How Henry Norris secured Highbury for Arsenal in 1913.

By Tony Attwood

In previous articles (see details at the end of this article) we have seen that Henry Norris had a clear vision of where he wanted Arsenal to move to, and we know that he had an extensive knowledge of the issues relating to building in London.  It was, after all, where he made his fortune.

In later years Sir Henry Norris (as of course he became) made a couple of statements to the effect that he had spent time touring London looking for a site suitable for a new ground, and there were comments in the press about him being seen in Battersea and in Haringay.  But the fact is, that is all we have: two reports.   If Norris had been travelling the city looking for a property there would surely have been many such more reports.  He was after all being chauffeur driven in his Daimler.  How conspicuous did he want to be in 1913?

Besides we have the testimony of Alfred Kearney, a key man in the building of Highbury who stated clearly that from 1911 onwards Archibald Leitch started to collect large scale ordnance survey maps of London upon which could be built a new stadium.  Norris had employed Leitch at Fulham, and Leitch had been involved in the extensions at the Manor Ground at the start of the century.  So it is quite implausible that Norris did not know of the large scale maps, and thus did not use them.  Norris was a man who took decisions and knew his own mind.  But he was also a man who used information in reaching those decisions.

So now we come to the site that Norris chose: the London College of Divinity (also known as St John’s College of Divinity).  And when we look at this site we can see another reason why Norris did not tour London looking everywhere for a new ground for Arsenal.  Norris knew Lord Kinnaird, the President of the FA, and Lord Kinnaird knew the owners of the College.   And it stood exactly where he wanted it – equidistant from the Orient and Tottenham grounds, and within yards of one underground station (Gillespie Road) and within half a mile of two more (Finsbury Park with its railway and underground stations, and Holloway Road).

And there is another point relating to why Norris chose this area – it was not just that the crowd for Arsenal games could get to the ground – but also the nature of the people who would be part of this crowd.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Plus there is the fact that Norris knew George Easton via the Freemasons, a man who like himself was a Fulham supporter.  Easton was on the London County Council and was active in the search for land to build what became the Maudsley Hospital.   According to Davis, “The LCC agreed a deal to buy some land in Highbury [for the hospital] only for its owners to back out at the last minute…”  I believe the land in question was that of the London College of Divinity (St John’s), and as a result of this earlier attempted purchase, both Lord Kinnaird and George Easton were able to confirm to Norris that the College was in financial trouble.

St John’s was a college that took men – often working class men – who were moved to take up holy orders through a reading of the Bible.  However in the years before Arsenal came knocking at the door, the Church of England changed its ordination regulations to the effect that only men with degrees could become ministers of the Church.  As such St John’s had a problem.  It could teach its young men about holy scripture, but at the end of their training they would not get themselves a Church of England parish, because for the most part they were men who had left school aged 14.

And if that were not enough the College had a second problem – the College was never self-sufficient, being subsidized initially by the inheritors of a fortune made in shipping and property development.  When the brother and sister who inherited the fortune and used it for religious purposes died, at the turn of the century, the college got into financial trouble.  The change in the CofE regulations just made the matters far worse as the number of men who would apply for training declined, as the chance of becoming a vicar also slipped away.

The recommendation that the land that became Arsenal’s home should be sold came about in 1908, with the notion that the college should move to Durham as part of the university in that city.    The London County Council offered to buy the land the following year for £41,000, the college agreed, but then cancelled the plan at the last minute.

Nothing then happened in terms of a sale until Norris came along and offered £10,000.  The council refused the offer and instead suggested to lease the playing fields for £700 per year, and the rest of the land at £1000 per year.

Woolwich Arsenal FC accepted the offer as fast as was seemly – before the local protests began.

But even then the college did not sign, and they spent a further month arguing.  Lord Kinnaird on the governing council spoke in favour of Arsenal and his friend Norris and eventually the council of the college – the body that was empowered to take decisions – agreed to the lease by four votes to three with the four agreeing to the demands of the three that there would be no football on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.

I think Woolwich Arsenal were delighted to get a lease on a ground that clearly was never going to be reclaimed by its owner at the end of the lease.  It meant they had money to build the ground, and even to invest in a few new players.

However the local opposition did hold up the signing of the lease – not by Arsenal but by the College, and it was only when the press finally got the story straight that Arsenal were forced to confirm the move.  I’m still not sure if the press briefing that made the confirmation actually came before or after the actual signing of the lease.

True the college demanded financial guarantees from Henry Norris and William Hall, personally, and there was the clause about returning the ground to its original condition at the end of the lease, but these were normal for the time.  The total cost of turning the college grounds into a football ground came to around £50,000 – paid for by Henry Norris and William Allen.  It is something that might be remembered when later tales about Norris and money are considered.

Quite why the College said “no” to the original offer one can only surmise, and my supposition is that the sale would have been an admission of failure of the original purpose, something that many organisations find themselves unable to make, particularly if they feel themselves to be doing the work of God.

Accepting that first offer would have been a much better bargain for the college, but they attempted to see their declining situation through, and in the end were left with no choice but to accept the football ground.   It was to balance their concerns with their desperate financial needs the College did not sell the land to Woolwich Arsenal FC, nor to Henry Norris, but instead leased it to Norris, on a full repairing lease for 21 years.

From Arsenal’s point of view the deal meant that Arsenal would not own its own ground.   But by renting rather than buying Arsenal were able to use all the capital it could raise on ground development.  So the arrangement suited both sides, not least because it was evident from the start that no one was going to want to buy or lease (at any sort of rent that was more than loose change) the Manor Ground.

And we may perhaps pause here to recall that it was the issue of the doubling of the rent at the Invicta Ground exactly 30 years before that had led to the majority of the Arsenal committee backing the idea of applying for a place in the Football League and moving to the Manor Ground.  This story of the previous move of grounds in 1893 is told in detail in “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” which is available in paperback and on Kindle.  Please see the detail on the home page of this site.

The lease for the new Arsenal ground was signed sometime in February 1913 at just under £1000 a year.   Obviously at this moment the ground had no name and the programme for the first match (at which time the club kept the name Woolwich Arsenal FC) invited suggestions for a name.  Clearly none that were thought suitable were forthcoming as when Norris did sign the papers to buy the ground in 1925 the ground was known as The Arsenal Football Ground.

The essence of the lease showed that the land was to be used for the lawful purposes of running a football club but there was to be no sale of alcohol in the ground and no events held on Good Friday and Christmas Day.  But, if, when the lease ended, St John’s wanted the land back for their own use, they could take it back, and demand that the land was put back into its original form – which is to say that the terracing and the stands would be removed and everything relating to the football club torn down.

But Norris would have recognised that when he took over the land in 1913 St John’s had a problem, and he would have taken this into account.  He knew that by the end of the lease they would be in no position to do anything other than either renew the lease or sell the land to him, at which time if Arsenal were a success he would keep the club going, if not, or if football had gone out of fashion, he would build houses and get his money back that way.


So Arsenal had its ground, with not just good rail links via what eventually became the Piccadilly Line and the mainline trainline but also via trams which ran along the Holloway Road and Green Lanes.  And indeed for years after, Arsenal would advertise itself as the club with the best public transport links in the capital.

As matters progressed sometime in June 1913 William Hall resigned as a director of Fulham, allowing him to focus full-time on the preparation of the new ground.  But even though the move was now all-consuming nevertheless at least one player transaction was concluded as on 19 June 1913 Wally Hardinge joined from Sheffield United.  He was a first class cricketer scoring 33,519 runs and playing in one test match.  He played the two pre-war seasons at Highbury and the first post-war season and retired in 1921.

On 28 June 1913 Arsenal gained possession of the Gillespie Road site for the first time thus leaving them just 10 weeks before the first match of the season to make the ground ready.  There is no record of the club making any arrangements to have matches played elsewhere in the event of the ground not being ready.  It simply had to open on time.

Also on 28 June 1913 we have another signing as Joseph Lievesley signed again from Sheffield Utd who had bought him after having been beaten by Southern League Swindon, for whom he played.  Swindon’s victory in 1908 was one of the great cup shocks of the era; Lievesley went on to play in the FA’s tour of South Africa in 1910 – and now was an Arsenal man.

However as the build up to the opening of the stadium evolved, Arsenal had nowhere to play the normal pre-season practice matches.   So on 20 August 1913, courtesy of Henry Norris being a director of Arsenal and Fulham, Arsenal played a practice match at Fulham, prior to the start of the new season.  One week later they played a second game at The Den.   The first ever match at Highbury was played on 30 August 1913.  It was the third training match of the pre-season.   All three games were almost certainly between the first team and the reserves, with no crowd present.

As for the make up of Arsenal’s new crowd, when the ground finally did open for the first league match on 6 September, it was completely different from the crowd at Plumstead.

Plumstead was of course the home of the men who worked in the factories of the Woolwich Arsenal.  The people who came to Highbury were a mixture of local tradesmen and shopkeepers of course, but also those who worked in the city of London at office desks; the men who did the day to day administration of the British Empire.

As Sally Davis points out, these men earned decent if modest salaries, were rarely laid off because of down turns in trade, and were very unlikely to be involved in the industrial disputes that bedevilled manufacturing industry.  As Davis says, the average supporter of the New Arsenal “was the sort of person Henry Norris had actually been, in the 1880s and early 1890s.”   And 80 trains an hour brought these men from surrounding areas to watch Arsenal.

Of course they were going to watch a second division club for the league table had ended with an awful appearance for every Arsenal supporter.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Sunderland 38 25 4 9 86 43 2.000 54
2 Aston Villa 38 19 12 7 86 52 1.654 50
3 Sheffield Wednesday 38 21 7 10 75 55 1.364 49
4 Manchester United 38 19 8 11 69 43 1.605 46
5 Blackburn Rovers 38 16 13 9 79 43 1.837 45
6 Manchester City 38 18 8 12 53 37 1.432 44
7 Derby County 38 17 8 13 69 66 1.045 42
8 Bolton Wanderers 38 16 10 12 62 63 0.984 42
9 Oldham Athletic 38 14 14 10 50 55 0.909 42
10 West Bromwich Albion 38 13 12 13 57 50 1.140 38
11 Everton 38 15 7 16 48 54 0.889 37
12 Liverpool 38 16 5 17 61 71 0.859 37
13 Bradford City 38 12 11 15 50 60 0.833 35
14 Newcastle United 38 13 8 17 47 47 1.000 34
15 Sheffield United 38 14 6 18 56 70 0.800 34
16 Middlesbrough 38 11 10 17 55 69 0.797 32
17 Tottenham Hotspur 38 12 6 20 45 72 0.625 30
18 Chelsea 38 11 6 21 51 73 0.699 28
19 Notts County 38 7 9 22 28 56 0.500 23
20 Woolwich Arsenal 38 3 12 23 26 74 0.351 18

Only once had a team in the two-division era of the league got fewer than 18 points before that date, and that was curiously in the year Arsenal entered the Football League, when Newton Heath ended their season of 30 games with just 14 points.

The 18 point tally was not repeated in the top division until 1946/7 when Leeds gained the same number of points from 42 games, and it was repeated again in 1968/9 when QPR also gained 18 points from 42.  Indeed this most unfortunate low scoring feat was not reduced further until 1984/5 in the top division when Stoke gained 17 points from three wins and 8 draws in a 42 game season – with of course the wins gaining three points each.   Stoke scored 24 and conceded 91 that season which makes Arsenal’s 1912/13 achievement almost respectable!

he Henry Norris Files

Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912/13


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