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The date on which Dial Square FC and ultimately Arsenal FC was founded

By Tony Attwood

After years of work my colleagues Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews of the AISA Arsenal History Society finally resolved the details of the first game of the club that was to become Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal and finally Arsenal.

As Andy reported in an article on this site on April 21 2013, that match happened on 11 December 1886.   The final proof that Arsenal played its first match on that day was discovered by Andy Kelly of the Arsenal History Society, in The Referee dated 12 December 1886 where it reported the previous day’s games.

The Referee 12 December 1886

As you can see it answers the questions of the name that the club played under, the opponents, the venue and the score. The (A) confirms that it was a game of Association Football and not Rugby which would be shown by (R).

Now, if you regularly read this blog you’ll know that Andy is no slouch in these matters, and as he wrote in an earlier article…

Having found details of the game on 11 December my next thought was “did Dial Square play any games before this date?” I searched through the football section from August (well before the start of the football season) and found no more references to Dial Square or Royal Arsenal…I think we can be certain that this was the club’s first game.

Earlier articles on this site have explore this matter further, even down to how the team got to the match, and where it was played, and I won’t repeat most of these points in detail yet again.  But there is one other matter that is unresolved and which does lead me to go back over these points yet again.  And that is…

When did the meeting take place that set up the club, so that the match on 11 December 1886 could be played?

One of the most commonly reported ideas is that the men who formed Dial Square actually meet in the Royal Oak pub, on Christmas Day 1886.

As Andy said, “The contemporary information we have located providing a definitive date mentioning the meeting (and we have multiple sources) state the forming of Royal Arsenal FC was earlier in December.  The story by Elijah Watkins that is the source of a lot of early information only says a meeting was held in December, not a specific date.

“The date of 25th December 1886 first appeared as the date of the meeting, in the Official History by Soar and Tyler. Unfortunately no source or reference for its veracity is given in this book. ”

So, the hunt is on for the date, on or after 1 December.  Here’s the calendar…

December 1886
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31

It is of course possible that a meeting did happen on 25 December, and it is possible that this meeting changed Dial Square FC into Royal Arsenal, but that is total speculation by me.  There’s no evidence that there even was a meeting.

So when did the first meeting happen – the meeting in which a group of workers at the Dial Square factory set up a football club that went on to play Eastern Wanderers in its first game?

We are down to sometime between 1 December 1886 and 11 December 1886 the day of the match.

What the men who were interested in this match needed to do was

a) Find volunteers to make a team

b) Pick the team from the volunteers

c) Find the opposition

d) Agree a date.

e) Sort out the transport

Now we know that Eastern Wanderers pre-dated Arsenal, because on 14 November 1886 The Referee published the following in the Football Challenges section:

The Referee 14 November 1886

So Eastern Wanderers were established, had a ground, had two teams and were looking for fixtures.  All Dial Square had to do was apply.  Indeed it is not too fanciful to suggest that it might have been this advert which actually promoted Dial Square to form and then apply for the December 11 match – which they were given.

Thus out of our list of issues that had to be resolved we are now down to the fact that the men at Dial Square had to…

a) Find volunteers to make a team

b) Pick the team from the volunteers

e) Sort out the transport

We have also reported a lot here on “sorting out the transport”, and I have to admit to another red herring at this point, for I was the one who suggested there was no ferry at that time.  In my defence I would say I made that comment on the basis of Soar and Tyler’s assertion that the players travelled on the “famous free ferry”.  They didn’t, but there was indeed a ferry.

Here’s how Andy reported the story earlier…

…there was a pay ferry running from the Royal Arsenal pier to North Woolwich at that time. Additionally there was a Ferry at Greenwich running to the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs.  There was no pedestrian tunnel at the time.

“However, the most likely way to travel between the Royal Arsenal and Millwall was directly on the river. The “Dickens dictionary of the Thames 1887” has the timetable of the River Thames Steamboat Company steamboats going to and from Woolwich to Westminster – with stops at various locations including Greenwich, Millwall, West India Dock and Commercial Dock.  They could have got on at Woolwich pier and travelled on the steamboat all the way to the Millwall pier which was a few minutes walk to the assumed ground. From the timetable it appears the journey would have taken either way just under 40 minutes.

“Once the game was finished and they changed in a pub they could have taken the boat back as the timetables would have allowed the team to get back to Woolwich by early evening.”

So things are falling into place.  The opposition had the ground, were advertising for an opposition team on December 11, and there were various alternative routes across the river.

All we now have left is that Dial Square had to

a) Find volunteers to make a team

b) Pick the team from the volunteers

The game took place on 11 December, and the commitment to play Eastern Wanderers and thus secure the date must have been made at least a few days before that.

When was it done?  And indeed how was it done?

By post is the answer to the second question.   The Penny Post which guaranteed delivery of letters anywhere in the UK started on 10 January 1840 and by 1886 was very reliable.  In London by 1886 a letter posted in the morning was certain to arrive the next day – and because there were three deliveries a day at that time delivery of a morning letter was quite often effected on the same day!

So my guess is Dial Square wrote to Eastern Wanderers and asked for the date, and got the letter back the next day confirming.  That means the meeting setting up the club could have taken place on the weekend of 4/5 December 1886, although I rather like to go with Wednesday 1 December 1886, so that the team could use the weekend of 4/5 to have a practice match and select their team.

We must remember this was the depths of winter, and the men worked in the factories way past the end of daylight Monday to Friday, just as we do today.  (They also worked Saturday morning, but that left Saturday afternoon free for football).  So there could have been no practice match and team selection game at any time other than 4/5 December.  Of course maybe there was no practice match and the team was just made up of volunteers each announcing their position.  That too is possible, in which case maybe the meeting was held on the weekend with the letter being posted on 6 December, and Eastern Wanderers replying on 7 December.

I doubt that even Andy and Mark can resolve this one (a statement that normally means they either already have or they can, and will now prove me wrong), but just for the moment, I am going to say that the meeting that set up Dial Square FC took place between 1 December 1886 and 5 December 1886, with my money placed on 1 December 1886.

That then is my best guess (at the moment) on the date that the club that would become Arsenal FC was founded.

The books…

3 comments to The date on which Dial Square FC and ultimately Arsenal FC was founded

  • michael griffin

    Dear researchers, this is a fascinating site, that a fellow Gunners supporter (I hate the term gooner) directed me to.
    The following may apply.
    Must be about 15 years ago I took a trip to see the original site of the gun-making factory at Dial Square that was Arsenal as well as spotting the Invicta ground terracing in the backgardens of Hector Street, Plumstead.
    At the Woolwich site I visited the museum and found myself being advised by a curate. He told me that Arsenal existed as a team several years before 1886 and were then known as Dial Sun. He said this deliberately emphasising that the name Dial Sun was later changed to the more military sounding Dial Square. He insisted that this was a fact known by the Woolwich Historical Society, and not known by Arsenal historians per se. I think Arsenal is about 6 years older than people think.

  • Michael I’ve never come across Dial Sun before and Andy and Mark did go through all the records they could find in relation to this. But there are several stories relating to clubs pre-dating Dial Square (if we call it that for now, given the press cuttings).
    We have for example 2 January 1886: the date on which we find reference to Selby v Woolwich United in the Leeds Mercury – thus suggesting that there was already football in the area before Dial Square and Royal Arsenal. (There is only one town in England called Woolwich, so it seems more than likely that this team did indeed come from the same area of Royal Arsenal). http://www.blog.woolwicharsenal.co.uk/archives/5144 has more info,

    We also have Woolwich Union

    Now we know that a number of sources suggest that Fred Beardsley played for a pre-Dial Square and pre-Royal Arsenal club which it has been reported as being called Woolwich Union. That club’s existence was only known until recently via a comment from Beardsley to his son. And we have been dubious about this because Woolwich Union seemed such an unlikely name for a club. For In 1868, as part of a large number of changes to London’s poor law organisation an organisation called Woolwich Union was created which took in three parishes formerly belonging to the Lewisham Union for the administration of the poor law. It was in fact a workhouse.
    But Mark and Andrew, searching the Woolwich archives found a letter written in 1966 from an old man to his son, remembering earlier days. He said,
    “Yes I do just remember the Woolwich United FC. They used to play on Plumstead Common behind Heavitree Road & later where the Bowling Greens are now – or were when I left Woolwich. The club was I believe the foundation of Woolwich Arsenal FC but has it is now about 75 years ago, or more, I cannot say with certainty….
    “After playing on the Common the club played at Griffin Manorway on old “Piggy” Waltons ground.
    “Following that they built the “Invitca Ground which was sited where Gallosan Road & Mineral Street are now – or were. …”
    So what do we make of all this? We now have one reference to Woolwich Union, and one to Woolwich United. The former seems so unlikely a name because of its alternative connotations, but the latter is likely because on January 2nd 1886 we have in the Leeds Mercury, Selby v Woolwich United. There are no details of the game – just a listing of it.

    So we have searched and searched for an earlier club that became Royal Arsenal, but without luck. It is possible that there was an informal team playing on the common under that name and I suspect there were many others, indeed I am working on a book on those earliest days, but I can’t find any evidence that these early clubs formed around the armaments factory actually did mutate into Dial Square and Royal Arsenal.

    But of course, anything you find, do let me know.

  • michael griffin

    Thank you Tony for such a detailed and considered reply.

    Perhaps there will always be some mystery about this, as with most things.

    I have tried asking the question on the Woolwich Historical Society website
    and this alternative,(http://www.woolwichfhs.org.uk/) but no verification.

    Very best to you.

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