Henry Norris and Journalism: After Current Topics
Last updated: January 2009
Henry Norris had often used his column in West London and Fulham Times to defend himself against the criticisms of others. How did he get on without it?
I’ve already said that the modern interview was in its infancy during Norris’ lifetime, and giving an interview, even when your corner desperately needed fighting, was rare. During his whole life, the number of interviews Norris gave was very small. He usually gave them only at a time of crisis, for the usual reason of countering bad publicity.
After the redevelopment of Highbury over-ran its schedule, causing rumours that home fixtures might have to be postponed, Norris gave an interview on Tuesday 9 September 1913 to the Islington Daily Gazette. IDG sent along its new football reporter, who had been hired specifically to cover Arsenal and had chosen to write under the name The Candid Critic. Arriving for the interview, The Candid Critic found there was no one to meet him at the gates. He wandered around the building site for some time before stumbling on Norris and William Hall having tea and rock cakes with George Morrell (Arsenal’s manager) and the building-site foreman, “In a little shanty, such as one would expect to find in a newly-erected settlement in the woolly West”.
Norris had given the interview to remind potential match-goers that although the grandstand wasn’t ready there was plenty of room elsewhere at Highbury. He told The Candid Critic that when the stadium was finished it would be “one of the finest football grounds in the kingdom”; and said that its capacity would be 90,000 (which was an exaggeration). As he had done frequently over the past few months, Norris praised the local public transport, saying, “If we had had the planning of the lines of communication ourselves we couldn’t have devised a better service”. Turning from building work to football, he made the best of Arsenal now being in Football League Division Two, describing it as less glamorous than the top division but “every bit as keen” and with all the excitement of the race for promotion; though when pressed on the issue, he wouldn’t commit himself on whether Arsenal would return to FL Division One immediately. Asked by The Candid Critic for his comments on this season’s squad, Norris described them as “the pick of last year’s men”. He seemed to have realised that that wasn’t saying much, because he added at once that the players hired for this season would alleviate last season’s areas of weakness. The Candid Critic commented that the money spent on transfer fees during the summer had been modest. Norris replied, “No, we haven’t paid any big prices for players. I don’t personally believe in big transfer fees.” He was merely re-stating a view that he had held for many years and had written about several times; but Arsenal match-goers who read IDG and who did not know him well had been given their warning!
The other item on Norris’ agenda for the interview was the objections raised by local residents when Arsenal’s move to Highbury became public. Norris headed off any renewed complaints by telling the The Candid Critic that manager Morrell had received “quite a big bundle of letters from residents, who state that the coming of the club has been anything but a nuisance” including one from someone who now regretted signing the anti-Arsenal petition back in the spring.
Norris had said what he wanted to say. He had fielded the unwelcome but inevitable enquiries about players and transfers, and been relentlessly positive about Arsenal’s future both in building and in football terms. It was time to end the interview before the journalist thought of any questions to ask that he had not prepared answers for. So he took advantage of someone shouting that his tea was getting cold, and handed The Candid Critic over to talk to George Morrell - which the reporter decided not to do as Morrell had been “working somewhere about 36 hours a day since last April”.
The Candid Critic may have been new to his job at the IDG but he was able to deduce certain things about Henry Norris during an interview which only lasted as long as it takes a cup of tea to cool down. He noticed that Norris prepared for their talk by “Throwing back his shoulders with the determined air of a man who is always doing big things, and not over-fond of being asked to talk about them. He looked a very formidable opponent to bombard with questions.” The Candid Critic had nevertheless done his best; but he was glad to be granted some respite when Norris was interrupted by a workman with a query. He described the interview as resuming to a background of hammering as work on the grandstand continued.
Norris got what he wanted out of that interview: the rumours about postponements were quashed, and there was no autumn follow-up to the objections to Arsenal’s arrival raised earlier in the year. The Candid Critic, in his years as Arsenal reporter for IDG proved quite as frank in his criticisms as his name suggested, but there’s no evidence that either he or his successor, Arthur Bourke/Norseman, was ever taken to task personally by Norris for what he wrote, however much Norris may have resented it.
Henry Norris didn’t give another personal interview to a journalist until 1922. Again, he was in the middle of a crisis, this time a political one. After a year of nasty rumours, he was facing the end of his political career at the hands of his local party.
West London and Fulham Times had been a casualty of the World War: its last issue had been published in December 1915. So it was the Fulham Chronicle that got the interview. FC’s reporter (the article was published with no writer’s name attached) described the paper as having “sought out” Henry Norris; but Norris was a very willing participant in the interview ordeal. He was glad of a platform from which to make two major announcements: that he had been forced by his constituency party to make way for another man to stand as candidate for Fulham East; and that as a result of the way he had been treated, he and his wife would no longer be doing any charitable work in Fulham. He brought to the interview some of the letters that had passed between him and the Fulham East Conservative Party hierarchy in the last year. He seems to have intended that the FC publish them, because they appeared in full when the interview was published on Friday 29 September 1922, except for the names of the signatories to the letters Norris received.
Again, the interview gave Norris what he had wanted - mostly. The article put the blame for the breakdown of relations in Fulham East squarely on Norris’ constituency party. Norris appeared in it as a man always doing his best for his constituents but who had been shafted by factions amongst those who should have been his most loyal supporters. The article emphasised the financial aspects of the dispute in a way that made Norris seem put upon by a party that had asked him to make up the hole in the party’s accounts caused by their disorganisation and inability to raise funds by other means. It made his warning to the party that he would stand as an independent against any candidate they chose to replace him, seem as little like the threat it actually was as they could manage.
Although the interview had been given to a local newspaper it was soon picked up by the national press and Norris described himself during the next few days as “inundated with Press representatives of all kinds, not only on the telephone but personal callers...These Press representatives would not be shaken off”. And Norris didn’t shake them off, he gave several more interviews. However, a journalist from the Weekly Dispatch got the wrong end of the stick about something Norris had told him about the threats he received from a betting syndicate while trying to pilot the Ready Money Betting Bill through Parliament. The result was that several other national papers printed a version of the interview where the betting syndicate was run by Fulham East Conservative Party, and Norris’ de-selection by them was a direct result of his refusal to scupper the Bill at their request. To stem the flow of this sensationalist and completely false information, Norris decided to give the FC a second interview, which appeared on Friday 6 October 1922. This time, in response to some questions about the man recently chosen to be his successor as candidate in Fulham East, he was a lot less careful about what he said, venting his fury at the way his de-selection had been brought about, and even naming particular constituency party members with hints that they were in the faction that had ousted him. He also announced that he would not do any campaigning for his successor. Although he gave no more interviews, he did send to the FC several more letters which were published on Friday 10 November 1922, by which time a General Election campaign was underway. They included the letter from the constituency party (April 1922) which announced that he did not have enough support amongst the members to continue as their candidate; and one from Norris to the new candidate, Mr Vaughan Morgan, reiterating his refusal to campaign on his behalf.
Norris did as he had indicated and took no part in the General Election campaign of October-November 1922. There was no fall-out at that time from the interviews he had given. However, they had caused a great deal of anger and resentment amongst Fulham Conservatives and it all burst into the public domain the following autumn when the second election in 12 months was called. Norris was contacted by the Liberal Party in Fulham and wrote a letter of support for the free trade views of the Liberal Party. He said later that he had meant his letter to remain private, but that was being naïve in a way I don’t associate with Henry Norris. I can’t believe he was really all that surprised when the body of the letter appeared in the Times and was widely taken as an endorsement of the Liberal candidate in Fulham East. On hearing what had happened, Edwin Armfield, the chairman of Fulham East Conservative Party lost his temper and good sense completely; more letters to and from Henry Norris were published in the FC; and the result of Norris’ interviews of 1922 was his suing Armfield for libel in 1923 - not the outcome he would have wanted, from his decision to give an interview to a newspaper.
As far as I know, he never gave another. That’s not to say that his reputation was never under siege again; it certainly was. But he never went to the press to protect it in quite the same way again. When it came to the worst crisis of his public life, he made a statement to a group of football reporters, rather than giving an exclusive interview to any one of them.
The statement came one week after William Hall’s resignation as a director of Arsenal FC had been made public; and on the weekend that two members of the Football League management committee arrived at Highbury to investigate rumours that Norris had stolen £170 from the club. Sent an urgent telegram, Norris had rushed back by train from the south of France to fight his corner with evidence about the cheque and bluster about how much the club owed him. Saturday 2 April 1927 was a bad one for Norris: he endured a humiliating session with the FL’s Charles Sutcliffe trying to explain to him what had happened to the £170 cheque for the sale of the reserve team bus, and why it wasn’t embezzlement, just forgetfulness; and Arsenal lost 0-2 to Huddersfield Town, conceding the first goal before any of their players had touched the ball. When the match was over, Norris went to the press room not to discuss the game but to read a statement putting his side of all the controversies, trying to make his part in them look more sinned against than sinning.
The Weekly Dispatch’s article on what Henry Norris had said after the Huddersfield game was headlined by the WD in such a way as to give the impression that Norris had spoken to WD alone; he hadn’t, of course. The last thing Norris wanted, in the mess he found himself in, was to talk one-to-one with anyone, answering questions. He just wanted to make his statement and then go away. His statement was designed to say as little as possible about the reasons for his sudden return, and to concentrate on making the press sympathetic. Some indication of his anxiety can be gained from the fact that he mentioned family affairs in his statement, something he had never done before and which was hardly done by anybody at that time. He said, “It was with very great reluctance that I felt myself compelled to leave Lady Norris...to pay this hurried visit to London...but I am afraid a longer absence and continued silence might be misunderstood although, as a matter of fact, by this time my shoulders should be fairly broad. A lot of publicity has been given to the resignation of Mr William Hall, in most of which announcements I have inferentially been made to appear as the villain of the piece”.
About Hall, Norris implied that Hall had not been very sporting, making his resignation public when Norris wasn’t present to put his point of view. Then he put the best gloss possible on the disclosures Hall had made the previous week when announcing his resignation. While being careful not to say what they were about, Norris confirmed that there had been disagreements between him and Hall; but he added, “but there are six directors on the Arsenal board. Mr Hall is silent on the views of the others”, giving the impression firstly that Hall had not been completely candid when talking to the press, and secondly that Hall, in dissenting from Norris, had been in a minority of one. About the manner of Hall’s resignation, Norris was gracious, saying that he was “exceedingly” sorry that the man had “considered it necessary to sever an old association of nearly twenty years in the way he did.”
Having said what he wanted to say, and given what he hoped was an impression of a good man much wronged, Norris ended by promising, “I shall, at the proper time and place, be quite prepared to give an account of my stewardship”, making it quite clear that now was not that time and place. He never did give such an account to the press directly.
Of course, Norris’ statement couldn’t prevent the press from digging around for more information. That was their job. WD’s article had a lot of information in it that Norris must have hoped wouldn’t come out; but if he did hope that, he must have known very well it was a long shot. The mess Norris had got himself into was so bad, by that time, and involved so many people who might be indiscreet to the press or downright malicious, that in fact the publicity could have been a great deal worse than it was; but it was bad enough.
Norris made no more statements to the press as he fell from power at Arsenal. In August 1927 there were a lot of rumours about what the Football Association enquiry into Arsenal was finding; but Norris didn’t speak to the press at all. He was offered a chance to make a statement: an editor at the Daily Mail offered to print words from Norris alongside the FA Report. Norris refused. Instead he got his solicitors to write a letter to all the newspapers warning that they would face legal action if they printed the report. The Daily Mail wasn’t to be controlled by threats in this way; and published the report in any case. Definitely Norris 0 The Press 1. It was much worse in February 1929 when Norris v Football Association Limited reached court. Norris spent two days in the witness box and all he, the FA’s barrister and the judge had said was printed verbatim in the Times. Norris cut a sorry figure, appearing foolish, thoughtless and careless. It was, to all intents and purposes, his last appearance in the press: a dreadful curtain call.
You could not blame Henry Norris for loathing the press and all its works in the last years of his life. However, his dislike of them went back a long way and on several public occasions he hadn’t bothered to hide it.
GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS
Even in 1903 those who got involved with running a football club had to accept the fact that their every move was going to be scrutinised by sports journalists. As early as May 1903 Norris had to accept reading in Athletic News that its local reporter thought the attempt to set up a limited company to buy out Fulham FC was something too harebrained for him to waste his money on. However, Norris accepted that this kind of press coverage without reacting, at least in public, until Chelstam’s article about Stamford Bridge, in Fulham Chronicle at the start of season 1905/06. I’ve written elsewhere about Norris’ response to what the article actually said, which appeared in the West London and Fulham Times on 25 August 1905. However he also used that article to get some things off his chest about the press in general. He particularly disliked “unsigned articles teeming with offensive personalities”; he thought that if you were going to be offensive, you should at least have the courage to admit who you were. He always did himself. Though he was speaking of Chelstam’s article I think it was carrying the can for a lot of other writing when Norris accused it of being full of unfounded innuendo and inaccurate ‘facts’. The Gutter Press was alive and well by Norris’ time and had already acquired that nickname. Norris described it as “low, vulgar and impertinent” and “anxious to gain a circulation irrespective of the means employed”. He made it clear that he didn’t include Fulham Chronicle in that description: he said it was all the sadder when a respected and long-established paper like FC felt it had to sink to Gutter Press methods to get extra readers.
It was only after this public spat with a sports writer that the directors of Fulham FC first invited a select band of journalists to the club’s annual dinner. They would have got to know them before, of course, in the press room on match-days, but the dinner of 1906 was the first time they were included as guests. The programme for the evening even included a toast to “the press”; and Henry Norris was picked or volunteered to make it. In his speech he described the press as a whole as “inclined to be too free and easy”. He also criticised one particular newspaper (which Fulham Chronicle didn’t identify in its account of the evening) for saying that Fulham’s players hadn’t run about like they should have done during one particular match.
Not a completely successful charm offensive; but Norris did manage to stay friendly enough with some sports writers, even some who were listening to that speech, to continue to invite them to events he was in charge of, down the years. H V L Stanton, who wrote as The Wanderer in The Sportsman and Frank Thorogood of the Daily News were at the dinner in 1906; and they were both still receiving invitations from Henry Norris and William Hall to attend Arsenal functions in the 1920s. George Wagstaffe Simmons of Sporting Life and Tottenham Hotspur was another journalist who was invited to functions organised by Henry Norris over a long period. J J Bentley of Athletic News received several invitations and as I’ve written elsewhere, was actually employed by Norris and others for one season. John Dick, the editor of the Daily News’ Saturday sports edition, received only one invitation but it was a notable one: he was the only member of the press Norris asked to the reception at Fulham Town Hall in March 1913. Arthur Bourke/Norseman, of the Islington Daily Gazette went to several annual Arsenal ‘do’s’ in the 1920s. With those writers at least, the policy of wining and dining seems to have paid off: as far as I know, Henry Norris never had cause to complain about articles they wrote.
There were some writers, though, who ate and drank at Fulham FC’s expense in the press box if not at the dinners, and still rubbished its works in their papers: Oscar Drew/Merula was the one that got Norris’ goat most; but there were others. At Fulham FC’s dinner of 1907, for example, in his chairman’s speech, Norris made a joke of reading recently an article (he didn’t say where or by whom but presumably all his listeners knew those details; perhaps the writer was in the audience!) saying that Fulham FC would shortly desert the Southern League for Football League Division Two. He told his listeners that it was “untrue” but in several minutes’ worth of verbiage on the subject he wasn’t able to obscure the fact that the article was actually correct when it said that the club’s directors had already held several meetings about doing just that. This was what bugged Norris about reporters: instead of waiting to be told when he felt ready to tell them - usually when it was a fait accompli - they would go off and find out stuff off their own bat, and print it. It was exactly the same in February 1913, with the move of Woolwich Arsenal to Highbury. And of course it was all the more infuriating that the stuff the journalists found out was so often true. Norris never got the hang of the concept that when what he was up to was a fait accompli it wasn’t news any more!
Quite how much Henry Norris knew about what appeared in Fulham Chronicle in the latter stages of World War One I don’t know. He was very, very busy; and often working out of London. He probably didn’t have much time to read the papers. I expect he knew, though, of the FC’s increasingly pointed criticisms of the way the London Borough of Fulham was being run. The FC felt that the war was no excuse for the decline in democracy it perceived at Fulham Town Hall. It criticised the lack of debate at Council meetings, with councillors agreeing to even the most controversial and expensive recommendations without any discussion at all in meetings that lasted a matter of minutes. And of course it was furious that the councillors developed a tendency to ban the press from any meeting that was going to discuss projects that would raise the rates - for two years in succession reporters were excluded from the Council meeting that discussed its employees’ pay. In 1917, with people queuing for food on Fulham’s streets, the FC led an increasingly noisy campaign to get the borough’s parks turned over for growing vegetables. The Council seemed unable to make a decision on this and the continual delays drove the FC frantic - article after article suggested that the councillors didn’t take the problem of food supplies seriously enough. My investigations into what was happening in Islington at that time suggest that democracy at Islington Council was pretty moribund too. But that was not the FC’s concern, its job was to worry about Fulham. It was careful not to name names as its criticism got more and more strident, and I don’t actually think that FC thought any one person was to blame. But then it didn’t really need to name anyone, for its readers to point the finger in the right direction. Henry Norris was Fulham’s mayor: he chaired its meetings, even when he was at his busiest, and his was the casting vote. He was also by far the strongest character on the Council: his word and actions counted most, and the FC knew it. If the FC complained about the Council, it was criticising Norris’ leadership.
I haven’t found any attempt by Norris to counter the FC’s increasing hostility. This is a bit strange because he usually wanted a chance to defend himself against attack, even if the attack hadn’t named him specifically. Perhaps he just didn’t have the time. Perhaps he thought that to take notice of the FC’s criticism would be unpatriotic. However, I detect in Norris a certain hardening of attitude towards the press in the years after World War One; and perhaps the FC’s campaign for the return of democracy in Fulham was one of the reasons.
Fulham FC gave no annual dinners after 1907, probably for reasons of cost. And under William Hall and Henry Norris, Arsenal FC rarely spent money on frills like that. August 1923 was a special case, though: the directors decided to mark the retirement of player Jock Rutherford with a dinner at the Hotel Cecil at Piccadilly, a venue well-known to both Norris and Hall as it was frequently used for freemasons’ meetings. Quite a few journalists were invited: Stanton/The Wanderer, George Wagstaffe Simmons and Frank Thorogood were old hands; but for Arthur Bourke/Norseman, J Crockett of the Daily Mail and the Athletic News’ current London correspondent, writing as Achates, this was the first time they had been Arsenal’s guests; and there were other reporters present whom Bourke/Norseman didn’t name in his account of the evening, one of two good sources for most of what happened. All the Arsenal players were also there. Achates and Bourke/Norseman both subsequently used the word “happy” to describe the evening; however, later in the year it became clear that in one respect the evening had been anything but a happy one.
The presentation to Rutherford by Henry Norris of a silver tea and coffee service went swimmingly and was heartily cheered; Rutherford was too overcome to say more than a few words of thanks. Then, however, in his speech as Arsenal chairman, Norris was unable to resist the temptation to speak ill of the press. Exactly what he said was never put into print. However, Arthur Bourke later described his words as “unkind”. Bourke was a very generous and chivalrous writer, who tried hard not to say a bad word about anyone, so if he called what Norris said unkind, it must have been really offensive.
Nothing unseemly happened at the dinner. But a lot of grudges were instituted. When, during the autumn, the details of Norris’ loan to the player H A White became known, the press did not restrain themselves. He had a very hard time at their hands in the papers and heaven knows what they were saying about him when they got together at matches. Arthur Bourke/Norseman was the only football writer who had a good word to say of Norris in October 1923 when Norris was censured by the Football League for agreeing to lend White £1000 over five years. Bourke/Norseman defended Norris in the Islington Daily Gazette on Monday 29 October 1923, but he found it difficult. He couldn’t find any way of putting a gloss on Norris’ deal with White because it went against his own principles of always playing within the rules however daft; so he didn’t mention it at all. Instead he concentrated on reminding his readers of what Norris had done for Arsenal FC and what his good qualities were. In words that convey a lot more than he probably intended, Bourke/Norseman described Henry Norris as, “A man of strong and dominating personality”. He also said that he was, “gallant...a straight man and a white man” (no racism was intended); but it was scarcely a ringing endorsement.
I don’t think Henry Norris was ever forgiven by the press for the remarks he made about them on 4 August 1923. When he broke his own rules about transfer fees to get Charles Buchan in 1925, sports writers were gleeful. And when Arsenal’s finances were being investigated in July-August 1927 they let the rumour machine run with very little hindrance. All the papers except the Daily Mail kept quiet about the FA’s investigations’ findings - but that was only because Norris had threatened them all with legal action, which most of them could not afford to defend. The Daily Mail had money enough to take Norris on, and did so: it published the FA’s Report on Arsenal in full, including the details of the punishments meted out to the club’s directors. When Norris began legal proceedings the papers owners were bullish, and it was he that withdrew his legal action before it came to court; the newspaper never conceded its right to publish the report as a matter of public interest.
I wonder what Norris would have made of the press’ current version of bread and circuses. And of the idea that people who are willing to live their lives in public can get rich and famous very quickly. Not a lot, I think. He would have been particularly aghast at all the details we get served up of family life and sex life: such details only reached the papers in his time as part of upper-class divorce reporting and murder trials - with the perpetrators very clearly and publically getting their comeuppance of either social or actual death. Everyone else could keep their private lives private and did do so. Norris would not have agreed with Danny Kaye’s statement that any publicity is better than none. He wanted de mortuis nil nisi bonum to apply to the living in his case. He never really grasped that the good that people do doesn’t sell newspapers like their evil does; and that what you want to tell them doesn’t sell as well as what you want to keep to yourself. I don’t understand it myself so I’m the last person who should criticise Henry Norris for not coming to terms with it.
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Copyright Sally Davis January 2009