January 1917: Arsenal’s upturn continues, gang culture in London, turmoil in Russia.

By Tony Attwood

We have seen in previous episodes (and as always there is a full index of this series at the end of each episode) that Captain Henry Norris had worked for the War Office in Worthing, and now returned to London, where he had been appointed to the London County Council, as well as working as Mayor of Fulham Council.

My suspicion is he was also involved in other activities for the War Office, especially as thus far in the war he had delivered two battalions to the war effort, volunteered for action (and been turned down), shown himself to be an extraordinarily able administrator, ploughed a considerable amount of his own money into the recruitment and training programme, and served his country by moving to Worthing when required to do so.

But War Office records from this period no longer exist, and with Norris having left no diary or personal memories, we can’t be sure of how things unfolded.

His next job that we know about involved setting up the arrangements through which individuals were encouraged to invest their savings in War Loan government stock, through weekly payments, made via the local council.  It was another task that was ideally suited to Norris’ skills in terms of administration, organisation and persuasion.

Elsewhere news began to appear in the first week of January 1917 that strange events were afoot in Russia, although just how strange was yet to become apparently. So far all that was really known was that Rasputin, whose ability to foretell the future was of course greatly exaggerated (or in fact, totally exaggerated), had been murdered.  Further news was awaited, although at this stage no one in the media suggested these events would threaten one of the UK’s most important allies.

In terms of the football, Arsenal had ended the year with 3 wins and a draw in their last four games – a significant upturn on performances earlier in the season, and the improvement continued with an away game against Luton on 5 January which resulted in a 4-1 win, in front of 3000 fans.

On 12 January the Fulham Chronicle provided the latest in its series of shock-horror reports about the disintegration of English urban society with a story that a gang-culture had developed among what we would later come to be called “teenagers” in Fulham.  Quite what these men were doing in Fulham, when they should have been called up to active service, was a matter of hot debate, and the lack of more than the occasional sighting of such men suggests that this was another invented tale to sit alongside the stories of Belgian refugees working with German infiltrators who were planning the overthrow of the state via working men’s clubs.

But the idea was that men working in munitions factories were earning high wages was true – the work was phenomenally dangerous – and just how dangerous was about to be revealed.  As to whether they were now adopting their own dress codes and adopting a hedonistic lifestyle… that is certainly possible.

Changes had been taking place in working class London society prior to the war, with the nation’s working classes growing increasingly disillusioned with the queen’s austere vision of Britain and her decision to shut herself away after the death of her husband.  Indeed it is fair to say that in the latter part of Victoria’s reign there had been a growing unpopularity for the monarchy among the public at large, and the rapid rise of the cities and the high levels of employment in London offered through the need to administer the Empire, made the city a place where youngsters sought their own lifestyles.

Prior to the war streets tended to be packed at night with young men and women who still shared homes with their parents, and had no home entertainment to offer, and much of the West End of London was seen as a no-go area to respectable citizens in after-work hours.  Those younger members of society who frequented the dance halls were busy rejecting the notion of the sedate dances such as the waltz, and were exploring deliberately ungainly, even ugly dances as a revolt against all that had gone before.

And indeed we should not forget that boisterousness at football matches was widely accepted, as when workers at the Torpedo Factory at the Royal Arsenal, took materials from their workplace to Arsenal away games, letting off home made fireworks and once even (accidentally) setting fire to one of the stands at Nottingham Forest in 1908.

Such was the state of social change in the country that by the time of the death of Edward VII in 1910, the way in which the monarchy was viewed had changed so much that when a public holiday was announced for the state funeral, instead of the streets of London being lined by mourning citizens, very few lined the roadsides, and instead many Londoners used the extra holiday to have a day out at the seaside or in London’s parks.

Thus the expression of shock and horror within local newspapers of the activities of the young were to be expected as they had maintained the notion that respect for one’s elders, betters, and leaders, was as established as ever.   But the reality was that the military needed staff to work in the munitions factories, and would take whoever they could get who could do the job.  What they did in their spare time was no longer their concern.

Meanwhile on 13 January Arsenal’s superb recovery of form continued, with a 1-0 home win over Portsmouth – but once more the crowd was low: just 2500 present.

And at the same time another topic was beginning to make the news: food shortages.  Discussion began to take place of how the local councils could use any vacant land to grow the food that was so desperately needed.

Then, as a reminder of just how dangerous munitions work was, on 19 January, the Silvertown munitions factory, which manufactured TNT on the north bank of the Thames, opposite Woolwich, blew up.

73 people died and over 400 were injured, and a further 400 were forced out of their homes as the blast reduced a substantial number of streets of houses to rubble.  It was said in the press that windows were shattered throughout the West End, and that the sound of the explosion could be heard as far away as Southampton on the south coast.  The resulting fire caused over £2m worth of damage.  In today’s money that would be around £159m, although given the increase in the value of property, the damage level would have been about £500m had it happened today.

On 20 January Arsenal’s good run came to an end, with a 0-1 away defeat to Millwall Athletic, and once again Millwall defied the decline in attendances elsewhere with another crowd of 10,000 reminding Arsenal of their south of the river origins.

The following Tuesday, Henry Norris was at the London County Council meeting – and again I have the feeling that the lack of information on what he was doing in between these meetings suggests further that some War Office work was afoot.  Although one thing we do know, he was busy persuading the good people of Fulham that investing in War Loan stock was everyone’s patriotic duty, as the the Borough announced that £10,000 had been raised.

Two days on, on Thursday 25 January the SS Laurentic was sunk after hitting a mine off Lough, with a loss of 354 men, and the following day heavy weather resulted in the sea defences that protected the village of Hallsands in Devon were breached, leading to the abandonment of the village.

On 27 January the month’s football came to an end as Arsenal and Watford drew 1-1 at Highbury in front of 2,300.  The run of six without defeat was well and truly over.

Here are the football results for Arsenal in the month.

Game Date Opposition Venue Result Score Crowd
20 5/1/1917 Luton Town A W 4-1 3000
21 13/1/1917 Portsmouth H W 1-0 2500
22 20/1/1917 Millwall Athletic A L 0-1 10,000
23 27/1/1917 Watford H D 1-1 2,300

The Henry Norris Files Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

Section 7: – 1916


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