…you’ve probably been taken for a ride.
“Compton and Smith played for England for the first time against Wales at Sunderland, Compton at thirty-eight becoming the oldest man to win his first cap for England.”
Bernard Joy – “Forward, Arsenal!”
“Two Arsenal players, Peter Connolly and Bobby Buist, played so well in that game [1891 FA Cup v Derby County] that John Goodall, the Derby captain and acting secretary-manager, offered them contracts.”
Phil Soar and Martin Tyler – “The Official Illustrated History of Arsenal”
Two statements from two esteemed tomes that have become ingrained in Arsenal’s history, written by three respected names in the game, printed in in black ink on white paper for all eternity. The only problem is that both statements have recently been proven to be wrong.
On 23 February 2008 www.englandfootballonline.com updated their website with the news that they had discovered that Alec Morton was either 41 or 42 years old when he made his England debut against Scotland in 1873. There is still some debate as to his actual age but he was definitely older than our Les when he made his debut
On 26 September 2010 I discovered that Bobby Buist didn’t play in that FA Cup game against Derby. The main reason was that he was playing for Clyde on that day as he wouldn’t become an Arsenal player for another eight months.
The second story has led me, Mark Andrews and Tony Attwood to question the validity of Arsenal’s history, especially that which occurred before World War One. We’ve been gobsmacked at how much of it appears to have been incorrectly recorded at source. Most of the club’s early history has been accepted as de facto for more than 100 years, mainly due to the veneration of those who have re-iterated it: George Allison, Bernard Joy, Brian Glanville, Martin Tyler, Phil Soar, etc.
This has proved a problem with persuading anyone with an interest in the club’s history that things are not necessarily as we have been led to believe. How could this list of respected journalists have got it wrong? The simple answer is that they have never considered the original sources to be incorrect. They have then used their predecessors’ works as reference material and the stories have gained validity through social proof.
Research methods have progressed a great deal even since Soar and Tyler wrote the Official History in 1986. The age of the internet has made it so much easier to search through newspapers online in your own time, rather than use the British Library’s facilities at Colindale (until it closed recently) and St Pancras. And being able to search for a word or phrase rather than trawling through pages of newspapers has been an absolute godsend.
This article is not here to denigrate or criticise previous custodians of the club’s history, but to bring to the fore that changes need to be accepted if it can be categorically proven that events didn’t take place as has been previously believed.
Much of what we have found has tended to be subtle nuances – such as the name of Arsenal’s second manager. Until 1972, he was simply Mr Elcoat or Mr G Elcoat. Then, Geoffrey Mowbray wrote an article in Gunflash where he named him as George. He remained thus until a combination of the British Library digitising 19th century newspapers, a genealogy website and a visit to the National Archives confirmed that he was actually William Robson Elcoat.
However, some of the major events in the club’s history have been found to be wrong:
- some of the men credited with founding the club
- when professionalism was adopted and the reaction of other clubs
- changing of the club’s name
- Henry Norris’ “purchase” and ownership of Woolwich Arsenal
- the election to the First Division in 1919
All are not quite as history as recorded them, mainly due to the influence of those in high places or the stories being embellished to appear sensational for one reason or another.
The internet has proved to be a double-edged sword, both making it much easier to confirm past events through digitised newspapers, but also giving anyone and everyone the ability to publish whatever they want. Wikipedia is probably the biggest culprit – according to this website, that anyone can edit, Stewart Houston co-wrote “Blue Is The Colour”. It’s easy to get into an argument with someone on social media who will quote Wikipedia as their source claiming: “It’s there in black and white on the internet, it can’t be wrong.”
We also have bizarre conflicts such as those between the club’s official website and the official history book by Soar and Tyler. The website names Sam Hollis as the first Arsenal manager, whilst the book makes no mention of him. Reading through newspaper reports of AGMs (which were incredibly detailed before Henry Norris and William Hall took over in 1910) shows that Hollis was never Woolwich Arsenal’s manager, he was merely the trainer. He was incorrectly elevated to manager in the early 1980s in a Rothman’s Football Yearbook, probably because he went on to become Bristol City’s manager and it was assumed he held the same position at Arsenal.
But of course, you need to have some reason to want to verify a story in the first place. Because of what we have stumbled across over the last five years, Mark and I have taken a very sceptical view on anything that we read about Arsenal’s history, especially if it is in, or sourced from, a book. Some stories can appear far-fetched but turn out to have far more substance to them. Take the archery tournament of 1903. Surely the skill of the bow and arrow died out long before the start of the 20th century? Indeed it had, but when you dig into the details you find a fantastic story that saw the club generate 25% of its annual income in one day and manager Harry Bradshaw ending up with a criminal record! That was a classic case of serendipity when we researched that particular story.
So, this then gives us the dilemma of what to believe?
Our problem is that we don’t have a loud enough shout on the internet, which seems to be the new measure of who is right. A couple of years ago most of the daily tabloids had screaming headlines that Jack Wilshere was about to become Arsenal’s youngest ever captain. He didn’t actually wear the armband on that day but even if he had he wouldn’t have taken that prestigious honour. However, if you search on google for:
Arsenal youngest captain
you will get a number of articles insisting that Jack would have been and that Tony Adams holds this record. Neither is correct, but because of the readership of the big publications they appear on the first page of a search and that is what is believed to be true.
Unfortunately there is no easy answer. Mark and I have started to explain on our website how some parts of Arsenal’s history need to be revisited. We will continue to do so, showing exactly how and why. All that we ask is that you keep an open mind and accept that the world is no longer flat.
Tomorrow, we will be publishing an article that perfectly illustrates the theme of this article. It is a story that has become entrenched in Arsenal’s history but there is one part of it is that is wrong. We don’t deny that it happened, just that a very influential figure in the club made a statement nearly 60 years ago and it has, incorrectly, stuck.
Background to this article
Following discussions with Steve Kell of the AFSC, Mark and I suggested writing for Gunflash for the 2015-16 season. Steve pointed out this would continue Gunflash’s tradition of publishing articles by guest writers, which makes it a great honour for us to be part of this great publication.
This article was first published in issue 571 of Gunflash.
Current and back issues of Gunflash are available from the Arsenal Football Supporters Club on matchdays on the corner of Gillespie Road and St. Thomas’ Road, and via their website.
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- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal – crowd behaviour at the early matches