Henry Norris 1928-29: the last libel case

Last updated: June 2008


THREE TO ONE ON: NORRIS’ THREE LIBEL CASES after the publishing of the FA Commission’s report


By the weekend of 20-21 August 1927 Henry Norris and William Hall had been told what was going to be in the report of the FA Commission of Inquiry into Arsenal FC.  On Saturday 20 August, therefore, Norris began to get his retaliation in first.  He issued a statement saying that in his opinion both the Football Association and the Football League should be abolished to free English football from the “all too prevalent scandals and...inequalities of treatment”.  Norris rejected the idea that the two should amalgamate, saying that only a completely new ruling body could put English football “on a sound and healthy basis”.  In preparing this statement he had been careful to mention no names; and to show that he was not just bemoaning his own fate: he suggested that football players should be represented on the new ruling body, saying that under the present system any player accused of breaking the rules (no doubt he was thinking of Jock Rutherford) had no right to put their case to their accusers.  The statement also contained Norris’ first public reference to what was going to be in the report: he said that FA Rule 5 (no remuneration) did not apply to directors of member clubs that were limited companies; a view he continued to hold until (perhaps beyond) February 1929.


If he was capable of sensible reflection at this stage - I’m not sure he was - Norris must have realised that statements like this one were going to alienate the football authorities even further; but I guess it was sheep and lambs by this time.


In a second statement, issued the day after the Arsenal directors had learned their fate (Tuesday 30 August) Norris declared himself the victim of a witch-hunt carried out by the hierarchy of football against someone brave enough to say in public that he disagreed with some of their methods.  This statement accused un-named FA Council members of openly intending to bring about his ousting from football management.  It also described the report (published that morning in the Daily Mail) as misleading and as cherry-picking the evidence to suit the FA’s purpose.  To put this in perspective, Norris wasn’t the only one to consider the FA Commission’s report as uneven-handed: George Peachey also released a statement about it, in which he implied that the FA had not taken from him all the evidence they could have done, on account of his being known as Norris’ close friend.


At this point, Norris was fully intending to go ahead with two legal actions:


1) the one begun in spring 1927 which alleged defamation by the group around John Dean of Fulham FC over what had happened to the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus


2) against the FA for the contents of its Commission’s report which Norris felt gave the impression (which he alleged was false) that he had taken money from Arsenal FC for himself.


And that’s how matters stood when the AGM of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited was resumed and finished, on Friday 9 September 1927.  Three hundred shareholders attended it (a lot more than usual, I should imagine!) And it was a lively affair, with ordinary share owners (I mean, not directors) playing a greater part in what went on than was normal at these events.  Norris was allowed to make a speech, in which he raged against Chapman in particular; he was the only one of the dismissed directors to make a speech at the meeting, though George Peachey did confirm that he would be taking legal advice about his own position.  Chapman made a short reply concentrating solely on the dismissal of Hardy; he didn’t answer Norris’ accusations, and he didn’t mentioning the FA Commission of Inquiry.  After an awkward debate about wording, new chairman Sir Samuel Hill-Wood allowed to go on the official record a vote of thanks from the shareholders to William Hall and Henry Norris.


The press had specifically been excluded from the AGM.  So Henry Norris was incandescent the following morning (Saturday 10 September 1927) to find a short report of what had gone on at it, in the Daily Mail.  The report described the meeting as one of “Heated scenes and frequent interruptions”.  It said that Norris had “attacked the manager of the club, Mr Chapman” and that the chairman had refused to record in the minutes a vote of confidence in Hall and Norris; and it said that when the meeting was over, Norris was asked to refund the £664 he had been required to do in the FA Commission’s report.  The three last pieces of information were correct; the first was a matter of interpretation.  Norris decided to sue the Daily Mail for libel as well, on two grounds: that it had published a report on a private meeting; and that its report had given its readers the impression the meeting had been a riot.



I have very little information about what Henry Norris was doing for the next year.  The document he prepared (probably November 1928-January 1929) for the only one of his three libel cases that actually got to court suggests very strongly that he spent too much of the time brooding on his wrongs.  What happened to the other two cases?  They seem to have got lost along the way!  The actions against the FA and the Daily Mail were entwined anyway.  When time passed and neither case seemed to be making any progress towards time in court, the Daily Mail began to put the squeeze on Norris, taking steps to have the action against them ruled out by reason of the long delay.  Norris’ legal advisors seem to have managed to persuade him that if he wanted to win either of the two actions, he would have to let the other one go; and he opted to let the Daily Mail one drop, so that never was heard in court.  Quite when or why Norris’ action against Dean et al fell by the wayside I’m not sure.  But in the witness box in February 1929, Norris stated that he had let the case drop; and paid the legal costs of both sides - like as if he thought he would lose it, or his lawyers thought he would.


Only Norris v Football Association Limited reached court; it was heard by a jury and with the Lord Chief Justice as judge, in February 1929.  Why so much delay? 


Well, the first thing to hold Norris’ case up was Peachey’s more modest one, against the FA, in which his lawyers argued successfully that the FA had no power to order any director of a football club which was a limited company to resign.  This took several hearings and lasted until mid-November 1927. 


Then, during 1928, there were a couple of attempts at an out-of-court settlement in Norris’ case.  The first took place during the FA’s annual weekend meeting (June 1928).  The only account of it that I have is Henry Norris’ document for the trial of 1929 and from that I can’t be sure which side initiated it; but I think it was Norris’s.  His solicitor friend Arthur Gilbert, on behalf of Rodgers Gilbert and Rodgers, spoke to Charles Clegg and Fred Wall.  The second attempt came during the autumn and was brought about by an ‘honest broker’ that Norris mentioned but didn’t name in his 1929 document.  On that occasion, Arthur Gilbert met Charles Sutcliffe and John McKenna.  Each time, though, the effort came to nothing.  At the meetings Clegg and McKenna both said that they personally believed that Norris had not taken Arsenal’s money for himself, but that wasn’t enough for Henry Norris.  He wanted them to say so publicly as representatives of the Football Association and the Football League; and both times, the FA (in particular) wouldn’t agree to it.  And so Norris v Football Association Limited went to court, with the Lord Chief Justice as judge, and a jury, over two days in February 1929.  Please note that Clegg and Sons, solicitors, of Sheffield, were the FA’s solicitors in the case: that is, Charles Clegg the FA President.


Tuesday 5 February was taken up by Norris’ barrister Sir Patrick Hastings KC making his client’s statement, based on the document of 1929 that I’ve referred to so often in this history of Norris’ downfall and backed up by the evidence which has since been lost.  Norris’ case was that the FA Commission’s report of August 1927 had by inference (not in so many words) accused him of dishonesty, as a result of which Norris’ public reputation had been damaged and even some of his former friends thought he was a criminal.  (Note that no criminal charges had ever been brought as a result of the FA’s findings.)


Wednesday 6 February began with Mr Holman Gregory KC making the FA’s defence, that “the occasion was privileged and there was no evidence of malice” (quote taken from the Times’ very full account of the case’s second day).  The law says that no one can bring a case for slander or libel or defamation if the offending words were said or written in the course of a police investigation or during any legal proceedings (for example, giving evidence on oath): that is what ‘privilege’ means in the law of libel and slander.  The FA’s case was that any inquiry by them into possible breaches of their rules was tantamount to a legal investigation and was covered by the rules about privilege; also that Norris was wrong in believing that the sub-text of its 1927 report was that he had stolen money from Arsenal.


The rest of the second day was taken up by Henry Norris in the witness box, being cross-examined by Mr Holman Gregory, occasionally with further questions from the judge and once or twice with clarification via questions asked by his own legal team.  I sum up Norris’ evidence below; the comments in brackets are mine, trying to make sense of it all and put it in the context of Norris’ previous statements on the same subjects.


Mr Holman Gregory began by getting Norris to confirm the current maximum wage for a football player; and to agree that the FA had rules specifying that member clubs must keep accurate accounts; barring directors of member clubs from receiving payment or expenses; and allowing the FA to publish whatever information it saw fit.  Norris also agreed that it was important that football should be seen to be keeping itself free of corruption, and that those that disobeyed its rules should therefore be punished.  Having established this, Mr Holman Gregory then led Norris into a discussion of specific instances.


About the £200 payment to player C R Voysey.  It had been Leslie Knighton who had agreed to pay Voysey that sum; but Norris and Hall who had paid it.  Questioned by the judge, Norris confirmed that nothing was written down about this payment because he and William Hall knew it broke the FA rules.  Questioned by Mr Holman Gregory, Norris said that he objected to the way he and and Hall had been punished differently for breaches of the rules like this one.


About the loan to player H A White.  Norris now said that the FA had never had any need to know about this loan because (quoting Norris on the witness stand), “A man has a right to lend his money to whom he likes” - a point of view he had not raised in 1923 (when he was censured by the FL and FA for it) nor in 1927.


About the payment of his chauffeur Ryder’s wages, £3/10 a week.  It was in answer to questions on this that Norris first said that Ryder’s supposed signature in the Arsenal wages book had been written by Norris himself on 47 separate occasions: he hadn’t mentioned this in 1927 or in the document that formed the basis of his case now.  Asked whether he had signed as Ryder in order to take money from Arsenal without the auditors noticing, he denied it.  Asked whether he’d ever told the auditors what he was doing, he said, “very likely” but he didn’t seem sure about it.


Norris was questioned more closely about who actually received the £3/10 supposedly due to Ryder.  Norris explained that £3 of it was Ryder’s wages; he’d taken the other 10 shillings per week himself “to cover his house rent” - Ryder lived next to the garage on Norris’ premises at Lichfield House.  He confirmed that the payments by Arsenal to Ryder had stopped because the club (that was Knighton) feared the FA would find out.


About his payments to players in breach of the rules.  Norris again confirmed that no mention of them was put into Arsenal’s minute books because they were against the FA rules.  He said that all clubs made such payments.  Mr Holman Gregory (rather unkindly, I think) asked Norris why he hadn’t tried to stop them, and Norris told him that he would have been “the most hated man in football” if he had done.  The judge questioned him further - he obviously couldn’t understand why Norris had paid players against and above the rules.  Norris told him, “We could not have got the players otherwise.”


About the cheque for £125 payable to Queensborough Motor Company.  Sir Patrick Hastings’ speech the previous day had already confirmed that the £125 was paid to Charles Buchan.  Mr Holman Gregory probed further into the Company and was told by Norris that it was “a trading name” he used.  The judge probed further still and got Norris to admit that the Company kept no accounts, although it did have bill heads which his chauffeur sometimes used when buying petrol and tyres.  Protected by privilege himself, Norris told the court that William Hall had been lying (Norris used the word twice so he really did mean it) when in 1927 he had told the FA Commission of Inquiry that he hadn’t known the £125 cheque was going to be used to pay Charles Buchan money above the maximum wage.  As with White’s loan, however, Norris now argued that the £125 received by Buchan from this cheque was not Arsenal’s money, it was money due to Norris himself from Arsenal for car expenses.  He also said that the money wasn’t wages; he described it as compensation to Buchan for loss of income (from Buchan’s shop in Sunderland).


About the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus.  The cheque was still in existence at this stage: Norris was shown it at this point in the day’s proceedings.  Norris said that he had Chapman’s authorisation to use Chapman’s signature in endorsing the cheque. (Norris had never said so up until then, although he’d had plenty of opportunity; and Chapman’s actions when he was shown the cheque in January 1927 suggest Chapman had never given Norris permission to sign it in his name.)  Mr Holman Gregory asked Norris why he hadn’t just got Chapman to endorse the cheque himself; Norris replied, “He didn’t want to”, so the judge asked Norris again whether he’d had Chapman’s authority, and he said again that he did have it.  (I’m amazed at this: is it perjury?) He agreed that it would have been better if he’d just signed his own name. 


About the claim for expenses including travel and furniture, covering January 1927 to May 1927.  Norris confirmed that he had made such a claim, for a total of £166/14 originally though later it was reduced (he didn’t say under what circumstances) by £38.  Norris told the court that the cheque for £170 was a kind-of payment in advance against this expenses claim; which caused the judge to ask him if he really meant that, as the expenses claim hadn’t been made until nearly a year later.  To which Norris replied that he didn’t think there was anything wrong in taking money in advance that way, as he had lent the club so much over the years.  (Again this way of explaining away what had happened to the £170 cheque had never been voiced before by Henry Norris.)


Questioned further on the expenses claim of May 1927, Norris admitted that he had never before put in such a claim to Arsenal.  He explained that by saying, “I had got tired of doing things for nothing” (which he might well have done except that again he had not described the claim that way in 1927).  Norris confirmed that the expenses claim had not been discussed by Arsenal’s other directors and they had not passed any resolution to pay it; although he also said that (as far as he knew) none of the directors had complained about it.


About his legal action against John Dean et al.  Norris confirmed that he had been alleging conspiracy to make what he called “false statements regarding the cheque [that’s the £170 one] to injure him [Norris]”.   In connection with this case Norris had made a Statement of Claim in which he’d listed what the £170 was for: £10 commission due to Norris for his action in buying a car for Arsenal; £70 in expenses; and the rest on account.  Norris now confirmed that he had discontinued the case; and paid the costs of both sides; and that he had not asked for any of the defendants for a public apology.  Mr Holman Gregory suggested that the £170 had got into Edith Norris’ bank account by accident (I suppose he was being facetious!) 


That comment by Mr Holman Gregory concluded his cross-examination.  Norris stayed in the witness box for some questions from his own legal team. 


Answering a question from Sir Patrick Hastings, Norris said that when his chauffeur was first put on Arsenal’s wages list (May 1921) Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited owed Norris £7000 in unsecured loans.  At the time he took the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus (July 1926) he had guaranteed Arsenal’s overdraft to £10,000.


About payments to players which broke the FA rules, Norris said that (over the years) he had spent over £2000 of his own money, to get players, and apart from the sums mentioned during this court case he had not got any of it back.  The judge asked Norris how much of the more than £2000 had broken the FA rules; to which Norris replied that “the majority of it” had done so, but that the loan to White and the payments to Buchan had not done so.


About the promissory note he had written for the £170 cheque he took, Norris said that he had given the note to “the assistant secretary” (John Peters) immediately after his wife had paid it into her bank account.  Mr Holman Gregory objected to this statement, saying that Arsenal had not received such a note until much later than that.  Norris denied it.   (It’s not clear beyond all doubt who was right but the evidence in Norris’ documents of 1927 and 1929 suggests Mr Holman Gregory was).


At that point, Norris left the witness stand.  Mr Holman Gregory reiterated the FA’s case.  And for Norris, Sir Patrick Hastings disagreed, on these grounds: that the FA rule about what it could publish referred to circulating documents amongst the membership, not giving documents to a newspaper to publish; that the FA’s  report was malicious because it included matters extraneous to the FA’s jurisdiction; and that the FA couldn’t claim ‘fair comment’ unless the report was completely accurate - which it wasn’t.


The end of the case seems to have come very quickly.  The judge found for the Football Association Limited: that the contents of the FA Commission of Inquiry report (August 1927) were covered by privilege; and that the FA had also made their case for the contents not being malicious.  No more witnesses were called to give evidence and the jury was not required to reach a verdict.  The judge gave costs to the FA (so Norris had to pay the FA’s legal fees as well as his own).


The two days had been concerned with the first part of a two-part action by Norris against the FA.  In the second part, according to the Times, Norris’ legal team would have argued that the setting up of the FA Commission, and the way it had carried out its duties, were contrary to the rules.  However, after the judge’s decision in the first part of the case Sir Patrick Hastings told the court that they would not be proceeding with the second part.  So the judge found for the FA in part two of Norris’ case as well, and awarded costs to the FA again too.


Team FA had won a convincing victory.  2-0, I’d say.


On Thursday 7 February Charles Clegg, as the FA’s solicitor in the case, wrote to all members of the FA Council to confirm what they had probably already read in the papers. Clegg went further, however, and said that Norris’ defeat in the first part of his case against the FA had established an important precedent for its Rule 46, in confirming that it did cover FA reports published in the newspapers, it didn’t just cover reports circulated to members. 


When it came to Norris’ allegations that payments to players in breach of the FA rules were commonplace, Clegg was more circumspect, but he hoped that the outcome of Norris’ case would deter other men from paying players more than the rules allowed.  They would now see that if they got found out, there would be very little they could do to stop the FA broadcasting their name and doings abroad, or about the FA’s chosen punishment.


I hope Norris never saw a copy of this letter, it really would have rubbed salt into his wounds.  As he was no longer a member of the FA, he would not have received one himself, of course.  There is a slightly stunned, almost gleeful air about it, as if Clegg couldn’t believe the FA’s luck; he congratulated the members of the FA Commission of 1927 on their “courage” in taking on “a man occupying an apparently high social position” in the way they had.


Henry Norris had been defeated and badly roughed up in the public place of the witness box.  Under cross-examination he had been made to look foolish and chaotic if not criminal.  He had not been able to clear his name of the inferences of the FA Commission’s report in 1927 that he’d taken Arsenal’s money.  And the judge had decided that the report’s conclusions were a fair comment on how Norris had been dealing with money matters at the club.  There was really no more he could do, now, but cope with his humiliation as best he could, and get out of the public eye.  This he did - at least, the getting out of the public eye bit.  But I don’t think he ever stopped believing that what happened in 1927 was not his own fault but the result of a campaign by his enemies.  Who, in particular, did he blame?





Copyright Sally Davis June 2008