David Danskin in Coventry
by Lionel Bird, Historian, Coventry City Football Club
(This article was written by Lionel in August 2018, primarily for the Coventry Telegraph.
The Telegraph published a major feature, based on the article, on 3 September 2018.)
Recently Ian Woolley, chairman of the Friends of London Road Cemetery, informed me that David Danskin, the founder of Arsenal Football Club, was buried in the cemetery. Danskin was born in Burntisland, Fife, in 1863. When he left school he became an apprentice engine fitter and eventually qualified as a mechanical engineer. In his teenage years he played football for Kirkcaldy Wanderers. He left Scotland in 1885 at the age of 22 having secured employment at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory in Woolwich, working in the Dial Square workshop. He married Georgina Harradon the following year and the couple had three children.
His passion for football was still strong. In October 1886 he asked several work colleagues if they were interested in forming a team. Around fifteen volunteered and they all donated sixpence each to club funds. Danskin contributed three shillings, a football was purchased and the club adopted the title of Dial Square F.C. Their first match was on 11 December against Eastern Wanderers F.C. Danskin was appointed captain and his team won 6-0. On Christmas Day members of Dial Square met at the nearby Royal Oak public house and decided to change the club name to Royal Arsenal.
By 1890 Danskin's football career appears to have ended, mainly due to leg injuries and a heavy work schedule. He decided to become self-employed and started his own bicycle business operated from premises in Plumstead. The shop was a success and in 1907 he sold the business for £550. He moved to Coventry having obtained a job as an examiner at the Standard Motor Company. He purchased a two-bedroom semi-detached house in North Street, Upper Stoke, virtually next to the Rose & Woodbine pub. A close neighbour was Samuel Bullivant, the former Singer F.C. player and now Coventry City F.C. trainer. I wonder if they frequented the local pub and talked about football in the old days? Did he ever go to watch Coventry City play at their Highfield Road ground situated close to where he was living?
Sadly Georgina Danskin died in 1916. Two years later David married Rosie Richardson, a work colleague on his inspection team. The couple had three children. In 1936 David was admitted to Gulson Road Hospital after aggravating an old football injury when he fell whilst running for a tram. He was later diagnosed with gangrene and the affected leg would require amputation. His reply to this was: "I've got two legs now and if I'm going to die, I'll die with two legs". He was still recovering in hospital when Arsenal played Sheffield United in the F.A. Cup Final on 25 April at Wembley Stadium. The hospital matron allowed him to listen to the match coverage on national radio. Arsenal won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Ted Drake in front of 93,000 spectators.
David was forced to retire from work due to constant health problems. He received a company pension of ten shillings a week, a substantial payment in those days. The family home in North Street was badly bomb damaged in the Blitz of November 1940. David's steel trunk, which contained his football jersey's, medals and family photographs, was destroyed. He was forced to move out immediately and went to live with his daughter Ellen Dickenson, who resided in Kenilworth.
In 1942 he was admitted to Warwick Hospital. He remained there until his death on 4 August 1948 aged 85. He was buried at London Road Cemetery three days later. The nickname of Arsenal is "The Gunners" and the club crest features a field artillery cannon. How fitting it is that two brave Gunner soldiers, Horace Bennett and Walter Cooper, who served in the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War, are buried a few feet away from David's grave, with both headstones bearing the regimental "cannon" insignia.
Willie Stanley, the founder of Singer Football Club in 1883 (this became Coventry City F.C. in 1898), is also buried in the cemetery. There is a striking similarity in the lives of these two men. They both left their family homes to seek work in another city. They played for the football clubs which they founded. They were qualified engineers and they both owned a bicycle business during their lifetime. When Stanley's unmarked grave was located in 2007 I helped raise money to provide a suitably inscribed headstone. David Danskin lies in an unmarked grave today. I believe it is time he received the same recognition.
DAVID DANSKIN, IN HIS OWN WORDS (APRIL 1931)
transcribed by Lionel Bird, Historian, Coventry City Football Club
David Danskin was interviewed by the Midland Daily Telegraph (now the Coventry Telegraph) on 24 April 1931 and the newspaper ran the story the following day. These are the most important statements he made:
I went to the Woolwich Arsenal (works) as a bench fitter in late 1885. At that time Rugby football held full sway and in the cricket season of 1886 I played for my shop team. When the close season came I was anxious to play Association football, as I had done in Scotland, and I brought the suggestion forward at a meeting of the shop. My mates pooh-poohed the idea, declaring such an experiment would be a failure, but I persisted. To get over the difficulty of the lack of funds I made a penny collection around the shop and by this means got together the princely sum of 5 shillings and sixpence. I had at least obtained the interest of all my colleagues in the shop and on the Saturday morning I went up to a sports outfitter's in Artillery Place and bought a ball for 10 shillings and sixpence. So anxious was I to get a start that I advanced the extra five shillings. We formed a club in the Dial Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
I took the ball onto Plumstead Common. Kicking the ball high into the air, I saw the biggest scramble for it, it has been my privilege to see. But the players continued to handle it and finding some of the spectators had played soccer I enlisted their aid. In a short while the other players began to imitate us and keep their hands out of the way. On the following Saturday we selected two teams from the shop for a practice game. Shortly afterwards we had become proficient enough to play a match with a team known as Eastern Wanderers of Millwall. We played on a field, the surface of which was in a horrible state. We beat them 6-0 and I can assure you this result bucked us up no end and did us the world of good. I think I played fullback that day.
A club was then started at Erith and we used to have matches with them until such time as we became known. Gradually our reputation spread and we had a good many applications for places in the team from people from outside districts like Notts Forest. This made the position rather involved and it was decided to hold a general meeting for the purpose of discussing the future of the club, and to decide whether the name of the shop, under which we had always played, should be abandoned. After a full and free discussion it was unanimously decided to change our name to the Royal Arsenal Football Club.
When we changed our name all the players from other districts were able to join up and it was necessary that new shirts should be bought. It was then that I was instructed to get samples and prices, and as a result we changed our colours to the now famous red shirts which have been worn ever since. It was only a couple of months ago that I found the original samples of the new shirts in my pocket book and destroyed them, thinking they would be of little use again. We bought them from a gents outfitters in Wellington Street, Woolwich.
In the early days, besides being a playing member, I also served on the committee and played in every position on the field. After a season or two as an amateur club we took on a number of professionals and played on Plumstead Common, later moving to the Sportsman's Ground on Plumstead Marshes, better known as Walton's Piggeries. We stayed there for about two seasons and then migrated to a field belonging to Mr. Cave, forage contractor, and played there for some time. Later on another change was necessary and we moved our headquarters first to a ground in the name of Invicta, which was properly equipped with grand stands and terraces, and subsequently to the Manor Field, which was bought by the club and remained the headquarters of Arsenal until they moved to Highbury.
Other extracts from the article:
Mr. Danskin was a member of the team which won the Arsenal Club's first cup final, playing as a goalkeeper with the reserve team when they won the Kent Junior Cup. In this game they defeated a team known as Chatham Excelsior and the final was played at Gravesend. They won 6-0 and Mr. Danskin remembers how, on account of the cold, bleak weather, he played between the sticks wearing a pair of cricket trousers as an aid to raising the temperature. He remembers having his photograph taken a little later in the club's history when they had won the Kent Junior Cup, the Kent Senior Cup, the London Charity Cup, the London Cup and the Milton Shield for a six-a-side competition, the final of which was played in artificial light on the boards of the Agricultural Hall.
After his playing days were over Mr. Danskin was in great demand as a referee in London and had charge of several representative games. Since he has been in Coventry, he has taken a great interest in football and was chairman of Stoke Albions F.C. when they defeated Foleshill Albions F.C. in the final of the Midland Daily Telegraph Junior Cup. The same year the club won the Leamington Hospital Cup and the Bedworth Charity Cup. Today he is a very proud man and realised one of his life's ambitions in seeing the club proud champions of the English League after 46 years.
Mr Danskin commenced his football career in Kirkcaldy, the district where Alec James, Arsenal's famous inside left first saw light of day, and he has been in Coventry 24 years next month. With the exception of six years spent partly at the (Coventry) Ordnance Works and the Maudslay Motor Company, he has been employed by the Standard Motor Company during the whole of that time. Questioned as to his opinion of modern day football, Mr. Danskin said it was vastly superior in all departments to the game he first knew and the players in the main, much more skilful. He said he used to be a keen supporter of Coventry City F.C. until he got "fed up" with the way the club was being run. "What they want" he said,"is a manager who is given full scope and then we should see an improvement in every direction".
Thanks to Damien Kimberley of the Coventry History Centre who alerted me to this article.
Postscript: In September 2018, the Arsenal Scotland Supporters Club offered to arrange for a permanent memorial to David Danskin, perhaps a headstone, to be erected in Coventry's London Road Cemetery; and to secure the necessary finance. The proposal was warmly welcomed, and plans are being developed. Full details will appear on this website in due course.
Burntisland Heritage Trust are grateful to Lionel Bird for giving us permission to reproduce his article and his transcripts; to Ian Woolley for the recent photo of the house in North Street; and to Richard Wyatt for the old family photographs.
© Lionel Bird, Ian Woolley, Richard Wyatt and Burntisland Heritage Trust 2018
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