Arsenal Football Club began life in the South-East London suburbs of Woolwich and Plumstead when a group of predominantly Scottish workers at the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory decided to form the Dial Square football team in late 1886. The first game of the club was against a team called Eastern Wanderers on the 11th December 1886. The game was played on a piece of open ground that someone had found on the Isle of Dogs. Apparently the pitch was shapeless with one portion being described as a ditch by some and as an open sewer by others.
Still, history says that Dial Square won the game 6-0. This result filled the players with enthusiasm and resulted in a meeting at the Royal Oak, next to Woolwich Arsenal Station, on Christmas day 1886.
Soon after, when the name Royal Arsenal FC was adopted at the meeting at The Royal Oak, they began playing on Plumstead Common, only to move to the Sportsman Ground, a former pig farm next to The Plumstead Marshes, 1887. The poor state of this field (one can only imagine the effect of a sliding tackle on a former pig farm!) led to Royal Arsenal FC moving on to the adjacent Manor Field in 1888 for two seasons.
In 1891, the club changed its name again, this time to Woolwich Arsenal, playing at their first proper venue, the Invicta Ground. The remains of terracing are today still visible in some of the back gardens in Hector Street, Plumstead. Finally, after having moved back again to the Manor Field, a playing field was found in Highbury, North London, in 1913, opposite Gillespie Road Tube Station. It has been the monumental home of Arsenal ever since. In 1932 the name of the station was changed to Arsenal, the only station in the country to be named after a football team.
In 1895 a selection of Nottingham Forest players, including Fred Beardsley and Morris Bates joined the squad, bringing their old red kit along with them. The club decided to kit out the rest of the team in the same colour as the ex-Forest players. Apart from a short spell in the 1890’s when they wore one-inch red and blue stripes, red and white colours have always been en vogue. The Arsenal kit as we know it today was launched following the arrival of legendary manager Herbert Chapman in 1925.
Chapman, whose bust resides in the foyer of the East Stand, noticed someone at the ground wearing a red sleeveless sweater over a white shirt. This inspired him to create a new strip in 1933 combining a red shirt with white collar and sleeves. The blue of the early kit has not been forgotten over the years either, as particularly during the Chapman era and the Fifties and Sixties Arsenal sported blue and white-hooped socks, when the normal thing to do was have socks matching the colours of shirts and shorts. Chapman reckoned this made his players distinctive – well it did if they weren’t playing a team in blue and white. For a very short spell in the mid-Sixties, the Gunners turned out once again in plain red shirts, losing the distinctive white sleeves, in a vainly attempt to emulate the success of the Busby Babes. This proved highly unpopular on the North Bank, and back the sleeves came!
Arsenal were once known as The Royals, since they were the only club in England ever to have the prefix Royal. When they embraced professionalism in 1891 and joined the League two years later they became The Reds, but this was dropped in the 1920’s because of the scare about the spread of Bolshevism from Russia! By almost unanimous accord, and without prompting from the club, the fans changed the nickname to The Gunners. It is interesting to see that the modern era has started to develop a subtle variation: Arsenal’s fans are now often referred to as “Gooners”. By the way. Did you know that in the 1930’s Herbert Chapman tried to get the club’s name changed to Royal London FC for purposes of grandness? Obviously without success, considering that the prefix ‘The’ had been dropped in 1914 from The Arsenal to leave a less pompous club name….
In 1888, Royal Arsenal FC adopted its first badge, which was essentially an adaptation of the unofficial arms of the Borough of Woolwich, which alluded to the arsenal in the borough. These arms were designed by Oswald Barron. It consisted of a shield with three silver cannon barrels on a scarlet ground, each decorated with a leopard’s head in gold. The leopard’s head on the breech of each cannon is said to refer to the Manorial Arms. The motto is ‘Clamant nostra tela in Regis querela’ which means “Our weapons clash in the King’s quarrel” – just the thing to shout in the middle of a battle. By the way, did you know that in English heraldry a leopard is in fact a lion, not the spotty big cats we go to look at in zoos?
In those early days the crest was not as prominent a part of a football club’s identity as it is today. Shirts remained plain, unless commemorating a significant match. Crests were generally reserved for official headed stationery, matchday programmes and handbooks.
At the start of the 1922/23 campaign a new club crest was revealed, a fearsome looking cannon facing eastward, only to be superseded three years later by a westward pointing, narrower cannon, uncannily similar to the motif displayed on the crest of the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse in Woolwich.
The glory Chapman years saw the development of a more modern, Art Deco badge that could be perhaps even be called a logo: a design intertwining the letters AFC inside a hexagonal shape. A large version of this badge graced the roof of the North Bank at Highbury from the Thirties until the post-Taylor rebuild. The 1932 FA Cup Final featured a crest with similarities to the hexagonal shaped shield, which can still be seen above the main entrance. It has never been used widely in official publications or on stationary but it did become an important symbol of the club.
Despite being usurped by what is called the ‘Victoria Concordia Crescit’ crest in 1949, meaning ‘Victory grows out of harmony’ the single canon motif from the early Twenties has remained a basic symbol of Arsenal ever since, although it wasn’t until season 1967/68 that Arsenal changed from a ‘plain’ shirt to one emblazoned with the famous icon. The ‘VCC” crest with its westward facing cannon didn’t find its way onto the players’ kit until the start of the 1990/91 season.
In 2002 Arsenal, unable to copyright the ‘VCC’ crest, uncertainty surrounding its exact origination, decided to formulate a new crest. The new design is illustrative and befitting for Arsenal, renowned for its history of thinking ahead. Both the shield and the cannon, facing eastward again and thus reverting to the first ever published cannon, have been retained, resulting in a visionary emblem, embracing the future with respect for the past. As if to encapsulate the spirit of this book.