By Tony Attwood
100 Years Ago Today22 February 1913. Gillespie Road (later re-named “Highbury”) named in the press for the first time as the site of the new ground.
Yes, today is the 100th anniversary of the naming of what became known as the Gillespie Road ground (and later “Highbury”) in the press as the new site for the new Arsenal.
On the pitch things were going from appalling to worse as Woolwich Arsenal FC suffered their worst ever season. But elsewhere there had been rumours and counter rumours for weeks as to where Henry Norris was taking the club.
There was a general agreement emerging that it was going to be Islington or one of the adjacent boroughs, but this day was the very first day that we knew for sure, not just that it was Islington, but that it was Highbury.
But to go back to the start, Henry Norris, in his traditional brusque style had started the season by saying that he would not move the club during the course of the season, and in this he was true to his word.
As the crowd at Plumstead sank to an average 9,357 and Norris clearly needed to address this. He was free to move the ground, as he had promised on taking the club over in 1910 that he would not move the club for one year, later extended to two. In fact he took three seasons to make the move, and it was as we now all know, a staggering success.
That he succeeded is shown by the fact that in the first season at Highbury Woolwich Arsenal gained an average crowd of 22,974 to watch the club come 3rdin the Second Division – an astonishing achievement given that the ground wasn’t anything like complete at the time of the season’s first game.
But to go back and complete the story… by October 1912 rumours were everywhere that Arsenal were moving – and indeed the highly regarded Athletic News ran a story at that time that Arsenal had bought land by Harringay Park railway station; land that would eventually be developed into Harringay Stadium.
Neither Norris nor Woolwich Arsenal had bought such land, but it is more than likely that Norris had made enquiries thereabouts while keeping an eye on the land in Highbury.
It was not until November 1912 that Henry Norris settled (in secret) on the site of the new home for the club, and even then it took months of painful negotiation until he actually purchased a lease on the property and was able to start turning the land into a stadium.
The land Norris found was part of the sports facility owned by St John’s College, Highbury, a religious centre that trained young men for the church. The college (a private foundation) was unhappy about the possible change of use, but they had problems of their own and N0rris turned out to be their only viable solution.
Their income was declining as the Church of England had changed the rules for the qualifications that men needed to become ordained, and selling or leasing the land was just about their only option. Fortunately for them the land had been given to the College by a benefactor without restrictions as to its use. With no one else interested in taking the lease, Norris must have seemed to the college as (if you will excuse the expression) a Godsend.
So the story of Arsenal’s move was kept secret until this day 100 years ago – 22nd February 1913 – when journalists finally hit on the fact that Norris was in Gillespie Road. Given that there is only one site in the area which could possibly have been turned into a football ground the obvious conclusion was reached. Woolwich Arsenal were going to Highbury.
But there is one other factor that is normally forgotten in the telling of this tale but which gives a real insight into Henry Norris.
Neither Norris nor the club bought the land in February 1913 – the land was leased from the College. According to the terms of the lease, at the end of the lease the College could ask for the land back IN ITS ORIGINAL STATE at the end of the lease if it wanted to end the agreement. In other words Norris and Arsenal were taking an almighty gamble.
Everything spent on the stadium could well be money thrown away if the College decided to ask for the ground back. Worse Norris and Arsenal would need to remove the grandstand and terracing, the offices and everything else, to return the arena to its original state upon handover.
But fortunately for us all, it never came to that.
This article is taken in part from the book “Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football”
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
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