Arsenal in April and May 1917. Norris goes missing, Arsenal continue winning.

By Tony Attwood

As we have seen in previous chapters, 1917 was the time when Germany, through a reversal of its policy of not attacking non-military vessels, attempted to win the war before the United States could enter the conflict.  Meanwhile the weather, food shortages, and a terrible measles epidemic, meant that for the majority of Londoners it felt that everything was going wrong for the country.   The football continued, and crowds of between 5000 and 10,000 turned up to most Arsenal games, but that was hardly the major concern for the country.

On 2 April Captain Henry Norris was elected a member of the Feltmakers’ Liveried Company.  It was through this connection that Norris met John Edwards, a senior London solicitor who was later recruited to the Arsenal board of directors.

On the same day, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Four days later, America joined World War One on the side of the Allies.

Back in London, it is interesting to note that Henry Norris did not attend the meeting of the London County Council Education Standing Committee on 4 April.   This seems odd because the LCC was the most senior organisation on which Norris sat, and he had only recently been proposed to it, and he had only just joined the Education committee.   So why would he miss this session?

It is this, and other gaps in Norris’ schedule at this time that leads me to the continuing view that in the early part of 1917 Norris had taken up a new role within the War Office.  He had certainly left his previous post with the Office working on the overseeing of recruitment to the army, while based in Worthing, and there is no way of proving that he had a new positing in London because the records of the War Office in this period have long since been lost.  But for a man who seemingly never missed a meeting before this, these sudden absences do seem most unlikely – without a very good reason.

On 5 April the government moved again to try and ease the food shortage situation with the advent of  the Food Hoarding Order aimed to prevent households from hoarding food that was designated as being in short supply.

Back with the football, April was the month in which the London Combination was at its most active – Arsenal having seven games.  And they must certainly have gone into the period with a fair amount of optimism.  Since 23 December Arsenal had won 11, drawn 3 and lost 3 in the league, which was a total transformation in the team since the early part of the season.

On 6 April, Good Friday, Arsenal played Tottenham – “away”, but as we have noted before, Tottenham were now playing some, if not all, of their “home” games at Highbury as a result of their ground being taken over by the War Office.   However clearly not wanting to give Arsenal too much of an advantage Tottenham elected to have the game played at Clapton Orient’s ground.  9,000 were present which was not bad given the continuance of the very bad weather.

The following day Arsenal were back at Highbury, for a league game against Southampton.  It ended 2-2 with 6500 in the ground.  And on Easter Monday there was a third game in four days – this being the second Arsenal “home” game against Tottenham (the club’s meeting four times through the season), and this time Arsenal went one better and won 3-2.

Apparently it snowed all the way through the game, but 12,000 turned up despite the regularity of the games.

What is interesting during this period is that although it marked a continuation of the upturn in Arsenal’s fortunes following the dismal start to the season, this was not accompanied by the arrival of a recognised regular goal scorer.   Harry King (Arsenal’s record goalscorer) had not played for Arsenal since the end of 1916, and the nearest the club now had to a regular centre forward was Wally Hardinge, the test cricketer, who played in 11 of the last 12 games of the season scoring six goals.  The rest of the goals were spread fairly equally around the other forwards.

There was however very sad news on 9 April as Spencer Bassett died in action.  He had played just one game for Arsenal in 1909 and moved on to Exeter City in 1910 followed by Swansea and Southend.

Following the Easter series of games Arsenal had another local derby, playing the third north London team Clapton Orient, the following Saturday, 14 April.   Arsenal again won, this time 1-3.   It had by now at least stopped snowing, although Sally Davis tells us that it rained throughout the match.  However results elsewhere meant that with three games left to play for most teams (although four for Arsenal, because of an earlier postponed match against Brentford) West Ham had won the London Combination.  Arsenal had never seriously been in contention, having slipped so far behind in the first half of the season.

Back in Fulham, we have looked at the way the Fulham Chronicle, a paper that was operating under strict government censorship, as all papers were, had turned its ire on Henry Norris, over the refusal of the council to take up the office of the Bishop of London to use the land within the Bishop’s Palace in Fulham for the cultivation of food in accordance with the government’s demand for all spare land to be used.

The argument of the council was that they were all part-time officials, who were sinking under the workload given to them by the government, and were (as noted previously) now not even able to use their own council chamber for meetings.   But of course in these matters a newspaper can always whip up a storm, having no responsibility towards making a balanced judgement, or indeed doing any of the work they demanded.   They had seen the opposition parties in the Borough start to attack the way the council was being run – ignoring the fact that the electorate had decided to elect council which consisted of nothing but Conservative councillors – and now felt like joining in.

But the government had recognised the Council’s situation in terms of its lack of resources to handle the offer of the land by the Bishop, for by the time the 20 April edition of the paper had come out, complete with another attack on Norris and the council, as Sally Davis reports in her review, the War Office had taken over the land in order to build a military hospital on it.

On 21 April 1917 James Maxwell, one of the more colourful men to have played for Arsenal, died in action against the Turks (fighting with Indian troops/Black Watch in 51 Division) in the Samarrah Offensive. His body was not recovered and no grave is known.

On 21 April Arsenal played the London Combination champions and beat them 2-1, and it is interesting that both William Hall and Arsenal’s programme writer George Allison both went to the game, but apparently Henry Norris did not – further evidence that he was engaged in some other activity, of which we have no details.  Of course it was possible that Norris was ill, and that was why he missed a LCC meeting plus this Arsenal match, but further events suggest this was not the case.  7,000 were at the game.

As noted before, not every scheduled match in the London Combination was played this season, and Andy Kelly has provided the list of those that were not (which I believe were matches postponed due to the awful weather through the late winter, and then simply not fitted into the schedule) but Arsenal did play what I have taken to be their postponed game against Brentford away on 26 April.  It ended goalless, in front of a crowd of just 1000 – the smallness of the crowd being partially a result of the playing on a Thursday afternoon.

In the Fulham Chronicle the following day the anti-Norris campaign was stepped up further.  If you have been reading the whole of this series, you will know that the Chronicle had previously reported a “plot” through which German soldiers were infiltrating clubs that Belgian refugees used as meeting places in London, in order to plan the overthrow of the British government from within the country.  Quite why the Belgian community that had suffered so much would allow this to happen was not explained – and there seems in the reports to be a belief that somehow Belgians and Germans spoke the same language.   Although in the present day there is a German speaking part of Belgium (it is less than 1% of the country in terms of population) at the time this area was part of the German Empire.  It was ceded to Belgium as part of the Treaty of Versailles.  What passers by or snooping reporters probably heard was people speaking Flemish.

The total lack of logic behind this bizarre tale shows to us just how the lack of news released by the government, and the imposition of strict censorship by the state left the local papers scrambling for anything that they could run as a story which might bring in readers.   Thus the fact that the issue of the gardens of the palace of the Bishop of London was now resolved by government action was ignored as the Fulham paper once more accused Norris of turning against the people of Fulham (who had elected him and his party to absolute power in the Borough) and of being engaged in a plot to bring a Conservative Party dictatorship to the country, once the war was won.

It was a story which was as bizarre and nonsensical then as it reads today, but because the readership of the paper had no previous experience of fake news it was believed.  There really did seem to be a growing feeling that democracy was coming to an end, and the Fulham Chronicle stood as the last protector of freedom.

On 28 April Arsenal beat Crystal Palace 4-0, their final home game of the season played in front of a crowd of 4500.   After the match Davis reports that Norris and William Hall took the Arsenal squad out to dinner, at the Holborn Restaurant, which she notes as being “the popular football socialising venue opposite where Holborn tube station is now.”

The following monday, 30 April there was one again an LCC Education Committee meeting, and once again Norris was not there, adding once more to my suspicions as to his now being fully ensconced in a new War Office job.  There is no sign that the LCC made any protest about the non-attendance of a man so recently given a place on the Council, which again adds to the thought that there was a very good reason for his non-attendance, and this time, the fact of the footballer’s dinner on 28 April, and that he was at the full Council meeting on 1 May suggests clearly that illness was not the reason.

Meanwhile life in the city was getting worse.  Coal, the only source of heating within homes, was in short supply, and the coal that was available was (as with other basic commodities) escalating in price.   Meanwhile the Chronicle turned its ire onto another aspect of wartime life – and another one that Norris could be blamed for.  There was a housing shortage (no new houses were being built due to the lack of building materials and labour), and repairs were not being carried out since once again there were simply no workmen available.

5 May saw the last match being played of the London Combination’s first full season (remembering that the previous season had been split into two separate campaigns).  It was an away game with Portsmouth and ended as a goalless draw in front of 3000 spectators.

Meanwhile Londoners found they had another matter to worry about as on the night of May 6/7 Germany conducted another experimental air raid and dropped at least one bomb on London.

Two days later, the LCC Education Committee met again and yet again Henry Norris was not there – which was enough absences for him to be disciplined or removed from his position under standing orders… unless he had a very good reason for not attending.  However no action was taken – again suggesting he did have an extraordinarily good reason.

The same scenario happened on 15 May with a regular full meeting of the LCC – no Henry Norris in attendance, and this time we have complete proof that illness was not the issue since in the evening he is recorded as being at a concert at Fulham Town Hall in aid of the Women’s Service Bureau and the Scottish hospital units based in London.  Which now brings the matter into full relief: Norris was regularly missing meetings of the London County Council, to which he had only recently been appointed.   There are no details of any other meetings that he was attending instead (and it is hard to see what local meeting would have been superior to the LCC meeting), he was not ill, and he was not reprimanded for his tardy record in attending meetings.

There really does seem to be only one explanation: he was back at work with the War Office – and this must also help us understand why he was not responding to the attacks in the local press – remembering that this was the man who, in the years before the war, was perfectly willing continuously to use the press to defend his position and further his objectives.  Indeed it was through the local press that the Football League was made aware of the match fixing saga at Liverpool FC, which had exploded at the end of the 1914/15 season, and which would return to the fore in 1919.  But for now he was silent.

And let us also not forget the LCC meetings, unlike those of Fulham Council, were held in the daytime – exactly when he would have been at work with the War Office.

Norris did get to the meeting of the LCC on 22 May, but then missed the Education Committee meeting on the following day.

Finally, to end this section of the story as we began it, with the war, on 25 May there was the first daytime aircraft bombing raid on England.  It was an attack on Folkestone and 95 people were killed.  Germany was doing everything possible to bring the war to an end through the capitulation of Britain before the US could mobilise enough troops and make a meaningful entry into the war.

Here are the details of the London Combination games Arsenal played in April and May 1917 ending the second season of wartime football.

Match Date Opposition Venue Result Score Crowd
33 6/4/17 Tottenham Hotspur A* D 0-0 9,000
34 7/4/17 Southampton H D 2-2 6,500
35 9/4/17 Tottenham Hotspur H W 3-2 12,000
36 14/4/17 Clapton Orient A W 3-1 3,000
37 21/4/17 West Ham United H W 2-1 7,000
38 26/4/17 Brentford A D 0-0 1,000
39 28/4/17 Crystal Palace H W 4-0 4,500
40 5/5/17 Portsmouth A D 0-0 3,000

* Played at Clapton Orient’s ground.

Arsenal thus finished the league season with eight games without defeat, and indeed just two defeats in the last 18 games of the season.

Sadly the first half the season seen been quite the opposite run in terms of results, and Arsenal could finish the league only in fifth place.

Pos Club P W D L F A Pts
1 West Ham United 40 30 5 5 110 45 65
2 Millwall Athletic 40 26 6 8 85 48 58
3 Chelsea 40 24 5 11 93 48 53
4 Tottenham Hotspur 40 24 5 11 112 64 53
5 Arsenal 40 19 10 11 62 47 48
6 Fulham 40 21 3 16 102 63 45
7 Luton Town 39 20 3 16 101 82 43
8 Crystal Palace 38 14 7 17 68 72 35
9 Southampton 39 13 8 18 57 80 34
10 Queen’s Park Rangers 39 10 9 20 48 86 29
11 Watford 39 8 9 22 69 115 25
12 Brentford 40 9 7 24 56 99 25
13 Portsmouth 40 9 4 27 58 117 22
14 Clapton Orient 40 6 7 27 49 104 19

Crystal Palace v Luton Town, Queen’s Park Rangers v Watford and Southampton v Crystal Palace were not played.

In the next article we will look at the players used during the season.

Henry Norris at the Arsenal: the series

As we are often asked about Arsenal’s promotion in 1919, and the most complete review of this thus far, which puts right the numerous misunderstandings of the events of that year appears in the article 10 March 1919, Arsenal elected. Find the bribery and get the reward

Updated information discovered as part of this series of articles also appears in

Here’s the full series of Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  We’re adding two or three new articles a week.

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

Section 8: 1917

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