Henry Norris and Woolwich Arsenalís Move to Highbury: Parts One and Two

Last updated: 16 September 2008

 

In 1912, if you believe his own account (of 1927), Henry Norris spent several months searching London for a site suitable for a professional football club to set up home in.Why did he pick a rather small site in the centre of a middle-class housing estate in the London Borough of Islington?The answer below is three-fold: transport and crowds; evangelicals and education in the Church of England; and Did he get it right?

 

TRANSPORT AND CROWDS

 

Crowds were the reason why Henry Norris and William Hall felt Woolwich Arsenal had to move.In 1912, at least, you needed crowds to make football pay.(In 2008 they look more like an optional extra.)And in order to get crowds to your football ground in 1912, you had to have cheap, reliable public transport and/or be in the middle of an area where the football-going public lived, so that they could walk.London had many districts that fulfilled those criteria; Woolwich and Plumstead werenít one of them.

 

Thereís virtually no evidence of how Henry Norris conducted his search.In 1927 he described himself as making many journeys by car, over several months, looking out for Woolwich Arsenalís new home.However, Norris had been in the property development business for 15 years by that time.Iíd be very surprised if he was just driven about aimlessly until his driver went past the right spot by accident.I would imagine he spent quite as much time poring over maps and plans of London as he did on the road.In 1927 he made no mention of having gone to anyone, either in football or out of it, for any help.However, in his book on Archibald Leitch, Simon Inglis suggests that Leitch, at least, knew of the viability of the site Woolwich Arsenal eventually chose, sometime during 1911-12: Inglis writes of Leitch collecting Ordnance Survey maps of areas which could be turned into football grounds, and gives the impression he was touting his information around in football amongst those who might be interested.Several other people whom Norris knew might have thought of the site if they had been prompted: Charles Crisp, E G Easton, even Lord Kinnaird.But Norris never mentioned approaching any of them.

 

A rumour in the autumn of 1912 suggested that Norris began his search by considering Battersea, which he knew well and in which William Hall had his lead manufacturing business.It was densely populated, with good transport links - but perhaps he couldnít find a suitable site there, because by the end of the year he was actively rummaging around in north London instead.

 


When Henry Norris compared public transport in north London with the options in the Woolwich and Plumstead area he must have laughed - or cried.In an interview just before the start of season 1913/14 he described public transport to Plumstead as a throwback to the 1890s.Transport links in north London, on the other hand, were up-to-date and expanding.ĎIn in the morning, out in the eveningí fares were cheap, a requirement of the Cheap Trains Act of 1883; in October 1911 105,000 workers used those cheap tickets every working day (six each week - virtually everyone worked Saturday mornings).Finsbury Park was a focus of both the rail and tram systems in north London.It had opened in February 1904 as the northern terminus of the Great Northern and City Railway to Moorgate via Highbury and Islington and Drayton Park.Since December 1906 it had also been the northern end of the Great Northern Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the central section of the Piccadilly tube line) via Holloway Road and Gillespie Road, now Arsenal tube station.80 trains an hour came up those two railway lines from the West End and the City; and in September 1913 the editor of the Evening Newsí football edition made the trip to a match at Highbury from his office in Carmelite Street EC4 in 25 minutes (wouldnít it be wonderful if you could guarantee to do that today!).

 

Good access by rail was certainly Henry Norrisí preferred option, but the Finsbury Park area had good tram links too: from the City via Highbury and Islington along Holloway Road, and separately along Green Lanes; and west/east between Camden and on as far as Edmonton.

 

80 trains an hour and regular trams as well!At some time during the autumn of 1912, Henry Norris and William Hall may have had a site on the London and North Eastern Railway, at Harringay Park, under serious consideration, but it didnít have 80 trains an hour, very few places even in London had so many.How delighted and relieved Norris must have been when he discovered there was a site available - though not exactly on the market - in Highbury within five minutesí walk of Finsbury Park.As he said later, to a reporter from the Islington Gazette, ďIf we had had the planning of the lines of communication ourselves, we couldnít have devised a better serviceĒ.And what in particular was the service supposed to deliver to a football ground near Finsbury Park?Oscar Drew, writing as Merula in West London and Fulham Times in March 1913, described what was required as, ďCentral London workers released from toil on the Saturday afternoonĒ and taking in a football match before they went home or to the music hall in the evening.In a word - clerks.

 

Woolwich Arsenal Football Club had been founded as a works team; its first players and its first supporters earned their wages working on factory assembly lines.The clubís financial troubles since the Boer War had resulted from the decline of the government factories in Woolwich - a decline which had been the result of Government policy.In terms of London employment, however, the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was unusual: London had never had a great deal of the kind of industry that is most efficiently done in factories with a production line.If any kind of work could be said to dominate employment in London in 1912/13 it was work in offices, which had expanded hugely in the last few decades as a result of the growth in empire, in world trade, and in local and central bureaucracy.Clerks - especially at the outset of their working lives - might not earn as much per week as the best-qualified and most highly-skilled workers in manufacturing industry.On the other hand they were less likely to be laid off by economic downturns, or by industrial action in their own or other industries.A young man working as a clerk, perhaps paying for lodgings or a bedsit room, but just as often living at home, not yet committed to the expenses of marriage and family, had disposable income enough to afford the 6d (to stand) or 1 shilling (to sit and keep dry) for a football match each Saturday.He was exactly what Oscar Drew had in mind to be the bedrock of Woolwich Arsenalís new supporters.He was the sort of person Henry Norris had actually been, in the 1880s and early 1890s.

 


80 trains an hour full of clerks with money to spend on football - you would think the director of an impoverished football club could ask for nothing more.But I think the property developer in Henry Norris was looking at the maps and plans and thinking ahead.In the growth northwards of the suburbs of London, the area south of Finsbury Park station had been filled with housing already, a large area from which football crowds could come.Building to the north of the station had begun in the 1890s and was moving outwards through Holloway and Hornsey towards Crouch End and Alexandra Palace and towards whatís now known as the Haringay Ladder and Wood Green.There was still plenty of green land undeveloped, though - in fact, acquaintances of Henry Norris in the estate agentsí industry helped develop it in the 1920s - Finchley, Hendon and Barnet and further out into Hertfordshire: an even larger area from which football crowds could come.†† Itís clear from his public statements in 1913 that Norris was exasperated when Spurs and Clapton Orient made such a fuss about Woolwich Arsenal wanting to move to north London.Norris clearly thought - and the Football League management committee agreed with him, probably persuaded by William Hall - that there would be more than enough football-goers to go round.If they were not quite correct in their view, I hope to show further down this file that it wasnít because of a lack of potential supporters.

 

Spursí ground at White Hart Lane was not quite so well-connected, by railway, as Finsbury Park.However, it did have a railway station nearby, on the Great Eastern line out of Liverpool Street. And trams ran along Tottenham High Road, again from the City; and up from Finsbury Park station along Seven Sisters Road.House-building had followed the Great Eastern and Eastern Counties lines from Stoke Newington, through Stamford Hill to Tottenham; and was continuing outwards towards Enfield (though that had better transport connections with Finsbury Park), Edmonton and Ponders End.Spurs could attract those City clerks.

 

Of the two clubs already established in north London, Clapton Orient was the more isolated. They played in Homerton, in between Clapton and Hackney Marshes.Railway lines ran along the southern, western and northern edges of the district to the City of London - two branches of the same line which went to Tottenham, and the North London Line which curved round from Broad Street west towards Willesden.When Woolwich Arsenal FC were drawn away at Clapton Orient in the FA Cup, in January 1911, the football correspondent of the Kentish Independent warned his readers that Orientís ground, Millfields, was ďsomewhat difficult of accessĒ.He told them that the nearest railway station was Victoria Park on the North London Line; or they could go by tram to Clapton.They would have to walk the last half-mile or so, however, through an area with a lot of old housing which Oscar Drew of West London and Fulham Times described in 1913 as ďquite slummyĒ.His comments suggest that the football club might be surrounded by residents too poor to go to matches regularly.

 


At some stage in late 1912, Henry Norris discovered a site for Woolwich Arsenal FC, possibly rather smaller than was ideal, but very near Gillespie Road and Drayton Park stations (both being the last station before Finsbury Park on their respective railway lines) and aready used as playing fields.He did have two acquaintances who might have pointed him in the right direction by mentioning that the landís owners might consider an offer to buy.One was Lord Kinnaird, the President of the FA, who had a link with the owners going back to the 1870s; and the other was George Easton, a fellow freemason at Fulham Lodge number 2512 and football-goer at Fulham FC.Easton was one of Fulhamís representatives on the London County Council, where he was a member of its Asylums Standing Committee.In 1909 the LCC had been looking for a place to build what became the Maudsley Hospital.†† The LCC agreed a deal to buy some land in Highbury only for its owners to back out at the last minute...However, Norris always spoke of what he did as if he had taken action without consulting anybody - not even the other directors of Woolwich Arsenal - when he approached the land-owners offering to buy their freehold.Given how reluctant he was to admit what was going on, even when the newspapers found out in February 1913, his version is probably the true version of what happened.The bid may have come as a surprise to the landís owners, possibly even a shock, and they didnít acccept it as originally put foward by Norris.But as both Lord Kinnaird and George Easton already knew, they were facing an uncertain future.They were a small, privately-funded theological college; and for several years they had been seriously short of cash.

 

 

EVANGELICALS AND EDUCATION IN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND

 

St Johnís College, also known in Henry Norrisí time as the London College of Divinity, had been founded in 1863 by Rev Alfred Peache and Rev Thomas Parnall Boultbee to prepare for ordination in the Church of England young men who were fervent supporters of its evangelical wing but who hadnít had the public school classical education and/or werenít wealthy enough to go to Oxford or Cambridge universities, the only places at that time where you could study theology.

 

Evangelical - what does it mean in practice?The Oxford English Dictionaryís definition holds good for todayís Evangelicals too.An evangelical man or woman believes that only your faith in the Christian god can save your soul; nothing else you do will make any difference on the Day of Judgement.An evangelical man or woman believes that the Bible is the sole authority on all matters of Christian doctine; all commentaries and explanations by writers since, such as St Augustine of Hippo or Erasmus, are completely unnecessary and irrelevant.It therefore follows that the evangelical man or woman takes the view that the Christian church and its priests do not have any particular role in the interpretation of the Bible.I wonder, in that case, why an evangelical college should be set up at all - but this isnít an essay on the weirdnesses of Christian belief.I shall confine myself to saying that what exactly it is that evangelicals believe illustrates why the students at St Johnís College were noted for their religious fervour, but not for their learning; and also why it is a taste that the majority of Christians couldnít cultivate, even in the 19th century when so many more people attended church regularly.

 


From its foundation until after their deaths, St Johnís College had very generous supporters in Rev Alfred and his sister Kezia Peache, inheritors of a fortune in ship-building and property made by their father in Southwark - where, I would suppose, the firmís name was well-known to Henry Norris.They gave £50,000 in 1863 to set the college up and obtain its first buildings.In 1865 the Rev Alfred bought the freehold of a plot of land in Highbury, previously used as a teacher training college, and presented it to St Johnís, with no strings attached (an important lack of restriction in 1913), as the collegeís permanent home.The Peaches subsidised the collegeís running costs in the 1870s to the tune of £400 per year, to keep its fees down (they were still high).In 1884 they paid £5200 to build the college chapel.And the Rev Alfred undertook a programme of buying advowsons - that is, the right to appoint a vicar to a parish - with the intention of giving guaranteed work to some at least of the men the college trained.The trust he set up to oversee this work still exists.But in 1899 and 1900 first Kezia and then Alfred Peache died.Although it isnít stated in the collegeís official History, it seems their donations died with them; immediately, St Johnís began to struggle financially.

 

A new college principal, Professor Rev Albert Greenup, began work in 1900.It was his misfortune to preside over a process of cost-cutting, which caused resignations from the collegeís governing Council, and resentment amongst the staff and students (wages went down, fees went up).His best efforts to keep college expenditure down kept being undermined unexpectedly because of emergency building work.Although impressive to look at (they were modelled on St Johnís College Cambridge) the college buildings on Avenell Road were clearly of poor quality: general maintenance costs were about £400 a year; walls fell down suddenly; and in 1906 the college was shut for several months while the drains were dug out and replaced, with the loss of £700 income.You never stop paying for bad building work!

 

However, the official History of St Johnís actually sees changing times within the Church of England as having been more of a threat to the collegeís existence in the early 20th century than its lack of secure finances.The College was approaching its fiftieth anniversary in very different times from those in which it had been founded.As education in general had expanded in the second half of the 19th century several theological colleges had been set up including two others specifically for evangelicals.St Johnís now had serious rivals in the search for students, and the rivals charged less in fees.A greater challenge, though, was the steady rise in the educational standards expected from men seeking ordination.At this stage candidates for ordination did not have to have a degree to be ordained; but the Church of England was steadily moving towards its current position where a degree is the minimum requirement.In 1896 it decided that all non-graduate students wanting to enter theological college to prepare for ordination had to take an entrance exam; the exam would include Latin and Greek.St Johnís College had been founded specifically to cater for students who did not have any knowledge of either language.Its representatives argued long and hard against the entrance exam, but although the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Temple, was a long-time supporter of the college and frequent visitor, as the head of the Church of England he wouldnít budge.The entrance exam was introduced as planned, and had exactly the result the college had anticipated: fewer men applied to St Johnís to be students.In 1908 the Lambeth Council took the inevitable next step by saying that by 1917 all candidates for ordination would have to have a degree.St Johnís had to consider whether it should shut down altogether; or face up to the modern world by allying itself more closely with a university theology department in London or elsewhere and raising the standards required of its students.

 


In 1908 the collegeís governing Council set up a committee to secure its future in these changing times.Naturally, as a banker and the collegeís Treasurer since the 1880s, Lord Kinnaird was on that committee.Professor Greenup was called upon to produce a plan of action.His recommendations, however, threw both the committee and the governing Council into indecision and argument: his main suggestion was that the land at Highbury should be sold.Greenupís idea was to use most of the sale price to set up a main campus for the college at the University of Durham, where those college students who were up to it could sit the degree exams.Only a small base would be kept in London, and it would be set up in a cheaper part of the city.St Johnís couldnít make up its mind about Greenupís plan.A faction on the Council, led by the Rev John Watts-Ditchfield,were very reluctant to sell; they were sure there were other ways to balance the books.(It would be interesting to know if Lord Kinnaird agreed with them.)As one of the collegeís most energetic and successful ex-students (he eventually became a bishop) Watts-Ditchfieldís opinion carried weight with other Council members.Eventually the governing Council did pass Greenupís plan by the chairmanís casting vote, but even after that the agonising continued.For example, they never publically put the land up for sale.Approached by the London County Council in 1909 with an offer of £41,000 they agreed to sell only to find - with negotiations at an advanced stage - that they couldnít bring themselves to go through with it.Even when Henry Norris on Woolwich Arsenalís behalf gave St Johnís a second chance, offering to buy the freehold of the site for £10,000 (note how much less he was prepared to give than the LCC had been!), the governing Council still couldnít go the full distance.Instead it offered to lease to Woolwich Arsenal FC 6Ĺacres of its site for 21 years, the first three at £700 per year, the remaining 18 at £1000 per year.The college would allow the football club to build a grandstand with offices and dressing-rooms underneath, on the east side of the site, and to bank up the other three sides as open-air terraces for standing.If the football club agreed to the lease, the Rev Watts-Ditchfieldís argument would be vindicated, and the college would be left for 21 years at least, with only its educational difficulties to contend with.

 

In all this, St Johnís - which had never taken much part in the social life of Highbury - had considered only its own problems, not the wider issues.Woolwich Arsenal FC accepted the offer of the lease, the legal documents were drawn up and the consent of the Board of Education obtained, and still the college had not considered what the locals might think.When the news leaked out, it was then taken aback by the resulting, very noisy, outbreak of NIMBY-ness amongst its middle-class neighbours against the noise, litter, transport disruptions and moral depravity of professional football.

 

In early March Henry Norris tried to stem the tide of comment and criticism by assuring the football world that the contract had been signed by all parties and it was no good protesting.He also made a public statement on playing football on the sabbath day, saying he had always been against it.I havenít found any evidence that he had ever thought the subject of any importance before!He seems to have spoken about it in an attempt to reassure, not the football clubís future neighbours but the members of St Johnís governing Council, who were dithering again - final agreement on the contract was delayed by a month.Lord Kinnairdís view as a lifelong temperance activist, that afternoons at football matches were better than afternoons in the pub, no doubt weighed with the governing Council members.But still the vote to agree the deal with Woolwich Arsenal despite the protests was only 4:3 in favour; and the college felt obliged to add to the contract covenants banning football matches at Highbury on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.

 


For their part, Henry Norris and the other directors of Woolwich Arsenal hadnít obtained the freehold site they had wanted; but they were so anxious to take the collegeís site that they agreed to take a lease instead and to abide by its covenants.The college drove a hard bargain, not so much over the rent but over the financial guarantees it required from the lessees.Henry Norris and William Hall, personally, were made liable for payment of the rent and - at the leaseís end - for paying to have the leased land restored to its former state before the freeholders took it back (this never happened, of course, but in 1913 Norris and Hall didnít know it wouldnít).In due course, the same kind of guarantees in person were required from Norris and Hall by the specialist iron-frame building firm, Humphreys Ltd, which Woolwich Arsenal FC hired to build Archibald Leitchís grandstand at Highbury.Henry Norris did what he could to lessen the heavy costs of the move to north London.He got the Allen and Norris Partnershipís legal department to do the work of preparing the contract and indenture, without charge.He used Allen and Norris to buy the materials and hire the construction equipment at trade prices.And as football season 1913/14 approached he borrowed some of Allen and Norrisí labourers to dig out and prepare the earthen banks.Even so, the move still resulted in Norris and William Allen being personally liable for £50,000* if Woolwich Arsenal didnít pay its way in Highbury, a burden that hung over both of them until the early 1920s.

 

*I gather from social history books that itís very difficult to calculate what past prices would be if you paid them today!But one that Iíve read suggests multiplying early 20th century prices by 200 to get some idea: £50,000 then becomes £10 million in todayís money.Ouch!! Might even give Abramovich pause.

 

I would suppose that, in fact, the burden was felt more acutely by William Hall than by Henry Norris, because he was not so wealthy a man.And of course - as it turned out - neither of them was called upon to pay any part of the £50,000.But Henry Norris did feel all the anxiety of being liable for so much debt if he hadnít got it right about moving the club to north London; and it affected his judgement.Some of the steps he took to ensure that he never had to pay out that £50,000 ended with him being investigated, and banned, by the FA.

 

 

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SOURCES OF ALL THIS INFORMATION, SEND ME AN EMAIL AND IíLL SEND YOU THE SOURCES FILE.

 

Copyright Sally Davis January 2008

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