The Other Directors of [Woolwich] Arsenal FC in Henry Norris’ time

Last updated: January 2011


William Hall and Henry Norris came to the rescue of Woolwich Arsenal FC in 1910 to save the club from bankruptcy.  As the club’s largest shareholders two men had the final say, if not all the say, in the election of all the directors until mid-1927.  Below is a list of the men they chose, with some biographical details; except for George Peachey who has his own files. The men are listed in the order they became directors of Hall and Norris’ [Woolwich] Arsenal.

GEORGE LEAVEY was the man who, in desperation, asked the directors of Fulham FC to help save Woolwich Arsenal FC from ceasing to exist.  He was the chairman of the club in 1910, and its biggest creditor.  I’ve written elsewhere about how William Hall and Henry Norris became the dominant forces at [Woolwich] Arsenal FC.  Here I’ll just give some other details about Leavey.

George Hiram Leavey was born around 1858 in rural Hampshire, the son of a man who combined farming with running the local pub.  George had an elder brother and so didn’t take on the family business; by 1881 he had moved to Maidstone where he was working as an assistant in a clothes shop.  He had married Rosina Parker in 1879.  

By 1891, George Leavey had started his own business in High Street Chatham, selling men’s and boys’ suiting and coats.  He, Rosina and their six children lived above the shop, with the six young men who worked in the shop living with them as boarders. Four young women lived at the address too, one a school-teacher and three who described themselves to the census taker as domestic servants so they could have worked in the shop, or for the family, or both.  Rosina really had her work cut out, managing such a large household.  

According to Inside-Left, writing in the Woolwich-based Kentish Independent in 1910, Leavey opened his shop in Hare Street Woolwich in 1896.  Within a few years the business also had a shop at 2 The Broadway Stratford, a relatively new northern suburb.  Both George Leavey’s sons were old enough to work for him by this time and business was prospering, it seems: the family’s income was now sufficient for them not to need to live above any of the shops any longer.  It’s one of those strange coincidences that football does tend to throw up, that in 1901 George Leavey, Rosina and their children were living at 49 Highbury New Park, a short walk from where [Woolwich] Arsenal were to move to in 1912.  The Leaveys were gone from there before Woolwich Arsenal arrived, however; to other addresses in north-west London, even further from Woolwich.

It was opening the shop in Woolwich, of course, which led George Leavey to become involved with Woolwich Arsenal FC.  I suggest his investment of time and - more importantly - cash and credit, came about as part of his efforts to get his name known in the district.  Unfortunately, he became the man looked to by other investors in the club to hand over money when times got rough.  Inside-Left said, for example, that Leavey had paid the players’ wages several times during the close season of 1909.  He lent the club money by taking out a mortgage on its stadium at the Manor Ground, and also lent money without security.  This was what directors of a football club were expected to do at that time - Norris did it - but early in 1910 Leavey decided he couldn’t continue to support Woolwich Arsenal in this way any longer, and guided Woolwich Arsenal FC into liquidation.  His intention was to retrieve some at least of the money he was owed; to sort out the club’s financial situation; and re-launch it, run by a new company and free of its debt.  But he found he couldn’t do that with money from Woolwich, so rather than let the club die and lose all the money he had lent it, he invited into it men from elsewhere.  He was the first chairman of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited, the limited company created by William Hall and Henry Norris in 1910.

I have said that George Leavey was not born in Woolwich; and I’m not sure that he ever lived there.  Despite this, when directors from Fulham FC got involved in rescuing Woolwich Arsenal FC, he was at first adamant that he wouldn’t countenance any solution to the club’s problems which involved it moving out of the district. However, over the next two seasons he seems to have come to acknowledge that professional football in Woolwich simply couldn’t make ends meet.  He resigned as director in April 1912, in full knowledge of what it was likely to mean.  He kept his business in Woolwich, however.  It was still at the same address in Hare Street in 1931, the year Arsenal FC won its first Football League championship.  I thought I could remember Leavey being invited to the festivities on that occasion but when I looked through my notes (January 2009) I couldn’t find any evidence.  I hope the club did include him in its celebrations; Leavey did quite as much as William Hall and Henry Norris to keep the club alive.

JOHN HUMBLE was born in 1863 in Stockton-on-Tees.  In 1881 he was working as an engine fitter in Stockton but must have lost his job because within a few years he’d left the industrial north-east and come south in search of work.  By 1891 he was working as a machine maker at the Royal Ordnance Factory and had married Amelia Starling, a local woman.  In 1886, he was one of the group of workers who founded Woolwich Arsenal FC as an amateur work’s team.  He played in the team for a short while, and while most of the other founders moved on and dropped out, Humble stayed involved with the club’s management for much of the rest of his life.  He had a gift for seeing where the club should be going: it was Humble who first suggested that it needed to turn professional to keep up with the best northern teams. 

In 1901 John and Amelia and their family were living at 72 Piedmont Road Woolwich.  The information Humble gave the census taker indicated that he had been promoted to a supervisory role as examiner of guns and steel in the factory.  His move off the factory floor probably saved him from having to take part in the programme of redundancies that had such a damaging effect on the economy of Woolwich and Plumstead, including Woolwich Arsenal FC, in the years after the end of the Boer War. 

In 1905 John Humble was chairman of Woolwich Arsenal FC.  At that year’s AGM, he had to make a speech explaining why the club was going to refurbish its current grandstand rather than continue with the project to build a new one, on which a lot of money had already been spent.  Humble survived as chairman that year, but several new directors were elected to the club’s board who instigated a policy he deeply opposed, and he resigned from the board at the AGM of 1906.  Writing about the resignation in Athletic News, its London correspondent Grasshopper said that Woolwich Arsenal FC would miss Humble’s “keen business capabilities” but for a year or so the new directors’ policy of selling good players seemed to be working: the deficits of Humble’s chairmanship were turned into a profit in a season or two.  However, Humble’s criticism that such a policy was “absolutely ruinous” was proved correct in the longer term: I’ve indicated above that George Leavey was having to subsidise the club’s wages bill in mid-1909 and by early 1910 Leavey had realised that the recent liquidity problems weren’t going to go away.

John Humble held himself aloof from Leavey’s first attempts to form a new limited company to take over the club’s current one.  Even if he’d felt that Leavey would succeed in finding new investment, Humble was not a wealthy man and couldn’t offer Leavey the promise of money soon which Leavey most needed.  As late as 1901 the Humbles were having to sub-let one room of their house to help with the family finances.  So Humble wasn’t mentioned in the Kentish Independent’s coverage of the crisis until April 1910, when he attended a dinner held to celebrate the finding of money enough to keep the club going.  That initiative collapsed, though, and the directors of Fulham FC stepped in.

Humble was not mentioned in the Kentish Independent’s account of the fractious meeting which formally set up Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited on 25 July 1910.  I presume he didn’t attend it.  However, between that meeting and November 1910, he had bought shares in the company.  The 26 shares he had bought made him eligible to serve on the company’s board and he had been elected a director.  This couldn’t have happened without the consent of the directors who were already in-post: Henry Norris, William Hall and George Leavey.  I suggest that it was George Leavey who pursued and persuaded Humble.  They had known each other through Woolwich Arsenal FC since the mid-1890s.  Leavey will have thought of Humble as a bridge between the club’s old limited company, now defunct, and the new one: someone involved with the club from the start and the only director who lived near its ground.  In addition, Humble’s involvement in the new limited company might persuade other local residents to buy shares (a nice idea, but it didn’t work, the locals weren’t persuaded).  In 1911 John Humble acted as go-between in the ongoing dispute between the new limited company and a committee set up in Rotherhithe to raise funds for the old one.  Henry Norris and William Hall considered the money raised by that committee as belonging to the club; the committee members were not so sure and had refused Norris and Hall’s outright request for the money.  After several months of diplomacy, Humble did persuade the fund-raisers in Rotherhithe to hand over the money they had raised. 

John Humble attended his first AGM as a director of Woolwich Football and Athletic Company Limited on 17 June 1911.  During season 1911/12 it became clear to Norris and Hall that the club was not getting any nearer financial viability; and that local interest in investing in the club was not going to come forward.  George Leavey resigned from the board in the spring of 1912 and shortly afterwards Humble was obliged to agree to what he had opposed a few years before: the sale of a good player to help the club pay its way through the summer.  If he opposed the idea now as he had before, he didn’t make any public statement questioning the wisdom of it.

At the club’s AGM on 26 July 1912 he made the only speech I can find in all his time as a director, supporting the idea that the club should move away from Plumstead in search of what the Kentish Independent described (quoting Humble’s actual words, I think) as “the red hot enthusiasm” of its early days - he now being the only director able to remember them.  It seems that Humble had decided that if the club had to move to stay alive, then so be it; to move it elsewhere was better than watching it go out of existence.  What he thought about the relegation of season 1912/13 - which fully justified his belief in 1906 that selling the club’s best players would cost the club in the long-term - he kept to himself.

The site Henry Norris finally found for Woolwich Arsenal FC was not an easy journey from Humble’s home and work.  During the war, as a senior worker in an arms factory, he naturally had no time to spare for going to football matches, and it took a while after the fighting had ended for Humble to return to being a regular at Arsenal’s home games.  He may still have been too busy with the aftermath of war at the Royal Arsenal to attend a dinner given for Arsenal at the House of Commons in October 1920 by Baldwin Raper MP, in whose constituency Highbury was. 

By the early 1920s Humble was back watching Arsenal fairly often.  The period 1922-23 was the one in which Humble was mentioned most by Arthur Bourke, who wrote on football in the Islington Daily Gazette.  This was a time when Henry Norris and William Hall were often busy elsewhere and the other directors had to carry out duties normally undertaken by those two.  For example, in the absence of Norris (abroad) and Hall (ill with flu) Humble helped Charles Crisp and George Peachey welcome and entertain the Duke of York at a game at Highbury on 4 February 1922.  This may have been the occasion on which (according to Leslie Knighton) the best champagne was bought to entertain HRH royally but when he arrived all he wanted was a cup of tea!  Humble was at White Hart Lane for the derby game on 23 September 1922 which ended in a fight and Spurs 1 Arsenal 2; so he was called as a witness on 5 October 1922 when the FA held an enquiry on the incidents that occurred immediately after Spurs’ late goal.  Again with Peachey, Humble accompanied an Arsenal squad on their tour of Scandinavia in May 1923.  Of course he attended the dinner given in August 1923 to mark the retirement of Jock Rutherford after his long career at Arsenal.  And in October 1923 he went at the invitation of the management of the Alhambra Theatre in Charing Cross Road to see a film of an Arsenal game; the directors all sat in one of the boxes while the players sat in the stalls.  This period when Humble was most in the eye of the Arsenal public ended on 12 January 1924 when he helped welcome the Lord Mayor of London and the Mayor of Luton to the FA Cup tie Arsenal 4 Luton Town 1.  After that point he did not figure quite so much in Bourke’s coverage of Arsenal’s entertaining; though he did still go to the matches.

Did Humble attend many board meetings, after they had switched location to Avenell Road?  I’ve haven’t been allowed access to Arsenal’s Minute Books so I haven’t got any direct information.  It might have been difficult for him to get to north London after work; and if the meetings were held during working hours he could not possibly have attended them.  In any case, according to Henry Norris in 1927 and 1929, all financial matters at the club were in the hands of a sub-committee consisting of himself and William Hall; so Humble might have thought that - unless there was something out of the ordinary on the agenda - it didn’t matter much if he missed most meetings. All other directors were elected on the understanding that Hall and Norris did the money work.  And it was those two men, with the club’s secretary-manager, who signed off the annual report.  There’s no evidence that Humble objected to this state of affairs.  And if he had objected, it would have been a tough and determined man who took on Henry Norris in particular to challenge it.  Humble was one of many who didn’t challenge it, and in 1927 came the reckoning.

1927 began for Humble with him, George Peachey and Samuel Hill-Wood accompanying the squad to their FA Cup 3rd Round tie at Sheffield United; a game which they won, to the surprise of all who knew what a hoodoo Bramall Lane was for Arsenal teams.  Norris and John James Edwards didn’t go: Edwards had flu, Norris’ wife was also ill.  Humble may not have been able to attend the FA Cup replay during which William Hall and Samuel Hill-Wood were called to mediate an argument between Herbert Chapman and George Hardy; because the match was played on a Wednesday afternoon when I suppose he was at work.  The row between Norris and Hall which led to Hall’s resignation from the board was between the two men; no other directors were present and they may not have known anything about it until the next board meeting.    At that board meeting, Humble - if he was there - was no doubt amongst those who tried to persuade Hall to stay on.  In vain.  In the next few weeks, nothing was allowed to disturb the team’s Cup run, which took them to their first final.  However, if Norris is to be believed (I’m not sure he is) board meetings were a scene of open warfare between him and Henry Chapman.  Perhaps Humble was better off at work.

There’s no record of whether John Humble was at Arsenal when two members of the Football League management committee arrived in early April to follow up rumours that Henry Norris had forged a signature on a cheque due to the club and put the money into his own bank account.  On Cup Final day, Henry Norris led the team out onto the Wembley pitch, but he had no intention of speaking to the press about the match in case they asked him about the cheque; so after the match was over it was Samuel Hill-Wood and John Humble who spoke to the press about their defeat.  A few weeks of deceptive calm followed, before William Hall asked the FA to investigate Arsenal FC’s finances to examine whether Henry Norris had been taking the club’s money for himself.  Henry Norris immediately resigned from the board of directors.

Apart from Norris, everyone at Arsenal cooperated fully with the FA’s enquiries.  Humble attended both the ‘in person’ hearings that the FA held; but doesn’t seem to have been interviewed personally about any of the events that were coming to light.  But it actually counted against Humble that he was not sufficiently involved in the events that Hall wanted investigated to be required to give further information.  The FA’s Report on its investigations found Humble and George Peachey guilty of having failed in their duty to the club and its shareholders.  They were judged to have not kept a close enough eye on what Henry Norris and William Hall were doing with the club’s money.  On the last weekend of August, all the directors of Arsenal should have received a copy of the Report (Henry Norris said he didn’t get his in time).  They were all required to go to the FA’s headquarters on Monday 29 August 1927 to hear the FA hand out the punishments (Norris refused do go).  The FA ordered Humble and Peachey to cease being directors of Arsenal FC.

George Peachey took the FA to court and established that the FA had exceeded its powers: only a limited company’s shareholders could dismiss a director from its board.  But Peachey was a man comfortably off and familiar with the processes of the law.  Humble was neither.  He didn’t argue about the FA’s decree that he should go.  He resigned from the board of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited on 2 September 1927.  His last act for the club was to help its new chairman, Samuel Hill-Wood, to prepare its annual report.  At that stage Humble still had his 26 shares; but a list of shareholders dated October 1928 indicates he may have sold them by then.

John Humble died in December 1931 after what the Kentish Independent described as a “long illness...patiently borne” which I take to be code for cancer.  I hope he had been well enough to enjoy the latest two seasons of the club he had been associated with for so long: FA Cup in 1929/30, first league championship with a record number of points and some brilliant displays in season 1930/31.  The KI’s report on his death was very short and didn’t include more than the barest details of his life.  Most of the mourners were family, of course: his three sons and their wives, his three grand-children.  His daughter couldn’t attend but sent a wreath from Borneo where she and her husband were living (wouldn’t you love to know what they were doing in Borneo?!) The current directors, staff and players of Arsenal FC sent a wreath.  Apparently Henry Norris did not; perhaps he didn’t know Humble had died.  Humble was buried in Plumstead Cemetery.  His widow was still living in the house they’d occupied in 1901. 

George Leavey and John Humble were the last two directors of [Woolwich] Arsenal to have anything to do with Woolwich or Plumstead.  All the subsequent directors of Norris and Hall’s Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited had no connection with the area; several of them seem to have had no other connection with football.       

GEORGE DAVIS bought shares and joined the board of the newly-formed Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited between July and November 1910, at the same time as John Humble.  He may have enjoyed a football match but I doubt very much if he had been a regular on the terraces at the Manor Ground in Plumstead.  It’s clear that he had his arm twisted to get involved with Woolwich Arsenal: he was William Hall’s brother-in-law.

William Hall married Kate Elizabeth Davis in 1899.  The family was from Cambridge, where the father worked for one of the university colleges (probably Queen’s) and lived in a house that went with the job.  The Davis family was a typically Victorian one, with six boys and girls, George Ernest being several years older than Kate Elizabeth.  George Ernest described himself as a ‘chemist’ to the 1881 census taker; he meant that he worked as an assistant in a pharmacist’s shop.  I suppose he did an apprenticeship.  George Ernest married Alice XXXX in XXXX.  By 1901 they had  moved to Leyton, on the northern outskirts of London, probably in search of a better-paid job.  Typically, they moved around quite frequently but seem to have come to rest by 1911 in Costillani Mansions, a block of flats in Maida Vale. 

George Davis attended his first AGM of Woolwich Arsenal FC as a director on 23 June 1911.  He had bought 25 shares, the minimum you could own to be eligible for election to the company’s board.  There’s no evidence that he ever put any more money into the club; I would suppose that was not the purpose of his getting involved.  He was there to increase the number of directors, so the company looked less like a two-horse race, while not voting against anything that William Hall, Henry Norris and (until 1912) George Leavey decided to do.

In coverage of Arsenal matches, George Ernest Davis wasn’t mentioned much by the Kentish Independent.  Like John Humble, he was a working man and not self-employed; and unless his work was near Plumstead he won’t have been able to get even to home games very often.  Arthur Bourke of the Islington Daily Gazette occasionally mentioned seeing George Ernest Davis at matches in the years after the club had moved to Highbury, much nearer where he lived but not necessarily more convenient for where he worked.  Bourke saw Davis together with William Hall on Saturday 17 February 1917 which, he said, was “a rare thing nowadays” with the war continuing endlessly on.  They were both at the first game of season 1917/18 as well.  I presume that Davis wasn’t in the military (he was too old anyway); but perhaps he was doing war work.  He stood down as a director at the AGM of 1919.  Arthur Bourke never mentioned seeing him at a match after that.  A rather shadowy figure.







Copyright Sally Davis January 2011