By Tony Attwood
It is conventional to think of Sir Henry Norris as a crook and a scoundrel. Indeed I get the impression that even Arsenal FC see him as their biggest embarrassment,
In many articles hee I have tried to argue the opposite – that in saving Arsenal in 1910 Henry Norris took enormous risks for the club, and that when his plans for a merger of Fulham and Arsenal came to nothing he didn’t just walk away and let the club fold. No he carried on, financing the club, giving the local fans every chance to buy shares in their club and support it.
When he broke his promises he did so to his own disadvantage. In the June 1910 negotiations – at which Arsenal was within a few hours of ceasing to exist – he promised to keep Woolwich Arsenal in Plumstead for a year. Then he agreed with local fans to extend that to two years. In the end he gave them three years in Plumstead but the hoped for rise in attendances never came.
When the move to north London took place Henry Norris risked a huge amount of his own money in building the Highbury stadium, (although the land could only be held on a lease) and pushing the club forwards.
The arguments about the promotion of 1919 have been dealt with at great length here, and although fans of other clubs pop along occasionally trying to resurrect the old tales none of them take up the challenge of proving any of their stories, and none are able to offer any evidence to support the tales put about by Tottenham and others that Arsenal did anything other than apply for one of the vacant positions in the league in the aftermath of the match fixing scandal.
If you are interested in 1919 the article here is probably the best place to start.
Henry Norris thus saved Arsenal twice – by paying off all heir debts in 1910 (and not just the “football debts” as people do today, and in 1913 – at great personal expense, and his reward in history is unproven tales of dirty deeds in 1919.
Of course much of this has been fuelled by the self-serving autobiography of Knighton – the manager Sir Henry (as by then he was) brought to Highbury as the club’s first north London manager.
I’ve written several articles on this site which consider the allegations that Knighton makes against Sir Henry, and shown, I think, that the facts do not back up Knighton’s complaints. Indeed the facts prove the reverse of what Knighton said. But Knighton was a great self-publicist in need of cash, and his arguments got the publicity. If you are interested in the expose of the lies told by Knighton in his volume, this is a fair place to start.
So it is interesting to read what George Allison has to say on Sir Henry Norris in “Allison Calling” – George Allison’s informative autobiography.
Unlike Knighton’s volume, this was written as a unified book – not for serialisation in the press – and is a record of a man’s life, rather than a “taking the lid off football” affair as Knighton produced. Allison was a wealthy man in retirement, and indeed a famous man, and his is a volume of reminiscences. He needs to attack no one nor support anyone – he can simply tell it as he wants.
As a sports journalist George Allison knew Henry Norris from his Fulham days, pre-1910, and mentions Henry Norris several times in his book. Here is one passage…
“Sir Henry was one of the most far-seeing men I have ever known. It was he alone who saw the possibility of taking the Woolwich Arsenal club with all the attractions it could have, away from the obscurity and inaccessibility of Plumstead, and putting it somewhere in the heart of London where it could have a chance of receiving better support.
“Woolwich Arsenal was being held down by the fact that it played at Plumstead. Get the club away from there and the story would be different. maintained Sir Henry.
“A few years earlier Sir Henry had come to the club’s financial rescue. Now he planned a daring move. “Supposing ” he said, “there was a place only 10 minutes from Piccadilly where one could go and see a first rate football match.”
… “Sir Henry (he was then Mr) and I had many consultations about getting the club away from the insolvency of Plumstead. He eventually discovered that there was a pssibility of securing a lease on a sports ground attached to St John’s Theological College at Highbury – not far from Finsbury Park Station, and above all, a distance which could be reckoned in minutes from Piccadilly.
“The negotiations were successful. But it was no mean job that Sir Henry took on. … It was a great gamble, with Sir Henry and Mr Hall guarantors at the bank for thousands….
“It was a triumph for Sir Henry Norris, who goes dow in soccer history as the man who made Arsenal famous. The success was more than any of us had dared to expect.”
So a different version, and one that accords with the approach that over the past couple of years has been put forward in this blog.
A further commentary on George Allison’s life as revealed in his autobiography appears here
The 5th Arsenal History book, published by Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, which focuses on the life of George Allison, will be published in a couple of weeks and sent free to all members. If you want to join and get your free copy details are here