“Dear TfL,” The letter begins. “I was pleased to see TfL’s response to naming the forthcoming Shoreditch High St station ‘Banglatown’. It is important that a station name takes into account the street or the official name of its area, as recorded on official maps was the response. Therefore can you tell me when Arsenal station will be reverted back to Gillespie Road?”
The letter was sent by a supporter of Arsenal FC’s north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. Having been denied permission to expand Highbury stadium by Islington Council in 1997, Arsenal had been forced to build a new stadium a short distance away at Ashburton Grove. No sooner had the resulting Emirates Stadium opened in 2006 than petitions and letters had begun to appear in TfL’s mailbox from Tottenham fans.
TfL’s response to this letter was short and to the point.
“To candidly answer your question,” it concluded, “at this time we have no current plans to revert the name of Arsenal station back to Gillespie Road.”
That the name of an Underground station could provoke such prolonged agitation amongst a subset of Tottenham Hotspur’s fans may seem strange. In contrast Leyton Orient fans were vocal in their objections to West Ham’s takeover of the Olympic Stadium, but at no point did they campaign for West Ham station to be renamed.Unlike West Ham, however, Arsenal is unique. It is the only station on the Underground explicitly named after a football club.
How it got this way is an interesting story, as are the men behind it. Arsenal Chairman Sir Henry Norris and – more importantly – the legendary Herbert Chapman, who became Arsenal manager in 1925.
“Think on this.” Says Andy Kelly of The Arsenal History website in describing Chapman’s importance to Arsenal. “How many other football managers from 80 years ago are still regularly spoken of by fans of other major clubs?”
Kelly is correct. For Chapman is to Arsenal what his contemporaries Frank Pick and Lord Ashfield are to the Underground. The architect of a golden, and defining, age.
“Chapman was ‘Emperor’ of Arsenal Football Club from his arrival in 1925 until his death.” Explains Tony Sandell, Museum Curator at Arsenal. “He was the first manager of a football club to get involved in all aspects of the organisation’s activities from the training and tactics of the team through to the commercial operation including the rebuilding of the stadium in the 1930s.”
“The appointment of Herbert Chapman changed the club from perpetual cannon fodder into the most famous club in the world in the 1930s.” Agrees Kelly.
“Chapman’s tactics and philosophies, the appointment of key figures as backroom staff, his influence on the stadium… All this ensured that Arsenal’s success continued for 20 years after his death.”
To these qualities can also be added an implicit understanding of the relationship between transport and footballing success – an understanding that would eventually lead to his quest to see Arsenal on the Tube map.
This is not to say that other clubs weren’t aware of the importance of transport links. Most of the leading London clubs of the time owed their existence, at least in part, to transport in some way.
In 1886, for example, Millwall FC chose the location of their first ground in part because of its proximity to Millwall Dock station on the London and Blackwall Railway. Today Crossharbour DLR stands on the same site. When the club were forced to move to a new site between today’s Mudchute and Island Gardens stations a few years later, their attendance dropped drastically due to the lack of direct transport links. In 1910 this drove them south of the river to New Cross, looking to benefit from the (now Overground) rail links there and hoping that the still-new Greenwich Foot (1902) and Rotherhithe (1908) Tunnels would keep existing fans coming.
In fact it was Millwall’s move south which triggered Arsenal’s move north. Until then the club had been based at Plumstead, taking its name from the Royal Arsenal located there. The downsizing of the ammunition works had hit the club’s fanbase hard, however, and Millwall’s shift into its catchment area was a near-fatal blow. With attendances dropping catastrophically, Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris decided desperate action was needed. A merger with Fulham was rejected by the Football League so Norris looked for other options.
Casting his eyes northwards he soon found one: the large, open recreation fields of St John’s College of Divinity in Islington. It was a large site in a populous area but, just as importantly, he noticed its close proximity to Gillespie Road tube station, which had opened in 1906. A £20,000 payment secured the land, league approval was secured and a new stadium, Highbury, hastily built. By the beginning of the 1913 season Arsenal had become a north London club.
At the time Herbert Chapman was still building his managerial reputation up north. His Leeds City team played Arsenal at their new north London home in December 1913 when many were still wondering whether Arsenal’s gamble could actually work. Chapman, however, looked straight past the draughty, half-built, stadium saw Gillespie Road behind it. The station, he observed at the time, meant there was every hope of success.
That potential was still clearly lurking at the back of Chapman’s mind twelve years later when an advert in the Athletic News caught his eye.
Arsenal Football Club is open to receive applications for the position of TEAM MANAGER. He must be experienced and possess the highest qualifications for the post, both as to ability and personal character. Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavyand exhorbitant [sic]transfer fees need not apply.
It had been placed by Sir Henry Norris. Arsenal’s gamble had seen the club survive, but they had also stagnated. By 1925 they were even flirting with relegation.
In the same time Chapman had become one of the most successful managers in English football. Under his guidance Huddersfield Town had won back-to-back titles and were odds-on with pundits for a third. Behind the scenes though Chapman had come to believe that he had taken Huddersfield as far as they could go. Like Northampton Town and Leeds City, his two previous clubs, they would always be competing for local attention with rugby. To build a great club he believed he needed one with a greater population ceiling and potential. Aware that already Arsenal were pulling high attendances, and remembering its location and its station, Chapman applied for the Arsenal Manager’s job. With what we can only presume must have been a mixture of surprise and joy, Sir Henry Norris quickly hired him.
This is not the place to describe in detail the incredible impact that Chapman’s appointment had on Arsenal as a club. In five short years, with incredible vision and innovation he transformed Arsenal into a footballing powerhouse – on the pitch and off it.
“Was Herbert Chapman a time-traveller?!” Asked a leading football pundit on The Football Ramble during a profile of Chapman. His tongue was pressed firmly in-cheek, but it highlights just how revolutionary his thinking was at the time.
“It was Herbert Chapman who introduced the white sleeves to Arsenal’s traditional red shirts in order to make them more distinctive and the players easier to pick out on a dull, foggy London afternoon.” Says Sandell. “It was Herbert Chapman who championed the case for numbers on shirts and floodlit football. He was also an advocate of goal line judges over 80 years before they were introduced into Champions League football.”
He also pioneered pre-match team talks, clocks in football grounds, overseas games and even, effectively, a role as England’s first ever national team manager.
To this can be added one of his most important contributions of all: an implicit understanding of the need to develop the club off the pitch. As the twenties drew to a close Arsenal were approached by nearby Clapton Orient, who suggested a formal link-up. Playing their football at Lea Bridge Stadium (handily adjacent to Lea Bridge station) a dramatic rent hike and increasing pressure on their catchment area from surrounding clubs had left them in financial straits. A cash injection from Arsenal secured Orient’s future whilst also giving Arsenal somewhere to blood their reserves in real games.
Eventually the Football League ruled that football clubs could not part-own each other, and the arrangement between Arsenal and Clapton Orient was forcibly ended. For Orient this was nearly disastrous. The club flirted with bankruptcy and became homeless, before landing further east where they remain today as Leyton Orient. Relations with Arsenal remained strong, however, and Orient fulfilled a number of fixtures at Highbury until they found a permanent new home.
Orient’s experience reinforced Chapman’s belief that it was vital to widen a club’s catchment area. Even the rent rise at Lea Bridge Stadium had been an indirect consequence of decreasing interest in watching the team play – the stadium owner had become more interested in hosting dog racing and speedway which had become bigger draws. Arsenal could thus not afford to be complacent.
“The truth is that, while we have a huge population to draw on,” he wrote at the time, “I am in no doubt whatever that unless Arsenal football is maintained at the highest standard our success as a gate-drawing club will wane. It is conveniently overlooked that we have keen competition which other clubs have not to meet. We have Tottenham Hotspur on our doorstep, and Chelsea is only a few miles away. Within the radius of about twelve miles there are eleven League clubs…
“The old idea that a club may sit back and wait for the crowds to come should have died a long time ago.”
By 1927 Sir Henry had left the club (and indeed football) as a result of a financial scandal, leaving Chapman with more power at the club than ever before. He was soon leading the hunt for new ways to appeal to all potential fans of football within that aforementioned twelve-mile radius.
“In March 1929 the board of directors put an audacious proposition to the shareholders to change the name of the club.” Says Andy Kelly describing one idea that emerged at this time. “This was perhaps a step too far, almost arrogant when you consider that the club still had not won a major trophy. The proposal was to change the name to London City.”
“Chapman was eager to build the awareness of Arsenal Football Club once it had won its first FA Cup in 1930 and its first League Championship the following year.” Explains Tony Sandell. “He decided that the London Underground station opposite Highbury Stadium should carry the name of the football club through which thousands of fans travelled for every home match.”
As the London City proposal shows, Chapman was keen to attract casual fans from across capital. Fans who might have finished work at 2 p.m. and just fancied watching some football. Having the club’s name front and centre on the Tube map was an easy way to help nudge them in Arsenal’s direction as well as raising the profile of the club in the media.
What is perhaps surprising is that there is very little documentary evidence of the actual negotiations and process that took place after Chapman had decided to push for this change. This is particularly true from a transport perspective, where no obvious discussion or documentation exists within TfL’s archive. This strongly suggests that it was indeed from the club (and from Chapman) that much of the pressure came. It also forces us to look to football sources to find out more about exactly what happened.
Chapman, every club history insists, approached the Underground in 1932 and asked that the station be renamed. When he was met with resistance and told that the station name should reflect its location, Chapman proclaimed “Whoever heard of Gillespie Road? It’s Arsenal round here!” Which apparently settled the matter and the station was renamed shortly after, with Chapman also apparently persuading the Underground to pay for the change as well.
To the transport historian this may seem like a ludicrous claim. By the thirties signalling, ticketing and more were all too complex for such decisions to be made lightly.
Whilst it’s an impressive story, it is also one which has a whiff of received wisdom about it, as there aren’t a lot of independent sources confirming that Chapman made his famous statement at all. No contemporary accounts of it seem to exist in the press and its earliest appearance seems to be in Forward, Arsenal! This is one of the first histories of the club, but it was also written twenty years later in 1952 by ex-Arsenal player (but, crucially, not a contemporary of Chapman) Bernard Joy.
That’s not to say contemporary players haven’t told the same story. Before his death in 1998, former Arsenal captain (and right-back under Chapman) George Male spoke to author Jon Spurling for Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N5, and recounted the famous statement there. No pre-1952 mentions by players seem to exist in print though, and it’s thus hard to escape the suspicion that this was a tale which circulated behind the scenes at Highbury which, even if not entirely fabricated, may have grown in the telling.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it does seem that it was Chapman who was the primary driver behind the name change. Indeed this may not even have been the first time he had asked – just the time when it finally worked. For in order for such a change to happen, Chapman needed both politics and logistics to be on his side, and in 1932 both were.
Throughout the twenties “the Underground” had been in trouble. Still, at that point, a private company officially called the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, “the Combine” (as it was known) was struggling to make money. Lord Ashfield, its chairman, had lobbied successive governments for greater regulation and for all Underground services to be consolidated under public ownership. This campaign had finally gained traction under Labour Transport Minister Herbert Morrison in 1929. Morrison became a passionate backer of the scheme, emphasising the benefits of having public transport closely aligned to the needs of London’s communities and businesses. Morrison would lose his seat in 1931, but by then he had already tabled a bill to create the London Passenger Transport Board (“London Transport”) which continued to pass through Parliament. Morrison would also return to politics, shortly afterwards, as leader of the London County Council.
For Lord Ashfield at the Combine there was thus considerable incentive to appear supportive of Arsenal’s suggestion. It would help show how transport could support the city’s interests. A shrewd political operator, Chapman would have sensed this opportunity and likely emphasised it.
“Herbert Chapman was a man who would go to any length to achieve his stated aim of ‘making Arsenal the greatest club in the world’ ” Says Sandell, emphasising the manager’s persuasiveness. “It no doubt took many meetings and a lot of lobbying.”
Chapman may also, accidentally, have found himself holding something of a political trump card: Herbert Morrison himself. For Hackney-born Morrison was not only a keen Clapton Orient fan, but had also been a shareholder since the early twenties. Given the close relations between the leadership of the two clubs at the time, it seems highly likely that the two men were acquainted. Here too Chapman would have been able to stress how a name change would be positive for both the Underground and Arsenal.
Logistically, Chapman’s timing was also perfect. With work underway to extend the (now) Piccadilly line north to Cockfosters, a complete update of all of the line’s maps, machines and other assets was already on the cards. Much has been made in some sources about Chapman persuading the Underground to foot the bill, but the reality is that they were about to (and had already budgeted for) many of those changes anyway – tweaking one more station name wouldn’t exactly break the bank.
Indeed that possible additional costs may have been the only real sticking point is highlighted by one of the few documented references to discussions between Arsenal and the Combine that seems to exist.
This can be found in the papers of an Arsenal board meeting on the 20 October 1932. Here, we are told, the board discussed the two options they had been presented with by the Combine as to how the naming would take place. The first was to make all changes immediately at a cost of £1,000 (about £60,000 today). Of this the Combine were prepared to pay two-thirds if Arsenal agreed to contribute the rest. The second option was just to change the name on tickets, posters, and other assets as stocks were used up and replaced naturally (i.e. as part of the Cockfosters work). For this there would be no charge.
The board opted for the latter, something which may actually also explain why the famous station tiles still proclaim it to be “Gillespie Road”. The simple truth is that Arsenal didn’t want to pay for them to be changed, and the Combine were happy not to bother.
In the end, the station officially became “Arsenal (Highbury Hill)” on the 31 October 1932. “Arsenal Stadium” had also been considered, according to a contemporary account in the Islington Gazette, but was ultimately seen as a step too far by the Combine. Eventually the “Highbury Hill” would be quietly dropped from the name by London Transport in 1960.
So was it worth it?
This, unfortunately, is difficult to gauge. The club that Chapman had built was now already firmly in the ascendancy, much to the chagrin of their rivals at the other end of the Seven Sisters Road. To Tottenham fans Arsenal were, and will likely always remain, the “Woolwich Wanderers”. To everyone else they are now simply the biggest club in north London.
There is some evidence to suggest, however, that for the fans at the time Chapman’s tube map coup certainly meant an awful lot. As supporters of a club that had only been in north London for ten years, it added an air of permanency and legitimacy that they were all too eager to see.
“I talked to a lot of Arsenal fans at the time,” George Male told Jon Spurling “and they’d say ‘George, we’ve got a wonderful stadium, and a wonderful team, but how on earth did Chapman pull the strings to get the tube station’s name changed?’ And I had no answer for them. Cliff Bastin always said that Chapman should have been Prime Minister. For many Arsenal fans, having the Arsenal tube station was the best of all!”
Sadly, Chapman himself would not live to see Arsenal reap the full rewards of his efforts. On the first of January 1934 he travelled to northern England on a scouting trip. He returned unwell but insisted on watching an Arsenal reserve match in the freezing cold the next day.
His condition rapidly worsened and just four days later he was dead. Herbert Chapman died of pneumonia at 3am on the sixth of January 1934 aged just 55.
“I was shaving at my Finchley home when Alice Moss, wife of our goalkeeper came rushing in in an awful state.” Left back Eddie Hapgood would later write in his autobiography. “While shopping she had seen the placards which shrieked to the world ‘Herbert Chapman dead.’ I still had one side of my face lathered, and so stunned was I by the news that I stayed that way for quite fifteen minutes.”
Hapgood’s reaction was echoed around north London and beyond.
Our story, however, does not quite end there. Shortly after Chapman’s death came the first north London derby of the season with rivals Tottenham Hotspur. By 1p.m. the stadium was full, but still tens of thousands of football fans continued to pour into the area, determined to sing for Chapman one last time at Highbury.
By kickoff an enormous crowd had gathered, locked out but determined to stay and to join the chanting inside. As those inside Highbury that day would later describe it, every song they sang was soon echoed back louder by many times their number standing outside somewhere. It didn’t take them long to work out where. There had only been one obvious place for them all to go…
…Arsenal station. The station Chapman had renamed.