Today, Arsenal Football Club is a North London club and has been since 1913, playing initially at Highbury until 2006 and then the Emirates Stadium. Both magnificent grounds in their own right, both for very different reasons, but both had a pitch like a carpet. Perfectly flat and lusciously green. However, this wasn’t always the case.
As many know, Arsenal actually started as a South London club way back in 1886. In this week’s Arsenal Scrapbook, I have decided to look back at our home grounds South of the River Thames, and there’s more than you think.
The First Ever Game, Tiller Road, Isle Of Dogs, December 1886
Under the clubs original name Dial Square, Arsenal’s first ever game was played in December 1886 on a field in what is now Milwall Football Club territory, the Isle of Dogs.
The field is believed to have been near Glengall Road, now known as Tiller Road. The club would only play one game here.
Plumstead Common, 1886/87
The club moved to Plumstead Common for the remainder of the 1886/87 season. They had also changed their name by this time, no longer going by Dial Square, but instead by the name Royal Arsenal. The Star Inn on Jago Road acted as the club’s dressing room.
Today, the location of the original pitch is still accessible, just a short walk from Plumstead Common cricket pitch, but it is partly covered by tennis courts and a bowling green. The club remained on Plumstead Common until the end of the season, moving to an even less glamorous location in September 1887.
The Sportsman Ground, Plumstead Marshes, 1887/88
Leaving the Common, Royal Arsenal moved to Plumstead Marshes, playing their games on a pig field. Upon arrival a pitch was marked out and the field was renamed The Sportsman Ground after the nearby Sportsman Pub.
However, the club’s stay was short.
Royal Arsenal stayed just six months as the field flooded regularly and was often unplayable. For the fourth time in its two year history, the club was on the move again. Today, the Sportsman Pub and the ground named in its honour are both gone, with HMP Thameside Prison standing in their place.
The Manor Ground, 1888-1890
However, the move was a short one. Only as far as the adjoining field in fact.
Known as Manor Field, it was immediately changed to the Manor Ground. However, this new home caused even more issues than the last.
Running along the Southern side of the pitch was Southern Outfall Sewer which made the pitch incredibly muddy, with it earning a notorious reputation from visiting teams.
The large embankment from the sewer also gave a high vantage point for people to watch from without having to pay entry, something that lost Royal Arsenal a lot of money.
Those that did pay entry stood on wagons from the nearby Army bases.
Because of these issues and downfall, the club only remained at the Manor Ground for two years, leaving in 1890 to find a more suitable home.
Invicta Ground, 1890-93
That home was the Invicta Ground on the South side of Plumstead High Street.
It was a purpose built ground with changing rooms, a stand and terracing, exactly what the club had been looking for.
It appeared that the club had found somewhere to stay and play its football long term, renaming themselves Woolwich Arsenal and turning professional before the 1893/94 season, meaning a place in the Football League.
However, ahead of that first Football League season, the owner of the Invicta raised rent and the club could no longer afford to rent the ground, meaning they were forced to move once again.
Unlike the clubs other former homes, there are still recognisable remains of the Invicta Stadium, with a number of back gardens on Hector Street having the original stone terracing in them.
A brilliant remaining piece of Arsenal history.
Return To The Manor Ground, 1893-1913
It was decided that Woolwich Arsenal would return to The Manor Ground, using £6,000 raised from a share issue to purchase the ground, build a single main stand and banks of terracing.
The average attendance for the club’s first season in the Football League was 6,000 spectators and it appeared that the club finally had a permanent home, staying at The Manor Ground for the next twenty years, achieving promotion to the first division in 1904 with gates of 20,000.
A second stand was added that year and is the earliest known terrace to be nicknamed the Spion Kop, although the stand later built by Liverpool is better known.
However, six years on 1910, after years of financial struggles, the club faced bankruptcy.
The financial struggle was mostly in part caused by the isolated location of The Manor Ground, making it difficult for fans to get to games, leading to low crowds.
In 1911, Fulham chairman and London property developer Sir Henry Norris purchased the club and immediately put the wheels in motion for the move to North London and Islington more specifically.
Without Norris, we may not even have the football club we all love today, let alone the interesting history south of the River.
As for the Manor Ground, an industrial site stands in its place, although you can still walk the embankment above the sewer where fans once stood.
So there you have it, that’s a quick history of Arsenal’s homes in South London, will you be visiting any of the sites?
It’s certainly worth a trip for any Gooner wanting to trace the clubs heritage. Maybe even chance your arm, knock on a door in Hector Street and ask nicely if you can stand on the remaining terrace of The Invicta Ground, it would certainly be worthwhile.