Arsenal in the summer of 1918. The new league planned as the end of the war approaches.

By Tony Attwood

May 1918 saw the end of the third wartime football season which we have covered in previous articles.  Arsenal ended up fifth in the ten team league, and after a very healthy start the level of the crowds had fallen significantly.

But then football was hardly a major issue during that part of the war, with crowds, as we have seen only rarely reaching above 10,000, and often falling as low as 3000 for games.  Some, like Arthur Conan Doyle had argued that all football should have been stopped on the outbreak of war, but the Footballers Battalion had proved popular and was a good rallying cry, showing that all working men were standing up in the nation’s time of need.

However after nearly four years of war there were growing signs that the nation had had enough of the war.   Ireland was in revolt over the idea of imposing conscription therein, and rationing throughout Great Britain had now covered virtually all essential foods.

To try and overcome the problems with recruitment in Ireland the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord French, invented the notion of a treasonous plot being hatched between Sinn Féin and Germany, and on this pretext ordered the arrest of seventy-three Sinn Féin leaders, on 17 May.   There being no evidence of such a plot, the inevitable happened: support for Sinn Féin grew.

An alternative approach to resolving the crisis which was put forward by Captain Hay and known as the Hay Plan worked more successfully: the point was made that the German invasions across Europe had caused endless suffering to Roman Catholics, and it was the duty of fellow Catholics to come to their rescue.  With government approval Hay drafted a letter which was sent by the French Primate to the Irish bishops requesting that they reduce their opposition to conscription, and come to the aid of their fellow Catholics.

The plan did have some impact although its effectiveness was significantly reduced by MPs who argued French support of Irish interests could cause Britain problems post war.

Ultimately however the German spring offensive failed while the Allied counter attack was a success.  Recruitment in Ireland had only a limited success, and the stand off was only resolved by the end of the war in November.

Sadly as with so much of his work in the War Office, I have no information on what Lt Col Norris was doing in relation to this crisis.  He may have had no involvement, having perhaps continued to focus on the implementation of recruitment in the part of southern England that was his official domain.  But given the success that he had had earlier in the war both in inventing novel approaches to recruitment, and in terms of running what was recognised as one of the smoothest approaches to administering both the volunteer and conscription programmes, as well him being rewarded with the rank of Lt Colonel, and being granted a knighthood he had, it is not impossible at all that his advice was sought.

But with the war turning the allies way,  the Government dropped its Ireland conscription plans in June.  All it had managed to do was alienate a lot of the population of Ireland further.  The winner’s were Sinn Féin who eventually won a landslide electoral victory in Ireland.  Ireland was changed forever.

All told about a quarter of a million Irishmen served with the British forces in the first world war – about a quarter of the rate for men of conscription age in the rest of the UK.  57% of those who served from Ireland were Catholics. 

I think it is worth noting that the Irish issue in 1918 was a horrible mess from start to finish, and none of it has the hallmarks of a Norris activity at the time.  We may recall that his organisation of recruitment and conscription in Fulham was considered to be a model for the rest of the country, and clearly led to his appointment in terms of recruitment work in Sussex which in turn led to his promotion to the War Office itself, and to the rank of Lt Colonel.  If he did give any thoughts on the handling of recruitment in Ireland it seems very unlikely that his superiors took any heed.

I’ve also had a look at Sir Henry’s  attendance at other meetings during this period – for example he was at the three hour meeting of the London County Council on 7 May.  Then 11 May he resigned from the London Water Board, but he had not been attending their meetings very often since his engagement with the War Office, so that was more to do with his workload in general rather than any sudden upsurge during the Irish crisis.  In all I think via the War Office he may have submitted a paper or attended a hearing or meeting, but I am not sure he did more than that.

Away from the Ireland issue there was one other moment of note at this time; the end of the penny post which was introduced via an act of Parliament in 1840.  The first country wide postal service, initiated by Sir Roland Hill with a universal postage rate of 1d (one penny) came to an end on 3 June 1918 as the price of posting a letter was raised by 50% to “three ha’pence” (1.5d).

Back with Sir Henry I very much suspect he was however involved in a decision concerning Arsenal this summer, for throughout the summer of 1918 starting on 11 May Highbury was used to play baseball matches in a league containing troops from the USA and Canada who were stationed in London.

I have no details of the actual games unfortunately, but we should remember that not only was baseball much more popular in England at this time than it is now, but also that Arsenal had had a considerable connection with baseball prior to this.

That connection goes at least as far back as Arthur Kennedy, who having been Arsenal’s Finance Secretary became Secretary and Manager of Woolwich Arsenal FC in June 1899 before later becoming club chairman.

Fortunately for historians, Kennedy was a writer (among other things), and left us some interesting documents.    He was also Vice‑President of the London FA, and during an experiment with baseball in 1906-7, when Woolwich Arsenal played (unsuccessfully) in the baseball league, he was the first Chairman of the British Baseball league.

I don’t know how strong such associations were, and indeed Arthur Kennedy is one of the men from the early days of the club of whom I have only modest detail, but we are speaking of an experiment that happened at Arsenal just three years before Henry Norris became involved with Arsenal, a period in which he was already a director of Fulham.  It seems inconceivable that Henry Norris did not follow such a development – and the most likely explanation for the setting up of the league to play at Highbury was that Sir Henry either used a personal contact from within the War Office, or he instructed his fellow directors to offer the stadium, for a part share in the match receipts.  After all, at this stage of events, any income was better than none.

Sir Henry was back at the LCC on 14 May for another long debate: the second attempt to get agreement on a set of salaries for teachers, in order for the capital to implement the new Education Act which raised the school leaving age, and would usher in a new era of secondary education for all.

An interesting insight comes from this debate – and one that signals the way in which Norris’ thinking would develop during the post war years: for as Sally Davis puts it, he “voted for an amendment which would have paid better starting salaries to women teachers; but he voted with the minority and that amendment failed.”

Elsewhere in London in May there were early signs of what was to follow: the first reports of a growth in the number of flu cases began to appear in the press.  Meanwhile the political parties began preparations for the promised (but ultimately cancelled) local elections.

On 1 July there was an explosion at the National Shell Filling Factor in Chilwell (Notts) in which 1434 died as 8 tons of TNT exploded.   134 died, and only 10% of the bodies could be identified – a reminder if it were needed as to why workers in such factories were paid much higher wages than the rest of the population.

Also on 1 July Sir Henry, in a very curious way, sowed the seeds of his own withdrawal from football ten years later.  Having demonstrated his concern for the position of women in society through the vote in favour of higher salaries for women teachers, he followed this up by setting up a trust fund so that his wife Edith had an income of her own.   Sally Davis has investigated this and concluded that a number of the properties owned by the Allen and Norris building partnership were assigned to her, and she therefore had an income from these, independent of him.  Within the context of the era it was an incredibly generous settlement, and we will return to this later in the story.

Meanwhile through late June and into July the political parties were picking their candidates for the forthcoming general election.  At this stage the general view was evolving to the effect that this would be held at some time in 1919 although as the summer wore on this story changed and the press began to talk of an election in the latter part of 1918.

By 15 July with the Second Battle of the Marne had started and with it came the collapse of the German army, and that of course changed everything.

Meanwhile the arguments over teachers’ pay continued in the LCC with further meetings, for even after the LCC itself managed to agree a pay scale, the teachers most certainly were not happy with the offer and just a week after ratifying the offer the LCC were back (Sir Henry in place for the meetings) discussing the rejection of the offer by teachers.

And Sir Henry also had another area of interest: what would happen to property development post war as the MPs who had been elected before the war (and who were of course still in situ) began to think of what to do about the housing crisis.  Henry Norris’ partnership had stopped building houses, and was now taking the rents from the houses they had built and not sold, as their form of income.

This approach of building houses, selling the first 60% or so to recoup their costs and then retaining the rest and renting them out to provide a long term profit, was a model that existed all the way through the 20th century, but it seems was under challenge at this time.

Also at some time in the summer, but there are no records to show when, the London Combination met with representatives of the clubs to discuss what would happen in the forthcoming football season.

Here is the final league table thanks to TheArsenalHistory from last season.  It was of course two points for a win, one for a draw.  As can be seen Arsenal had finished significantly below the top four clubs.  There was no team this season obviously far ahead of the rest, although Clapton Orient had a miserable season, not just in league position but also with their crowd totals.

 Pos Team P W D L F A Pts
1 Chelsea 36 21 8 7 82 39 50
2 West Ham United 36 20 9 7 103 51 49
3 Fulham 36 20 7 9 75 60 47
4 Tottenham Hotspur 36 22 2 12 86 56 46
5 Arsenal 36 16 5 15 76 57 37
6 Brentford 36 16 3 17 81 94 35
7 Crystal Palace 36 13 4 19 54 83 30
8 Queen’s Park Rangers 36 14 2 20 48 73 30
9 Millwall 36 12 4 20 52 74 28
10 Clapton Orient 36 2 4 30 34 104 8

It was agreed that the ten teams that had played in the Combination in the previous season were to repeat the process: each team playing the others four time, twice at home and twice away.

We have noted however that in the season just completed (1917/18) extra games were added at the end of the campaign, these designated as being for the benefit of the National War Fund.  My suspicion (backed with only tiny bits of evidence as reported previously) is that these were added near the end of the season, and I suspect (I can’t put it more strongly) that a similar situation arose now – decisions as to what games, if any, should be added to the schedule, were left for the time being.

As it happened a London Victory Cup was set up, a competition in which Arsenal played two games.  That cup would hardly be remembered at all if it were not for the enormous ructions that followed the match between Arsenal and Fulham in the second round of the cup.  But of course we shall come to that later.  There were also four friendlies added at the end of the season, and again these will be reported in due course.

And so in August, the war passed the fourth anniversary of its commencement, and entered its fifth year, although with more thoughts on a post-war Britain than there had been since the dawn of the realisation in 1914 that it would not all be over in four months.

But the politicians had a lot to think about besides the turn in the fortunes that the arrival of the Americans, and the poor planning by the Germans, because on 30 August a strike began of 20,000 London policemen with demands of increased pay and union recognition.  The strike was successful but a second strike in 1919 led to the passing of an Act of Parliament forbidding police officers the right to form or join a trade union.

And so the plans were laid for the fourth (and as it turned out) final league programme of the Great War.   It would begin on 7 September 1918 with Arsenal away to QPR.   We shall of course follow the story further in later episodes.


If y0u are interested in Sir Henry Norris and the promotion of Arsenal in 1919, plus the allegations of scandal surrounding this, we have already written up several articles on this.  You will find details in Henry Norris at the Arsenal.

Below is the index to articles concerning Henry Norris in sequence.  The series continues.

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

Section 9: 1918 and the end of the war

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