By Tony Attwood
As you will probably have heard Peter Hill-Wood died this week at the age of 82. He came onto the board in 1962 and became chairman in 1982, serving until he stepped down through ill health in 2013.
The Hill-Wood engagement with Arsenal goes back to the time of Sir Samuel Hill-Wood, the first of the dynasty to become Arsenal chairman. He was chair of Glossop North End, a second division club before the first world war, and was thus in charge when Glossop played Arsenal in the League in 1913/14 and 1914/15.
In February 1920 both Sir Henry Norris of Arsenal and Sir Samuel Hill-Wood were elected MPs and it was noticeable that Sir Samuel singularly failed to support Sir Henry’s introduction of the Ready Money Football Betting Bill which Sir Henry presented to Parliament on behalf of the Football Association and the associations of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The purpose of the bill being to make it illegal to distribute leaflets which advertised football betting schemes.
It is worth noting however that the FA of England did not support the bill, and although other members of Parliament who were known to be interested in football all very publicly supported the bill, which became law, Sir Samuel stood aside and would not give it his support.
So what of Sir Samuel? We can see at once that he was a very different man from Sir Henry. While Sir Henry left school at 14 and became a clerk in the City of London, later making his fortune by building up his own property business in Fulham, Samuel Hill Wood was educated at Eton, and ran the family cotton business which he inherited.
So while Sir Henry rescued, funded them through the war, and ultimately made Arsenal incredibly profitable, Sir Samuel, having pushed for Glossop to be a league club (they were elected in 1898) threw in the towel and let Glossop sink at the end of the 1914/15 season.
In the war Sir Samuel served in the Cheshire regiment and reached the rank of Major, and was given his knighthood in 1921, although I can’t see for what reason. Sir Henry Norris was knighted in 1917 for having created the first football battalions (before he was an MP, thus asking others to support the venture in Parliament) and having set up three such battalions which he funded (including paying the volunteers salaries) until they were taken into the Middlesex Regiment.
Sir Henry rose from no rank before the war to Colonel through his work in the War Office ultimately being in charge of conscription across the south of England and then in charge of demobilisation across the whole country after the war.
So why did Sir Henry invite him onto the board?
The board at this time still contained men from the earlier days of Arsenal – people like Jack Humble who were in essence working men who had long supported the club (Humble being Woolwich Arsenal’s first chairman in 1893). It is possible Sir Henry also wanted to have on the board someone else who had gained as a result of the family heritage a more elevated position in society. Perhaps even someone he could hand over the reigns to when he was ready to retire from football.
It is also possible that the illness first to Sir Henry and then to his wife made him determined to pull out of more and more of his work and devote more time to holidays and his family, and so he wanted a viable deputy chairman who would be at ease with the other public school educated men who ran the league clubs.
But when a dispute broke out concerning the funding of Arsenal in which it became clear that Sir Henry personally had been paying Charlie Buchan the famous £100 a goal fee, after his signing by Chapman in 1925, the FA launched an enquiry into Arsenal and ultimately threatened to expel the club from FA recognition (which would also mean expulsion from the League) if Sir Henry remained at Arsenal.
The rest of the board were ready to stand by Sir Henry at this time but it seems not Sir Samuel (although I can’t prove that since I don’t have access to the company minutes), and in the face of this, in order to preserve the club, Sir Henry stood down. (It is oft reported that Sir Henry was found guilty of stealing money from the club at this time, but this is quite untrue, although it was reported in the Daily Mail).
Sir Samuel effectively voted Sir Henry off the board, and then created his own dynasty at the club which led to his son and grandson (Peter Hill-Wood) being Arsenal chairmen.
But in losing Sir Henry Norris Arsenal also his vision – which was of a club that was to be owned by the supporters. From the moment he first engaged with Arsenal in 1910, his efforts were based around having a new type of football club. Not one financed by a businessman, or set up and funded as a works outfit, or a set up by a church to encourage activity among young men, but a successful business venture, owned through shares by the supporters.
This is what was lost when Sir Henry and the long time members of the board stood down in 1927. From then on share ownership and thus control of the club was in the hands of an ever smaller number of men, until by the 21st century the number of independent shareholders had been reduced to such a level that the board could agree to take a final gigantic payout for themselves and hand the club over to Mr Kronke as a profit-making machine.
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