The Fall of Henry Norris: the mid 1920s

Last updated: June 2008



Reader, you will have gathered by now that I am not a money woman.  I have never learned book-keeping.  I will therefore make only a few comments on the auditors.


[Woolwich] Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited had the same auditors throughout the time that Henry Norris was associated with the club; but he didn’t appoint them.  Accountant Charles Brannan of 12 King Street, Cheapside, was appointed liquidator of the original Woolwich Arsenal limited company in April 1910, before William Hall and Norris got involved with the club.  When they were invited in to help, in May 1910, they stuck with him.  From 1911 to 1914 the auditor’s name on the company’s annual accounts was Robert C Charlton, but this is actually less of a change than it seems at first: in 1915 Messrs Brannan, White and Charlton of 12 King Street signed off the company’s annual accounts and they continued to do so, beyond 1927.


None of the firm’s partners seem to have got onto Henry Norris’ lists for the receptions he gave while mayor of Fulham.  Nor do any of them seem to have been known to him through the freemasons.  And none of them were invited to Joy Norris’ wedding in 1923.  It seems, then, that Henry Norris never got to know any of the auditors personally.  Nevertheless, the relationship between them and Arsenal seems to have got rather cosy by the mid-1920s. 


The FA’s enquiry team had decided that the auditors had allowed a certain slackness in the recording of cash transactions at the club which meant that the club’s cash book was not up to the standard required by FA Financial Rule 1.  This might just be a question of the FA requiring higher standards than those demanded by the law and the FA Commission’s report did not suggest any wrong-doing on the auditors’ part.  However, some of the transactions that lacked their proper documentation concerned the payment by Arsenal FC of the wages of the chauffeurs of Henry Norris and William Hall, payments that the FA Commission was adamant were against FA Company Rule 6.  And there was worse: under oath in 1929 Norris admitted that usually, he had taken the cash himself to pay his chauffeur, Ryder, with, and had signed Arsenal’s wages book in Ryder’s name - the FA investigation found he’d done that 47 times.  Asked in court whether he’d told the auditors what he was doing, Norris muttered something that indicated he wasn’t sure whether he had or not.  Perhaps the auditors didn’t realise Ryder’s signature on the wages book was not always in his own hand-writing.  If they did realise it, or if they noticed the hand-writing wasn’t always the same, but elected to do nothing, surely they were very negligent.


The FA Commissioners thought the auditors should have blown the whistle on the dubious practices allowed in Arsenal’s offices; and that they hadn’t done enough to investigate the possibility that the club was being defrauded.




The buying of the land at Highbury (1925) was the Norris and Hall’s last great achievement as Arsenal’s finance sub-committee.  For up to 14 years, through some very difficult times, the strategy of Hall and Norris in keeping control of Arsenal strictly between themselves had worked well according to their own criteria.   They were no longer in danger of seeing their own money lost to Arsenal’s debts.  However, by the mid-1920s the landscape at Arsenal had started to shift; the changes caused several worms in the bud to be exposed. 


It has only struck me very recently that after October 1922, Henry Norris was a man with nothing much to do in his life.  In October 1922 the coalition government fell apart and a general election was called.  Norris had already decided that he would not stand as an MP again.  The Allen and Norris partnership was no longer building new houses; and house-building by Kinnaird Park Estate Company was also at a very low level at that time.  So essentially, by the end of 1922, Norris was out of a job.  He didn’t need to work, of course: he’d made a large fortune in property development.  He could and did enjoy the life of a wealthy man - summers on the houseboat at Henley, winters in the south of France, a new Rolls-Royce every year - and by this time he was not in particularly good health; but he wasn’t ready to sit down and wait for death to get him, yet. Like many men in his position he seems to have decided to spend more time on his hobby: Arsenal.  The main result of this was a good one: the purchase of the Highbury freehold.  Other consequences weren’t so good.  And nothing unnerves me more than Norris calling the running of a football club a hobby!  It suggests to me the sort of attitude that results in inattention to detail.  And the devil was in the detail when the FA started looking at Arsenal’s book-keeping in 1927.


Norris’ influence at Arsenal had been growing over the decade before 1922, as more employees and more directors were appointed at his suggestion.  And while Norris in the mid-1920s was around the club more than he had been for several years, William Hall still had many other commitments: he had his metal-working business to run, in difficult economic times; in June 1921 he was elected an LCC councillor, serving until the elections of March 1925; and between 1925 and 1927 he was on the executive committee of the London Combination, energetically working to raise its profile as a competition.  Hall was also still the only southern-based member of the Football League management committee.


Another development in the early and mid-1920s was the increased self-confidence and frustration of Leslie Knighton.  His achievements in his first two seasons had been reasonable: nothing in the FA Cup but tenth in Football League Division One, followed by ninth.  His confidence received a double boost in close season 1921: he was offered another job, and the job offer caused Hall and Norris to offer him better wages and a flat, rent-free, in order to keep him.  Knighton stayed, and the next two seasons were passable too: 17th in season 1921/22 plus an FA Cup quarter-final; eleventh in season 1922/23.  At the end of season 1922/23, Knighton found out about the payment of the chauffeurs’ wages by Arsenal. He could have just pretended he hadn’t noticed - after all, he wasn’t responsible for Arsenal’s finances - but he didn’t.  He felt sufficiently self-assured, and sufficiently uncomfortable about what had been going on, to approach William Hall and say that he thought that it was wrong, and ought to stop.  In his book Knighton said he went to Hall because it was Hall that was a member of the FL management committee; Knighton thought it looked particularly bad for Hall’s chauffeur to be on the club’s staff.  Knighton might also have said that he didn’t fancy tackling Norris about it.  Hall was the one to mention the matter to Norris; who was perfectly reasonable about it, happy to cease paying the chauffeurs this way.  Payment of their wages by Arsenal stopped at once, at the end of season 1922/23 and Norris didn’t bear Knighton any grudge about it, he reserved his grudge for a more important issue.


Season 1922/23 was Knighton’s high-point at Arsenal.  In his last two seasons some of the strands of change at Arsenal came together to negative effect: the club’s freeing itself from the worst of its debt; Norris’ continuing insistence on a one-club-only transfer cap; and the continuing rise in the prices paid for players.  Quite when the rows between Knighton and Norris began that Knighton writes of in his memoir isn’t clear.  They may have rowed from the moment Knighton began work at Arsenal but I think it’s more likely that Knighton kept his head down at first and only started openly disagreeing with Norris later.  No doubt not all board meetings became like this but Knighton describes some as a battle-ground in which he fought against Norris’ refusal to pay the going price for good players.  Knighton was infuriated and humiliated by his exchanges with Norris; he doesn’t mention any other director being involved in them, giving the impression that the others all sat mum-chance while the two of them slogged it out, with Knighton inevitably being defeated. 


In his memoir Knighton makes it plain that he wasn’t asking for much.  He said that he thought his mid-1920s team was just one or two players short of winning things: one or two players of some calibre was all he wanted.  Buying them would mean paying more in transfer fees and in wages; but Knighton was sure it would bring results.  It clearly drove him crazy to be so restricted in what money he could spend on players, when for the first time for many years, Arsenal actually had some money that they could choose to spend on improving the team.  Things reached a crisis when he heard that Charles Buchan might be for sale.  Knighton was so sure that Buchan would make the difference that in Norris’ absence, he even swayed the other Arsenal directors into agreeing with him.  But he’d over-reached himself.  Buchan could not be bought for the price the directors allowed Knighton to offer.  And Norris never forgave him.  Knighton says - and so do Norris’ grand-children - that it was Knighton’s attempt to sign Buchan, at a price Norris would never have consented to, that lost him his job. 


I’m not so sure.  Nineteenth in season 1923/24 and twentieth in season 1924/25 might also have had a lot to do with it.  No doubt Knighton carried the can for those, but he was also the fall-guy for the increasing gulf between what Norris would let him spend, and the price of even the most average player.  I can’t decide, myself, how significant it was that Knighton was sacked in May 1925, just before the deal went through in which Arsenal bought their freehold.   By that deal, Arsenal might be said to be free of all recent restraints on spending.  I think the date is significant, despite the advert for his successor, which gave the impression of continuity when it insisted that no one wanting to build a winning team via a spending-spree need apply.


Henry Norris’ relationship with Herbert Chapman is so fascinating and so amazing that I will deal with it at length in a separate file.  Here I just want to emphasise a few salient points.  One: Chapman was appointed by Henry Norris acting alone. The job advert gives Norris’ home address in Richmond as the one to which letters of application should be sent, and in 1929,  Norris admitted that he personally was responsible for appointing Chapman.  Two: like Knighton, Chapman’s job title when he was appointed was “team manager”, suggesting that Peters was to continue his role as the senior man on the financial and administrative side.  Three: Chapman was the reverse of Leslie Knighton in almost any respect you care to name.  Four: with Chapman’s arrival at Arsenal the new and the old clashed to devastating effect.


In 1929 Henry Norris described his role at Arsenal.  He said that unlike the other directors, he was “constantly at the Club premises superintending and watching the training of the players, selecting teams, seeing the ground was in order etc...and attending to the matters of detail and finance which could not wait for a formal Board meeting”.  He didn’t assign this busy schedule to any particular time-period but it probably best describes the two periods 1912-14 and his last few years as Chairman.  In 1929 Norris did go so far as to admit that Herbert Chapman was “quite capable...of dealing with [the running of the club] without interference by the Directors in general and [myself] in particular”.  A manager that, unlike his predecessor, had two decades of experience at football and at company management, and all the self-confidence of knowing himself the best in the business, might find a ‘hands-on’ attitude in his chairman, and a chairman-appointed club secretary of equal if not senior rank to himself, rather difficult to take.


Today, the new manager brings senior coaching staff with him.  Taking them on as well as him is a condition of his accepting the job; the senior staff of the last man in, usually leave with him.  This never occurred in Henry Norris’ time, so George Hardy, Hall and Norris’ first appointment at Arsenal, was still the first team’s trainer in 1925.  In Norris’ view (expressed in 1927) Hardy was “a master of his job”.  However, methods of training had changed a great deal since Hardy had been appointed and Chapman had the more proactive view, that trainers should coach the players as well as just supervise their daily training routines.  “Soon after [Chapman] arrived” (according to Norris) Chapman concluded that Hardy was not up to the job now required of him.  He asked Norris to demote him.  Presumably Chapman wanted to promote someone else more suited to the role of trainer as he saw it, but Norris’ account of their conversation implies that it never got as far as that: Norris told Chapman that he must work with Hardy, and with Punch McEwan and Joe Shaw, both of whom could do coaching.  In July 1927 Norris thought that Hardy had been doomed as an Arsenal employee from that moment, but in fact, Chapman continued to work with Hardy as first-team trainer until one particular incident in February 1927 which was nothing to do with training.  Norris’ account in 1927 reads as if Norris didn’t consult any other director about his decision in this matter: perhaps he made it during one of his sessions supervising training, sessions at which (according to Norris) no other directors were ever present.


Henry Norris had never liked the concept of scouting: he saw it as improper interference in the working of another club.  In his memoir Leslie Knighton says that his attempt to find players on the cheap was hampered by Norris’ steadfast refusal to pay anyone for doing the job of scouting.  And as the club’s directors did scouting work only very rarely, Knighton had to do most of such scouting as was done himself, when he could find the time; so of course it was done very piecemeal.  It seems, from Norris’ account of 1927, that Chapman ignored Norris’ prohibition and employed scouts anyway.  Norris writes that when Chapman put before him vouchers for the payment of men for scouting duties, Norris refused to sign them; it’s not clear to me from what Norris wrote, whether this was just one incident, after which Chapman didn’t do it again; or whether Chapman continually demanded that Norris sanction payment of scouts and it became a running sore in their relationship.  One thing that Norris said in 1927 implied that Chapman carried on paying men for scouting work without Norris’ permission - perhaps out of the petty cash or something - and that that became a running sore in their relationship.


Despite these differences of opinion, at least at first, Norris did think of Chapman as “worth every penny” of a salary that he admitted was “big”.  He even, at Chapman’s insistence, did what Knighton had spent so much energy fruitlessly asking him to do - he paid good money for one or two good players.  Paying £4100 (in the end) for Buchan and £4000 for goal-keeper William Harper threw Norris’ own rule-book well and truly out the window but brought its reward: these two players were the only ones of any importance transferred to Arsenal during 1925/26 and Arsenal had their best ever league season during Norris’ time at the club. 


It’s hard to say when Norris’ view of his new manager began to sour.  It may not have gone that way until early 1927.  Nor do we have any account by Chapman to give us a clue as to what the manager thought of his chairman.  In the account of the events of 1927 which he wrote in 1929, Norris accused Chapman of biding his time, waiting for the right circumstances to be rid of him, but I think this is just Norris being not especially wise and certainly all cock-eyed after the event; and not making due allowance for circumstances in Chapman’s past which influenced his actions in the present.


In 1919 Leeds City were investigated by the FA for making illegal payments of wages to players.  The payments were alleged to have been made during the seasons of wartime football rules.  Chapman had been doing war work at the time and someone else had been doing the club’s book-keeping; Chapman had also resigned as the club’s manager in December 1918.  Despite these mitigating factors, when the club’s hierarchy was expelled from the FL for refusing to show them its accounts, Chapman was suspended with them.  This had not deterred Chapman, once his suspension had been lifted, from encouraging his employers to make illegal wage payments to players: in June 1925 he expected Henry Norris to agree to pay Buchan over the maximum wage and - in this instance - Norris did as he was told.  However, Chapman’s past experience had made him jumpy where hiding such payments in a club’s accounts was concerned: he was perhaps more anxious than other managers that they should either not come from the club’s money, or if they did, that they should be hidden in a thorough and professional manner.


In 1927 and again in 1929 Henry Norris made it very obvious that he hadn’t liked his money dealings at Arsenal being scrutinised, let alone being challenged, by anyone involved with the club.  In both these accounts he took the view that he had lent and guaranteed the club so much money over the years that he expected not to be criticised by anybody there if, in effect, he now found it difficult sometimes to remember that Arsenal’s money was not his own.  In 1929 Norris got two directors of the club to make statements agreeing with his view, but it was not a view held by the FA, nor by Chapman.  By late 1926 Chapman had probably noticed and been worried by the tendency of John Peters to let Henry Norris get away with a lack of attention to administrative detail in money matters.  Perhaps it had even become a subject of ongoing dispute between Chapman and Norris, though Norris does not say that it had.  It did become one after Chapman found out that his signature had been forged by Norris on the £170 cheque for the sale (July 1926) of the reserve team bus.  I deal with this incident in more detail in my file on Norris and Chapman.  Here I’ll just say firstly that I can’t believe that Chapman didn’t investigate further; so he will have found out that the £170 was not in Arsenal’s bank account six months after the bus had been sold.  And secondly, according to Norris’ own take on what happened, Chapman’s discovery (January 1927) made him absolutely furious but Norris doesn’t seem to have had any idea why!


It may have been Chapman’s fury and anxiety over what had happened to the £170 cheque that made him act in such a way as to bring to a head the other great problem he had with Henry Norris - George Hardy.  That Chapman should have a shouting match with a subordinate during an FA Cup replay, while the game was actually in progress, is not characteristic of the man.  I think it is also significant that the dispute was about whose job it was to give instructions to the team from the touchline: a question of seniority, you might say.  The argument began on the touchline, continued in the dressing room, and got so heated that eventually William Hall and Samuel Hill-Wood had to intervene.  As the club’s vice-chairman, Hall made the decision to leave the matter in Chapman’s hands to resolve: which Chapman did by demoting Hardy to second trainer for the rest of the season and promoting Tom Whittaker in his place.  Henry Norris was not at that match (reader I’m sure you’ve worked that out!)  Neither Hall nor Chapman thought the quarrel or its sequel were of any particular significance but when Norris was told (by Chapman) what had gone on, he created uproar about it.  There’s no doubt that if he had been at the match, either the row would not have taken place at all, or the outcome of the row would have been completely different - he made that quite clear to Chapman and to Hall.  With Norris present, Hardy would have remained in post, and Chapman would have been censured and possibly even sacked.  Norris saw Chapman’s demotion of another Arsenal employee as usurping the authority of the directors - that is, of himself.  Norris never said what he thought of the part played by Hall in the dispute; but he may have felt hostile towards Hall for siding with Chapman against Hardy and by inference against Norris himself. 


I suppose Norris would have reinstated Hardy if things had gone according to plan, putting Chapman in an impossible position.  But things didn’t go according to plan, they shot off in an entirely unexpected direction, and Hardy never did get his original job back.  However, if Chapman had been looking for a chance to be rid of Henry Norris from the club (as in 1929 Norris thought he had been) he must have been appalled at what happened next: Henry Norris and William Hall had a terrible argument about how the matter of Hardy had been dealt with.  Norris continued to state his view that Chapman had no authority to demote a member of staff without the board’s consent.  From what followed, I assume that Hall defended his decision to allow Chapman to deal with the matter.  Hall may have seen Norris’ opposition to the outcome as a challenge to his (Hall’s) authority as vice-chairman.  The upshot was that Hall resigned as a director of Arsenal, leaving Norris even more pre-eminent at the club, and a finance sub-committee of one.


Coverage of football clubs’ affairs was more cautious in Norris’ time than now; internal disputes were mentioned, but discreetly, and less emotively, and people didn’t rush to the nearest journalist to put their side of the story first.  That said, I haven’t found any evidence that William Hall and Henry Norris had quarrelled before Chapman’s row with Hardy.  They did disagree.  Of course.  Norris himself, in 1927, mentions one occasion on which they’d not seen eye to eye.  It was about the sale of the reserve team bus (all roads lead to the reserve team bus in 1926 and 27!)  Norris had set a reserve price on it and was insisting that it be met.  After several weeks in which no offer had come for it which Norris was prepared to accept, he and Hall had a conversation about the bus in which Hall (according to Norris who quoted him verbatim) said, “You can do as you like with it as far as I am concerned.  Chop it up for firewood for ought I care.”   This impatience could be Hall’s natural manner; but none of the accounts of him describe him as that kind of man.  It could be just a passing irritation with Norris’ intransigence on a relatively minor matter.  But it could be a symptom of a deeper malaise in Hall’s attitude towards Norris in 1926, which reached the point of no return over the problems between Chapman and Hardy.


Hall did not resign over what Norris had done with the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus; although by the time of his resignation he did know about it, having been told by Chapman.  Before Chapman could raise the issue at the next board meeting, but after their quarrel and Hall’s resignation, Hall asked for a private meeting with Norris, at which he told him what had happened to the cheque, saying that if Norris wanted to avoid an investigation by the football authorities, he had better resign as a director of Arsenal.  Norris refused.  He warned Hall that if there was an investigation into the club’s finances the investigators were likely to notice the two years’ wages paid to their chauffeurs by Arsenal - and was flabbergasted when Hall denied that his chauffeur had ever been paid this way.  I’m astonished myself because (see above if you’ve forgotten) in 1921 Hall had been very keen on this particular method of recouping some expenses from Arsenal, rejecting an alternative put forward by John Peters (both alternatives broke the FA rules).


The board meeting of Monday 14 February 1927 must have been a real eye-opener for the other directors of the club.  Chapman’s argument with Hardy, Hall’s resignation and what had happened to the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus were all discussed.  The complete, bitter and vocal break-down of so many relationships between the key men at the club must have come as a series of shocks.  The rifts between them all had gone beyond the other directors’ abilities to repair, even if they had not been the hands-off directors Norris had elected them to be, so all the tensions and anger at the club continued after the meeting.  Hall refused to retract his resignation.  Hardy left the club and went to do the same job at Spurs (inadvertently solving the problem of his continued presence at Arsenal in a demoted role).  Norris described himself as being “openly and continuously insulted” by Chapman in the months that followed.  And Norris began the process of suing the people who’d found out about the £170 cheque; in doing so, alerting the Football League to possible breaches in their rules and bringing about the investigations that Hall had told Norris to resign to avoid.


Norris was obliged to promise to resign.  Charles Sutcliffe and Fred Rinder, taking an initial look at Arsenal’s records on behalf of the Football League, discovered enough about the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus to convince them that if he didn’t, the FL would be obliged to set up a much more stringent investigation from which Norris would be the main sufferer.  However, the FL didn’t go hell for leather after Norris - which they could have, if they had been as hostile to him as he later claimed.  Instead they offered him a chance to get out without a scandal: Sutcliffe promised that if Norris resigned now (May 1927), the FL would let the matter drop.  Norris accepted the offer - that is to say, he told Sutcliffe he would go by the club’s AGM at the latest. But...  He didn’t actually pen his letter of resignation until Hall had gone to the Football Association and asked them to investigate Arsenal’s finances.  And in 1929 he said that he hadn’t resigned because he’d promised Sutcliffe he would, he’d done it because his relations with Chapman and Hall had got so bad that he felt he couldn’t carry on.


It’s a clear indication of the extent of the break-down in trust between Hall and Norris, that Hall had asked the FA to investigate whether Norris had been taking Arsenal’s money to reimburse himself for the several hundred pounds he’d lost lending money to Herbert White.  Hall’s letter formally asking the FA for an investigation also asked the FA to clear him (Hall) of Norris’ imputation that Hall’s chauffeur had been paid by Arsenal (of course, it couldn’t do that).  And so the FA set up a Commission of Inquiry. 



During the FA investigation Norris faced a big dilemma.  If he didn’t tell the truth about the £125 cheque payable to the Queensborough Motor Company and the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus, it might look as though he had done what Hall feared he had.  On the other hand, telling the truth about what the two cheques were for, he’d have to admit to making illegal payments to players.  Either way he’d get suspended.  Norris opted not to explain what the cheques were for and didn’t admit about paying Buchan until late 1928 when Buchan had retired from playing.  He kept aloof from the enquiry in 1927 until he began to realise that the way Hall’s chauffeur had been paid from 1921 to 1923 - via small sums regularly paid into an outside bank account (Hall’s of course) looked very bad if you didn’t know the truth.  It might look to the FA like John Peters taking money from Arsenal for himself.  Distrusting the football authorities, Norris also realised that the FA might choose to see it that way rather than admit that Hall had broken the rules.  Peters was Norris’ man.  Perhaps Norris also guessed that he and Hall were done for whatever they now did.  He prepared the statement of July 1927 (on which I’ve drawn so heavily for my life of Henry Norris) explaining at length his and Hall’s connection with the club, including the paying of their chauffeurs.  In it he also admitted some payments of lump sums to players; and the loan to White - most of which the FA and FL knew already. 


Norris seriously misunderstood the main thrust of the FA’s searches into Arsenal’s affairs.  When their report was published, it was more concerned with the way in which  Norris and Hall had been able to receive monies that were allowed by company law but forbidden by the FA rules; and the lack of attention to record keeping at Arsenal which left room for rule or even law-breaking, even if neither did occur.  They also didn’t like the way Arsenal had paid some of Rutherford’s legal costs; no doubt they could see how payments like those could turn into a scam for paying above the maximum wage. 


The devil was definitely in the detail; Norris was nit-picked into suspension at the FA’s hands.  However even the FA stopped short of reaching any conclusions about Norris’ endorsement of the £170 cheque for the reserve team bus with a signature purporting to be Chapman’s.  Norris was still trying to sue the men at Fulham FC about it so the matter was sub judice; the FA couldn’t really mention it in their report, therefore, and I should imagine they were very relieved about that!  The implications of what had happened to the £170 cheque were never really followed through - not in court or by the FA or by the police or even by Chapman; and I reckon Norris got off very lightly there.  He didn’t think so though!


In 1929 Henry Norris saw himself as hounded from football by people who hated him and had no regard for what he had given to the game and to Arsenal in particular.  I hope I’ve shown that though he certainly had enemies, most of the damage of 1927 was self-inflicted.


“A suggestion has been made that the Club has been a one man Club dominated by me”: thus Norris, in 1927.  Still a burning question today, isn’t it?  One man dominating a club.  I don’t think it’s ever a good idea.  (Thursday 12 June 2008): good luck, big Phil Scolari!  Despite all the money you’ve been promised, you’re going to need it.






Copyright Sally Davis June 2008