Henry Norris’ fall from grace in 1927: how Arsenal was run
[ROGER THIS FOLLOWS ON IMMEDIATELY FROM SLFALL]
Last updated: June 2008
THE FINANCE SUB-COMMITTEE
Henry Norris and William Hall only got involved with Woolwich Arsenal FC in 1910 because the club was unable to pay its debts; they were not fans of the club, they were just people who got asked to help out. Norris in particular, got involved only reluctantly, and in the first two years as a Woolwich Arsenal director the main aim of all his decision-making was handing the club over to the locals and going back to concentrating on Fulham FC. But the locals wouldn’t take it back, George Leavey (who’d asked them to help the club) gave up in despair; and Hall and Norris were lumbered.
At some stage after Hall and Norris went to Woolwich Arsenal’s rescue, the minutes of a board meeting recorded that the two of them would form a sub-committee of the board to oversee all the club’s financial affairs. In 1929 Norris couldn’t remember exactly when this sub-committee had been set up; and as I’ve said, I haven’t been allowed to see Arsenal’s minute-books myself; but he thought it was between 1910 and 1913. Unless it was originally a sub-committee of three, including George Leavey, it’s likely it was set up after Leavey resigned in April 1912. It had certainly been set up by August 1913.
Leavey’s resignation left Hall and Norris as Woolwich Arsenal’s main creditors; but also its main shareholders. Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company’s Annual Report of 1912 stated that the club would not be looking for a new director to replace Leavey. Hall and Norris were therefore able, without hindrance from other shareholders, to move the club from Woolwich in search of bigger crowds which would pay its debts off more quickly. Norris was able to get representatives of the Allen and Norris building partnership to negotiate with St John’s College, who owned the freehold of the site at Highbury. Norris also used Allen and Norris to buy and hire equipment at trade prices for the building of a grandstand and the laying-out of the rest of the new ground; and in August 1913 he got some of Allen and Norris’ workmen over to Highbury to get the terracing finished by the start of the season. He was still using Allen and Norris to buy stuff for the Arsenal ground in the mid-1920s.
In 1927 and 1929 Henry Norris described the outbreak of World War 1 as a disaster for Arsenal. Crowds at football matches dropped off almost at once and at the end of season 1914/15, professional football was suspended for the duration of the fighting; so the club was left without the means to pay the rent, let alone the loans it had taken out to pay for the development of Highbury as a football ground, loans that Hall and Norris stood surety for. Hall and Norris (probably mostly Norris) had to approach St John’s College and Humphreys Limited who had built the grandstand, and negotiate ‘ticking-over’ payments of the money they were owed, to continue while the war lasted. Norris was a very active mover in the setting-up of the London Combination which ran an expenses-only football league in the south-east between September 1915 and May 1919. A little money coming in regularly from the London Combination helped the club limp along, but by the end of the war it had gobbled up £17000 more of Hall and Norris’ money, with no early pay-back in sight. I should imagine that it was actually William Hall that felt the pinch of this more than Norris, as he was not such a wealthy man; but it was a heavy burden and I can’t find any evidence to suggest that anyone else shared it with them. You can appreciate their anxiety, when the end of the fighting made professional football possible again, to get Arsenal into the top division where the bigger gates would give them their money back more quickly. Again, it was the two of them that did the necessary swaying of opinion before the Football League’s meeting of March 1919 at which Arsenal were elected to FL Division One; though they may have been helped by Charles Crisp.
The idea of Hall and Norris doing the money-work at Arsenal FC continued through the 1919-20 return of professional football. The following dodgy transfer payments were agreed by Hall and Norris without either of them telling other directors of the club what was going on: paying player Clem Voysey £200 to sign for Arsenal (spring 1919); Norris agreeing to loan player H A White £200 per year for five years to get him to sign for Arsenal (July 1919).
By the end of season 1920/21 the worst was over, financially speaking: though the team’s performances had been nothing to get excited about, crowd figures at Highbury had been consistently good and had lifted much of the burden of the club’s debt. In May 1921, therefore, Norris initiated a discussion with Hall in which they agreed that the club was now able to recompense them slightly. Never mind that this was against the FA rules, Hall and Norris agreed that the club should pay the wages of their chauffeurs. Norris’ Ryder, and Hall’s Denham were paid by Arsenal, as members of its ground-staff, from May 1921 to May 1923 when manager Knighton found out about it and expressed his concern - to Hall, not to Norris. Ryder was paid £3/10 a week but 10 shillings of that went to Norris, against the rent he was due for Ryder’s rooms next to Norris’ garage. Again, the original decision to pay the chauffeurs was made by Norris and Hall as the club’s finance sub-committee and no other director was asked their opinion.
The final part of the strategy that Hall and Norris followed to free them from being sole guarantors of Arsenal’s debts, was the purchase of the freehold of the site at Highbury. They had wanted to do this in 1913, but at that stage St John’s College wouldn’t agree to it. By the 1920s, however, the College’s attitude had changed and between 1923 and 1925 a deal was done for the club to buy the land it already leased, plus a small plot extra. The money for the purchase was raised by a mortgage but the banks were happy to lend the club the £47000 purchase price. Norris and Hall did have to act as guarantors of the mortgage - a commitment Norris made a great deal of noise about in 1927 and 1929 but which Fred Wall said (in his memoir) was a typical arrangement when a football club borrowed money. In any case, this time other directors acted as guarantors as well; and unlike in 1913 when the club’s only financial asset was potential gate-money that couldn’t even be assessed for certain, Arsenal now possessed collateral that lenders of money would appreciate - a prime piece of land in the north London commuter belt. If the worst came to the worst - which it wouldn’t - Hall and Norris could now take land in payment of any money they lost at the club. Norris, as the estate agent amongst the directors, led the negotiations with St John’s College. So important did the other Arsenal directors feel him to be as the bargaining continued that even after he was censured (in October 1923) by the FL and FA for his loan-deal with White and the other directors thus found out about it, they still refused to accept his resignation as club chairman. He continued in post; and the finance sub-committee of him and Hall continued as well, although the original reason for it was now null and void.
Beginning in 1925, the late 1920s also saw William Hall, Henry Norris and people they trusted (family, men they wanted to become directors of the club) buying up shares in ones or twos as and when they came up for sale. Perhaps they even contacted the club’s small shareholders offering to buy the shares they had; and some people took them up on it. By these small transactions quite a tidy shareholding could be built up: by September 1927 Hall’s daughter Elsa Kate owned 81 shares; and in 1926-27 J J Edwards built up a holding of 41 shares, enough to make him eligible for election to the board. The policy resulted, of course, in a slight though steady process of further concentration of share ownership in the names of the finance sub-committee members and their close associates; it continued after 1927.
In the period 1912 to the mid-1920s, Arsenal was a club organised so that the finance sub-committee could take all the major decisions. Was there anyone at the club who could restrain the sub-committee members?
THE CLUB’S EMPLOYEES
I don’t mean the players. I’m going to take a look at the behind-the-scenes staff. I’ve found it difficult to get much information on them - they are rather shadowy figures - but I’ve discovered enough to build a theory from them.
Harry John Peters (called John)
John Peters was an accountant. He had worked for the Allen and Norris partnership for several years before contracting a serious illness and having to resign. He had spent a period out of work, before joining Arsenal’s office staff, sometime during 1914 but before World War 1 was declared. In the Arsenal FC handbook for season 1914/15 there is a photograph of him looking young - that is, considerably younger than Henry Norris. He’s described as the club’s financial secretary - quite a grand job title, conveying (to me at least) the idea that he ranks on a par with the manager: the manager for team and match matters, Peters for the office. It also suggests that Peters did the administrative work required by Hall and Norris as the finance sub-committee; and that he was the employee with ultimate responsibility for that work. An important position in the club.
During the war - presumably not fit enough to help with the war effort in any way - Peters continued to work at Arsenal, probably the most senior office employee of a very small staff. He did the administrative work and oversaw such match-day preparations as were necessary for fixtures with crowds of only a few thousand. When the fighting ended, more office staff were hired (see below). Peters remained in daily charge of the club’s monetary affairs: money in, money out and the club’s book-keeping. Norris mentions Peters writing cheques on the club’s behalf (including filling in the payment figure on the notorious £170 cheque for the sale of the reserve team bus); taking money and promissory notes to the bank (see further below) and putting them into Arsenal’s account; and transferring money on a regular basis from Arsenal’s account to other bank accounts where necessary (see further below). By the time the handbook for season 1921/22 was issued, if not by season 1919/20, Peters was being described as the club’s “secretary” - which I suppose means he was company secretary to Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited. It’s a moot point whether he was senior in the office rankings to the manager; I think in Norris’ eyes he was.
In 1929 but while talking of events in 1926, Norris called Peters Arsenal’s “assistant secretary”. When did this apparent demotion occur? I don’t know for sure but I would suggest two possibilities for the timing: either when Chapman took the job advertised as “team manager”; or after Norris had left the club under a cloud (and Norris has forgotten the demotion hadn’t happened yet). I favour the second.
In 1927 Norris described Peters’ book-keeping as “always a model of what bookkeeping (sic) should be”; but events in 1927 and 1929 showed that this assessment was - shall I call it rose-tinted? Or shall I call it convenient? The man himself was described by Norris as “rather slow... [although] in all other respects he is...capable...within the limits of the position.” It sounds rather patronising, doesn’t it? But I think Norris didn’t mean it that way. My impression of Norris is of someone who didn’t value enterprise and independent-thinking in his subordinates and that is part of my argument.
Peters had been recommended for the job at Arsenal by Henry Norris. When, in 1921, Henry Norris suggested to William Hall that they could now recoup some of the money they had invested in the club by putting their chauffeurs on its ground-staff, Peters wasn’t happy with the idea (according to Norris’ account in 1927). However, his concern was not that it was against the FA rules - that aspect of it wasn’t discussed. Peters preferred not to add the two men to Arsenal’s payroll - perhaps he didn’t want the extra admin it would involve. He wanted just to pay Hall and Norris directly and call it travel expenses. Peters put his alternative scheme to Hall and Norris, but when Hall disagreed and preferred the ‘chauffeurs’ idea, and Norris declared that he “did not see that it mattered very much”, Peters backed down. He was Norris’ man. In 1927, being Norris’ man over the ‘chauffeurs’ scheme caused Peters to be suspected by the FA of embezzlement. Or of colluding with Norris in embezzlement: it seems to have been Norris, not his chauffeur, who collected Ryder’s weekly wage of £3/10; and it was Norris who signed the wages book for it, with Ryder’s signature in Norris’ writing - Peters allowed this too.
In 1929 Norris mentioned that during and after the FA Commission’s investigation of Arsenal, John Peters had come under pressure to resign from Arsenal - for reasons that I hope I’ve just made clear. He didn’t do so, in fact he stayed as an employee until the late 1940s. I doubt, though, whether his position was ever quite so close to any of Norris’ successors. As to his relationship with Chapman, I deal with that in the file on Norris and his most famous employee, because I think Peters position at Arsenal caused friction between Chapman and Norris.
John Edward Norris
I know rather less about John Edward Norris, Henry’s brother, than I do of John Peters, but I have got enough information to draw important parallels between them. John Edward Norris joined Arsenal’s office staff in the wake of World War 1, probably during 1919 when professional football was looming again. Like Peters, he had training in accountancy. Like Peters, he had worked for Henry Norris before: at Fulham FC, where he was club secretary until the war broke out, when he volunteered immediately and ended up working in the auditor’s office of the Ministry of Munitions. And like with Peters, it was Norris who persuaded the other directors to appoint his brother as “Assistant” - presumably (seeing they were both accounts men) assistant to Peters. Because he was an assistant, John Edward’s name didn’t figure in Norris’ 1927 account of the £125 cheque and the £170 cheque: in each case, Peters was the man who did the admin. So during the FA Commission of Inquiry in 1927 John Edward Norris didn’t come under quite so much scrutiny and then pressure from the FA. However, Henry Norris still thought that it was quite likely his brother, as well as John Peters, might be sacked at the FA’s insistence. In 1927 Norris was anxious to tell the FA Commission investigating Arsenal’s finances that he was sure John Edward would never take advantage of their relationship; and as far as I can tell, he never did. But he was still Henry’s brother, and Norris’ man.
The Coaching/Scouting Staff
James ‘Punch’ McEwan
McEwan was a professional footballer from 1892 to 1911 but by 1910 he was also scouting for Fulham FC. It was McEwan who drew the attention of Fulham FC to Charles Buchan. McEwan joined the coaching staff of Woolwich Arsenal FC in 1914, and in the seasons between September 1915 and May 1919 took charge of the ‘expenses only’ Arsenal team that played in the London Combination. I’m not sure whether he was paid for his work at that time, and with the return of professional football he was not considered for the job of manager. However, he stayed with Arsenal and in 1927 was the team’s dressing-room attendant.
At the end of season 1909/10, just before William Hall and Henry Norris were asked to help Woolwich Arsenal FC, the club’s first-team coach resigned. George Hardy was taken on as his replacement: the first employee appointed by Hall and Norris’ regime at the club. He was still doing the same job at Arsenal when Herbert Chapman was appointed manager in June 1925, having survived the sackings of George Morrell and Leslie Knighton and having Joe Shaw, only just retired from football, promoted above him as assistant manager for season 1924/25. Chapman thought Hardy’s methods were old-fashioned and wanted to demote him. Henry Norris wouldn’t allow it. Another Norris man, then.
There were, of course, other people on Arsenal’s coaching and office staff. I’ve just mentioned those who were most senior. All Norris’ men.
Before I start I want to emphasise how different the job of manager was in Henry Norris’ time. No one would expect Arsène Wenger to spend any of his time checking Arsenal’s accounts and going to the bank; although he is probably better qualified to do those tasks than those who do carry out that work at Arsenal. But during the earlier years of Norris’ involvement in football management, the ‘team’ side and the ‘admin’ side of the job had not yet been split into two. The job began to make that split in Norris’ lifetime. Football club managers also had less status than they came to have; and less power to make decisions, even footballing decisions: some football reporting about Arsenal in particular gives the impression that the directors still paid a big part in team selection into the 1920s and Norris confirms this in his document of 1929 - another thing Norris probably had the final word on. Times were changing - Herbert Chapman was the main man in changing them and thereby hangs the great tale of 1925-27 - but that’s in a separate file. Here I take a quick look at his two immediate predecessors.
Morrell was already in-post when Woolwich Arsenal FC went into liquidation in 1910. When William Hall and Henry Norris became the club’s main shareholders later that year, the local press expected him to be sacked. However, the two new brooms at the club decided to stick with him and at the club’s AGM in 1911 Norris praised his “careful management” under difficult circumstances, implying that his job was now secure. The following spring Hall and Norris even talked him out of taking the job of manager at Leeds City; Herbert Chapman was given it instead. Morrell continued as manager of Woolwich Arsenal despite presiding over the club’s relegation - something that could get a manager sacked even in those days. He continued at Arsenal through the move to Highbury and was only made redundant, with virtually all the football staff, at the end of season 1914/15 when professional football ceased for the duration of the fighting. I think Hall and Norris were well satisfied with Morrell’s ability to keep the football struggling along while balancing a minuscule budget and having his best players sold over his head. However, when professional football was in prospect again, in 1919, Morrell was not considered as a candidate for his old job.
Knighton seems to have been the only candidate for the job of manager at Arsenal FC in 1919. His own account of how he was hired (written in the 1940s) describes how he was head-hunted from his job as assistant secretary at Manchester City by a phone-call followed by a meeting which he implied was with Henry Norris only, though Norris’ much earlier account says that all the club directors were there. Whoever was or was not present, Knighton’s account says that it was Norris, rather than the other directors, who asked the questions and made it clear to Knighton what was required of him. What was required of him was what had been required of Morrell: to use Knighton’s own words, it was to “build up a world-beating team, using all the while the most rigid economy”. This meant two things in particular: Knighton would have virtually no money to spend on transfers; and he would have to abide by Norris and Hall’s policy on wages. According to one mention by the Islington Daily Gazette, between 1913 and 1925 there was only one player at Arsenal being paid the maximum wage - Rutherford (though the Gazette didn’t know at the time about the loan deal with White, which may have meant White was earning an equivalent amount). In his memoir Knighton acknowledged that many players had refused to come to Arsenal when all he could offer them was less than the maximum.
Knighton’s job interview took place within the precincts of the House of Commons where Norris had just taken his seat as MP for Fulham East. I suggest that it was a venue chosen to impress and intimidate. And when Knighton tells his readers that, on his starting his new job, he was the youngest manager in the Football League Division One, I suggest that Henry Norris knew that very well and it was part of what made Knighton suitable for the job in Norris’ eyes.
Sorry to go on about job titles but I think they mattered at Henry Norris’ Arsenal FC. Announcing Knighton’s appointment, the Athletic News described his new job as that of “team manager”, a title corrected a few days later by the Islington Daily Gazette who said that Knighton would be “manager”, not team manager. IDG also said that Knighton would be given “full charge”, though it didn’t say what of, and as I show below, Knighton had full charge of very little at Arsenal. I want to emphasise that Knighton was NOT appointed secretary manager: Peters was club secretary. At least at first, Knighton was probably relieved not to have the financial administration role added to his team responsibilities. I haven’t found any evidence that even later in his time at Arsenal, he challenged Peters’ position of seniority and trust at the club.
Knighton was very ambivalent towards Norris - I deal with that at greater length in my file on Norris as an employer. But from his own account and Norris’ mentions of Knighton in 1927 and 1929, Knighton did do as he was told for the first few seasons. But the mid-1920s brought changes to the club. A major one was that Arsenal paid off the debts it had been saddled with for a decade. Another was that Knighton grew in self-confidence as he got more experience under his belt. Continued below!
So: Arsenal a club where a lot of the employees had been hand-picked by Henry Norris and thus owed him something. How about the directors?
THE CLUB’S DIRECTORS IN NORRIS’ TIME
At the first official meeting of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited, in June 1910, the directors were: George Leavey who was chairman, Henry Norris, William Hall and John Humble.
As George Leavey left football in April 1912 I’m not including him in my list; you can think of him as the old guard.
John Wilkinson Humble was also the old guard but his position with regard to Woolwich Arsenal FC in 1910 was very different: the club didn’t owe him any money. He had helped found the club when it was a works team at the Royal Arsenal factory and had been a director of the old limited company before resigning after disputes with other board members about the club’s financial policies. He joined the board of Hall and Norris’ new company after speaking out in favour of a take-over by them; he was even in favour of moving the club from Woolwich if that was what it took to keep it going. He continued as a director until ordered to resign by the FA in August 1927 after their Commission of Inquiry found him negligent about financial matters at Arsenal. I make two points here: firstly, he was not a wealthy man, he worked at the Royal Arsenal as an engineer; secondly and following from that, he didn’t have money to help pay the club’s debts, he only ever owned the minimum amount of shares you had to, to be eligible to stand as a director. However, as an Arsenal director he had left the club’s finance sub-committee to get on with it, and had been happy to do so. To that extent he was a Hall and Norris man.
I consider the new guard in the order in which they became directors of [Woolwich] Arsenal FC.
George Ernest Davis joined the board of directors by December 1910. He described himself in the 1901 census as a chemist but I think he’s better described as a pharmacist because he worked in a chemist’s shop. He didn’t live in Woolwich, he didn’t live in north London, he hadn’t been involved with the club before, when he started going to football matches at Highbury the Islington Daily Gazette’s football writer (who knew most local football people) had no idea who he was. So I knew nothing about Davis at all until late 2007 when I was first able to use www.bmd. When - shriek of delight! - he turned out to be William Hall’s brother-in-law, confirming the theory I’d developed when researching later directors. William Hall had married Kate Elizabeth Davis. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason why Davis should become a director of Arsenal - he was certainly not in a position to lend it any money and, like Humble, he only bought the minimum number of shares a director could own. His buying them and becoming a director was probably for two reasons: on Davis’ side, to help out his brother-in-law; and Hall and Norris’ side, a statement that their candidates would get the director’s jobs even if they didn’t know much about football or money. I presume Davis acted like Humble - was expected to act like Humble - and left it to the finance sub-committee to do the work; there’s no evidence that he ever got actively involved in the club’s business. Davis’ last AGM as a director was in 1919 though he still owned his shares after that.
In April 1912, when Leavey resigned as a director of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited, Henry Norris took over as chairman, a post he held, unchallenged, until his enforced resignation in July 1927. William Hall was his vice-chairman, also unchallenged, until his resignation in February 1927.
At Woolwich Arsenal’s AGM in 1912, Norris told shareholders that he and Hall were not looking to appoint any new directors to replace Leavey. His sub-text - which local people understood very well - was that he and Hall did not want any more directors who lived in Woolwich or Plumstead who might object and fight when they moved the club elsewhere.
Charles Crisp was next man in. He joined the board in August 1913 - that is, after Woolwich Arsenal’s move to north London - and I think he was elected by the shareholders who attended the AGM of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company, in which case he was the last man to be elected that way, while Norris was chairman. I should imagine that Hall and Norris were very happy to have Crisp amongst the directors, however, and they may even have encouraged him to stand, for several reasons, or several and a half. Firstly, they had known Charles Crisp for many years, as a respected referee. Secondly, Crisp was a freemason; in 1910 Crisp had joined Kent Lodge number 15, almost certainly on the recommendation of Norris and Hall who were members already. Thirdly, Crisp and Norris, though probably not Hall, had both been involved in a football-cum-financial venture before, the purchase of the sports paper Football Chat; the venture had failed and led to a couple of court cases but Norris and Crisp were not to blame for it going wrong, and they knew they could work together. Fourthly - this is the half, because I’m not absolutely sure there’s a connection - Crisp worked as a manager at the London office of the Norwich Union and in 1911 the directors of Woolwich Arsenal FC negotiated a mortgage of £40,000 with Norwich Union Life Assurance, on the lives of Leavey, Norris and Hall. Lastly - and I’m sure this was considered last by the directors of Arsenal, if it was considered at all - Crisp lived in what is now called Upper Holloway, within comfortable distance of Arsenal’s new ground. That is not to say he was a local man (he’d been born in west London and spent most of his life in Kent and Sussex) but he was more local than anybody else connected with the club.
In an affidavit sworn for Norris’ court case of 1929, Crisp said that he continued to serve on Arsenal’s board of directors until 1926. According to the records of [Woolwich] Arsenal Football and Athletic Company held at Companies House, Crisp’s last AGM as director was 1923 and there is evidence of him still acting as a director in August 1924, but no later. I wish I could feel more comfortable about this discrepancy. The date Crisp left the board is - I think - important; because in the 1929 affidavit Crisp said that he had left the board after “a difference of opinion between Sir Henry Norris and myself”. I would like to know what they disagreed about; if Crisp left in season 1924 it’s they might have fallen out over Norris’ loan to White; if Crisp left in 1926, it might have been over Arsenal’s illegal payments to Charles Buchan and the fate of the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus. I can make this point anyway, however: whatever the subject of the dispute, and however much in the right Crisp might have been, it was he who had to go, and Norris stayed on.
Walter E Middleton became a director of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company at the end of season 1914/15 and I assume that date is significant because it was the end of professional football in wartime. He was elected by those who were already directors of the club, not at an AGM by a vote of the shareholders present. He bought 100 shares, which must have been welcome income for the club at its lowest financial ebb; and so owned more shares than anyone on the board except Norris and Hall. The last annual report in which he figured as a director was that of 1919. As far as I can tell from the football writer of the Islington Daily Gazette, Middleton never attended a match at Highbury; like George Davis, Middleton was a completely unknown quantity to him. I make all due allowance for the pressures of wartime - Norris himself attended very few wartime matches - but I’m sure Middleton had no interest in Arsenal FC at all. He was a councillor at the London Borough of Fulham, with an engineering business based in the Fulham Road. And he was a close friend of Henry Norris. Middleton may never even have attended a board meeting - the normal procedures of company business were more or less shelved while the war was being fought; not just in football. I think he just helped out a friend in need. Part of the deal in 1915 seems to have been that Middleton could resign from Arsenal when professional football was back. He sold his shares in September 1920.
The man who bought Middleton’s shares was the next person to become a director of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company: George Wyatt Peachey, who joined the board in December 1919. Peachey was Norris’ closest friend, a fellow councillor in Fulham and a fellow freemason in Fulham Lodge number 2512; and of course he knew Walter Middleton well too. Peachey will have his own file when I’ve written it. Here I’ll just say that he was another director of the club who had very little interest in football - cricket was more his thing - but once elected (again by the other directors not by the full number of shareholders) he took his match-going and team-accompanying duties seriously. He was still a director in 1927 and (with Humble) was ordered to resign in the FA Commission’s report.
Sir Samuel Hill-Wood became a director of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company in October 1922; like Middleton and Peachey, he didn’t join at an AGM and must have been elected by the directors. From the club’s point of view, Hill-Wood was a big step up: a baronet who had inherited a cotton fortune and married into the aristocracy. The only other director who was at all likely to have got to know him was Henry Norris: they were both MP’s with an interest in sport. Despite being that big step up, however, and probably having more money than the rest of the directors put together, Hill-Wood only bought 40 shares before 1927.
John James Edwards and George Allison had only just become directors of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company by the time Henry Norris resigned as chairman (July 1927) so I’m not looking at them here. Though in fact they both fit the pattern that I have shown above: they were contacts of William Hall and Henry Norris, though more of Norris than of Hall.
What did the other directors do?
Not a lot, it would seem. They attended board meetings, they went to matches sometimes including away games. But other than that...
At least they do seem to have understood from the start what their involvement would be. In his affidavit of 1929 Crisp said that when he became a director of Arsenal FC it was on the understanding that Norris and Hall “were practically a sub-committee to deal with all matters of finance...the engagement of players and other matters of this kind was left to them”. Peachey said in an affidavit prepared at the same time, “When I joined the Board I as told that the control of the finances of the Club was in the hands of the Chairman...and Vice-Chairman”.
Perhaps they wouldn’t have accepted the offer to join the board if it had involved doing more.
Sir Samuel Hill-Wood may have been invited to become a director at Arsenal as part of the plan to buy the freehold of Highbury. Although none of the directors were required to put their own money into the scheme, in 1929 Norris refers to some of the other directors of the club standing as guarantors of the mortgage Arsenal took out to pay the purchase price. Hill-Wood may also have joined the club to give the board a touch of aristocratic caché. He did do match-going on behalf of the club, including away games, often taking one of his sons - probably Denis, who succeeded to his Arsenal interest. But in August 1924, the Islington Daily Gazette called Hill-Wood the President of the club. This honorary title was one that Norris had held at Fulham FC between 1913 and 1919, a period when Norris had given up any daily involvement in its affairs. If Hill-Wood’s involvement at Arsenal FC was minimal before 1927 that might explain why he wasn’t censured with the rest of the directors in the FA Commission report on Arsenal’s finances. Or the FA may just have been afraid of taking on a man with Hill-Wood’s contacts amongst the powers that be.
To fight his libel case against the FA, in 1929, Norris collected statements from Crisp, Peachey and Edwards in which they all agreed that they were happy to leave money matters at the club to Norris and Hall. There’s a bit of ‘well he would, wouldn’t he?’ about that. They were also happy to leave it to Hall and even more to Norris, to buy anything they judged was necessary to the club, from players to furniture; and to allow them to take personal expenses from the club, which was within the law but against the FA rules and makes me wonder whether any of the three men had actually read them. They all argued that the money Norris took as expenses was far less than the money he’d poured into the club while he’d been in charge. Very true. But a bit off the point.
Norris makes the point in his statement for the 1929 libel case that it was Hall, and even more himself, that did the leg work and donkey work of decision-making at Arsenal: hiring and firing, team selection, overseeing training, project-managing the maintenance of the ground and buildings, budgeting, preparing the annual report... It isn’t set out in so many words but from his 1929 document I have gleaned the information that cheques had to be signed by two officials out of Hall, Norris and the club secretary-manager (I think I’ve got that right). So what went on at the board meetings?
Crisp said that the wages book was never produced at board meetings for the directors’ scrutiny. Neither Crisp nor Peachey knew until long after that Norris and Hall had decided to get the club to pay their chauffeurs’ wages. When they found out about it (possibly as late as 1927 though more likely in 1923 when Knighton discovered it) neither of them had a problem with the arrangement, though Peachey did say in 1929 that he thought it was an “unfortunate” one. My point is that they hadn’t known about it when it was set up. Neither Crisp nor Peachey knew about Norris’ deal to loan money to White (July 1919) until a long time after it was agreed; Norris seems to have first mentioned it to them quite casually at around the time White became due for a benefit match - so, 1922 at the earliest. Norris loaned White his own money, not the club’s money; but still, only Hall was told of it. Peachey and Edwards didn’t know until probably February 1927 about Norris taking the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus (July 1926) and paying it into his wife’s bank account; but again, they didn’t seem worried about the administrative confusion and the hole in Arsenal’s bank account (which hadn’t yet been plugged), they seemed just to suppose it would be sorted out eventually. Ignorance was bliss, no doubt; but the FA judged Humble and Peachey as being culpable; and if Crisp had still been a director I think he would have been judged the same.
So: at board meetings the directors didn’t get to oversee the financial workings of the club; and didn’t expect to. And they didn’t get stuck into understanding how it was run by the day.
How much was talked about team matters at board meetings is harder to discover because Norris didn’t mention them a great deal in his document of 1929. George Davis, Walter Middleton and George Peachey would probably not have been able to contribute much to a discussion of who to buy or sell anyway, as they don’t seem to have been football men. I get the impression that perhaps rubber-stamping player deals, without knowing the details, was what was required of them.
Because of the war, and Arsenal’s indebtedness, there were no major building programmes at Highbury between late 1913 and September 1927, so during those years the directors never needed to discuss such an issue. The most they would have needed to discuss was maintenance, and how to solve the continual problems the club had with site drainage. The big project during that time was the purchase of the freehold of the Highbury. No doubt it was discussed in some detail between 1923 and 1925; however, the raising of the money would have been left to the finance sub-committee because that was what the sub-committee did. And Norris did all the negotiating with St John’s College, who owned the freehold; he was the expert in land deals, of course, but none of the other directors seem to have taken any part in the negotiating process.
The directors of Arsenal did once hold a board meeting which Norris didn’t attend; and once made a decision they knew he wouldn’t like - to allow up to £6000 to be spent signing Charles Buchan. But Knighton’s own account of it gives the impression it was an emergency meeting; and he acknowledged that the other directors had misgivings about the decision he eventually got them to agree to. It was a one-off, I think, and certainly, the other accounts of board meetings at Arsenal do paint them as dominated by Henry Norris, with other directors contributing little to the proceedings and certainly not initiating anything - not even Hall, although we do not have an account by him of what usually went on. That’s not to say there were never any disputes at all, but the two disputes that I know about - between Norris and Crisp, and Norris and Hall - both led to the resignation of the other man.
I like George Peachey’s word for the leeway his directors gave Henry Norris, at least over money matters: “unfettered”, was what Peachey called it. If Norris wanted to behave like an idiot, or even like a criminal, other directors let him get on with it. If he was negligent and forgetful with money, and haphazard and dilatory about record-keeping, no one stopped him. Was there anyone at Arsenal FC who could get Norris to listen to something approaching reason? Well, William Hall - provided he wasn’t behaving unreasonably himself. Like Peachey, he has a file of his own. Anyone else though? What about the auditors of the club’s annual accounts?
[ROGER THERE’S A SLFALL3 WHICH FOLLOWS ON DIRECTLY FROM HERE].
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 June 2008