By Tony Attwood
You might know that aside from publishing Untold Arsenal I also publish the website of the AISA Arsenal History Society.
That site began in 2009, and it has over time worked to correct some of the errors and omissions that appear in various books and websites that deal with Arsenal’s history.
Indeed the errors in Arsenal’s official histories published all the way from the club’s early handbook through to “Arsenal: The Official Biography” have been legion, largely because most of the time the authors have simply quoted the previous book, which quoted the previous book…
Some of these errors are classic, like the one that says that when Royal Arsenal went professional in 1891 and became Woolwich Arsenal, all the other teams in the area refused to play them. In fact the opposite was true – everyone wanted to play the most famous club in the area. But the comment was made in one book, and then replicated over and over. And that was just one of many such mistakes.
I began to be seriously interested in the problem of the wholesale misrepresentation of Arsenal’s history when I started to study the life and times of Henry Norris, a man who is popularly considered to have been a crook, whose crimes included bribing clubs and League officials to allow Arsenal back into Division I after the first world war, and telling his managers that they couldn’t spend any money on transfers.
It was all patently untrue – Norris had after all employed Herbert Chapman who spent huge sums on transfers – and I began to realise that most of the stories surrounding Norris published Arsenal histories had no basis in fact. Which raised the question, how did these stories come about, and why had Arsenal colluded in publishing them to the club’s own detriment, when in fact Henry Norris saved Arsenal from extinction, moved the club to Arsenal, and brought in Chapman – our most successful manager at that time?
Particularly missing from the story is a recognition of the benefit that Arsenal’s move to Islington gave Tottenham (whose crowds went up significantly after 1913)and the fact that it was Henry Norris who founded the Footballers’ Battalion in the first world war, and paid the salaries and for the training of those who signed up until the Battalion was assimilated into the Middlesex Regiment. Nor the fact that he got a knighthood in recognition of that work. Nor the fact that having been turned down for military service on the grounds of his age and poor eyesight he was recruited by the War Office, and by the end of the war had risen from no rank to Lt Colonel – an extraordinary achievement for a man who had left school at 13, never attended university, and most certainly did not know any of the right families.
Indeed at the end of the war the government made him chairman of the department in charge of demobilisation of soldiers returning from active service.
So why does everyone have it in for Henry Norris? Two reasons emerge. One is that when he was ousted from the club after Fulham and Arsenal became involved in a legal dispute, he was ousted by the upper class families who he despised as useless nincompoops, and who saw him as a working class oik who should never have been allowed to rise above his station.
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We should remember for a start that when an MP Norris promoted radical policies such as equal pay for women, state pensions for all injured veterans of the war, a 50% reduction in train fares to allow men to travel to look for work, and the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers.
Second we have to note that Leslie Knighton, the manager Norris appointed before he brought in Herbert Chapman, wrote his autobiography for a Sunday newspaper, some 22 years after being dismissed by Norris – it was published after Norris’ death. That book blamed Norris for the failure on the pitch between 1919 and 1925 – Knighton’s reign. It was music to the ears of the directors who had taken over the club after Norris left in 1927.
That story became the accepted truth, although the fact that an opposite tale was told by George Allison in his autobiography published a couple of weeks before Knighton’s book came out, was ignored – even though Knighton had never, ever won anything with any club of which he was a manager, while Allison had won the league twice and the FA Cup once as Arsenal manager, and had been involved with the club from 1910 to 1947.
These are the sorts of misrepresentations of Arsenal’s history that I try to undo and correct on the Arsenal History Society blog, and I mention them today because the current series being published on the blog is “Henry Norris at the Arsenal.”
And not just that, but today that story has reached February 1919, as Tottenham and Arsenal jostled for the right to be one of the clubs elected to the 1st Division upon its expansion in August 1919.
That story involves match fixing by Liverpool and Manchester United, and the allegation that Henry Norris fixed other club owners to get them to vote for Arsenal. By reproducing what the leading football magazine of the time said, we’re as close to resolving that issue as we’ll ever be, and it doesn’t look good for the conspiracy theorists.
If you have some time over the Christmas period you might perhaps like to acquaint yourself a little more fully with the story – not least since 2019 will, obviously, mark 100 years of Arsenal in the first division, and almost certainly a re-running of all the Tottenham conspiracy theory tales about a bought election.
Today’s article is What the media said about the election of Arsenal to the 1st division in 1919 – although you might want to go back a little if you want some more context. Arsenal in January 1919: rioting in the streets and the question of promotion – is the article before it if you have a bit of time.
Or of course you might really want to take in the whole story. It is rather long, but I’ve felt it was important to tell, and once it is finished it will be published as a book.
An index to the whole series appears at Henry Norris at the Arsenal.
Even if you don’t normally read any Arsenal history books, I hope you might spend a few moments with “What the media said” (cited above) because I think it is important that Arsenal supporters know about their club.
Here’s one more link: if you want an overview of all the research and analysis undertaken by the Arsenal History Society that is on the home page of the blog. It is probably the most comprehensive and most widely read football history site for any club in England. I hope you find it interesting.
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