Henry Norris at the Arsenal part 4: the proposed mergers with Tottenham and Chelsea.

by Tony Attwood

This article updated 5 Dec 2018

This series of articles covers the 17 years in which Henry Norris was involved with Arsenal football club.   The story so far:

Part 4:

Thus far the following has become clear:

  1. By 1910 Arsenal were in severe financial difficulties because of declining crowds since the club gained promotion from the second division.
  2. George Leavey, the club’s main benefactor had lent more money to Arsenal than he was now comfortable with, and having already announced he could lend no more wanted a route out that allowed him to have some of his money back.  Besides which he was also the guarantor of the club paying its rent to the owner of the ground meaning he would still have liabilities even if the club folded.
  3. The club had been destabilised by a clause in its articles of association which meant that anyone with just one share could stand to be elected as a director.  A new club had been formed which among other things removed that clause. This became a matter of significance in 1927 when Henry Norris left the board and wanted his friend George Allison to be on the board.
  4. Henry Norris of Fulham FC had expressed an interest in helping out, which had evolved into a plan involving ground sharing at Craven Cottage.

Throughout much of the 1909/10 season Arsenal had looked to be likely candidates for relegation, but a run of three wins, two draws and just one defeat in the final six games secured 18th place, and a continuation in the first division for another season.  Thus far they had never been relegated.

With the season concluding on 23 April, there was now time to focus totally on what sort of club Arsenal would be after 1 September when the 1910/11 season commenced.

In late April and early May 1910 it looked as though Woolwich Arsenal FC could be saved by its supporters in Plumstead and Woolwich – indeed a celebratory dinner took place in late April to mark the club’s rescue by a group of local businessmen.  However, the share issue that was necessary for this rescue to work didn’t raise enough money to pay the liquidated company’s debts, and George Leavey, increasingly anxious about the money he was owed by the club, decided to take more urgent steps to resolve the situation by turning directly to the directors of Fulham FC who had been suggesting that Woolwich Arsenal FC be absorbed into Fulham.

This proposals was inevitably met with dismay by those who valued the tradition of Arsenal but were not primarily concerned by the fincances..  Residents of Plumstead accused Hall and Norris of having listened to Leavey as early as April – and as we know Norris had arranged the friendly between Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham in February, so informal discussions must have been going on for some time.

The serious talk probably got going in mid-May 1910, because having got through the season and avoided relegation, Woolwich Arsenal now had to assure the Football League (for whom the insolvency of clubs was hardly unknown) that they would be able to operate as a first division club next season.

Two schemes emerged from the discussions: on one hand a ground share of the two separate clubs at Craven Cottage, on the other a merger of the two clubs into one with Fulham Arsenal taking over Woolwich Arsenal’s place in the first division, again playing at Craven Cottage.  That deal which now included the paying off of Woolwich Arsenal’s debts to Leavey and all the other creditors.

It is not clear how such speculation was seen by Henry Norris, and it is far from certain that he initiated either scheme.   At this stage he retained the position of being an interested observer.

Both schemes were radical.  No Football League clubs shared grounds and none had ever merged; this was therefore unknown territory.  Teams had quite the league before; indeed Accrington had become the first team to resign its league status in 1893, the year Arsenal joined, and it was not until the League’s AGM in the summer of 1910 that a definitive statement was made about club amalgamations, where clubs could play and indeed which league they would play in.

However on 12 May Arsenal revealed that the deal with Fulham had come to nought and the club was now talking to the directors of the other two London league clubs: Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.   Also it was clear that the League was now putting pressure on Arsenal to establish if they were able to could continue in the League, so that the new season’s fixture list could be amended as appropriate, if need be.

As things stood, there were no absolute rules on what would happen if Arsenal resigned in the close season, but there were two prime options:

First, Chelsea who had finished 19th and would thus have been relegated could remain in the 1st division and only Bolton would go down.  The top two in Division Two (Manchester City and Oldham) would come up as usual, and clubs from outside of the Football League would be invited to apply for a place in the second.  (In fact in the end Grimsby were not been re-elected having come 19th in the second division, League so a place was available no matter what Arsenal did).

Alternatively Bolton and Chelsea would go down to the Second Division, with Hull (the club that had come third in the second division in 1909/10) being promoted.

Thus Arsenal’s situation caused much debate throughout football, and the possibility of a merger with Tottenham or Chelsea merely heightened the interest.

Arsenal’s rivalry with Tottenham was already well established even though the clubs’ grounds were over 20 miles apart.  They had played their first match on 19 November 1887 – the start of a series of five friendlies played between the clubs.  However following a 10-1 drubbing of Tottenham by Arsenal in 1889, the games were abandoned for nearly six years, before resuming in 1896, and included games in the United League, which although a secondary league in terms of interest, was competed for using first team rather than reserve team players.

The Royal Arsenal committee had also been involved in discussions concerning the setting up of Southern League of 12 teams in February 1892.  13 teams applied, and a vote was arranged to eliminate one from Chatham, Chiswick Park, Crouch End, Ilford, Luton, Marlow, Millwall, Old St Mark’s, Reading, Royal Arsenal, Swindon, Tottenham Hotspur, and West Herts.   It was Tottenham who lost out.

The first proposal for a Southern League did not come to fruition and Arsenal moved into the Football League in 1893 with the Southern League coming into being one year later, but still without Tottenham; they eventually joined in 1896.  These events separated Tottenham from the other well-supported London clubs (Chelsea and Arsenal) and it was not until February 1908 that Tottenham (along with QPR) made it known that they would apply to join the Football League.

QPR were justified in their application as they were runaway winners of the Southern League. Tottenham eventually finished 7th by virtue of a goal average 0.01 better than Northampton.

However in recent years several Southern League clubs had resigned from the Southern League in order to join the Football League, only  applying to return with tails between their legs when they failed to get in, causing the Southern League administration both practical problems in re-arranging the fixture lists and annoyance at being treated as a second rate option.

So, at the 1908 AGM of the Southern League the members agreed that any team wishing to resign from the Southern League had to do so by December of the season that they wanted to resign and when Tottenham and QPR did not resign they were expelled.   A newspaper cutting about Tottenham’s expulsion is here.

Tottenham finally joined the League in 1908 (with Arsenal voting in favour of their application), and won promotion in their first season, thus playing Arsenal for the first time in a Football League match in 1909/10.  They finished one point and three places above Arsenal in their inaugural season.

Arsenal’s hand of friendship in 1908 was undoubtedly aimed not only to increase the number of southern clubs in the League, but also to set aside some unfortunate incidents such as that in 1900 when a game between the two was abandoned after 65 minutes after the referee took offence at the constant barrage of “coarse chaff and vulgar rebukes” that he and one of the Tottenham players were receiving from all parts of the ground.  

The ref then reported the incident to the FA, whose minutes show that the Woolwich Arsenal was strongly censured for not taking more action to prevent bad language being used on the ground.  They were also ordered to publish special notices warning that any repetition would result in the closing of the Manor Ground. (At the same time the FA suggested to the ref that it would have been better if he had stopped the game and enabled the authorities to deal with the crowd rather than simply leave).

There was a further incident in 1902 and again it was with Tottenham.  In a reserve match the Tottenham goalkeeper Charlie Williams (who had previously played for Arsenal), moved into the crowd that was standing behind his goal and hit a spectator.   His defence was that the man in the crowd was using “foul and insulting language” towards him. The keeper got two weeks’ suspension. The club again got a warning that any repetition of bad language would result in the ground being closed.

In a third incident in 1904 Woolwich Arsenal reserves played Tottenham reserves and during the game the Tottenham player Chalmers assaulted the Arsenal player Thorpe.  The crowd turned on the Tottenham team, and even gathered around the dressing rooms after the match shouting abuse, until the team had left the ground.

However we should note that the real local rivals in the Plumstead days were Millwall and Chelsea and yet these did not suffer from incidents of the noted in these Tottenham games.  True there were on occasions “howls and catcalls from one little corner” as a local papers put it but the derbies were seen as colourful and exciting occasions rather than games which ended up with official warnings or abandonment.

Yet by 8 April 1898 a United League game at White Hart Lane attracted 14,500 fans and the crowd size continued to grow.  The first Football League match between the two at Plumstead on 4 December 1909 attracted 18,000 while the return game on 16 April brought 39,800 to WHL.

Chelsea, on the other hand, had entered directly into the Football League upon being formed in 1905 – having first applied for the Southern League (only to find Tottenham rejecting their application and persuading the rest of the League to turn them down), and started playing Arsenal in 1907 having been promoted to the first division.

These matches attracted full houses, with even bigger crowds than the Tottenham-Arsenal games, the first game on 9 November 1907 seeing 65,000 in Stamford Bridge and on 7 March a near capacity 30,000 at the Manor Ground.

We have no record of Chelsea’s response to Arsenal’s overtures about ground sharing, but Tottenham were reported at the time to be interested in doing some sort of deal with Arsenal although the details never became clear.

Meanwhile under the rules of the Finance Act the deadline of May 13th was set for the sale of shares in the new company and if there is no sale of the shares by then, it was suggested that the club would resign from the League and be wound up, unless of course it had made a deal with Chelsea, Tottenham or Fulham which allowed it to keep going.

As the major creditor the matter really was in Leavey’s hands but he knew that if he did pull the plug, he would get precious little back from his investment in Arsenal.  What’s more, all the benefit his shops had gained from their association with Arsenal would go into reverse as his past support would most likely be quickly forgotten and he would rapidly become the man who destroyed Arsenal.

Leavey, more than anyone else in fact, needed the club to be passed on to others as a going concern.

The story continues…

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

Perhaps the most popular element in the Norris story is that of Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919.  Therefore we have separated that story out below.  It raises in part the question of the validity of the chief critic of Henry Norris: the Arsenal manager from 1919 to 1925 who Norris sacked.  Thus in the selection below we include articles which consider the question as to the validity of Knighton’s testimony.

For the complete index on Norris at the Arsenal please see the link above.

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation

The Fourth Allegation

Did Henry Norris really beg Leslie Knighton to stay and offer him the hugest bonus ever?  And if so, why were there no new players?

The Fifth Story:

The Sixth Allegation

The Seventh Allegation

The Eighth Strange Story


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