By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews
This is the story of May 1910 – the darkest days of Arsenal’s history. But what follows is just a part of the story of Woolwich Arsenal’s adventures – a story that you can read in full in Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football. More details at the end.
However although this part of the story takes place in May 1910 we need to go back to March 25th 1910 to make sense of it all, for on that day there had been a meeting in Woolwich Town Hall to launch the new company which could rescue Woolwich Arsenal FC.
At the meeting was Henry Norris, a director of Fulham, and a man who has by and large been written out of Arsenal’s history. At the meeting he called himself a “friendly observer”, nothing more. But it was he who saved Arsenal, and indeed ultimately turned it into the powerhouse of English football
Yet at that moment in 1910 Arsenal needed more than a “friendly observer.” For as the Earth passed through the tail of Haley’s Comet (with the comet appearing so bright that it was clearly visible during the day time) and the newspapers predicted the end of the world, it certainly looked as if even if the apocalypse didn’t wipe out England in football, this was certainly going to be the end of Woolwich Arsenal.
For quite simply, Arsenal were bust.
The board of Arsenal issued a new set of shares in the club – but the take up was poor. In a further attempt to stave off the inevitable and earn a little more money the club had arranged two more friendlies – one on 28th April away to Colchester (where we won 3-2) and one at Ilford a few days later, where we lost 2-3. A fund-raising committee was set up and was raising some money through whist drives, archery contests and the like, and although surprisingly successful it did not generate enough to save the club.
Then, as a first sign of just how radical the solution to Arsenal’s problems might have to be, it became known that the new football company being formed to replace the old one now in administration, had dropped the name “Woolwich” and become “Arsenal Football and Athletic club.” Shares went on sale locally at £1 each, but to get a wider interest an advertisement offering them to all and sundry appeared in the national sporting paper Athletic News, on Monday 2nd May 1910.
But within days another disaster struck. Not (as predicted) in the shape of the Comet, but through the unexpected death on 7th May of King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria.
Everyone went into mourning, trading stopped and the final attempt to salvage the club through the issuing of new shares failed. Even a last ditch attempt to offer shares at the knock down rate of five for £3 found few takers.
The days between 13th and 16th May, 1910 were a poker game as far as Woolwich Arsenal were concerned. Henry Norris, experienced property developer and wheeler dealer that he was, wanted the club in order to raise his profile in football, enhancing both his image as man of the people, and as a man of finance and business.
No one was sure what else Norris wanted out of Arsenal – although the name (known throughout the British Empire) was certainly worth a lot in terms of publicity. But whatever he wanted it was going to cost for in both footballing terms and financially they were in a mess – hopelessly in debt and just clinging onto first division status. Worse (for Norris), the previous season Fulham FC had lost £700, which would equate to just under £1 million in today’s money. Norris didn’t own Fulham but people wondered, did Norris really want involvement in another loss making club?
So perhaps it was no surprise that on Saturday 14th May, the Times covered the story of Woolwich Arsenal, saying that the new Arsenal club had failed to sell enough shares to become a viable operation.
By 16th May rumours were afoot that Tottenham and Chelsea were trying to get involved by buying up some of the shares. Rangers FC from Glasgow were also thought to be looking at buying into the club.
On 18th May Woolwich Arsenal’s board met the Football League, at the Imperial Hotel in central London, with a view to explaining if the club could go forward for next season. This was a pressing matter because if Arsenal were going out of existence the League would have to decide if the relegated Chelsea should stay up in the First Division, or if an extra club should be promoted from the Second Division.
Also present at this meeting was – of course – Henry Norris and two of his fellow directors from Fulham. Norris offered to buy Woolwich Arsenal FC and pay off all the creditors – an honourable and very expensive move and one that earned favour with the League. He also agreed to take over all the registrations of the players, so that they would continue to get paid. Even more honourable! He would then form a new club: Fulham Arsenal FC which would play in the first division in place of Arsenal.
Ahhh! So that was the plan!!!
In this way (Norris said) no one would lose money, and he, Norris, would save the day. The League would be free to replace Fulham in the second division with a new team from the Southern League. He suggested Croydon Common FC (which he also part owned).
The directors of Chelsea and Bolton Wanderers spoke out in opposition – Chelsea (who had just been relegated to the second division) spoke up to say that they did not think it reasonable that an enlarged club should appear in an area that already had two clubs (a fatuous argument given that Chelsea had bought its place in the league when it didn’t even have a team and deliberately set themselves up virtually opposite Craven Cottage), and Bolton (who had also been relegated that year) to say they thought this all underhand and they wanted their place in the First Division back.
The League confirmed that it had no control over where clubs played, and so the location argument was dead in the water. Arsenal could play in Fulham, Farnham or Felixstowe if they wished – it was up to them. The League also said it had no control over mergers – but it did have control over which division a club played in, and it was anxious that clubs should not merge and de-merge just to get into a higher division.
So it ruled that if Fulham Arsenal was the only suggestion on the table it would be accepted. Fulham Arsenal could replace Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham, and it could play at Craven Cottage. Norris could pay off all the debts. But since Woolwich Arsenal was being wound up, the new club would take over Fulham’s place in the second division, and a separate vote would be had to see how the space vacated by Woolwich Arsenal would be filled.
But Norris was nothing if not a negotiator and tactician, and was ready for this. He withdrew his offer, before coming up with his second plan – that Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham ground share, with both clubs having their own board of directors (Norris and Hall being on the board of both clubs).
There was nothing to stop Norris being on two boards of directors (and indeed he was a director of Arsenal and Fulham until 1919 when the Victory Cup incident led him to resign from Fulham.
This time however the Woolwich Arsenal directors objected (rather late in the day) saying they did not want the club to leave Woolwich. The meeting paused, and the board of Woolwich Arsenal met privately with Norris and Hall – with the League muttering about the matter having to be finalised that day.
Eventually there was agreement – with, as it turned out, minutes to spare. Norris came onto the steps of the hotel and said that Woolwich Arsenal had been saved, and would continue to play at the Manor Ground for the coming season. Further details of the deal were not made clear, but the promise was made and Woolwich Arsenal was saved.
Norris presented himself as the hero of the day, and on 19th May 1910 he turned up in Woolwich, and started to look for other investors in a new company which would part-own the club along with himself and William Hall. However although the locals made a lot of fuss about saving the club, when it came to putting hands in pockets, they were not that excited by the idea.
That evening there was a meeting of the Woolwich Arsenal Fundraising Committee which Norris attended. He refused to give any assurances that the club would stay in Plumstead beyond the one year agreed, nor even that the club would survive. He simply said he wanted the locals to cough up some money for shares. The Committee declined to hand over the money it had thus far raised.
Up until that moment it was looking as if the board of the new club was going to be made up exclusively of Norris and his allies from Fulham. But then Norris pulled the rabbit out of the hat. He managed to convince the local hero, co-founder of Royal Arsenal, and first ever chairman of Woolwich Arsenal, Jack Humble, to come back onto the board. It proved to be a master stroke, not only encouraging some locals to buy shares, but also ensuring that eventually the fund raising committee would hand over its money to Norris to be used by the club.
Henry Norris then gave an interview with the local paper – the Kentish Independent. In it he announced that he had sold only a small proportion of the shares in the new Woolwich Arsenal. In fact of the 4000 shares issues only 1280 were taken up.
Meanwhile the board started making footballing decisions – not least by confirming the existing manager (Morrell) in his job for the next season. Since George Morrell had been the cost-cutting manager under the previous board, that implied that the cut-backs would continue.
As for Norris himself he most certainly came good. He paid off all the debts, including one huge debt concerning the Manor Ground, which he was not aware of in May 1910 when he made the deal, and he paid the players. He kept the club in Plumstead for three more years – two more than he had promised – and ultimately when it was clear that a top club could not survive in Plumstead, using his own money he built Highbury and moved the club north. Arsenal’s popularity rose, crowd numbers soared, and eventually Norris (by then Lt Col Sir Henry Norris – awards given for his outstanding war effort from 1914 to 1918) pulled off his ultimate master stroke. He brought in Herbert Chapman.
And that story is for another article.
The full story of Woolwich Arsenal FC in south London, its rise, fall and rescue by Norris and its move to the north is told in Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football.
The book is available at the Arsenal shop, via Amazon or direct from the publishers.