Henry Norris and the Fulham Conservatives Part One: Mayor to MP
Last updated: August 2008
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Henry Norris’ grand-children have told me that he was always ambitious. On one occasion when his school asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he said he wanted to be the lord mayor of London. That’s not a particularly political ambition, really - it tends not to be a party political appointment - and in fact Norris never achieved it. I just mention it because I think his saying he wanted to be the lord mayor illustrates Norris’ determination to go places, and by the time he was in his twenties he does seem to have decided that politics were one arena he wanted to go places in.
He started small, in local politics, and quite young as well: he was elected to the vestry of Battersea at age 31. In 1900, though, he indicated that he would move constituencies if he thought it would better his chances of success, by standing in Fulham, where Allen and Norris was doing all its building, rather than in Battersea, where he lived but maybe had never worked and was probably not so well known. It was a risk - in 1900 he didn’t stand in Battersea and he didn’t get elected in Fulham - but it was one he took again in the future as part of his route from local to national politics. The risk paid off in the long run anyway, as Norris stood again in Fulham in 1906 - very well known by then as partner in Allen and Norris and chairman of Fulham FC - and did get elected. After only three years at the London Borough of Fulham, his fellow councillors elected him mayor of the borough and he had reached the top as far as borough politics were concerned.
Only a few months after becoming mayor of Fulham, Henry Norris made the next step up. Having been approached by people offering several seats on London County Council, some of them safe Conservative seats, he agreed to stand as a candidate in North Lambeth, in the elections to London County Council. He was apparently persuaded to do so by the Conservative mayor of Lambeth, a Mr E Johnson whom Norris had got to know slightly on the London mayors’ social circuit. Johnson seems to have thought that Norris might be able to overturn the majority in what was known as a stronghold of the Liberals. Norris’ choosing to commit himself to campaigning in another borough upset his local party, which was expecting him to concentrate on supporting their candidates in the two Fulham seats on the LCC. Norris was obliged to attend a meeting at South Fulham Constitutional Club in Shorrold’s Road - not something he did often - and to make a speech reassuring everybody there of his commitment to Fulham. He then enmired himself with Fulham Conservatives even further by being seen standing at the back of a Liberal Party campaign meeting for a few minutes between two meetings of his own at Fulham Town Hall. Norris did manage to keep his promise and carry out campaigning in both Fulham and Lambeth. Fulham returned its two incumbent LCC councillors, both Conservatives. But although Norris did make a big dent in the Liberal Party’s majority in North Lambeth he lost by 150 votes. It may have been the outcome he expected. By agreeing to stand he had shown himself willing to fight a difficult seat, had gained some experience of campaigning on a larger stage, and become known to a larger number of people in London politics. And all without actually becoming an LCC councillor, with all its extra commitment of time.
Norris’ willingness to stand in Lambeth should have alerted the Conservatives in Fulham to the fact that he was not going to focus on Fulham for ever. However, they still seem to have been caught out, and put out, when Norris made his first move onto the stage of national politics. He and a Mr Fremantle were accepted by the Stockport Conservative Party to stand in the town’s two constituencies at the next general election. Norris knew one of the incumbent MP’s for Stockport, S L Hughes, as he worked for the Daily News, but Hughes was a Liberal so he can’t have had anything to do with Norris’ name being put forward as a candidate for the opposition. As Hughes is the only contact with Stockport that Norris had in his life, I think that Norris and Mr Fremantle must both have been recommended to the Stockport Conservatives by the party’s central office. That means that either Norris put his name forward for any seats that were going; or that he was sought out by the Conservative Party. Either way I would suppose the process involved some investigating of his background, and an interview. So Norris’ being offered a seat by the Conservative Party had probably been planned for several months. It just happened to be Stockport. It was not a seat he was likely to win, the Liberals were well-entrenched there; but he was showing the Conservative Party central office willing, by agreeing to fight it.
A general election was due in 1915. It was with reluctance that Norris agreed, in November 1914, to serve another year as mayor. He had wanted to hand the job on to someone else, the better to prepare to fight his unwinnable seat in a part of the country remote from Fulham and which he hardly knew. He agreed to stay as mayor for one more year because war had broken out and it was generally accepted, by Norris included, that it was the duty of people with experience of the job to continue to do it until the fighting was over. Of course, 1914 was the year the war was supposed to be over by Christmas. And of course, it went on and on and on. In 1915 all political activity was cancelled including the general election. Norris’ national political ambitions had to wait until 1918, but he got a big reward for his patience: fate played into his hands and he was able to stand in the seat of all those in England that he was most likely to win - Fulham East. And he did win it, with a big majority.
But in 1922, he was de-selected for the next general election by his own constituency party, made up of Fulham Conservatives, some of whom he had known for nearly 30 years. How did that come about?
Before I explain how, I should say that yet again, my main source of information for an important and negative phase in Norris’ life is Norris himself. He gave an interview to a reporter from the Fulham Chronicle in September 1922, to put his side of the breakdown in relations between him and the Conservatives in his constituency. Although the reporter did have some information about what had been going on behind the scenes at Fulham East Conservative Party, no one from the Fulham East Conservatives seems to have been willing to explain it from their point of view. So - as so often with Henry Norris in the 1920s - I’m left with only his point of view.
The trouble began before Henry Norris was selected as the Coalition candidate in Fulham East. It began the moment William Hayes Fisher approached Norris to take over in the constituency he’d been selected for but now wouldn’t be needing. And it began over money: Norris told Hayes Fisher that he would be very pleased to take over in Fulham East, but that it must be on the understanding that he wouldn’t contribute any more to local constituency funds than the £200 per year Hayes Fisher was contributing in 1918. The constituency party agreed those terms, and Norris was selected, there being no rival nominations for the post. In 1922, Norris said that in his opinion, his campaign had been poorly organised and administered, but if he thought so at the time, he didn’t make his views public, he just got on with getting himself elected. The Conservative Party in Fulham did manage to organise a celebration party for their two successful candidates; it was held at the Shorrold’s Road headquarters of South Fulham Constitutional Club so I presume it was them that organised it. It wasn’t their fault that the night they had picked for it, the weather was dreadful and not so many people turned up to it as they had hoped for. Looking back on the party from 1922, Norris felt the lack of people at the party was a slight to both him and Cyril Cobb (the new MP for Fulham West) but I think he was mistaken, there, seeing insults where none were meant and forgetting both the weather on that night and the ongoing effects of the flu epidemic. I couldn’t find any indication in the local press at the time that anyone was complaining about what happened (or didn’t happen) at the party.
Fast forward, now, to early in 1921, when the local papers first published rumours that the Conservative Party in Fulham East was short of funds, and that Norris’ name was being mentioned to make good the lack. Then on again, several months more, because it wasn’t until late in 1921 that Norris was finally approached about the Party’s financial problems.
The state of the Conservative Party in Fulham East in November 1921 hadn’t improved since 1918, according to Henry Norris, speaking in September 1922. Its organisation and administration had got no better, and in the difficult economic times that now prevailed, it was having trouble collecting membership payments; it was also having to pay out a great deal to members of its provident fund whose businesses were struggling. Norris’ agent for the 1918 general election seems to have been employed only for the actual campaign. In late 1921, the constituency had no paid agent, and no offices. It’s not clear to me from Norris’ account of this (given 1922) whether the lack of agent and offices was an economy measure, or due to a disagreement between him and the constituency party. Norris confirmed that there was a disagreement, but he didn’t say when it had taken place. He told the Fulham Chronicle that he had wanted a particular man to be his paid, permanent agent in the constituency, but the constituency party wouldn’t agree to Norris’ nominee being appointed. So there wasn’t one at all. The constituency party was left reliant on volunteers to conduct its business, and not enough of them were coming forward to do the office work and the collecting subscriptions efficiently.
With a general election likely within two years, the Fulham East Conservatives decided that they couldn’t leave things in their current unsatisfactory state any longer. In November 1921 they wrote to Henry Norris asking him either to double his contribution to constituency funds; or to pay the wage of an agent and for office space to put him in as well. The letter they wrote gives the impression - at least to me - that they knew that Norris was likely to take their request badly; I assume this was one reason why they hadn’t approached him before. The letter was terribly anxious to assure Norris that his constituency party were very pleased with him as their MP etc etc but please could he give them more money.
In September 1922 Henry Norris was still angry about that letter. He felt that if his constituency was running out of money he should have been invited to a meeting to discuss the problem in a general way and search for solutions, not sent a demand for money, however obsequiously worded. He wrote back at once, reminding the constituency party of the agreement of 1918 that he should not pay more than £200 per year; and reminding them that he had many other calls on his money. He refused to increase his £200; and he resigned from Fulham East Conservative Party saying that it would allow the Party to pick another candidate, against whom he would stand as an Independent Conservative. Having sent the letter, Norris then went abroad for the winter.
I think this letter of Norris’ was an extraordinary one; and only makes sense if he had heard more on the Fulham grapevine over the last few months than he was admitting to his own constituents. There’s no doubt that the lack of organisation in the constituency annoyed him but it seems a very drastic reaction, to resign rather than negotiate. And he wasn’t (in my opinion) being fair in his refusal to raise his contribution from £200. He certainly did have a great many other financial commitments and £200 was what Hayes Fisher had been paying; but since Hayes Fisher had been paying it, there had been quite steep inflation and £200 did not now go nearly so far.
To many of his constituents it looked like Norris had shut the door on any possibility of compromise but in fact, he did compromise. During his time abroad he seems to have had second thoughts on the stance that he had taken. Once back in England he attended a meeting organised by Fulham East Conservative Party and agreed to raise his contribution to the constituency to £300. He also agreed to withdraw his resignation from the Party. However, he made some conditions. He wanted to vote in the House of Commons as his conscience dictated; not as his constituents felt he ought to for their benefit (always supposing they could agree). He wanted to have final approval of any person put forward to act as his agent in the constituency. And he wanted to receive a statement from Fulham East Conservative Party of its members’ unanimous support for him as their MP.
The Party members went away to hold their own meeting. But they couldn’t agree on the statement of support Norris required, at least not unanimously. So within a day or so of the meeting he’d attended, Norris received another letter, saying that he would be de-selected, and the Party would choose another candidate to fight the constituency, one they could all agree on. As Norris had agreed to pay his Fulham East constituency party what they wanted, and hadn’t insisted on appointing the man he wanted to be his agent in the constituency, the members’ failure to support him had to be down to other causes. I think that even when he talked about what had happened in September 1922 he wasn’t really sure what they were. I’m not sure I know either but below I list several issues which divided Norris from his constituents or from some of them.
One issue was that most emotional and divisive of subjects: Ireland. Henry Norris had consistently described himself during his political career as a Unionist - that is, he had been a part of that branch of the Conservative Party that took its stand on a united Ireland within the British empire. Ireland had not been an issue in the 1918 general election, but by 1921 the country was being torn apart by violence and a solution had to be found to prevent an all-out civil war. In 1922, Norris told the reporter from the Fulham Chronicle that the Unionists in the Conservative Party in Fulham East had been very hostile towards him for his part in the political decision-making that led to the partition of Ireland. In fact the Fulham Unionists were wrong to put the blame on Norris. It’s true that on 31 October 1921 Henry Norris did vote with the Coalition Government, in support of its decision to hold talks with the Irish nationalists. But throughout the long House of Commons process of separating northern and southern Ireland and setting up the Irish Free State (Eire), a great many votes were needed but Norris didn’t vote with the Government once. Mostly, he didn’t vote at all but on one occasion (2 March 1922) he voted against the Government, in a minority of only 36 (probably mostly Ulster Unionists) as against 217 in its favour; doing his parliamentary career no good, I should imagine, if he was still worried about that. He went further: on 5 April 1922 he voted in favour of a motion which accused the Government of having lost its focus and its principles. It wasn’t fair, therefore, for Unionists in Fulham to take the view that Norris said they did; he had done very little to help forward the move towards a divided Ireland.
Other criticisms of Norris’ behaviour as an MP hit nearer home. Quite early in his period as an MP - probably within the first few months - the Conservatives in Sand’s End, which he’d represented on Fulham Council from 1906-19, put forward a motion to the full party in Fulham East to have Norris censured for what he himself described (in 1922) as “not doing what I ought to as a representative”. Quite what he thought it had meant he didn’t say, and the reporter from Fulham Chronicle didn’t ask. I would suppose that it had to do with unemployment; though not, I think, with Norris not pushing the Coalition Government to do more to help the unemployed. I think that it was probably the opposite of that: that Norris wasn’t doing enough to take the burden of paying the unemployed their benefits off the local people, particularly the small businessmen and new middle-class who were the backbone of the Fulham Conservative Party.
This attempt at criticism of Norris as MP got no further: the full party in Fulham East stamped on the motion put forward by its members in Sand’s End and wouldn’t let it be debated. Nothing was said about the abortive motion officially, but Norris found out anyway, as one does, either from somebody who gossiped or it might have been from Edith Norris, who until 1922 still represented Sand’s End on the Fulham Board of Guardians.
When Henry Norris was a Fulham councillor, and then Fulham mayor, he had always had to face some criticism for not living in the borough. For some people - not just Conservatives - it was not enough that he was a partner in one of the borough’s biggest businesses; they felt that he was lacking the ultimate commitment and understanding of the issues that came with being a resident. Other councillors of the London Borough of Fulham were not resident there either - councillor Waldron and Norris’ friend councillor Flèche, for example - but it was always Norris that got criticised, not them; he was that kind of person! After the abortive attempt at censure by Norris’ constituents in Sand’s End, all went quiet for a couple of years, but in 1921 the complaint that he lived elsewhere manifested itself again, as a feeling that he needed to be “in closer personal touch” with his constituents. The feeling was sufficiently strong and widespread for it to be mentioned as a criticism of Norris as MP, in the Conservative Party’s letter to him of November 1921.
The constituency party’s letter of November 1921 was careful to acknowledge that Norris was very diligent in attending the sessions of the House of Commons. But that wasn’t quite what they wanted; or at least, it wasn’t all of it. They thought Norris lacked that full understanding of their problems and anxieties that would enable him to represent their interests by voting accordingly. In fact, his voting in the House of Commons did chime very often with what they would have wanted, as lower middle-class office workers and owners of small businesses in gloomy economic conditions. In September 1922 Norris told the reporter from the Fulham Chronicle that he had disagreed with the Coalition’s policies on finance, as well as on Ireland. He told him that, in his opinion, the Government had shown no real and consistent will to cut its budget to suit the economic trough it was in. When in the House of Commons Norris had also voted against his free trade leanings, in favour of duties on foreign imports that threatened British industries. But despite this, members of his constituency party still saw him as out of touch.
Norris did not need to be a resident of the borough to be in close personal touch with the people he represented, of course. However, it’s easier to be in close personal touch with your constituents if you are living amongst them, or at least working amongst them. Norris’ problem as MP for Fulham East was two-fold, in this respect. Firstly, the Allen and Norris partnership was no longer building houses in Fulham, so Norris was now neither living nor working in his constituency. He said, in September 1922, that he’d regularly visited Fulham three or four times a week while he was MP; but visits to the borough were not the same as doing a day’s work there, and some at least of Norris’ constituents felt it wasn’t enough. The second reason is rather more complicated. It can be summed up as ‘time had moved on politically in Fulham’. Norris’ problem there was that either he had not noticed the changing times; or, he’d noticed them but didn’t think that he needed to take any action to compensate for the fact that the changing times disadvantaged him, not living or working in his constituency.
The ‘changing times’ problem went back a long way; it may even be that when people in Fulham criticised Norris for living outside the district, or not being in close personal touch with its residents, this is actually what they were meaning: Henry Norris doesn’t seem to have been a very active participant in the social life of Conservative Party members in Fulham. In his interview with the reporter from Fulham Chronicle in September 1922 he admitted this, saying, “I was not a frequenter of either of the two Conservative Clubs. They never appealed to me.” They may not have done, but surely it was his duty as an important local Conservative, to frequent them sometimes, if only to hear the local gossip - what everybody was moaning about. Norris was referring to Fulham Conservative Club and South Fulham Constitutional Club; and in terms of timing, to the period since he had been elected MP. In September 1922 he said of both clubs that, “if the various candidates had to depend on the political activities of those associated with the two clubs they would cut a sorry figure”, that the clubs were “in my judgement...of very little use to any Parliamentary member or candidate”. Norris said that, “I was never asked to take the chair” by either of the clubs’ organisers, at any of the political meetings that had taken place since he had been elected MP. He could have gone along to the meetings anyway, in a friendly way, but he didn’t, he seems to have just stayed away, as he had always done.
Norris’ attitude to the two Conservative clubs was unfortunate, to say the least, and created a breach with the people who should have been his most active supporters; though he never spoke in public about how he felt until after he had been de-selected. However, my search of the local papers from 1896 to 1923 showed that Norris’ name hardly ever appeared in the lists of well-known local people attending the social events the two clubs organised on a regular basis - debates, whist drives, concerts, dances, parties. For the first few years - say from 1896 to 1902 - Norris might just not have been a sufficiently well-known person for the papers to include his name in their lists; but from 1903 he didn’t have that excuse and it’s clear that he just wasn’t going to these events.
The converse was true as well. When Norris was mayor of Fulham he and Edith organised social functions of their own; indeed, their receptions and dinners became well-known in the borough. Of course, their political contacts were invited to these, but from looking at the guest-lists, it seems that the members of the Conservative Party who received regular invitations when the Norrises were entertaining were the men they knew as councillors at the London Borough of Fulham. There was a separate group of men who were important within the Conservative Party in Fulham but - at least during Norris’ time as mayor of the borough - didn’t stand in any local elections. It’s curious to me that there should be one group within the local branch of a political party who are councillors and another group who run that party by chairing its local branches and its local clubs while never trying to get elected; but that seems to be how it was in Fulham and the ‘party but not Council’ men were invited by the Norrises to their big receptions rather than their dinners. I daresay either Henry Norris or Edith managed to speak to all the guests at their receptions, but it would have been a few words only, there wouldn’t have been time to just have a chat with everyone who was there.
The personal is political. Henry Norris chose to miss out on opportunities to socialise with Fulham Conservative Party’s full range of members and their families.
Norris and the Conservative councillors he knew ran Fulham with very little hindrance from 1909 to 1919. I think you can say that they formed a clique, in which Norris was the most important and most prominent member. Some became close friends of the Norrises, outside politics as well as in it: George Peachey; Edward George Easton who was a regular at Fulham FC so he was football as well as politics; Walter Edward Middleton; and William Gilbert Allen, Norris’ business partner who goes without saying. Others were not quite such close friends but just close allies: George Keen; T H Royston Evans. And others had wives who were friends of Henry Norris’ wife Edith: William Robert Corbin; Edgar Sainsbury; Henry Crew; and George A Flèche. But Norris said later that he got on better with some of Fulham’s Liberal opposition than with the movers and shakers of his own party: Alfred Edward Baxter, C W Courtenay (forever standing for the Council, forever not being elected) and W R Sayer.
Political relationships such as those I’ve mentioned above saw Henry Norris through his ten years at the top in Fulham, and it didn’t seem to matter then that there were members of his own political party that he was (relatively speaking) ignoring. 1919, however, saw a big change in Fulham politics.
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Copyright Sally Davis August 2008