Henry Norris and Woolwich Arsenal: 1910-13, the end of the day at Woolwich.
In describing the three years Henry Norris and William Hall ran Woolwich Arsenal FC at the Manor Ground, Plumstead, I’m not going to spend much time discussing results - partly because the team didn’t do much that’s worth discussing, partly because most of the significant events took place off-field; but mostly because the decisions of the board of directors illustrate so beautifully the great conundrum of a football club: is it there to win matches or to make a profit?
It seems such a simple choice - or no choice at all, since
surely if the team wins matches, more people come to see them and club revenue
increases, debts (there are usually debts) can be paid off and more incurred
investing in the future. Well, yes. Ish.
It doesn’t always follow: think of George Graham’s Arsenal or Mourinho’s
Chelsea, boring their way to victory, watched by their own fans (and not always
by them) while the other team’s supporters keep well away; or Juventus, winning
so often, scarcely ever watched by more than a scattering of fans in their huge
Stadio delli Alpi. And - fan loyalty
being one of the great imponderables - think Newcastle United for a team that
hasn’t won matches to the fans’ expectations for decades, but which still draws
big crowds always hoping that this is the season when it will be
different. It also doesn’t follow that
if the team wins its matches its club will be able to balance its books: will
Leeds United ever recover from their glory days in the 1990s? And again Abramovic’s
How Henry Norris approached these no-right-answer questions from 1910 to 1913 says a lot about him, I think. Those seasons also brought him up against some difficult questions that hardly any other directors have ever had to face: what do you do, when - say - both the clubs you are director of are wanting to sign the same player?
After the statutory meeting of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited in July 1910, the debts of the original company were taken on by the new one but in a new form. The directors seem to have had as their priority, the freeing of the Manor Ground from debts for which it was being used as security. This would leave the site unencumbered if the new limited company wanted to break the lease. So the overdraft at the bank, and the mortgage owed to George Leavey, were replaced by other loans - £475 each from William Hall and Henry Norris, and £234 from Leavey. The directors also looked at the Woolwich Arsenal’s overheads; there seems to have been considerable slack to be taken up in this area, and the weekly expenses were cut back severely. And after Christmas the club offered all its unsold season tickets for sale at half-price.
In theory the money loaned the club by Leavey, Norris and Hall was to be repaid in 15 years; but Henry Norris and William Hall (Leavey made no public statement on the matter) made it clear they did not want to have their own money tied up in this way until 1925. In November 1910, with the team in tenth place in Football League Division One - their highest position for several years - they made an effort to raise more money: a set of 5000 shares in the club went on sale.
The date on which the share prospectus was released was
carefully chosen: on
Norris began by addressing the problem of the money raised by Woolwich Arsenal’s fund-raising committee, formed in early 1910. The committee had decided not to hand over the money until it had a clearer idea what the new management at the club would do with it - meaning, of course, until they saw whether the new, non-local owners would move the club away. Henry Norris now stated that the money they were withholding belonged to Woolwich Arsenal FC. But he did not give the committee members the reassurance they were waiting for. He said that he and William Hall were not intending to allow Woolwich Arsenal to continue to play at the Manor Ground if they didn’t get more local financial support. He reminded local people that he and Hall were the major shareholders at the club, though they were not intending to use the power that gave them. What they wanted at present was for the club to return to local ownership and for the loans he and Hall had made to it to be repaid as soon as possible. Norris hoped that some local men would buy enough shares to be eligible to stand for election to the board. He and William Hall would then resign as directors and stand against them. Local people (that is, those who had bought shares and could vote in such an election) would thereby have a chance to take the club back into local ownership. If this didn’t happen, however, he and William Hall would continue to run the club perforce, and in those circumstances they’d be left with no alternative but to find somewhere else for the club to be based. Norris’ view at this stage was that Woolwich Arsenal could be made to pay its way in Woolwich; but only once its debts had all been paid - meaning, of course, those to him, William Hall. Finally, on behalf of himself and William Hall, Henry Norris offered terms to encourage people to buy shares: if enough of the 5000 shares were sold, they would guarantee the buyers a dividend of 5% (the maximum the Football Association allowed) for the next three years - that is, to the end of season 1912/13 - whatever the club’s financial results were like.
It’s interesting that Henry Norris offered to stay on as a director of Woolwich Arsenal FC, given the right circumstances and if elected. Of course, he was only intending to do so if his and Hall’s loans had been repaid and enough shares bought by other people to distribute the financial burden of the club more widely. It’s also typical that it was Henry Norris who had written this letter on behalf of those who now ran Woolwich Arsenal FC, not George Leavey. With his own money invested in a club whose support was so poor, he clearly wasn’t going to leave writing this important appeal to the club chairman.
Nothing was heard of the share issue during December, a month in which Woolwich Arsenal lost nearly every game and sank to the bottom of the Football League Division One. However, in the last week of the month, a rumour got through to the football press that the sale had been a disaster, with only 50 shares being applied for out of the 5000 available. No public statement was made on the subject by anyone at the club, but by the end of the month - in tacit acknowledgement that they weren’t going to escape Woolwich Arsenal quickly - Norris and Hall had adjusted their thinking with regard to the 5000 shares. They approached the local fund-raising committee and suggested that it try to raise £1250 to buy one-quarter of the 5000. In this second scheme to sell the shares, Norris, Hall and Leavey would then buy one-quarter of the available shares each. The committee did organise a series of local events to try to reach this target, but their efforts were hampered by the continuing economic decline of the area, and by their bad relations with the club’s new directors, a situation Henry Norris’ letter had only exacerbated. John Humble acted as intermediary but he couldn’t erase the deep suspicion with which each party regarded the other. The mone raised by the committee during 1910 became the focus of the antagonism: the directors of Woolwich Arsenal said they wouldn’t accept a bid for shares from the committee until they had handed it over; and the committee members wouldn’t do that without better assurances than they’d received so far that the club would stay in Woolwich. The stalemate continued until the end of the season and was eased only slightly when the team started to play better in the season’s last two months. Crowds continued to be bad: an FA Cup replay in mid-March against Aston Villa (well-known for their attractive style of play) got a crowd of only 4773; the gate money was a mere £142 and £69 of that was Aston Villa’s share. Part of the Manor Ground’s grandstand blew down in a gale, its repair an unexpected expense that couldn’t even be put off until the close season.
By 22 April 1911 Woolwich Arsenal were out of danger of relegation but on this day Henry Norris preferred to be at the Cup Final (the worst for years, ending Newcastle Utd 0 Bradford City 0) rather than at Woolwich Arsenal 2 Preston North End 0; or indeed at Blackpool 1 Fulham 2. 29 April was the last day of the football season; despite all the uncertainty and the harsh financial regime the directors had imposed, Woolwich Arsenal finished tenth.
The AGM of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company
Limited, held on
Decisions made around the AGM of 1911 indicate a change in the thinking of Henry Norris and William Hall about the future: they had come to admit that - like it or not (and Norris definitely didn’t like it) - they were in it at Woolwich Arsenal for the long haul. They took decisions that set trends for the future. The appointment of a director with close links to Norris or Hall but
no interest in football at all was one. The decision to leave it as late as possible to sign new players for season 1911/12 was another.
New director George E Davis attended his first Woolwich Arsenal FC AGM in 1911. He had no previous connection with Woolwich or with Woolwich Arsenal. He only ever owned 25 shares at £1 each and doesn’t seem to have been expected to contribute any more money to the club. His main importance was in being William Hall’s brother-in-law and thus a vote Norris and Hall could count on.
The biggest overhead at a football club is, of course, the wages of its staff - and the players make up most of the staff. In Henry Norris’ time, the full wage was only payable to a player during the football season; during the close season, players signed for the following season would be paid a retainer, those without a club wouldn’t be paid at all. The policy at Woolwich Arsenal when it was run by Henry Norris was to sign up most of the squad for the following season as soon as the current one was over; but to leave it as late as possible to sign new players. It wasn’t until the middle of July 1911 that Woolwich Arsenal signed a new player: someone called Birtley, who was never heard of again, from the (presumably amateur, and completely unimportant) Northern Alliance League. At least this close season of 1911, they didn’t sell any. Wages at the club were thus kept down at the time when there was no match-day revenue coming in. However, I agree with Arsène Wenger, who does not like to buy in the January transfer window. You get a better choice of players if you buy in the summer; specifically you get a better choice of good players. Of course, injury crises can wreck the most careful and comprehensive summer-buying strategy. But too often in Henry Norris’ time in charge at Woolwich Arsenal, he left it very late, long after his managers had been aware of the need to buy urgently, and went into the transfer market when it had the least amount of talent available in it. And this leads me to the third trend that seems to have been started at Woolwich Arsenal in 1911: the breaking of the rules to get players.
From 1910 until 1927 it was Henry Norris who was in charge of transfer negotiations at Woolwich Arsenal. He usually undertook the bargaining process in person. And on several occasions his anxiety to get the best deal for the club - that is, what he saw as the best financial deal in the long run - caused him to break the rules to secure particular players who were being made offers by other clubs.
Word seems to have got around in early December 1911 that goalkeeper Dr L R Roose wanted to leave Aston Villa. Over the weekend of 9-10 December the press were saying he’d be joining Fulham FC; and it seems the deal did get as far as Aston Villa sending Fulham the papers needed to register him there. But on Monday 11 December, he signed for Woolwich Arsenal FC. It seems now that Roose was induced to change his mind by an offer of money: in 1927 Henry Norris admitted that in 1911 he and Hall had put up half each to pay a player £200 to sign for Woolwich Arsenal. He did not name the player, but his description of him suggests that it was Roose. The player took the money, and all three men therefore broke the Football Association rules (the maximum signing-on fee in 1911 was a paltry £10). For Henry Norris and William Hall as well, this was the clearest possible instance of conflict of interest. They were both still directors of Fulham FC as well as Woolwich Arsenal FC. They were therefore guilty of snatching for one of their clubs a player more or less signed by the other. The most curious aspect of the transaction, for me, is that no one at Fulham FC cried ‘foul!’ If their fellow directors at Fulham FC were furious they didn’t say so in public; nor in private, seeing neither Hall nor Norris was asked to resign. I can only suppose that the other directors took the snatching away of Roose from under their noses as the ruthlessness of football, and didn’t know until 1927 that he’d been bribed.
Low crowd figures seem to have been the driving force behind
Norris’ decision to disregard the rule book.
Roose, though an amateur, was an international, and his first game at
the Manor Ground, against
It was looking like the end of an era, because by
Ducat’s transfer fee, and a footballing tour of
The AGM of Woolwich Football and Athletic Company Limited,
Work on the project had already started. Woolwich Arsenal had already made one attempt
to get a representative of the club elected to the Football League management
committee: George Leavey had stood unsuccessfully in 1911 though certainly (given
his views on the subject) without the moving of the club in mind. At the AGM of the Football League (
Henry Norris, meanwhile, had begun motoring around
The search for new premises may have been a welcome
distraction from the football results.
Season 1912/13 was a bad season for
In the New Year Spurs found some form and got away from the
It was three weeks after that cup tie that the news leaked
out that the club was moving to north
Athletic News having stated that the club’s new site
was a plot of land behind St John’s College in Gillespie Road, Highbury,
Woolwich Arsenal’s board’s plan of not making the move public until a lease had
been signed was in complete disarray.
The directors therefore entertained a group of sports journalists to
dinner at the Connaught Rooms in
The Football League’s refusal to act did not satisfy Spurs or Clapton Orient, of course, and Henry Norris’ speech confirmed their worst fears. Cadnam and Wells-Holland tried to raise the 22 members’ signatures necessary to provoke an extraordinary meeting of the full Football League on the subject; but after such a pointed statement from the management committee, they found clubs unwilling to sign their petition. The only thing left for them to do was to raise the issue at the AGM, and that meeting was consequently a pretty bad-tempered affair. But by that time, Woolwich Arsenal were settling in as their new neighbours. In Football League Division Two.
There wasn’t much action in Woolwich after the three years
of rumour were finally confirmed as truth. There were some letters in the Kentish
Independent resenting that Norris had put the blame for the move on the
locals without considering his own decisions at the club as culpable. Some traders did try to get organised to
prevent the move from happening but their efforts came to nothing and they were
three years too late. One or two
tentative enquiries were made by football clubs in the area about the Manor
Ground but they too came to nothing when the Woolwich Arsenal directors made it
clear they wouldn’t lease the site to a possible rival. In September 1913 the ground was being rented
by Woolwich FC, a newly-formed club playing in the amateur
Opposition to the move was noisier - noisiest - in Highbury, and held up the signing of the lease by a good month.
See my File “Why Highbury?”
I have been an Arsenal fan for over 30 years and I can remember some pretty grim times. But in part thanks to the activities of Henry Norris, I have never faced relegation. It looks like beyond hell to me. I can only hope that sufferers eventually reach a state of numbness about it where any more bad news cannot touch them. I do not know how I would cope. When it seemed to be inevitable, Henry Norris seemed to cope well, though irritably, and he stuck to what seems to have been the directors’ policy, of not going further out on a limb financially to prevent it - here’s that football conundrum showing itself in another way. But in mid-March Woolwich Arsenal finally broke their non-winning run and - seeing Chelsea were doing as badly as ever - it looked briefly as if they might stay up at Chelsea’s expense. This was the situation going into the last weekend of March 1913, the Easter weekend, a holiday Norris spent in Lancashire. On Easter Monday he went to Anfield and saw Liverpool 1 Chelsea 2; an entirely unexpected victory that extinguished Woolwich Arsenal’s brief period of hope. The various stresses of this terrible season got to him at last: in his column in West London and Fulham Times the following Friday he all but accused Liverpool of throwing the match and Chelsea of bribing them to do so, provoking an investigation by the Football League (who found Liverpool to have been idle and spineless but not corrupt) and abruptly ending his career as a football writer. I write more about this - the first time Norris’ doings were investigated by the football authorities - in my file HENRY NORRIS AND THE WORLD OF JOURNALISM.
What Chelsea did and Liverpool didn’t in that match made no difference anyway: Woolwich Arsenal lost all three of their Easter fixtures and were officially relegated on Saturday 26 April 1913, drawing 1-1 with Middlesbrough in their last ever match at the Manor Ground, yet another poor performance before a crowd of 3000. The men who, in 1910, had formed the fund-raising committee to save the club in Woolwich had already said their goodbyes. On Thursday 24 April they held a farewell social evening. Most of the squad, and trainer George Hardy were there. William Hall and George Morrell had been invited but sent their apologies. Henry Norris was not invited; and neither was John Humble, because he’d supported the move despite living in the area since the 1880s.
Season 1912/13: played 38. Won 3 (1 at home), lost 23, drawn 12. Goals for 26; goals against 74. You can’t argue with that.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SOURCES OF ALL THIS INFORMATION, SEND ME AN EMAIL AND I’LL SEND YOU THE SOURCES FILE.
Copyright Sally Davis November 2007