Henry Norris and the Fulham Conservatives Part Two: De-selection and Libel

Last updated: August 2008



In 1919 the signs of coming political upheaval in Fulham had been there for a while, for those who could read them.  The local Labour Party had been getting better organised, holding more political and social events, getting more press coverage.  And criticism by the local press of the way in which Fulham borough was being run, had been getting more strident.  The long years with no effective opposition and all local elections cancelled had been having their inevitable effect on the Conservative majority on Fulham Council, according to the Fulham Chronicle: Council meetings were short, some lasting a matter of minutes; the recommendations of the standing committees went through on the nod; there was virtually no debate, even on issues which the man in the street and the Chronicle’s reporter thought needed careful and informed consideration; and the councillors developed the habit of ejecting the press from meetings at which sensitive issues were to be discussed, the most sensitive being the bonuses given each year to Council staff.  Norris, as the mayor of Fulham, bore a lot of the responsibility for this; he was extremely busy, especially from 1915 to mid-1918, but as we can see under New Labour, democracy has to be seen to be working in a meaningful and relevant way for people to believe in it, it can’t just go through the motions, that generates cynicism and apathy.  My researches into Henry Norris have been going on while Arsenal FC have been building their new stadium and it has been an education to see in both cases how easily what are meant to be democratic processes supposedly open to the participation and access of anyone can be turned into the complete opposite.


Henry Norris and many of his old councillor acquaintances didn’t stand for election in October 1919.  In Norris’ case, as MP for Fulham East already, he was moving on.  Some of them retired from active politics: men like George Keen, Job Walborn and Arthur Cook had been serving as elected representatives on Fulham Vestry in the 1890s and probably felt that enough was enough.  Others, though, thought they could see it coming - a big and humiliating defeat.  A few bravely chose to stand anyway, and lost their seats; one or two stood and hung onto their seats but found themselves in unknown country - in the minority party.  Though the Liberals did equally badly, that was no consolation to the Fulham Conservatives: Labour gained a majority on Fulham Council so for most of Norris’ time as MP - November 1919 to October 1922 - his local party was out of power in the borough, something they were not at all used to.  Rates rose; of course.  The chances are they would have had to go up even if the Conservatives had been in power, but as they weren’t, they blamed the party that was, and the Coalition Government; bringing us back to Norris, who as their MP in Fulham East they expected to do something about it at the national level.  He did what he could; but as I’ve said in my files on Norris as an MP, that was precious little. 


The retirement of so many councillors in November 1919, and the success of Labour in Fulham, led to new men coming forward in Fulham’s Conservative Party.  I say new men, but they weren’t all younger than Henry Norris.  Two of the most important, William Waldron and Edward Reed Armfield, were of Norris’ own generation; but they had not played any significant role in the Party during Norris’ time as councillor and mayor.  During Norris’ time as MP they moved into the limelight.  They were joined there by others who do seem to have been younger: Frederick Bellenger who by 1922 was the secretary of Fulham Conservative Club; Frederick Flew; a man called Isaac Jacobs who in 1922 Henry Norris mentioned specifically, implying that the man was less than enthusiastic about Norris as MP; and a second such man, a Mr Holmes.  Many of the new men in Fulham Conservatism were members of Fulham or of West Kensington tradesmen’s associations, two groups that in the early 1920s were well-organised and active in exactly the way Norris thought the Conservative Party in his constituency ought to be but wasn’t.  They were helped to prominence in Conservative party circles in Fulham by the deaths of two of its stalwarts, George Adams and James William Webb, in the early months of 1922, just after the Conservative Party in Fulham East had asked Henry Norris to increase his subsidy and he had refused.  At the meeting at Mr Flew’s house designed to resolve the situation, Norris was therefore confronted by people whom he didn’t know well, some of whom did not bother to conceal their view that he was not the right man for the job. 


When talking to the Fulham Chronicle in September 1922, Norris still felt hurt and bitter towards his constituency party.  By then he wasn’t the only man to have been messed around by them, however - Fulham East Conservative Party had been through two more candidates and was on a third.  The first was a local man, Percy Gates, who may have got as far as being officially selected, but may only have been widely rumoured to be the next candidate in Fulham East.  I couldn’t find out when or why he bit the dust, but in August 1922 Fulham East Conservatives officially adopted Harry Greer as their candidate, who was already an MP but wanted a constituency nearer London.  Within a couple of months of being officially adopted in Fulham East, Greer had dropped out too, through ill-health, and Fulham East had had to apply a second time to the Party central office to get yet another potential candidate sent to them, Kenyon Vaughan Morgan.  The occasion of Norris’ interview in September 1922 with the man from the Fulham Chronicle was an approach made to him by his ex-constituents, asking for a public statement of his support for their latest candidate; and after a great deal of heart-searching and talking it over with Edith, he had refused.  Talking to the Fulham Chronicle gave him a chance to explain that it was nothing personal, to put his side of the whole messy business, and to tell the readers that he and his wife would be taking no further part in Fulham life.


The tale did not end there, though.  The interview with Henry Norris appeared in Fulham Chronicle just as all local parties were getting prepared for the local elections.  Norris allowed the Fulham Chronicle to print extracts from letters written by him and by his constituency party.  He also named names.  Amongst those who read it, there were a lot of people in Fulham Conservative Party who were wondering whether the timing of the interview had been a deliberate attempt by Norris to sabotage their chances.  The mutual dislike did not die down in time, either; it reared its head again when there was another general election a year later.



I’ve mentioned William Waldron and Edward Reed Armfield as two of the new men in Fulham Conservative Party in the early 1920s.  As I’ve said, neither were young, they were just new to senior positions in the Party.  Edward Reed Armfield and Henry Norris had known each other since the late 1890s, when Armfield was running the Fulham Road branch of his family’s dry cleaning business.  In the years in between he’d diversified into carrying out plumbing, building and decorating; though he wasn’t a builder on anything like the scale of Allen and Norris.  Although his politics had always been Conservative, he was better known in Fulham during Norris’ time as a tireless campaigner on the single issue of rates increases; and as a member of Fulham Tradesmen’s Association.  Armfield had been elected to Fulham Vestry in the 1890s but he hadn’t stood in the elections of 1900 and didn’t stand again until November 1922 when Fulham Tradesmen’s Association put up a lot of Conservative candidates; so he and Norris had never coincided at Fulham Council.  William Waldron had been a councillor during the Norris era but he hadn’t been one of the clique (or inner circle if you want to be more polite) that decided things.  Both he and Armfield were involved in the saga of Norris’ de-selection as MP for Fulham East, however, because by August of 1922 if not before, Waldron was the President and Armfield was the chairman of Fulham East Conservative Party. 


As the presidency of the constituency party was not an active role, as chairman it was Armfield’s job to do the work of getting a candidate to replace Henry Norris in Fulham East; and I presume he approached the Conservative Party central office.  Armfield seems to have asked to be sent men of a particular political view on free trade, because I note from coverage of them in the local papers that unlike Norris, both Harry Greer and Kenyon Vaughan Morgan were unequivocal in their support of import duties to protect British products and jobs.


Although ousted from Fulham Conservative circles, Henry Norris was still viewed as an important figure in Fulham politics.  Just after the collapse of the Coalition Government, on Monday 30 October 1922, Armfield went with Vaughan Morgan to visit Norris, hoping to persuade him to endorse Vaughan Morgan as his successor.   They weren’t successful.  Although he had nothing against Vaughan Morgan personally (as far as I know he barely knew him), Norris was still too resentful of the way in which the constituency party had behaved towards him to endorse the man who would be fighting the general election in Fulham East instead of him. 


Vaughan Morgan was elected anyway and when another general election was called in November 1923, he was fighting it as the incumbent MP.  Vaughan Morgan described himself to the Fulham Chronicle as “no hybrid Conservative” and as a supporter of the new Conservative Party leader Stanley Baldwin.  In his very first campaign speech he declared that free trade could no longer be considered an option for Britain now so many foreign markets were closed to imports of British goods.  Vaughan Morgan’s opponent R C Hawkin on the other hand was described by the Fulham Chronicle and by the Times as well as not only a Liberal Party member but a “Free Trade candidate”.  There was also a Labour Party candidate, John Palmer, one of the borough’s aldermen, but both the Fulham Chronicle and the Times felt that Labour were not likely to make much impact in Fulham in a campaign in which (according to the Times) “the economic question is prominent”.


Henry Norris might have felt that he was well out of a general election campaign in which the economy was the major debating point, because his views on free trade were not orthodox Conservatism like Vaughan Morgan’s were; they were more akin to Hawkin’s.  And therein lay the trouble.  Although doing no overt campaigning in Fulham, on 27 November 1923 Norris wrote to R C Hawkin a letter in which he expressed his hostility towards Baldwin’s economic policies.  Hawkin’s must then have passed it on to the Times as a good bit of propaganda on his side, following the Times’ piece on the campaign in Fulham.  The Times duly quoted it at length on 28 November.  Norris had obviously studied Baldwin’s economic proposals with care, because he criticised them on several grounds, making his clearest statement on why he believed free trade was important for the good of Britain’s economy.  He thought that they lacked detail, particularly about what imports were and what were not going to be subject to duty.  Norris stated that to put forward import duties as a cure for all unemployment was “absurd”; this was a view he had held for many years.   He thought it was possible that they might protect jobs in some trades; but this would be offset by the loss of jobs in others.  He then stated that the basis of his belief in free trade was his view that free trade kept prices down; if the government instituted an economic policy of applying duty to foreign imports, prices would “go up as surely as night follows day”.  And he ended his letter to Hawkin by saying that Prime Minister Baldwin was trying to hustle the public into making a decision on free trade v import duty without giving them all the information they needed on this most complex and difficult issue.


On Friday 30 November 1923, Fulham Chronicle took up Norris’ letter in the Times under the headline “Sir Henry Norris supports free trade: bomb-shell for East Fulham Conservatives”.  It quoted from the letter at length and printed with it a response from Fulham East Conservative Party signed by Edward Armfield as chairman of its election committee.  That was fair enough and a good contribution to local debate on the issue.  However in the Chronicle’s ‘Out and About’ news and gossip column, it described the publication of Norris’ letter to Hawkin as “a shattering blow” to Fulham’s Conservatives, and having been referred to at a recent Liberal Party campaign meeting in Fulham East as “an incentive to Liberal and Conservative Free Traders throughout the country”.  By the end of the following week, Hawking was quoting Norris’ letter in a campaign leaflet.  As a result, the Fulham Chronicle said, there had been unleashed “a torrent of wrath” towards Norris amongst the Fulham Conservatives.  It quoted someone whom it didn’t name as having described Norris to them as “a disgruntled and embittered man” actuated by “personal malice”.   On Monday 3 December 1923 lawyers for Henry Norris obtained a writ for libel and an injunction forbidding any further repetition of the words quoted in the Fulham Chronicle; and naming the man who had so indiscreetly said them as Edward Armfield of Fulham East Conservative Party.


If there was any attempt at achieving an out-of-court settlement in the case, it wasn’t covered by the press.  Judging by Norris’ attitude in his case against David Cook (1919), he would not have agreed to such a thing: it wouldn’t have been a sufficiently public apology.  Norris v Armfield reached court on 11 April 1924 and was heard by the Lord Chief Justice.  Armfield’s barrister was Sir Hugh Fraser.  Norris’ barrister was Mr Campion KC who’d acted for him in his case against Cook.  Campion got quite a lot of laughs when, in his speech putting Norris’ case, he gave the judge a quick resumé of the debate on whether import duties were able to solve unemployment and the judge asked him who on earth he’d got that argument from.  Campion carefully glossed over Norris’ conduct in letting Hawkin send for publication some views he must have known would offend people in Fulham.  Campion said Norris had “felt it his duty” to let Hawkin publish his letter and wasn’t responsible for the widespread publicity it had then received.


Nothing Campion said made any difference: Armfield’s words were a slander, and their appearance in the Fulham Chronicle an undoubted libel.  Armfield had already admitted it and paid a contribution towards Norris’ costs and 100 guineas into the court as damages.  Fraser, as Armfield’s barrister, had only to repeat his client’s apologies and regrets.  Norris gave the 100 guineas to charity.


And so ended Henry Norris’ career in politics.  For many different reasons, an anything-but-glorious one.






Copyright Sally Davis August 2008