A birching for two boys as Arsenal get their first manager

The gate at Woolwich Arsenal

Charles Robinson was packing up his butcher’s stall at Woolwich Market on Saturday evening when he spied a couple of boys acting suspiciously. They ran off and Charles thought no more of it. 

Until he checked his cash box that is. The box was about 15 shillings light but there was little he could do, the lads were nowhere to be seen. 

The following evening PC Shove (445R) was stopped by a tram conductor in Plumstead. The conductor told him that he’d seen two boys moving in between the passengers queuing for the trams on the High Street. He was pretty sure they were up to no good and he gave PC Shove a description of the pair. 

Later on, at about 10.30 at night, the officer spied his quarry and collared them. He asked them to turn out their pockets and discovered two purses and about 12s in loose coins. Neither lad could give the policeman an adequate explanation as of how they came to be in possession of so much money and eventually owned up to stealing it from Mr. Robinson’s stall the previous day. 

The boys were taken to court at Woolwich and charged with theft. They gave their names as George Bell (11) of Lower Robert Street, and William Igglesden (10) who said he lived in Ann Street. Both addresses were in Plumstead but there was no mention of their parents appearing in court. 

Sergeant Gilham, the gaoler at Woolwich Police court, recognized the boys: the younger child. William Igglesden had been sent to a truant school on two previous occasions he told the magistrate, while the pair had also been in trouble together in the recent past.  

The gaoler informed the magistrate (Mr Taylor) that George and William had been caught in ‘the refreshment bar of the Arsenal football ground’. They’d broken in, helped themselves to whisky, and had got quite drunk. All that brought was a telling off and a warning not to offend again. 

Perhaps it was thought that a warning would suffice and a lesson would be learned, but that leniency was not about to be repeated.  

Mr Taylor told the pair that if they continued to misbehave they risked being sent to prison, regardless of how young they were. To reinforce the message he ordered that a police sergeant beat the pair of them with a birch rod.  

Maybe that did the trick because there’s no prison record for anyone with either name from the 1890s onwards. Of course names could be changed but one can only hope that George and William realised that they were pushing their luck too far. 

1897 was an important year for Woolwich Arsenal, the club whose bar the boys had raided earlier that year.  

On 2 April Thomas Mitchell became the club’s first full-time manager, beating 53 others who had applied for the position. Mitchell had previously managed Blackburn Rovers and been a referee, so he was an experienced football man. He knew about winning as well, having led Rovers to no less than four FA Cup victories.

Presumably the board hoped Mitchell would bring success; after all in January local rivals Millwall Athletic had knocked the Arsenal out of that season’s competition with a 4-2 away defeat. Mitchell never really got the chance to show what he could do at Arsenal because he felt the board of directors was constantly meddling in his efforts to improve the team. So in March 1898, just under a year after he took the job, he resigned, one of the shortest managerial reigns in the club’s 134-year history. 

Arsenal would have to wait a long time to win their first FA Cup, with victory over Huddersfield in 1930. Today of course the modern Arsenal Football Club holds the record for the most FA Cup wins (14) and the most cup final appearances (21). Today they take on all conquering Liverpool in the ‘largely meaningless friendly’/’first trophy of the season’ (delete as applicable) behind closed doors at Wembley in the FA Community Shield. 

I like to hope that the ancestors of William and George are watching somewhere, cheering the Gunners on. Who know eh? 

[from Morning Post, Monday 1 February 1897]

For more on Arsenal’s history visit the excellent Arsenal History Society site. The Arsenal History Society is an integral part of AISA (the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association) and you can find out more about their work here.

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