Henry Norris and the World of Journalism
Last updated: December 2008
Herbert Jackson/Crock shot himself in May 1906. His replacement at Fulham Chronicle used the writing name RB. He kept up his predecessor’s close relations with Fulham FC; which came in useful just after season 1906/07 began, when the directors at Fulham came under heavy criticism for their treatment of another football reporter.
CORINTHIAN’S PRESS PASS
At the start of each season, football clubs issued press passes to football reporters. The Daily Chronicle’s writer called Corinthian was one of those given a press pass by Fulham FC for season 1906/07. But he only lasted a week or two before the club’s directors took exception to his match report on Fulham 0 Luton Town 0 (Saturday 8 September 1906) in which (they said) he had made “an unwarrantable and unjustified attack” on one particular player. Manager Bradshaw was ordered to write a letter to the Daily Chronicle withdrawing Corinthian’s press pass. Corinthian was not the only writer whose match reports might have got the Fulham FC directors goat. George Allison, writing as The Mate, wrote of Norwich City 0 Fulham 0 (Saturday 1 September 1906) that it was Fulham’s “favourite result”. There were two reasons why he didn’t share Corinthian’s fate. Firstly, in the same report he described Henry Norris as the man most responsible for Fulham’s rise to Southern League prominence. Secondly, he was writing in Athletic News, whose owner (Hulton Newspapers) was too powerful to be offend lightly.
How different, how very different, from our own times. Unwarrantable and unjustified attacks on one particular player are what professionals have to learn to put up with these days; as well as the warrantable and justified ones. And no journalist gets his press pass withdrawn after making them.
Over the next few weeks the Fulham directors’ decision to ban Corinthian got a lot of hostile press coverage - of course. The directors’ column in Fulham FC’s match-day programme defended their action. Although this column was always attributed to the directors as a group, Henry Norris later confirmed that while he was chairman, he always wrote it: an outlet for his journalism where nobody argued about what he said - yet. However, an explanation in the programme only reached those who went to Craven Cottage and bought it. So the decision was taken - probably by Norris though with the other directors’ approval - to use the local press to reach a wider audience, and the Fulham Chronicle was the paper they approached. The body of the letter sent to the Daily Chronicle was reproduced in it, and a column was written that, while admitting the directors’ action was “unusual”, expressed a certain sympathy for what they had done. I find it a bit curious that the column appeared anonymously; I suppose Henry Norris could have written it himself though its temperate language was not his style. I’m not sure how many people were convinced, and - perhaps in an effort to be even-handed - the writer at Fulham Chronicle who did Chelsea was allowed to say in his column that he thought the Fulham directors shouldn’t have done it. He went further, saying that, “The Press have been too kind to Fulham” and that their Southern League championship win had been “fortuitous”. Of course, he never covered matches at Craven Cottage, so he wasn’t going to lose his press pass by saying so!
Despite the adverse reaction to the banning of Corinthian from Craven Cottage, the directors of Fulham FC stuck to their decision: he didn’t get his press pass back. The incident shows Norris and his fellow directors getting rid of a journalist, after they had been unable to control something written about their club. Then Norris used his own writing, and his influence with the papers, to defend a position that was being attacked - a common thing with him. But for once he was defending someone else’s reputation rather than his own.
RB continued to write on Fulham FC for Fulham Chronicle until the end of season 1906/07; but after Jackson/Crock’s death it gave more space to Chelsea FC; which can’t have pleased Henry Norris. Things didn’t really improve, from that point of view, after RB left and was replaced by JWC for season 1907/08. He covered Chelsea and Fulham equally, but as one man covering two teams, there was less coverage of each of them. Much of the football news in JWC’s column was actually comprised of long quotes from other sports papers rather than investigative reporting by JWC himself. Fulham Chronicle was feeling the pinch financially, I think.
It must have infuriated Henry Norris that there was a decline in the amount and quality of football coverage in Fulham Chronicle in season 1907/08; because that season was Fulham FC’s first in the Football League. West London and Fulham Times was still employing (if that’s the word for people who probably weren’t paid) two football writers at the beginning of season 1907/08: Pensioner covered Chelsea; while Fulham FC had been covered for a couple of seasons by Oscar Drew.
FREDERICK OSCAR DREW (apparently always called Oscar) was not a professional journalist, I’m fairly sure. He had a day job. Born in Hackney in 1857, Oscar Drew been brought up in Edmonton, definitely part of the suburbs in the 1860s and 1870s. He’d followed his father into the civil service; when Henry Norris knew him he was working for the Ministry of Works. The most interesting thing to me about his early life was his wife, Antonia, who was French but had grown up in England as part of a family which ran a posh dress-shop off Oxford Street: in Victorian England there was great cachet in wearing French fashions.
Oscar and Antonia Drew arrived in Fulham’s social and political life before Henry Norris; and did actually live in the borough for over a decade. In the 1890s Antonia became one of the first women to be elected to serve on Fulham Board of Guardians. Oscar was an elected member of Fulham Vestry, the predecessor of the London Borough of Fulham. He was also on the committee which ran Fulham’s first free public library.
Drew never coincided with Henry Norris on the local council. Norris stood in the local elections of 1900 but didn’t get elected; Drew didn’t stand and seems to have been out of England at the time. In 1906 they both stood; Henry Norris was elected, Drew wasn’t and never took any part in Fulham politics again.
Oscar Drew was a Liberal. Henry Norris always thought of himself as a Conservative; but he had very Liberal views on Free Trade, so he and Drew had more in common than you would suppose.
They also had football in common; more than that, they had Fulham FC. Oscar Drew was a fan. He even took part in the funding of the new Craven Cottage by buying 40 shares; however, he never joined the board of directors despite being eligible - something that rankled with Henry Norris as you’ll see below. Drew probably bought his shares in 1905; he was invited to the Fulham FC annual dinner for the first time that year.
I have not been able to find out anything very much about who owned West London and Fulham Times but I’ve said above that Norris seemed to own shares in it despite its Liberal bias; and I wonder if Drew didn’t own some shares as well. I can’t otherwise explain why Drew became WLFT’s main football writer in October 1905. Perhaps Henry Norris recommended him; or twisted his arm. Even if he didn’t do either of those things he would have been pleased to have Drew writing on football in the WLFT because with Jackson/Crock at the FC as well, Norris had a pro-Fulham FC writer on both papers. In starting his new job Oscar Drew chose the writing name of Merula.
After several months of campaigning, Fulham FC was elected to the Football League in June 1907. The club’s directors decided to mark the beginning of life in what they considered was the best football league by producing a new, improved match-day programme. With an innocence impossible to match today, the directors decided to call this fancy programme the Cottager’s Journal. Oscar Drew’s work at WLFT must have impressed them: they asked him to be CJ’s editor. This was despite the record he already had of outspoken-ness on the subject of Henry Norris. After having attended the Fulham FC annual dinner in March 1907 at the directors’ invitation, Drew/Merula described Norris’ after-dinner speech as “a little indiscreet”; he meant that Norris had criticised the Southern League as less competitive than in previous years. Drew/Merula commented that if Norris insisted on saying this sort of thing at a public occasion, it was no wonder that Fulham FC had so many enemies. “More discretion is needed,” he went on, “on the part of some of the big-wigs at the club, and less anxiety to exploit others”. He must have wondered, when offered CJ, whether he would be able to prevent such a loose cannon shooting in all directions; and being shot at in return. However, he was a Fulham fan and shareholder. He accepted the job; which meant that at the start of season 1907/08 he was doing two writing jobs in addition to his paid work in the civil service.
From its first issue CJ had standard contents, which may have been Henry Norris and William Hall’s choice as they used them again at [Woolwich] Arsenal FC. There was always a column called ‘Board-Room Notes’ carried over from Fulham’s programmes in previous seasons. As in those past seasons, it was stated as having been written by “the directors” as a group. During season 1907/08 it was actually the work of Henry Norris alone as the voice of the rest of the board. Drew/Merula had his own column which was meant to be given over to match reports (including away games which as far as I know he didn’t see himself) and other Fulham FC news. There was a running competition in the first few weeks of season 1907/08: finish the last line of the limerick and you could win shares in Fulham Football and Athletic Company. From a few weeks into the season, there were cartoons. And there were some adverts, mostly for firms in Putney rather than Fulham; and for other sports publications, particularly Football Chat (see below) and Athletic News. Issues were published for reserve games as well as first-team matches; though with a lot of the content repeated from the first-team’s last home game.
In the very first issue, Saturday 31 August 1907, Henry Norris in his Board-Room Notes assured readers that CJ’s editor had a free hand to write what he liked about Fulham FC. However, in the first few weeks of the season Drew/Merula had a problem: Fulham made a very poor start in the Football League Division Two, losing more games than they won, and shipping goals. Should he write truthfully that the team were playing badly? Drew/Merula tried to be honest. Fulham 5 Chesterfield 0 on 12 October 1907 pulled them out of their trough; but by that time the die had been cast at CJ. According to WLFT Drew/Merula had collapsed a few days after the victory with what it called “a bad nervous breakdown”.
WLFT had the news straight from the horse’s mouth: Drew/Merula made a scoop of his own nervous collapse in his football column there. On Friday 1 November 1907 WLFT had the headline “Fulham FC sensation: Merula resigns. Serious breakdown in health”. It confirmed that Drew/Merula was not just ill, he’d resigned as CJ’s editor; and without specifically saying so, managed to convey to its readers that he’d left as a result of ongoing disputes with Fulham’s directors over what he could and couldn’t write in his column: editorial freedom. It told its readers that Drew/Merula was so worn down by his recent troubles that he had been advised to take a sea voyage; he would be leaving the country almost at once - leaving them to infer that working for Fulham FC’s directors had left Drew/Merula at death’s door.
Henry Norris’ response was immediate: he appointed the writer known as Old Fulhamite to do the job that Drew/Merula had vacated. And he wrote a typically thundering letter of rebuttal which was printed in WLFT the following Friday. Naturally he wrote it on behalf of all the Fulham directors, but it was all his words and he was very angry. He declared that Drew/Merula’s claim that he hadn’t been allowed to publish what he chose was “unwarrantable and utterly devoid of truth”; that the board’s agreement to this had “never been departed from either in the letter or the spirit”. Moving from the writer to his paper, Norris then accused WLFT of publishing Drew/Merula’s allegations without checking first to see if they were true; and of sensationalising the news to attract more readers. This was a paper he had shares in, mind you! But he had been particularly incensed to find Drew/Merula’s story splashed across the publicity posters for that week’s issue, put up on walls and windows all over Fulham and Hammersmith.
Drew/Merula’s side of the story on 1 November 1907 came very near the libellous and once his own anger had cooled, he realised he’d been as indiscreet as he’d often accused Henry Norris of being, and had landed WLFT in trouble. Below Norris’ letter on 1 November 1907 the WLFT printed a letter from him apologising for any misunderstanding, and doing its best to minimise the damage by describing the reasons for his resignation as “minor differences between the club and myself” (my italics).
Once again, Henry Norris had waded in, in defence of his club’s directors when their actions over what was published about them had led to uproar in the press and elsewhere. As was coming to be usual after adverse publicity, Norris was taking to the pen himself to defend a position that he thought of as his own. Though he was never mentioned by name as particularly to blame, in all the press coverage of the resignation, and decisions were written of as if they were made by all the directors together, Norris was the club’s chairman and most dominating personality. He was also its most press-sensitive director, which readers of the press in Fulham already knew; so it’s very likely that most of them put two and two together and concluded that it was his interference that had caused Drew/Merula to quit.
The freedom of the editor at CJ cut two ways. Drew/Merula wanted his own copy not to be subject to the editorial pen of anybody but himself. He may also have wanted power of veto over articles written by other persons - meaning, Henry Norris. So Drew/Merula’s resignation may have had two sources.
I wonder if Drew/Merula would have allowed Henry Norris to criticise the play of a rival team, as he did in the match-day programme of Saturday 2 November 1907, when commenting on Fulham’s first away win in the Football League (played 26 October 1907)? Norris condemned as “disgraceful” Clapton Orient’s “intentional vicious kicking and punching” in that match; speaking for all the directors. He was entitled to his opinion, of course. Airing it in public, though... His views were heavily criticised, in Football Chat amongst other papers but in CJ on 9 November 1907 Norris announced that he was sticking by his comments, no matter what. All this, of course, took place after Drew/Merula had gone. If he had been around he might have been able to persuade Norris not to stick his neck out like this, as if asking for it to be chopped off.
I believe that the resignation of Drew/Merula was the only occasion in Norris’ life when he had second thoughts about a situation that he had helped to create with an employee; either that or he was persuaded to think again, by someone whose opinion he valued - Edith, perhaps, or William Gilbert Allen. With Drew/Merula himself also regretting the worst of his behaviour, the two men managed to make up their differences; and WLFT was able to announce that Drew/Merula would be resuming as editor of CJ when he returned from his trip to Portugal - which he did, in January 1908.
Drew/Merula wrote for WLFT for three weeks only, after his return. I daresay he’d decided he’d just taken on too much work; but it was odd that it was WLFT that he decided to give up, rather than CJ that had caused him such trouble. He signed off from WLFT with a match report on Fulham 0 Derby County 0 (played 4 January 1908) in which he exercised the freedom of the press to the full, describing the match as a “farce” and suggesting that “a certain local magnate” might do Fulham FC a lot of good by standing down to concentrate on “civic and business calls”.
No such dig at Henry Norris was published by Drew/Merula in CJ that season. Norris was allowed to use his ‘Board Room Notes’ column to get at the fans, without any restraint (they’d been complaining about team selection) and Drew/Merula was more careful when writing his match reports. It helped, of course, that Fulham FC had a good second-half of the season, until a poor Easter denied them immediate promotion to Football League Division One. Drew/Merula confined his negative comments to the wider football scene, particularly the break-away from the Football Association of the public school amateur teams to form their own Amateur FA where they were intending to play only each other. It seems to have been OK for him to write negatively - even scathingly - of the AFA, because it wasn’t a subject that Henry Norris seems to have had the slightest interest in!
After their great bust-up, both Drew/Merula and Henry Norris seem to have made an effort to acknowledge the other man’s good characteristics. Drew/Merula signed off his first season as editor of CJ with a column in praise of Norris as rumours went round Fulham that he would be resigning from the club to pursue his political ambitions. It’s easy to discover the best in someone if you’re about to see the back of him!
The rumours were partly right: Norris gave up the chairmanship of Fulham FC, though he continued his role as the man at the club most likely to object to its press coverage. William Hall took over as chairman and as writer of CJ’s ‘Board-Room Notes’ column. In the first issue of season 1908/09, Saturday 22 August 1908, the column said of Drew/Merula’s role as editor, “statements have been made that his notes are inspired by the Board. Such, however, is not the case”, he was “in no way connected with the management”. And under William Hall, this was true - Drew/Merula never had any trouble with him! After the game on 27 March 1908, Fulham 1 Clapton Orient 2, ‘Board-Room Notes’ even joined in Drew/Merula’s criticism of a particularly dire performance - something I don’t think Henry Norris would have done.
I think that Henry Norris ended Drew/Merula’s first season as CJ’s editor thinking that he’d actually done quite a good job. Otherwise I don’t think Drew/Merula would have got mixed up in Norris’ attempt to found his own sports newspaper - Football Chat. Though it’s just possible that Drew/Merula, like Henry Norris, bought shares in it.
[ROGER THE NEXT FILE IN THIS SEQUENCE IS SLCHAT]
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SOURCES OF ALL THIS INFORMATION, SEND ME AN EMAIL AND I’LL SEND YOU THE SOURCES FILE.
Copyright Sally Davis December 2008