Henry Norris’ General Election Campaign 1918: the First Libel Case

Last updated: August 2008


Buoyed up by news of social collapse in Germany, Fulham had been getting ready for a general election since spring 1918.  The Conservatives in Fulham were the last to pick their candidates for the two new constituencies the district now consisted of following the re-drawing of the boundaries in 1917.  Henry Norris’ acquaintance at the London County Council, Cyril Cobb, was chosen for Fulham East in early July.  At that time Norris himself was still scheduled to fight the constituency in Stockport that he’d been selected for in 1914, and without much hope of getting elected.  On 26 July 1918 the Stockport Advertizer reported an interview Norris had given them recently in which caused Fulham Chronicle to describe him as “free from any suspicion of tenderness towards Germany”.  I’ve already mentioned that his speech to the councillors of Fulham in November was less harsh towards the defeated foe, and with rather more grasp of the realities.  I get the impression Norris thought the voters of Stockport were wanting their Conservative candidate to be tough but it does illustrate how he could put forward two different views about post-war attitudes to Germany, in two speeches to two different audiences.


As late as the end of October, with all now expecting a general election within weeks, Norris was still limbering up to fight Stockport, but then he was saved by what one might call the typical reward for political bungling: the current MP for the old constituency of Fulham, William Hayes Fisher, who had been selected to fight Fulham East, was sacked as President of the Local Government Board for his inadequate and belated response to the crisis caused by the flu epidemic; in order that the sacking should not be viewed as such by the public, he was given a peerage.  Henry Norris was the obvious candidate to take Hayes Fisher’s seat in Fulham East.


The general election was declared on 14 November 1918.  Essentially it would be a judgement by the voting public on the coalition government’s handling of the war.  Most of the coalition stayed together to fight the election like one party; although some Liberals left it, there was a group of Liberals that had never joined it, and the Labour Party disowned those Labour MP’s who opted to stay in it.


Though he was not formally adopted until 22 November, by 15 November 1918, Norris was understood to be the Coalition candidate in Fulham East.  The Liberal Party - that is, those Liberals (led by Asquith) who wouldn’t serve in the coalition - had chosen its candidate as early as 29 May 1918, a Mr Coysh.  Mr Coysh was the secretary of the Commercial Travellers’ Association but he was not a local man (he lived in Crouch End, near the new Arsenal ground).  Although the West London Observer said that Coysh would probably pick up votes from people who would have voted Labour if there had been a Labour candidate, the paper saw Norris’ status as the mayor, with a long track-record in Fulham, as decisive; he also had the support of many soldiers back home after being discharged from the army.  Fulham East was Norris’ constituency to throw away.


The Fulham East Conservatives already had a constituency office, at 404 North End Road, but the last-minute change in candidate in Fulham East meant that it was prepared for Hayes Fisher, not for Norris.  James L Whitlock was the official election agent and if I understand correctly a comment Norris made in 1922, he was not someone that Norris would have picked if he’d been able to make his own choice.  However, Norris didn’t mention any names and he might have been referring to someone else, appointed since 1919; and he did realise in November 1918 that he had to work with the office staff he found, as there wasn’t time to do anything else.


Norris’ campaign began on 22 November 1918 with his formal adoption as the Coalition candidate.  His first campaign speech was on 3 December 1918 at Christchurch parish hall.  He chose to emphasise the military aspects of the general election, and to contrast himself with Coysh, as the man who knew Fulham.  But mainly he spoke of the importance of the coalition, saying that it would be as necessary to the peace as it had been to winning the war; and saying of himself that he had forgotten all his party political views and now only wanted to serve his country.  Asked a question from the floor about Germans who had been resident in Britain at the outbreak of the war, and who had been interned during the fighting, he told his questioner that he would send all those people back to Germany which he described as their home.  Another member of the audience then followed up with a question about what Norris thought should be done with the group which were German-born but naturalised as Britons; he confirmed that he would send them back to Germany too.  And he said he thought that Kaiser Wilhelm should be prosecuted for war crimes (he never was).


The Liberal candidate Coysh was taking a similar line to that of the Labour Party, saying that the coalition was, in effect, a dictatorship and the time had come for a return to two (or more) party democracy.  He and the Labour Party both agreed that the general election was being conducted with indecent haste, leaving soldiers not yet demobbed with less say in post-war reconstruction.


So that was Fulham East: a simple choice (the local papers agreed) between two candidates; unlike Fulham West where there were four.  And so it continued, until the day of the nomination procedure for candidates.  The Labour Party in Fulham had decided as early as the summer that as they had resources for only one general election campaign, they would fight Fulham West.  It came as a complete surprise to them, as well as everybody else, when literally at the eleventh hour on nomination day, a man came forward to stand as a Labour candidate in Fulham East.  He did have the sponsors that were necessary for his nomination to be valid, but he paid his own £150 deposit and said he would be acting as his own election agent.  He was David Cook, a civil engineer with an address in Lancaster Road Richmond, and no one in Fulham had ever heard of him.  He had no track record in Fulham politics, as a Labour man or anything else; and after this one political campaign he seemed to disappear from Fulham view as suddenly as he’d arrived.  At the nomination ceremony, he caused further confusion as to his genuineness by offering all those present a series of bets on the general election outcome, including £250 on his getting more votes than both his opponents put together.  He also said he’d put together “the strongest election address in London” - which turned out to be more true than he could have imagined.


Cook’s sudden arrival as a third candidate in Fulham East didn’t really put Norris out of his stride but in his next campaign speechm at Bethel Hall North End Road on 5 December 1918, he did talk about labour relations, which he might not have discussed otherwise.  During the war, Norris said, he’d had more opportunity to work with the representatives of organised labour than previously, and he’d been impressed by their abilities.  He thought that labour relations would have to be conducted in a very different manner post-war to the way they had been up to 1914.  And he put forward an interesting view of strike action: he thought it was caused, not by workers taking advantage of managerial weakness, but by government or employer ineptitude.  What an astounding admittance by an employer!  Norris said he supported the right of workers to strike; in a year which had seen a strike by the Metropolitan Police, that also was a pretty radical thing to say.  Norris also mentioned in this speech his view that the 50% increase in train fares that everyone had endured since the outbreak of war should be reversed completely as it had only been introduced as a wartime measure (it wasn’t reversed, of course, though this is one view that Norris did follow up when he was an MP).


In a speech on 7 December 1918 at West Kensington lecture hall Challoner Street, Norris returned to putting himself forward as the Fulham man.  He talked about the work he had done for the war effort as mayor of Fulham; and again he took the view that this general election was not one that should be fought on party political lines reiterating (according to the West London Observer) that, “Since the war his politics, the little that he had, had disappeared entirely” leaving only a desire to serve his country.  In this speech he discussed work and labour relations again, this time focusing the work of women replacing men who’d gone to fight, and the reward it had brought them, with women over 30 being able to vote for the first time in this election.  The war seems to have brought about the same change in Norris that it had in the population as a whole, with regard to women’s rights.  In this speech Norris announced himself as in favour of equal access for women to all work (they were debarred by law from some professions), and equal pay for equal work (which we haven’t got yet, of course).  He never mentioned women’s rights to work and pay in any speech he made before World War 1; and I’m sure that if he had mentioned them, it would not have been on the same terms as he was doing now.


On the reconstruction of Britain after the fighting, Norris said he would be happy to pay increased income tax so that men who had fought would be treated as they deserved and not as they had been in the past when so many had ended up begging in the streets.  He said that surely a nation that could find the money to pay for a war could find the money to pay for its soldiers to be treated properly in peacetime (another revolutionary idea).  He re-stated the belief he had, that Germany should be made to pay heavily for having started the fighting, back in 1914, and said again that he wanted social and political restrictions on Germans who chose to continue living in England.  (This was another thing he followed up on when he was an MP.)  He contrasted his position with the Liberal position on trade with Germany, saying that he wasn’t in favour of an immediate resumption of trade between the two nations, though he wouldn’t ban Germany from trading with nations that were willing.


It must have been immediately after this speech that David Cook’s election manifesto came out.  He had hired no halls for campaign speeches; so his manifesto was virtually the only aid he had to explain himself and his party to the voters.  Perhaps Norris, always interested in the policies being put forward by rival political parties, collected one of the first copies of Cook’s manifesto to be issued.  Just as Cook had hinted, he found it strong meat - too strong for his liking.  On Tuesday 10 December 1918, lawyers acting for Henry Norris obtained an injunction forcing Cook to withdraw all copies of the manifesto while it still contained certain words they asserted were a libel.  Cook had to destroy all those copies he’d had printed, and go round getting back the copies he’d already distributed.


Norris’ own manifesto was published in the local papers as well as being handed out to all comers.  In the 1918 general election Henry Norris stood for (quotes from the Fulham Chronicle):


“1.  Swift demobilisation.                  

2.  No more conscription.

3.  Honouring the National Debt for those who have fought and bled for us.

4.  Punishment of the Ex-Kaiser and those responsible for Atrocities.

5.  Ousting the Huns from Great Britain.

6.  Making Germany pay.

7.  Britain for the British, Socially and Industrially.

8.  Rehabilitation for those broken in the War, and Fair Play for the soldiers and sailors.

9.  No more aliens.

10.  A Happier Country for all.

11.  Empire before Party”.


Like all other Coalition candidates, Norris was able to say that he had the support of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law and G H Barnes the leader of those Labour MP’s who’d chosen to stay in the Coalition.


Whether Cook had time or money to print another run of his election manifesto, I doubt; nevertheless, and despite doing no other campaigning, he still got more votes than Coysh did for the non-coalition Liberals: 2883 to 1644.  But Norris for the Coalition was, as everyone expected, an easy winner on his home turf, with 10242. 


What was it that Henry Norris took such exception to in Cook’s election manifesto that he actually took him to court over it?  Well, Cook had chosen to hit Norris where it really hurt:  football.  More specifically, on Norris’ role as an employer of labour in football.


The case came to court on 8 December 1919, when Norris’ barrister argued that there was quite a lot in Cook’s election manifesto for his client to find offensive.  The manifesto had said that Cook was undertaking “an exposure of one of the most impudent attempts that ever the Coalition Government has made” to deceive its public: it had foisted “an utterly unsuitable candidate on the constituency of Fulham (East)”.  Cook then went on to describe football as a professional sport whose transfer system gave “fat sums to many who do not play at all” and “expenses on a liberal scale to directors when e.g. they travel” and to shareholders, while the players had to live on a fixed wage and with the transfer system rigged against them.  (One might almost call them slaves, mightn’t one?!)  Cook described directors of football clubs as “notoriously the most arrogant, provocative, and cynically callous employers of labour in Britain”, and the current state of professional football as “scandalous blood-sucking masquerading as sport”.  So far so good and I don’t think you can say any of it is libellous because it doesn’t apply to one specific person. But then Cook’s manifesto moved on to singling out Henry Norris, as “a leading man in professional football”.  He said of Norris, “His vehement opposition to freedom of contract for players has made him notorious [and] Sir Henry Norris has approved, advocated and attempted to justify the degraded policy..[of]..buying and selling men as if they were cattle and in limiting their wages.”  The manifesto had rounded this attack off by concluding that “the Ministerial choice of Sir Henry Norris [to stand in Fulham East] is an impudent challenge to Labour and must be so proclaimed in every constituency in the land”.


It’s ironic - Cook won’t have known it - that he was accusing directors of football clubs of raking in expenses from football clubs when up until that time Norris had never taken a penny in expenses from either of the clubs he was involved with.  In any case (as Norris found in 1927) it was against the Football Association rules to do so.  In 1918, Norris had also not received any shareholders’ dividends from Arsenal for several years because the club couldn’t afford it; and the club owed him many thousands of pounds in loans. 


It was poor research by Cook, though.  He doesn’t seem to have been aware how many times Norris had put himself on record many times as an opponent of the maximum wage.  This was in fact an area on which Cook could have attacked Norris, because of course, Norris wanted the maximum wage abolished so that most players’ wages would be forced down, and all players would be left to negotiate as individuals.  Norris was never heard to give support to the idea of a minimum wage; he had every intention, especially at cash-strapped Arsenal FC, of paying players as little as he could get away with.  However, Cook hadn’t done his reading and as a result, didn’t know enough about Norris’ views on this to make a good case against him.  Cook had wanted an eye-catching illustration of the iniquities of the waged labour market; but choosing Norris and football didn’t really work.  He would have done better to pick a labour market he actually knew something about, and one that wasn’t quite so unique, with so many conditions and rules that were not applicable to any other type of work.  Being outrageous with what he said about Norris didn’t work for Cook either - instead of getting his manifesto the maximum publicity, it got it withdrawn from circulation, so that only a few people got to read it; and the papers were banned from discussing what was in it.


Cook couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer: he conducted his own defence including cross-examining Norris himself when Norris went into the witness box.  Cook argued that what he’d published in his manifesto was privileged (I think it wasn’t) and that it was also fair comment on a matter of public interest.


The argument that Norris could afford two barristers to make for him was that Cook’s manifesto contained words that (according to the Times) “were falsely and maliciously published, and that they seriously reflected on his character as a politician, a sportsman, and generally”.   In a long stint in the witness box Norris made the argument that I’ve made myself above, that when it came to directors of football clubs, the boot as regards money was definitely on the other foot.  It seems that Cook was convinced by Norris’ arguments: he admitted libel and apologised to Norris for it; he offered to pay £100 plus costs, which Norris accepted.


Not a worth opponent, Cook.  Norris wanted to go into the witness box and say his piece - something he insisted on the second time he was libelled, as well - and of course, as a libel is a smearing of your reputation in public, it follows that the clearing of your name must be in public too.  I do wish he hadn’t taken the money, though.  He gave it to charity, but it makes him look mean.






Copyright Sally Davis August 2008