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14 March 1908 Torpedo Boys set fire to stand after letting off fireworks

Mark Andrews   @royalarsenalMRA

14 March 1908: Torpedo Boys set fire to Nottingham Forest Grandstand with  fireworks

The Torpedo Factory role in the early years of the club was uncovered during my research for “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC”. They were a fundamental part of the giant club excursions to away games where many times 2,000-3,000 Arsenal fans travelled away outside London before the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.

The Torpedo Factory were responsible for the tendency of bringing Royal Arsenal workshop explosives on trips, and letting them off on the trains on the way to matches, before drinking in the away town, and during matches.

The Torpedo Factory workmen were described by the Woolwich Gazette as “among the very elite of our artisans” and details of this workshop at the Public Records Office reveal the department to be heavily dominated by skilled men, clerks and foremen.

The most serious action by these excursionists at a ground was on 14 March 1908 when their perpetual firework display almost destroyed a stand. The Kentish Independent of 20 March 1908 received its information from the following understated extract in the Football Post.

 “FOREST STAND ON FIRE A FORTUNATE DISCOVERY”

“Just after the conclusion of the match, the stand on the ground behind the Trent goal was discovered to be on fire, but a number of attendants speedily procured buckets of water and subdued the outbreak. It is supposed that a lighted match, or, more likely still, one of the fireworks let off during the game had fallen beneath the woodwork, smouldered, and eventually broken into flame”

Not the sensational press coverage we are subjected to nowadays just a matter of fact statement.

But the Arsenal fans did not just throw fireworks around, for at the same match during the interval the invaders according to a letter writer called VHM apparently ‘gambolled, wrestled, danced jigs, raced about the field with the ball, confusing and sorely trying the lenient police force, who might easily have placed at least one or two under arrest’.

Additionally, another report on the same incident noted that “someone produced a football, and in an instance there was a mad crowd on the playing field, amongst whom were several “red caps” and a man with a wooden leg, who had a drive at the ball with his timber toe”.

The same VHM stated that the behaviour of those at Nottingham before the game had “brought discredit upon Woolwich”. Carrying on he says: “nothing of the fireworks and decoration of their person with red hats, parasols and favours, etc, except to say that they all add to the fiendish aspect of the orgie”.

This was all part of the pre-industrial misrule traditions of the carnival and fete which were are largely mirrored in the behaviour of the excursionist at the turn of the century.

It is possible that they started throwing fireworks at games as early as 1893, but the main torrent of gunpowder mingling with all the other football smells was between 1904 -1908.

Unfortunately, the Torpedo Factory was moved to Greenock in 1910, and almost all the men migrated to remain in work, as the government were looking to centralise this ordnance production. This strapped Arsenal of much away support and was the most likely factor in the fall off in enthusiasm for Excursions, more so than the poor team performances.

Newspaper depiction of an Arsenal fan in 1907 (Catton Collection)

Extracts in this article are taken from The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football

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