By Tony Attwood
If you have been reading the twice (occasionally thrice) weekly adventures of Henry Norris on the Arsenal History Society website you will of course know the answer to the question above.
If not, and yif our answer is that he was a guy who owned Arsenal at one time and was a bit of a crook, then you’ll be in for a bit of a surprise if you read on. Because what I am offering here is a quick summary of what we’ve covered so far on the Arsenal History Society site in the series Henry Norris at the Arsenal
I’m not going to cite all the evidence we’ve gathered, because that is what takes up time and space – but you can go onto the AHS site and read, if not all of “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” the eight articles covering Arsenal’s election to the first division.
So far we’ve covered the first ten years of his involvement with the club and it has used up over 65,000 words. And there are seven more years left.
So what I am presenting here is a summary of the highlights, just so you know that if you have ever heard of Henry Norris, what you have heard is probably a set of falsifications created by a combination of Tottenham supporters angry about 1919, a very disgruntled manager whom Norris sacked when he brought in Herbert Chapman, and (although I won’t go into it here as we have not go that far in the story) the bunch of aristocrats who ousted Norris and took over the club themselves, re-writing history as they did so. Here’s the story up to 1920, in short form.
1: Arsenal were about to go bust – he rescued them
That was 1910, and there was no rescue in sight. So Henry Norris book over Woolwich Arsenal, paid off all the outstanding debts, and then offered the club back to the local population, by offering them shares in the new, debt free company. Very few people wanted to buy the shares, so he was left holding the club.
2: He moved Arsenal to Highbury – and helped Tottenham
Without the move the club would have folded because the crowds were so low. But it was more than just a move. Henry Norris chose an area that was rife for football expansion, paid for building the ground, and generated a huge local interest in football. As a result Tottenham, who had moaned and moaned about the move of Arsenal to Highbury found their crowds went up massively, because of the intense coverage of the two clubs by the local papers.
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3: He created and paid for the Footballers Battalion in the 1st world war
There were in fact several such battalions – the one created by Henry Norris became part of the Middlesex Regiment. All the while the men were training and getting ready to join the Middlesex, Norris paid for their equipment and their salaries. You may have heard that Joynson Hicks created the battalion, but he simply presented the idea in Parliament, as he was an MP. You may have read that Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) was involved – but no Conan Doyle hated football and wanted it shut down the moment war was declared in 1914.
Contrary to some reports, Norris volunteered for active service, but was turned down on three grounds: one he was too old, two his eyesight was too poor, and three he was a lot more use as a recruiting officer in London. In 1917 he was given a knighthood for raising and paying for the battalion.
4: Norris was a brilliant administrator, as the government recognised.
As Mayor of Fulham, Norris was in charge of recruitment of volunteers in the Borough, before conscription. So effective was he that the War Office took him on and made him a Lieutenant in the army with the job of sorting out recruitment in Worthing on the south coast. He was then brought back to London and made a captain and his work expanded in the War Office. So good was he at administration that by 1917 he had become a Lt Colonel and was organising conscription across the whole of the south east. When the war was over he became Chairman of the demobilisation committee. He had served his country throughout the war with honour and distinction; not bad for a guy who left school at 14 with no formal qualifications.
5: Tottenham swallowed their pride.
During the war WHL was taken over by the military – no records exist to show why (War Office records from the period were destroyed by enemy bombing in the second world war) but from what I can see it was because the army wanted to test the Enfield Rifles they were taking, before shipping them out to the troops. Norris offered to let Tottenham (who had so vigorously opposed Arsenal’s move north) to play their war time league games at Highbury, which they accepted. It was a magnanimous gesture – and he needn’t have done so, as Tottenham could have moved to Clapton Orient’s ground.
6: After the war the league was expanded and Arsenal elected.
And the story is that Norris somehow bribed or otherwise cheated to get Arsenal back into the first division. With the help of TheArsenalHistory website we’ve traced the story from 1913 onwards. The issue in 1919 was that of match fixing in 1914/15 and Norris was the first person publicly to suggest (in his newspaper column) that a Liverpool match had been fixed. The League at the time were outraged and warned Norris about future comments. In the following seasons there were further incidents of suspected match rigging and Norris stayed quiet as ordered. But in 1915 all hell broke loose when not for the first time Liverpool were found beyond doubt to be involved in match fixing.
Post war the League decided to enlarge the first division by two clubs and invited clubs to apply for the extra place – but after discussion decided to give one of the two places to Chelsea who were only relegated because of the match fixing. Tottenham who had finished bottom of the 1st division pre-war said they should stay up too. They cited precedent, but an examination of earlier expansions show this was not a valid proposition.
There was a lot of support for Arsenal because they were seen as the team who had brought the Football League to London (Tottenham had been in the rival Southern League for quite a while and only applied for Football League status once Arsenal and Chelsea had led the way). There was thus no precedent for what should happen at this time and from the off articles appeared in authoritative magazines and papers supporting Arsenal’s case.
It has since been suggested that Norris made a speech at the League AGM which elected Arsenal back to the first division, but the minutes of the meeting do not reflect this, and none of the local papers across the country reported any mention any speech at the AGM or made any complaint about Arsenal’s election, except the local paper in Tottenham which was a little upset but still accepted the vote without suggesting anything was amiss.
Protestations about Arsenal winning the vote only started much later when a Tottenham supporter wrote history of Arsenal and brought up the idea. Bernard Joy writing a history of Arsenal also mentioned the notion of Norris persuading the meeting, but he gave a different account and had a speech by a different person. Again, the minutes of the meeting and newspaper reports of the day don’t back him up, and a review of Joy’s book shows it to be packed solid with errors.
7: A much later allegation
In 1948, Leslie Knighton, who managed Arsenal in the first years back in the first division (1919-25) wrote his autobiography for a sunday newspaper, and put the comparative failure of Arsenal during that period totally down to Norris, saying that he was refused money to buy players. We’ll show in forthcoming articles that this was constantly untrue, but we’ve dealt already with one event that disproves this point already: the transfer of Jimmy Patterson.
The whole story is laid out under the Paterson Affair in the article on the Second Libel and in essence it is this. Knighton claimed that Norris was so mean with his money that he, Knighton, was reduced to playing the brother in law of the club’s physio in some games. It sounds awful doesn’t it?
But the man in question, as we show in the article, was in fact a player who had twice won the League in Scotland with Rangers, and who having retired during Knighton’s reign, was persuaded by Herbert Chapman to come back and play for the team again. He was an experienced footballer who was the brother in law of the club’s doctor, not the physio.
There is plenty more to come but I hope that gives you an idea. The series continues every two or three days.
Norris at the Arsenal: the 1919 affair
- April 1915: New revelations concerning perhaps the most important month in Arsenal’s history
- November / December 1915: the match fixing scandal comes to the fore: Norris is armed
The voting and the comments before and after the election
- The first suggestion that Arsenal could be elected to the 1st division.
- Arsenal in January 1919: rioting in the streets and the question of promotion
- What the media said about the election of Arsenal to the 1st division in 1919
- Arsenal prepare for the vote on who should be promoted to the First Division
- March 1919: The vote to extend the league and what the media said
- Why did the clubs vote for Arsenal rather than Tottenham in March 1919?