Henry Norris at the Arsenal: Part 1. How Arsenal fell from grace.

by Tony Attwood

Revised 14 November 2018

Background note:

If there is a man associated with Arsenal whose name is regularly decried it is Henry Norris; a man whose actions were, it is claimed, so outrageous and so awful that it is just a total embarrassment to the club that he should ever have been involved with Arsenal.   Apparently he bribed other football chairman on order to get Arsenal elected to the first division in 1919, he unreasonably uprooted the club from its historic base in Plumstead to the detriment of Tottenham, and ultimately was kicked out of football because he was a thief and a crook.

And yet, the man who knew him longer than anyone else at Arsenal, the man who worked with Norris all the way through his long association with Arsenal from 1910 to 1927, the man who was a director of Arsenal, and who then as manager won two League titles and the FA Cup with Arsenal, spoke of Henry Norris in glowing terms – and continued to do so long after Norris had passed away.

Indeed anyone who reads the autobiography of George Allison, published upon his retirement as Arsenal manager, must wonder at the contradiction between the story that he paints in regard to Norris, and the common perception of the man.

In this series of articles we show that the contemporary image of Norris is utterly wrong both in terms of the man’s motives and what he gave the club financially and in terms of his time.   The series will also show how an utterly unholy alliance of Tottenham Hotspur directors and supporters, Arsenal directors and the man Norris himself employed as the first manager at Highbury, united to re-write the history of Arsenal and the part Henry Norris had to play in saving the club from ruin, and preparing it to become by the 1930s the most successful club in English football and the most famous club in the world.

Indeed my argument is that if anyone deserves a statue at Arsenal’s stadium it is Norris, because without Norris there would have been no Arsenal after 1910.  The club we support would have died that year and its last ever game would have been a 1-3 home defeat to Preston on 23 April of that year.

In this series I am much obliged to the dedication and research of Sally Davis whose on line study of Norris is an extraordinary piece of work.  And of course to Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews (with whom I co-wrote “Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football,”) who did a huge amount of digging to uncover the truth of what happened in the period from 1910 through to the end of 1919.

It is not my intention to repeat the work already published, but rather to try and pull the various issues revealed by these dedicated researchers and explore the implications of these findings, and from this show exactly what it is that Norris did for Arsenal.

Within this series of articles, I call the subject of my series “Henry Norris” until 1917, at which point he was knighted for his services to his country during the first world war, and thereafter Sir Henry.  His full title became, during the 1st world war, Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris, and for a period after the war, The Honorable Lt Col Sir Henry Norris MP.  I think Sir Henry is enough.

Arsenal in crisis

By the time Henry Norris arrived at Arsenal in 1910, the club had already found itself on the brink of extinction once before, in 1892, when a group opposed to the elected Committee that ran Royal Arsenal FC attempted a coup.

Among the allies of those running the coup was the landlord of the club at the Invicta Ground and the approach of the rebels centred on working with the Invicta’s owner, proposing that he should greatly to increase the rent on the ground (which was already said to be the highest in football) with no option for the club to negotiate.

Such an increase would have bankrupted the club (which was indeed the whole point of the rebels action: they felt the take it or leave it approach would force the club to bow to their pressure and allow them to take over the club), but the Committee had other ideas and found themselves another ground.

But even then their troubles were not over, for as they started to develop the land into a football stadium, the landlord of the existing ground and his fellow rebels hatched a plot which if succesful would have allowed Arsenal to develop the ground, only to find at the last minute that the rebels had bought out that lease and could thus evict Arsenal, leaving Arsenal homeless and the directors who funded the development or given bank guarantees on the edge of bankruptcy.

However through guile and toil Royal Arsenal saw off the 1892 plotters (who eventually founded their own club on Arsenal’s old ground, and played for a few years in the Southern League), and Woolwich Arsenal successfully joined the Football League at the Manor Ground for the 1893/4 season.

The club flourished, and in 1903/4, in finishing second in the second division, they not only gained promotion, they also could boast of the ninth highest league attendance among all the league clubs (both first and second division) in the country.

The crowd figures at the Manor Ground had been growing for a while, but perhaps what was not quite expected was just how much the crowd would continue to grow, for the following season, 1904/5 Arsenal had the second highest average attendance in the whole of the Football League as they played in the first division for the first time.

Here are the 1904/5 season the average attendances for league clubs.  Figures here and elsewhere in our story come from EFS Attendances. 

No. Club Div Average  Growth
1 Newcastle United 1 21.605 23,0%
2 Arsenal 1 19.980 39,9%
3 Everton 1 19.155 7,3%
4 Manchester City 1 18.715 -5,8%
5 Aston Villa 1 18.390 -8,2%
6 Manchester United 2 15.205 -14,5%
7 Birmingham City 1 14.540 35,1%
8 Sunderland 1 14.510 6,1%
9 Sheffield United 1 14.450 -8,5%
10 Liverpool 2 14.315 -9,0%

These figures are central to what happened to Arsenal, because virtually all of Arsenal’s income came from those attending the games.

However if there was an expectation that Arsenal, now in the first division and with such a huge level of support, would now go on and challenge for the league title, that was not to be, although in 1905/6 and again the following season, Arsenal did reach the semi-final of the FA Cup – events which helped once more swell the income of the club.

But as the table below shows, leaving aside the Cup income, Arsenal’s attendance figures (and thus its finances) then moved into a period of decline…

Season Average Lge crowd Rise/Decline Lge pos FA Cup*
1904/5 19,980 +40% 10 1
1905/6 16,105 -19% 12 SF
1906/7 15,800 -2% 7 SF
1907/8 13,765 -13% 14 1
1908/9 13,025, -5% 6 2
1909/10 10,395 -20% 18 2

*The FA Cup for 1st Division teams at the time consisted of four rounds (numbered 1 to 4) followed by the semi-final and of course final.  In 1906 the total attendances for Arsenal’s games in the Cup (including one replay) was over 116,000.  In 1907, again including one replay the total was even larger: over 119,000.  With matchday income shared between the home and away clubs in the FA Cup, the Cup attendances were equal to around an extra seven league games, and thus effectively hid the decline in league match revenue for those two seasons.

But then in 1907/8 with a further decline in crowd numbers of another 13% and no FA Cup run, the club suddenly suffered a serious decline in its income.  In effect in three years the club had lost around one third of its income, but had no way of reducing its costs.

Arsenal did have a benefactor at the time in George Leavey, who ran a local gentleman’s outfitters.   In 1909 the Kentish Independent stated that Leavey had paid the players’ wages several times during the summer of that year, but clearly although well-to-do, he did not have the sort of wealth that could allow him to continue to do so.  Indeed by the time Norris took over at Arsenal the debtors list included £3,600 owed to George Leavey – a huge sum for a local businessman to be owed and getting on for half a million pounds in today’s money.

In addition to that which was formally recorded in 1908 as given to the club, it was stated by Jack Humble, Woolwich Arsenal FC’s first chairman, that Leavey had lent the club in the region of £15,000 for transfers over the previous years.

So the scene was set for the sort of financial disaster that has beset so many football clubs over the centuries.

By the start of 1910 Woolwich Arsenal’s first team was fourth from bottom in Football League Division One.  The Reserves were doing rather better: they were second in the South Eastern League and on 1 January 1910 Woolwich Arsenal Reserves beat West Ham Reserves 6-0.  But on the same day the first team lost away to Liverpool 5-1, leaving the table looking like this…

The results around this time were poor as can be seen here

Date Opposition Venue Result Pos Crowd
18.12.1909 Notts County home L1-2 16 10,000
25.12.1909 Newcastle United home L0-3 17 20,000
27.12.1909 Liverpool home D1-1 17 15,000
01.01.1910 Liverpool away L1-5 17 25,000
08.01.1910 Sheffield United away L0-2 19 17,000
15.01.1910 Watford (FAC1) home W3-0 8,668
22.01.1910 Middlesbrough home W3-0 17 8,000

After the match on 22 January 1910 (perversely, as it turned out, after two victories, one in the league and one in the cup) two meetings were held at Woolwich Town Hall, to discuss the club’s future.   The first meeting was for shareholders only, at which they were given a financial statement setting out the impending disaster facing the club.

There was then a second meeting open to all supporters which reiterated the financial problems facing the club.  This meeting set up a Voluntary Committee to raise £1000 for the club as various events were organised such as film shows and whist drives.

This second meeting is important, as Henry Norris was in attendance. This was in fact the first moment in which Henry Norris showed a public interest in Arsenal, and thus this is why our story starts exactly at this point.   Henry Norris did not speak at the meeting although he almost certainly spoke to the directors of Woolwich Arsenal at some stage on this day.


We are currently evolving a complete series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  The full index to the articles that cover the period from 1910 to this point are given in Henry Norris at the Arsenal where there is also an index into one of the affairs that raises the most interest: the promotion of Arsenal in 1919.

One Reply to “Henry Norris at the Arsenal: Part 1. How Arsenal fell from grace.”

  1. Excellently researched articles, well written and fascinating insights into our great football Club ,The Arsenal…thanks for all your hard work ,keep up the good work.

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