Arsenal in wartime: Norris’ genius for administration comes to the fore but reduces Arsenal’s playing staff.

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal began the second month of wartime football with a home game against Clapton Orient on 2 October with a crowd of 6000 present.  Among the Arsenal side were two guest players: Ducat from Aston Villa, Chipperfield from Luton Clarence the Athenian League team.  The inclusion of the latter suggests that Arsenal were already having problems finding players – something I shall come back to at the end of this month’s review.

Andy Ducat on the other hand Arsenal did know: he was the cricketer footballer, who had played 175 games for the club before being transferred to Aston Villa in 1912 in the cost cutting exercise as Henry Norris prepared to gather funds together for the development of Highbury the following year.   He returned to Villa after the war and then ended his career with Fulham – obviously the connection with Henry Norris remained throughout.

On 9 October a crowd of 2500 turned up at Watford to see the home team beat Arsenal 1-0 while the following Monday, 12 October, patriotic fever grew as the news was released that British nurse Edith Cavell had been executed by a German firing squad for helping British soldiers escape from Belgium.

The next Saturday afternoon match for Arsenal was on 16 October, when a surprisingly large crowd (for wartime) of 12,000 turned up at Highbury to see a 1-1 draw between Arsenal and Millwall Athletic of the Southern League.  Millwall of course had been the local rivals to Arsenal during the Woolwich Arsenal days, and it is interesting to see that the rivalry (at least as reflected in the crowd numbers) was still there.

Then on Tuesday 19th what must have been the biggest administrative activity ever undertaken in Britain, at least up to this point, and most certainly the largest in wartime Britain, was announced: the Derby Scheme.  This was an idea that centrally involved Henry Norris as he was a Lieutenant in the army specifically drafted in to oversee recruitment in Fulham, and I get the impression his involvement in matters was growing all the time.

The Derby Scheme was named after Lord Derby, the Director General of Recruitment and its aim was to show whether the war could continue to be conducted by recruits or whether conscription was needed.

Every man aged 18 to 41 not in an essential occupation was questioned by a male volunteer (many were political agents used to the house to house crawl) and was given a letter from Lord Derby saying why he should sign up, and then asked there and then if he would join the armed forces.   Those who said they would, were then required to go to the recruiting office within two days.

Everyone who signed up (or was rejected on medical or essential occupation grounds) got an armband to say so, and assigned to one of 46 classifications.  Men who were married before the exercise started were promised they would only be called if there were not enough single men available.  Nearly one third of a million men agreed to serve and were defined as fit, although a third of single men and over half the married men refused to agree despite the obvious pressure.

But the indication was clear: not enough men would sign up even under this sort of pressure; conscription was now inevitable.

Henry Norris as a Mayor of Fulham was told of the scheme a few days before it was made public in the newspapers and during this period he naturally oversaw the Derby Scheme in his part of London.  However it quickly became clear that the data for London was not accurate enough to track most men down.   Although many unmarried men lived with their parents, a growing percentage of unmarried men lived in rented accommodation which was taken on with the simple formality of the rent being paid a week in advance.  As they changed jobs so they changed accommodation; there was no security of tenure – rented rooms was how London survived.

Reading up on the Derby Scheme, I don’t think the aristocrats and middle class business owners actually had any idea of the way in which working men moved around seeking work and accommodation in a city like London.  I suspect it was a considerable learning curve for the honourable and lordly members.

And yet Fulham was one of the first metropolitan areas to get going with the scheme, and indeed to finish it, which I think gives us a clue as to one of the elements within Norris’ personality that made him so successful equally in business and in developing a football club, and now as a recruiting officer.  He was an administration wizard.

We must recall here that administration is one of those activities which has been traditionally decried within English culture – the very word “bureaucrat” has a pejorative meaning, and other phrases such as “pen pushers” reveal how unnecessary such people are seen to be.  The heroes are always the men who sweep aside “rules and regulations” which are often seen as pointless, and “get the job done”.  Such a view extends today with the way the phrase “health and safety” is often used – a term meaning pointless activities that get in the way of progress.

This is not the attitude in all cultures, and the reality is of course that every complex operation needs administration.  Even cooking a meal needs the administration that organises the process in the right order so that each separate part of the meal is ready at the same time.

But as Sally Davis attests in her report of the operation, “Henry Norris’ organisational skills meant that Fulham was one of the first boroughs to begin work on the Group and Canvas Scheme; letters began to be sent out on Tuesday 26 October 1915.  She also reports that the Times said there were not enough people available to to the work of the house calls that were at the centre of the scheme, and yet somehow (and quickly) Norris got the work done.

Meanwhile the government was busy changing rules and regulations in everyday life, to make it easier for men to sign up for the military.  On 20 October for example women were officially permitted to act as bus and tram conductors although in reality this recognised a change that had been creeping in during the year in various parts of the country.

It is not surprising with such huge administrative tasks going on that Henry Norris had little time for football, and I suspect he hardly noticed the match on 23 October in which Arsenal beat Croydon Common away 4-1.  Croydon Common were a Southern League club prior to the war, but they were in financial trouble at the time, and were the one club from the League that failed to re-appear in the League when the war was over.

In terms of players, King, we may note was still going strong after last season’s exploits, scoring his fourth goal in the five games since he re-joined Arsenal for the wartime league.

As an example of how life was developing for Henry Norris, Sally Davis tells us that on the evening of 26 October 1915 “a concert took place paid for by an anonymous local resident, which only men in uniform, or those who had been wounded in the fighting, were allowed to attend.  Henry Norris as mayor of Fulham was a patron of this event and allowed the concert organisers to use one of the large rooms at Fulham Town Hall for free as a donation to the event.”

The month’s football ended on 30 October as Arsenal lost 1-3 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.  In the Chelsea team, and rather strangely playing midfield, was the ex-Arsenal player Charles Buchan, who would of course one day return to the fold. 12,500 were present.

Here is a summary of the games

Date Opposition Venue Score Crowd
02/10/1915 Clapton Orient H 2-0 6,000
09/10/1915 Watford A 0-1 2,500
16/10/1915 Millwall Athletic H 1-1 12,000
23/10/1915 Croydon Common A 4-1 3,000
30/10/1915 Chelsea A 1-3 12,500

Arsenal were slowly starting to use guest players.  Apart from Ducat and Chipperfield they had borrowed a player from Glossop and another (Wallace) from Villa.

The club had now played nine matches in the London Combination out of the 22 allocated for the London Combination.  The club had won four, lost four and drawn one.  16 goals had been scored and 13 conceded – pretty much mid-table form.  Sadly I don’t have the records to show how this compared with other clubs and give a league table at this point; as far as I know the records of The London League who ran the show are no longer with us.

Arsenal had joined the London League Premier Division in 1901 during the period where the club regularly had a second competition to play in (prior to this it had been in the Southern District Combination for one season and prior to that the United League).  Throughout the club played its first team in these secondary competitions.

One Wikipedia entry has it that Arsenal played a reserve team in the London League from 1901 onwards, but checking the squads in Ollier’s “Arsenal a complete record” this was not the case. I believe (but would love someone to clarify) that Arsenal had nothing to do with the London League in the years running up to the outbreak of war.

So why were Arsenal not doing so well in the wartime league?

I believe three factors were negatively influencing Arsenal in these early months of wartime football.  The first two are obvious:  the manager had upped and left for Scotland without any attempt at handover (I suspect to return to his family, which in a time of war is perfectly understandable), and the leading director (Norris) was very much not paying any attention to the club having his duties as mayor, and now being an army officer, on his mind.  So for understandable reasons the club in this early part of the London Combination was simply making do and getting by as best it could.

I must also fully admit that I don’t know what the owners of other clubs were doing, but from the little data I have seen I have the impression of much older men who had no wartime role, and who were as able to give attention to their club in wartime as they were in peacetime.

And these other clubs did not have to cope with the third reason for Arsenal’s relative decline at this moment.  Henry Norris was doing his duty in recruiting young men to the war effort, and in the early days of the war he would have made it quite clear to Arsenal players where their duty lay in his eyes.  Furthermore he would have very keen to see his players sign up for the Footballers’ Battalion which would have made some players not as available as they might have been if they had been playing for clubs that were run by a less fervent director.

The series continues – here are the articles to date…

The Henry Norris Files

Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

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