The Bluffer’s Guide To Highbury – pt 1

The original version of this appeared in The Gooner issue 161 in 2005, as we prepared to leave the great old stadium that many thousands of us had grown up with. It has been updated with some new information. 

The Bluffer’s Guide to Highbury – part 1

Everyone knows Arsenal’s ground as ‘Highbury’, and this of course is where it’s situated. However, the true fan is well aware that the official name has been ‘Arsenal Stadium’ since the early 1930s. So how did Arsenal get to Highbury?

It’s no secret that Arsenal originally came from south London and began life playing on Plumstead Common and using local pubs as changing rooms. This arrangement didn’t last long, as neither Tony Adams nor Paul Merson was at the club at the time. By 1910 Woolwich Arsenal had been bought by Henry Norris, played home games at the Manor Ground, Plumstead, and were struggling in the old First Division. Crowds of 20,000 plus after promotion soon dwindled when Arsenal went from being the only London club in the Football League to one of five. Transport links to south London were rubbish, and Norris decided it was time to relocate.

After much searching followed by much negotiation, Norris organised the rental of a piece of land used as playing fields and owned by St John’s College of Divinity in Avenell Road, Highbury. (If anyone asks you when Arsenal bought Highbury, that was in 1925 for £64,000.) The move was made in time for the start of the 1913-14 season, and then began the development of what became the classiest stadium in Britain. St John’s College remained next door until it burnt down shortly after World War II, removing the last link with the previous owners of Highbury. The site of the college buildings was developed into the flats that now sit on the hill behind the Clock End.

The four stands at Arsenal were the East Stand, West Stand, North Bank Stand and South Stand, or ‘Clock End’. But before we get into that, a few words about the other essential part of the stadium:

The Pitch

The Highbury pitch became known for three things:

  1. It was perceived as too small
  2. It had undersoil heating
  3. It looked like a billiard table all year round

The pitch size was 110 by 71 yards, which gave an area about 15 per cent smaller than Man City’s. However, it was bigger than those of Cardiff, Colchester and Tranmere, which are (or at least were in 2005) all 110 by 70 yards. The total grass area at Highbury was 115 by 76 yards, so making the pitch any bigger would have meant losing a couple of rows of seats. But is it necessarily a bad thing to have a small pitch? Arsenal’s home record was far better than our away record.

In the 1960s and 1970s matches were called off all the time due to bad weather – except at Arsenal. Electric undersoil heating was installed in 1964 and upgraded to a hot water system in 1970 at a cost of £30,000. While other pitches froze Arsenal played on and postponements were very rare indeed. Of course melting the snow and ice often had the effect of turning the pitch into a bog, but players were used to that in those days, especially those who’d ever played at Derby.

In the winter of 1985-86 the hot water system packed up and the whole thing had to be redone the following summer. One year later Arsenal got a new groundsman in Steve Braddock, and the Highbury pitch entered its golden age. Until Braddock arrived our playing surface was no better than average, but after two years of planning a radical reconstruction took place. If anyone asks, you can tell them that the reason our pitch is so good is that after the old pitch was dug up and new drains and heating pipes laid, the resultant trenches were filled with gravel topped by sand, then a mixture of sand and topsoil on top for the ‘root-zone’. This gives a light, free-draining structure that relies on the grass roots themselves to bind it into a durable playing surface. Apparently.

Steve Braddock won the title of Groundsman of the Year five times before being whisked off to Hertfordshire by Arsène Wenger to build the new training pitches in 2000. He left his assistant, Paul Burgess, in charge, and Paul won the Oscar of the grass world in both 2002 and 2005. To quote Paul when explaining his methods to the Institute of Groundsmanship: “The Highbury playing surface is probably the oldest in the Premiership, having been constructed in 1989. At the end of each season it is scarified and receives between 20 and 40 tonnes of sand. This is then hollow tined and, after vertidraining, kiln-dried sand is worked into the holes before the pitch is seeded with MM60 hard-wearing ryegrass cultivars.” Like we didn’t know.

The East Stand

The East Stand is on Avenell Road and incorporates the main entrance to the ground. The original was designed by renowned architect Archibald Leitch, and was the only stand built when the ground opened in 1913. Actually, it wasn’t even half-built when the season started and couldn’t be used for the first game (a 2-1 victory over Leicester Fosse). Such was the state of the ground that fans could have got in easily without paying, but most were honest enough to form orderly queues. Even six months later only the roof of the stand was present, and the ‘walls’ were large tarpaulins. This was partly because the move to Highbury had cost so much that the builder was only getting paid by taking a share of gate receipts each week before continuing work. Meanwhile the club assured fans that they were trying to strengthen the team, but the players they wanted just weren’t available . . .

For the next 20 years the East Stand sheltered 9,000 people, while the rest of the crowd got wet on the shallow uncovered terraces of the other three sides. The East Stand roof had nine sections, on which were painted the individual letters to make up Arsenal FC. For some reason these were painted out again after Herbert Chapman arrived in 1925, and a minimalist white décor was adopted. However, plain white was far better than the adverts for Bovril and lung-busting extra-strength fags that adorned the stands at many other grounds. Advertising didn’t arrive within Highbury until the 1980s.

Herb had grand plans for rebuilding, but his untimely death in 1934 meant that he only saw the new West Stand completed. It wasn’t until April 21, 1936 that some blokes with pickaxes climbed on to the roof of the old East Stand and started demolishing it. Six months and £130,000 later the new East Stand was finished. This version seated 4,000 in the top tier, 4,000 in the lower tier and another 1,600 in the ‘paddock’ either side of the dugouts. The paddock seats were taken out in the summer of 1937 to make a standing enclosure for 5,000 people, where admission was originally 2 shillings (10 new pence).

“The East Stand is a noble thing, a building of wonder and unparalleled in Football,” said the matchday programme on the day of inauguration, October 24,1936. By the 1990s those who sat in the East Lower had plenty of time to reflect on its glory as they queued 30 deep waiting to get in, among the piles of horse sh*t in the shadow of the art deco edifice.

As well as the changing rooms, boardroom and administrative centre of the club, the new East Stand also contained the famous Marble Halls, adorned with the bust of the then recently-deceased Herbert Chapman by Jacob Epstein. Ever since, new managers have invariably been pictured smiling in close proximity to the likeness of the great man, which gives reporters the opportunity to make unflattering comparisons with Chapman’s record. Chapman’s ghost was said to haunt the corridors of the East Stand. If that was so, he’d probably come back to have a go at the Board for letting the place get a bit run down since he left.

The changing rooms were tiny by modern standards, and only looked good when empty of people, hung with the shirts of the home team and pictured through a wide-angle lens. The size did not bother players of the past, who happily passed round the after-match ciggies in the communal baths.

The tunnel by which players entered and left the pitch was in the middle of the East Stand. It was flanked by the dugouts, which were updated a few times, but from the 1960s to 1994 used to resemble greenhouses and were presumably almost as hot when the sun shone. They were then changed to resemble old goalposts, which may have been more comfortable. The seats within them were placed so low that managers could almost check out the state of the undersoil heating. This may have been part of the reason why Arsène Wenger never managed to see a contentious incident.

The directors’ box and press box were in the upper tier of the East Stand, where they face the afternoon sun. This gives the press the opportunity to snooze in warmth if the game is not living up to expectations. Jimmy Greaves once claimed that was the only reason the press turned up (nb. This was a very long time ago, when – believe it or not – Spurs rather than Arsenal were known for attractive football). The directors’ box also long had a phone link to the dugout, which enabled managers to sit ‘upstairs’ and observe the game while giving instructions to minions below. George Graham was keen on this for a while, but Arsène Wenger rarely took the opportunity.

The West Stand

Opposite the East Stand is, naturally enough, the West Stand. From outside the stadium, the West Stand was largely obscured by a row of houses on Highbury Hill. This was a pity, as the impressive structure was designed by respected architect Claude Waterlow Ferrier (all architects are either respected or renowned) and built for around £50,000. It was opened on December 10, 1932 by the Prince of Wales (soon to be King Edward VIII, and soon to be off with Mrs Simpson), and featured seating for 4,100 up top, an electric lift and three flats. Figures for the original standing capacity in the lower tier vary from 17,000 to 20,000.

When the West Stand was built the club purchased a couple of houses on Highbury Hill, knocked them down and built an additional entrance to the new stand and the still clockless south terrace. It’s a shame the club couldn’t or wouldn’t buy the whole row, as that would have increased the size of the site to Ashburton proportions and removed the need for a move at all.

In the 1930s Herb Chapman had the bright idea of putting lights on top of the stands for training purposes, but it wasn’t until 1951 that proper floodlights were added to the East and West Stands. The first Arsenal match they were used for was a friendly against Hapoel Tel Aviv, but before that they were used for the first Boxers v Jockeys charity match on April 2.

Although there was originally a low fence in front of the new East Stand, Highbury never had the sort of fences designed to stop supporters getting onto the pitch under any circumstances. Despite requests from the Football League, Highbury was one of the few English top-level grounds not to put up fences when hooliganism was rife in the 1970s and 1980s. This meant Highbury stopped being used for FA Cup semi-finals, as the authorities insisted on fences, with ultimately disastrous consequences at Hillsborough.

In 1969 seating for 5,500 was put into the West Lower at a cost of £80,000, still leaving standing room in front. The next exciting event was the inauguration of the Family Enclosure for the game against Man City on November 22, 1986. Junior Gunners were allowed in for half price, but if they stood anywhere else they had to pay the full £2.50. Prior to this special section being fenced off it was possible to wander the whole length of the shallow terrace that ran along the front of the stand. This gave fans the chance to move from one end to the other at half time if they desired. Away fans were traditionally allocated a block of seats at the southern end of the West Lower, so another reason for moving along the terrace was the occasional barrage of missiles and abuse from above.

In the summer of 1989 Arsenal finally gave in to the Twentieth Century and installed identical electronic scoreboards on the East and West Stands. If we weren’t the last top division club to do this, we were certainly in the relegation zone. Electronic boards were old hat everywhere from Piccadilly Circus to the Swedish second division by the time we got them, and several letters had been printed in the programme pointing out this deficiency.

The recommendations of the Taylor Report that followed the Hillsborough disaster brought about the final change to both the East and West Stands: the shallow terraces along the front were converted to seating in 1993 (reconverted in the case of the East Stand, other than the bit at the south end of it which was for wheelchair supporters). The prospect of getting rid of all terraces led to fierce debate in the matchday programme letters’ page, which previously contained little more controversial than pictures of Gooners on holiday in places with Arsenal-related names, and requests for pen-pals from Polish teenagers (“all letters will receive a reply”). Actually there was one other letter of note: on December 5, 1987 the first known comparison of Highbury to a library appeared in correspondence from a T Madden of Islington. Blame him.

Next issue: The North Bank! The Clock End! The JVC centre! The wise words of Peter Hill-Wood!


Follew me on Twitter: @P_h_i_1


2 thoughts on “The Bluffer’s Guide To Highbury – pt 1

  1. Pingback: Highbury Home of Football « FOOTBALL IS BLOODY MAD I CAN TELL YOU

  2. Pingback: Arsenal won the Treble in 1935: Crowd celebrations | The Arsenal History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.