Arsenal in February and March 1915: the abandonment of football is announced and the result is… curious

by Tony Attwood

This is part 30 of the review of Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  A list of all the preceding articles can be found at the end.


With The Arsenal out of the FA Cup and the crowds declining apace, no one seemed much in the mood for friendlies through the late winter and early spring.  Thus the season continued in February and March 1915 as a set of league matches and nothing more.

And in truth many players, clubs and the crowds were pretty much ready for the season to end – although as we shall see there was a kick in the tail at the end of this tale.

The war had not ended by Christmas, and anyone who looked ahead would be willing to bet that it wouldn’t end by next Christmas either, and that meant for sure that league football would stop at the end of this season.  Meanwhile most of the press had run a vigorous anti-football campaign, which had not relented even with the invention of the Footballers’ Battalion by Henry Norris and his colleagues.

But change was afoot.  As a sign of the gathering pace of new technology on 1 February photographs became required in British passports for the first time; an extra level of security against German spies who were imagined to be getting themselves into the country via fishing boats, aircraft,  balloons, submarines landing on the shore…

On 6 February 1915 Arsenal beat Leeds City 2-0 with 10,000 in the ground.  This was encouraging but then on 13 February 1915 Arsenal lost 1-0 away to Clapton Orient.  It was not extraordinary that Arsenal lost to the Orient but rather than the attendance was just 4,000 whereas last season it had been 27,000.  The only explanation other than something particular happening on the day was that Orient’s crowd for the season was down around 47% to 6,900.   But even so, for a crowd for their big local derby to be lower than their average crowd for the season seems bizarre.  One can only wonder if the figure was right – or if something extraordinary was happening on that day, which I’ve not been able to find.  I suspect the figure is wrong, but that’s the figure we have and that’s the one we have to accept.

The following Wednesday, 17 February, Henry Norris, in his role as Mayor of Fulham, was notified that Queen Mary, the wife of the King, was about to make a private visit to Norris’ stomping ground and with almost no notice, Norris and his wife Edith, along with the Town Clerk, Percy Shuter, met Mary at the Fulham Central Library, where she visited the women who were undertaking needlework there.  It was part of the campaign of keeping everyone happy, and making the nation feel that the royal family were interested in their loyal subjects.   I suspect the lateness of the visit arrangements was deliberate, in order to stop the whole event turning into a media circus, and to get the message across to “ordinary” people that the Royal Family were indeed interested in what they were doing.

The following day Germany announced that it considered all the waters around the British Isles to be a war zone – although their occasional attacks on coastal towns such as Great Yarmouth, suggested this had been the case for a while.

That weekend, on 20 February, Arsenal were away to Blackpool (thus now a warzone), and managed to come back from the recent poor results to score a 2-0 win. But the feelgood factor was to vanish the following weekend when on 27 February, Arsenal lost at home to high flying Derby 1-2.  At half time the Islington Recruiting Committee (with Arsenal directors’ compliance) were active pushing the case for more volunteers.  For Arsenal the only good news was the crowd: 18,000

Fulham were also at home on that day and at half time in their match a platoon of the Footballers’ Battalion that Henry Norris had been the leading figure in setting up, paraded marched around the pitch.  Sadly for Norris Fulham also lost (1-2 in their case).

In March 1915 we begin to see the emergence of a new Arsenal director, William Middleton.  We first came across him back as one of the party (with his wife) going on holiday with the Norris family – the holiday that was quickly abandoned due to the fact that it involved motoring in Belgium, just as war broke out.  Now six months later in January he was a member of the organising committee for a fundraising event with Henry and Edith Norris for the National Relief Fund.  William Allen and George Peachey were also noted alongside him.

William Middleton now also appears listed as a director of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited in the club’s  annual report of 13 March 1915, and is also cited as owning 100 shares.  Sally Davis draws the reasonable implication from the appearance of Middleton that Norris was “going cap in hand to his friends.”

She also states that there is no record of Middleton attending any matches or going to board meetings, but that there were probably very few such meetings during the war anyway.  Sadly I don’t have access to any of the board minutes, and I am not sure Davis did either, but she adds that “Middleton himself was managing a vehicle production line in 1918.  By the annual report of 17 November 1919 he was no longer a director; and on 28 September 1920 he sold all his shares” – and she concludes that it was probably George Peachey who bought them.

Davis also notes that Middleton was a man interested in boxing and was involved in Fulham Amateur Boxing Club and concludes “it’s probably through that club, which Norris was also a member of, that they got to know each other.  Either that or they met through Conservative politics in Fulham: Middleton was elected to the London Borough of Fulham in 1912 as a councillor for Sand’s End; Norris also represented Sand’s End on Fulham Council.”

It seems that the Norris family and the Middleton family then became close friends but it also seems something happened to the friendship as neither man was going to events organised by the other by 1919 – although as Davis says, the two men may have just drifted apart.

However to catch up with our chronology on 6 March Arsenal played Lincoln away, and lost 1-0 – a sure sign that there was unlikely to be any late push to regain a promotion position in the latter part of the season.  Besides, everyone was now assuming that football was most certainly going to stop in England (if not in Scotland) at the end of this season).

The war news was not helpful either as on 11 March there was another sinking of a British ship (HMS Bayano) by a Uboat with almost all the crew lost.

So it was not surprising that at this time, rumours started to circulate that the League was going to stop for the duration of the war at the end of the season, and immediately there was a response; not so much through the fact that on 13 March Arsenal beat Birmingham City at Highbury 1-0 in front of 19,000, some 5,000 over Arsenal’s average crowd for the season.

The following Tuesday, 16 March the Football League did indeed make the announcement that it had agreed to close down for the duration of the war, after much criticism from the aristocratic run press for having kept the 1914/15 season running. Meanwhile the Jockey Club announced soon after that they saw no reason why horse racing should stop, war or no war.  It was after all the sport of kings, and (although they didn’t say it) kings don’t actually fight wars.   There was also no notice of cessation from the Scottish Football League, and indeed they carried on with matches.

But the notification of the end of the Football League for the duration had a curious and unexpected effect, and indeed one that I have not seen mentioned in any of the history books that I have browsed in the writing of this series.  It turned out that the sudden increase in the crowd for the Birmingham match was not a one off fluke.

The immediate response (if response is the right word) to the declaration that this was to be the end of the Football League for the time being, saw Arsenal attract a crowd for an away match at Grimsby on March 20 of just 5,000.  Now this was a decline for Grimsby’s average crowd for the season it was 5,900 – but hardly any decline at all.  For just two years before its average was 5250.

And besides with Grimsby’s ground being right on the North Sea it was perched in a position where attacks from German boats had already been noted – and emphasised with the declaration of 18 February that all of Britain’s coast was a war zone.

But then on March 27 Arsenal played Huddersfield, and 14,000 turned up (above the Arsenal average for the season).   With the news that the League was going to be shut with the Times and its allies having got their way, the crowds started to return to the matches.  Indeed for the match at Preston on April 17, the penultimate game of the season, the crowd was 14,000 against a season’s average of 8000 at Deepdale.

Unfortunately this was not a good time for Arsenal on the pitch for in the run of games from February 27 (1-2 home defeat to Derby) to the away game to Hull on 2 April, The Arsenal won one, and lost five.  During that run of league games Arsenal scored one goal and conceded six.

But of course during this time of turnaround for football crowds, the war continued and so did the fundraising.

On 11 March there was another Fulham Town Hall concert for the National Relief Fund.  George Peachey, Henry and Edith Norris all attended.  I don’t know if Henry Norris actually liked music, whist drives and other forms of entertainment but he was certainly expected to attend – and of course pay to attend, but he did attend, he did pay and he never shirked the occasions.

On 14 March a battle between German and British ships was fought at sea off the coast of Chile, while on the diplomatic front France agreed to “give” Constantinople and the Bosporus to Russia at the end of the war (although the Russian Revolution of 1917 nullified this agreement).

On 18 March Britain attacked but failed to hold the Dardanelles, and in the Pentland Firth, for the one and only time, a battleship (HMS Dreadnought) sank a German u-boat with all hands, by ramming it.

The Grimsby match mentioned above in connection with the crowd size was on 20 March and the Huddersfield game the following Saturday on 27 March.  By now Arsenal’s challenge for promotion was confirmed  as being over – and if any further confirmation was needed this arrived on 27 March as Arsenal lost 0-3 at home to Huddersfield in front of 14,000 spectators.

The following Tuesday, 30 March, Henry Norris went to a joint meeting of the FA and the Football League, called because the colonel of the Footballers’ Battalion had complained that some football clubs were actively working to stop their players joining up.  You may recall we have already noted Charlie Buchan reported this to be the case, with his club saying that they would sue for breach of contract if he did indeed leave the club.

Norris of course had a particular interest in and knowledge of what was happening, because it was he who had proposed the Footballers’ Battalion.  He announced that this letter had been written without consultation with the battalion’s recruiting committee – the implication of that remark being that the writer probably didn’t know all the facts.

Norris was also naturally able to assure the meeting that the two clubs of which he was a director (Arsenal and Fulham) were going out of their way to encourage players, and (and this is, I think an important revelation) both clubs were still paying the wages of the players who had signed up.

Now we know that in building Highbury Norris had invested considerable sums of his own, and he needed the club to continue functioning at the level that it was in 1913/14, with crowds way above the Plumstead level.  We know also that with its massive decline in crowds, Arsenal was now losing money.   And yet he was authorising the continuing payment of players who had signed up to serve, even though many other clubs had taken a stance in the opposite direction.

Thus March came to an end with the formal decision that football would end for the duration, and the recognition that Arsenal were not going to be promoted until after the war.

Here are the matches

Date Game Res Score Crowd Competition
06 Feb 1915 Arsenal v Leeds City W 2-0 10,000 Division Two
13 Feb 1915 Clapton Orient v Arsenal L 1-0 4,000 Division Two
20 Feb 1915 Blackpool v Arsenal W 0-2 6,000 Division Two
27 Feb 1915 Arsenal v Derby C L 1-2 18,000 Division Two
6 Mar 1915 Lincoln City v Arsenal L 1-0 6,000 Division Two
13 Mar 1915 Arsenal v Birmingham W 1-0 19,000 Division Two
20 Mar 1915 Grimsby T v Arsenal L 1-0 5,000 Division Two
27 Mar 1915 Arsenal v Huddersfield L 0-3 14,000 Division Two

And here is the league table after the 27 March game.  Arsenal were now six points off a promotion place and effectively needed three other teams to slip by the wayside to allow them to get a promotion spot.

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Derby County 32 20 6 6 67 30 2.233 46
2 Preston North End 32 17 8 7 52 38 1.368 42
3 Barnsley 32 18 2 12 43 47 0.915 38
4 Birmingham City 31 16 5 10 56 32 1.750 37
5 Arsenal 32 16 4 12 57 35 1.629 36
6 Stockport County 32 15 5 12 44 44 1.000 35
7 Clapton Orient 32 13 8 11 40 39 1.026 34
8 Wolverhampton Wanderers 31 14 5 12 61 47 1.298 33
9 Hull City 29 14 5 10 53 42 1.262 33
10 Bristol City 32 14 5 13 55 46 1.196 33

The Henry Norris FilesSection 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

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