An Arsenal Blast from the Past
Sir Henry George Norris
(July 23, 1865 – July 30, 1934)
Born in Kennington, to a working class family Sir Henry left school at fourteen to join a solicitor’s firm. Eighteen years later he left to pursue a career in property development, partnering W.G. Allen in the firm Allen & Norris. He made his fortune building houses in south and west London, Fulham in particular. He was commissioned into the 2nd Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers in 1896, but resigned the following year. From 1909 to 1919 he served as Mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Fulham, a member of the London County Council from 1916 to 1919, and as a Conservative MP for Fulham East from 1918 to 1922.
During World War I Norris was a military recruitment officer for the British Army. He served in the 3rd Middlesex Artillery Volunteers and in 1917 he was knighted and given the honorary rank of colonel for services to his country. He was also a prominent Freemason, rising to become Grand Deacon of the United Grand Lodge of England, and a well-known local philanthropist with close connections to the Church of England; he counted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Thomas Davidson as a personal friend.
He purchased Woolwich Arsenal in 1910 and controlled his club like a dictator. Unlike other club directors and chairmen of his era Sir Henry never served on boards to raise his standing in the community, he did things his own way. He made numerous powerful enemies both in and out of football due to his questionable tactics and bullying nature. His company, Allen & Norris, was responsible for transforming Fulham from a semi-rural outpost into an urban jungle. In the process of constructing, renovating and selling houses, he made a large network of contacts in building and banking, many of whom owed him favours. Photographs and written accounts suggest that his physical stature, actions and mannerism’s made him a man to be feared.
The Woolwich Arsenal board welcomed Norris with open arms, having heard of his political ‘prowess’ when he was a director of Fulham. He had negotiated their rapid rise from the Southern League right up to Division Two. Fulham’s rise in divisions took place in only four years and that led directors of other clubs to suggest that the Football League had received substantial inducements, but no firm evidence was ever found. Sir Henry was already the undisputed master of subterfuge. On buying his majority stake in Woolwich Arsenal, he proposed a merger with Fulham and a permanent move to Craven Cottage to create a London ‘super-club’ but he was blocked by the Football League. Unable to merge the two clubs he set about rejuvenating Woolwich Arsenal and proposed that the club should be moved to North London enabling them to benefit from a local population of 500,000 in the districts of Finsbury, Hackney, Islington and Holborn. Chelsea, Orient and Spurs protested the proposal over concern for the erosion of their fan bases. The Tottenham Herald described Norris as an “interloper”, and a cartoon portrayed him as being the equivalent of the Hound of the Baskervilles, prowling around farmyards in an enormous spiked collar, ready to rip apart the Tottenham cockerel and steal its food.
An FA enquiry was set up to investigate the move but, once again, Sir Henry used his “influence” to stack the deck by appointing many personal friends to the committee and giving them information that would be favourable to Woolwich Arsenal. The committee ruled that the opposition had “no right to interfere”. The Tottenham Herald placed an advertisement begging its readers not to go and support Norris’s Woolwich interlopers stating that “They have no right to be here.” A group of Highbury residents were equally indignant about the possibility of the undesirable elements of professional football creating a vulgar presence on their doorstep. But true to form Sir Henry launched a charm offensive on the group, assuring them that they’d barely notice a football club in their midst, and in any case, that 30,000-plus fans in the district every other Saturday would be excellent for local business. The next hurdle to cross turned out to be the Church of England, many on the ecclesiastical committee believed football to be ‘ungodly’ and local residents believed that the thought of the Church of England agreeing to a football club buying the land was inconceivable. But Sir Henry went right to the top and offered the church a donation of £20,000, the church committee accepted the offer and the Archbishop of Canterbury personally signed the deed to Highbury.
With several members of the team killed in the Great War and no football having been played since 1915 Sir Henry’s hopes of transforming Arsenal into a super-club appeared to be in tatters. Having invested over £125,000 into the club, he faced the almost impossible task of rebuilding Arsenal from mid-table in Division Two to his dream “Super Club”. But he was about to pull another rabbit out of his hat. When the FA reconvened in 1919, Norris was full of confidence having just been knighted for his work as a recruitment officer during the war. He was also granted the honorary title of colonel and in the 1918 General Election had been voted Tory MP for Fulham East on a platform of “common decency”, “family values” and “moral strength”.
An FA management committee, anxious to get football back on its feet, proposed that Division One be expanded from 20 to 22 clubs. This wouldn’t seem to benefit Arsenal, who’d finished fifth in Division Two in the 1914/15 season, Birmingham and Wolves finishing third and fourth. It was widely believed that Division One’s relegated clubs, Chelsea and Spurs, would obtain a reprieve but Norris got to work his magic tricks on the committee. He secretly ‘canvassed’ every single member of the FA committee, with the proposal that Arsenal deserved promotion – however Spurs directors were kept completely in the dark throughout and suspected nothing. He also maintained that the Gunners should be rewarded “for their long service to league football”, neglecting to mention that Wolves had actually been league members for longer.
As for relegation-threatened Chelsea, Norris assured the Stamford Bridge chairman that his club would be reprieved as long as Arsenal got promotion. When the vote was taken, Chelsea got their reprieve, and Arsenal received their promotion. White Hart Lane was stunned. Even Tottenham’s parrot, presented to the club on the voyage home from their 1908 South American tour, was unable to cope with the news. It dropped dead, thus giving rise to the football cliché “sick as a parrot”. ‘Lucky Arsenal’ and ‘Cheating Arsenal’ were two of the more complimentary titles bestowed upon the club at the time.
By 1925 Sir Henry had owned Arsenal for close to 15 years and they had still not won any trophies – he was convinced that the problem was his manager Lesley Knighton who he dismissed, shortly before he was due to receive a £4,000 bonus. Huddersfield Town’s triple Championship-winning boss Herbert Chapman was appointed manager in 1925 but Sir Henry found the 5ft 6in Chapman, dubbed ‘Yorkshire’s Napoleon’ to be a real handful to manage. Chapman informed Norris that if he really wanted to see Arsenal win a trophy in his lifetime, he’d have to spend his cash: his main target, Sunderland’s brilliant striker, Charlie Buchan, was officially worth £5,000, but Sir Henry worked out a deal where he would pay £2,000 to Sunderland up front and £100 for every goal Buchan scored during the season.
In 1927, the Daily Mail ran a series of articles alleging that Norris was guilty of making illegal payments to Charlie Buchan. Norris, they claimed, had given under-the-counter sums to Buchan to compensate for the loss of income he would incur from his move south – the player had to give up his business interests and buy an expensive house in London. The FA was strict about payments made to players, even though everyone in football knew that sweeteners regularly lured players to big clubs. Sir Henry had also personally ‘overseen’ the sale of the team bus in 1927 for £125, which somehow found its way into his wife’s bank account. The revelations were sensational how could such a high-profile member of the Conservative Party indulge in such financial malpractice? Norris challenged the Daily Mail’s allegations in court two years later, but the charges were upheld by the judge. An investigation by the Football Association followed, which uncovered that he had also used Arsenal’s expense accounts for his personal use to, namely to pay for his chauffeur. He sued the Daily Mail and the FA for libel, but in February 1929, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, ruled in favour of the FA and the Daily Mail. As a result, Sir Henry Norris was banned from Football – forever
After his death in 1934 from a massive heart attack, a kinder, gentler Sir Henry Norris could be glimpsed. His estate was valued at over £71,000 – the equivalent of over £4m today and not only were his widow, three daughters and two sisters taken care of, but Norris also looked after many of the Arsenal staff he used to terrify. Former manager Leslie Knighton was staggered to receive a cheque for £100 from the Norris estate, enabling him to take early retirement. Trainer George Hardy and groundsman Alec Rae received £50 each – over a year’s wages. Rae was likewise dumbfounded, as Norris was “always on to me if the pitch wasn’t quite like the croquet lawn he wanted”. The Fulham chapel where his funeral took place overflowed with friends and well-wishers. The vicar who conducted the service summed up: “Of the dead, speak nothing but good.” To this day, the regulars over at White Hart Lane might beg to differ
Although Sir Henry Norris died over 80 years ago, his name continues to provoke controversy.