ and was for a while a riverside resort with a pier and hotel catering for day-trippers. It did not become an urban district until 1894.
There is one fly in the ointment of this very neat story that Arsenal definitively started on January 8 1887 and that before that either had the name Dial Square Cricket Club or had no name at all – and played at most one game. This “fly” is Woolwich United.
There is a letter written much later which suggests that this club was the original Arsenal, and we have on January 2nd 1886 a mention in Leeds Mercury, of the match: Selby v Woolwich United. There are no details of the game – just a listing of it.
Of course our first question has to be, is it “our” Woolwich? Rather surprisingly there is only one Woolwich in the UK, so it looks like it must be. But then if that’s right what on earth were they doing in Selby? That may seem unlikely, but what we do know is that clubs did travel around and go for “days out”.
We can’t say for sure what this match was all about, but, if this newspaper report is true, (and we must remember that this is a newspaper report, not gossip or father to son stories as much of Arsenal’s history.
Here is a listing of the dates that we now know about…
5 December 1885 Millwall played Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs. It had nothing to do with Arsenal or Dial Square but could have been a match which got confused with the imagined Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers game.
2 January 1886: Selby v Woolwich United
1 December 1886 Original Arsenal club formed. But, and this is a big point, the early Arsenal handbooks (which make no mention of Dial Square) inferred this was the date of Royal Arsenal FC being formed.
September or December 1886 (depending on which source you take): Dial Square Cricket Club v Eastern Wanderers – although whether it really took place is in considerable doubt.
7 January 1887: Woolwich Gazette reports that sometime between 1 December 1886 and 5 January 1887 a meeting was held to widen the club to everyone in the area, and this club effectively broke away from the Dial Square Cricket Club and became Royal Arsenal Association Football Club.
8 January 1887: Royal Arsenal plays its first match against Erith
28 January 1887: Woolwich Gazette. Royal Arsenal v Eastern Wanderers, played at Plumstead Common. “The Arsenal score another win against the Wanderers by one goal to nil.”
So there we have it. All sorts of sightings prior to this match on January 8th – and you can read the full story in The origins of Arsenal series
But the key point is, whatever in all these other tales is true or not true, January 8th is the first game of the club that became Arsenal, which is fully recorded.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal”: crowd behaviour at the early matches
- Untold Arsenal
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The main series