Explosion at the Arsenal: How a 1907 Accident “Wiped Out” Arsenal Football Club
The Premier League team named after a munitions works struggled to survive after the Woolwich Arsenal exploded
“Boom! A muffled roar like that of a mighty thunderclap, a shake like that of an earthquake, and a flash that turned the black sky red!” — Kentish Independent, February 15, 1907
On the morning of Sunday, February 11, 1907, the district of Woolwich in south-east London was rocked by a huge explosion. The blast shattered windows, demolished walls, and blew off roofs. Shockwaves woke people from their sleep across a radius of 40 miles. A flash from the explosion could be seen as far away as Southend-on-Sea.
The explosion occurred at the Royal Arsenal, a thousand-acre site for the manufacture and testing of munitions for the British Armed Forces. To the north of the site was the silt-brown River Thames. At the south, separated by a ditch and a fence, was the Manor Ground, the home of Woolwich Arsenal Football Club. Originally a works team for the Royal Arsenal, by 1907, Woolwich Arsenal was a leading club in the top flight of the English Football League. The Manor Ground received the full force of the blast, threatening the future of the club now known as Arsenal FC.
The explosion occurred at 3.26 am. “Woolwich and the district for miles around trembled,” reported the Kentish Independent. “Suddenly awakened sleepers sat bolt upright in bed, struck with fear; others were thrown out of bed. Windows caved in or fell into the streets; ceilings, pictures, and ornaments crashed to the floor; and walls began to crack and bulge.”
A hairdresser named Mr. Holby was in his bedroom, which had a window overlooking the Arsenal and the Manor Ground, when the accident happened. He was awake, feeding one of his children, and saw the explosion, which he said lit up the sky with a salmon-red hue. His wife was almost thrown out of bed, and another of his children was showered with broken glass. An eyeglass telescope, which had been standing at the window, was torn from its stand and thrown across the room.
Some residents believed an earthquake had torn the ground apart, as had happened to devastating effect in San Francisco ten months earlier. But others realized the most likely cause of the disaster, and hurried, half-dressed, through the barely-lit, glass-strewn streets, along Plumstead Road, up the Manorway, to the Griffin Gates — the entrance to the Royal Arsenal.
The seat of the explosion was an ammunition storage magazine, to the north of the main Arsenal compound, on the Plumstead Marshes. The magazine, belonging to the Chemical Research Department, had been erected in a remote location and surrounded by an earth embankment in anticipation of such an accident. All that remained of the magazine was a huge crater 40 to 50 feet deep. The concrete floor was pulverized, and pieces of masonry lay across the expanse of the marshes. Large iron girders had been flung across the marshes and landed like huge javelins in nearby gardens. Pieces of cordite were found up to a mile from the blast. The explosion damaged the Arsenal’s gasometer and 300,000 cubic feet of escaping gas was ignited in a huge pillar of flame.
The explosion occurred just 300 yards from the Manor Ground. A “gigantic” hole was blown in the Arsenal wall across from the football ground. Initial reports said the explosion had “ripped out the back of the grandstand, torn the roof off the stand, and hurled huge pieces of concrete and ironwork across the ground”. Two large plate-glass windows at the club’s offices were smashed. The pitch was littered with debris, and the refreshment booth was badly damaged. One report said the club had been “wiped out”.
The damage extended far beyond the Arsenal. “The roads and streets running off southwards of the Arsenal boundary walls presented an extraordinary spectacle,” reported one newspaper. Entire streets of houses were wrecked, and fragments of bricks and broken glass were scattered on the ground. Collapsed walls and torn-off roofs had rendered many houses uninhabitable. Several residents had lucky escapes as windows blew in and ceilings collapsed. Thankfully, due in part to the early hour keeping people off the streets, there were no fatalities.
An unnamed gentleman in Shooter’s Hill, around two miles from the Arsenal, was among those woken by the explosion. (His brother, sleeping in the same room, remained undisturbed.) “As quickly as possible I dressed and, mounting my bicycle, made my way down to Woolwich,” the gentleman told the Kentish Independent. “In the side streets, the scenes were very pitiful. People whose houses had been [destroyed] shivered in the roadway, helplessly looking at the damage, seeming not to have realized what had occurred. They looked like men and women paralyzed by the astounding thing which had happened.”
He reached the Arsenal gates, where the wives of nightshift workers were being assured that there had been no fatalities inside the works, then cycled down to Plumstead Road “and saw the havoc which had been wrought.” The weather had turned against the stricken residents, and wintry drizzle had become sleet. “I was told some extraordinary stories,” said the gentleman. “One lady was ill, and the shock was so upset that she was seized with a fit, and remained unconscious for some time.” He saw now-homeless residents shivering in their nightwear in the freezing conditions: “Sheets of brown paper are the only protection from the outside inclemency.”
By sunrise, the clean-up had begun. Householders and shopkeepers swept up broken glass and boarded up windows. Police roamed the streets, apparently in as much of a daze as the residents. A couple of officers regained their senses enough to chase a man found attempting to loot a jeweler’s shop. A cavalcade of glaziers, plumbers, joiners, and builders began to arrive. “Glass was at a premium,” said one newspaper, which estimated the number of damaged windows at 30,000.
Then came the insurance inspectors, along with representatives of the War Office — the government department responsible for the Arsenal, and for the explosion. Blame began to be apportioned. A curious rumor began to spread: A mysterious hot air balloon had been seen hovering over the Arsenal two days before the explosion, and it was rumored that the occupants had dropped a timed fuse onto the roof of the magazine as part of an anarchist plot. But most realized the explosion had been nothing more than a terrible accident.
The majority of residents showed great fortitude. Public Houses and Working Mens’ Clubs were damaged, but some clubs opened their bars “to steady the nerves of members.” Mr. Wilson, a leather merchant, placed a sign at the front of his shop reading: “We repair boots, not windows.” Ironmonger WF Cook wrote on the boards that covered his shattered shopfront: “Our windows are broken, but not our hearts.”
The club now known as Arsenal FC was founded as Dial Square FC in 1886 by a group of workers from the Dial Square workshop at the Royal Arsenal. The Dial Square was a turning and engraving workshop named for the sundial over its main entrance. The workshop building still survives today. Dial Square FC’s principal founder was a Scotsman called David Danskin. He had played for Kircaldy Wanderers in Fife before moving to London.
Danskin wasn’t the only Dial Square worker with football experience. Fred Beardsley had been Nottingham Forest’s goalkeeper and had moved to London after being sacked from his job at a Nottingham armaments factory for taking time off to play football without permission. Danskin organized a whip-round to buy a football, and Beardsley provided a set of “Garibaldi red” jerseys via his former Forest team-mates.
Dial Square’s first match was played on December 11, 1886, against a team called Eastern Wanderers on a field at the Isle of Dogs. Dial Square won 6–0. A few weeks later, on Christmas Day 1886, the club changed its name to Royal Arsenal, now representing the whole factory. Royal Arsenal played its initial matches on Plumstead Common, and, after various moves, eventually settled at nearby Manor Field, where they built the Manor Ground. The muddy field had an open sewer running along one side, and no terracing or other facilities. However, the club raised money via a share issue for ground improvements.
The club turned professional in 1891 and changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal in 1893. However, the club was in serious financial trouble — not least due to the ongoing ground improvement costs — and could not survive on occasional friendly matches and FA Cup ties. An application was made to join the Football League — and was accepted. Woolwich Arsenal were elected to the second division — becoming the first southern club to join the league. They were promoted to the First Division in 1904. By February 1907, at the time of the explosion, they were sixth in the league having beaten current Premier League rivals Liverpool, Manchester City, and Everton at the Manor Ground.
Woolwich Arsenal’s next league match was due to be played at the Manor Ground just five days after the explosion, against Bristol City on February 16. It was rumored — quite understandably — that the match would not take place. However, club directors said that the damage was not as bad as “sensation specialists” had claimed and that the ground was “quite intact”.
A later report, in the People newspaper, said that part of the fence had fallen into the ditch, and there were large fissures in the ground. Parts of the north stand were wrecked, and the south stand was also severely damaged. In the badly-damaged refreshment bar, a broken-off beer handle gave evidence of “the extreme violence of the explosion.” The Sporting Times newspaper commented: “Woolwich Arsenal has had hard things said about it from time to time, but it never got such a blowing-up as it did on Monday morning. We are not referring to the football team.”
The Manor Ground had been partly protected by the high slope at the north-east corner of the ground, known to fans as the Spion Kop for its apparent resemblance to the steep Spioenkop hill where British and Boer troops fought the Battle of Spion Kop in 1900 during the Second Boer War. Arsenal’s was the first terrace to be named the Spion Kop. It became a common name for single-tier football terraces, used at clubs including Liverpool, Leeds United, Leicester City, Birmingham City, Sheffield United, and Sheffield Wednesday.
After the clean-up and repairs were conducted, the ground was assessed by a local government inspector, who reported it “all safe and sound.” The match was played as arranged, in front of 12,000 fans. Bristol City won 2–1, avenging an FA Cup defeat to Woolwich Arsenal that had taken place a fortnight earlier.
Woolwich Arsenal finished the season in seventh place in the league. They remained at the Manor Ground until 1913, when they moved to Highbury in north London, and dropped the “Woolwich” from their name to become The Arsenal. Today, Arsenal FC play at the Emirates Stadium, more than an hour away from the Royal Arsenal by public transport or in London traffic. But the club’s name — along with the cannon on its badge and the “Gunners” nickname — remains a reminder of Arsenal’s explosive origins.⬧
Paul Brown is the author of The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp.
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