Norris at the Arsenal. 1-10 December 1918; allegations of corruption heard in court.

By Tony Attwood

The war was over, the general election was called, Lt Col Sir Henry Norris had been made Chairman of the Ministry of Labour’s Advisory Committee on demobilisation – a very important post indeed – and was preparing himself to stand at the forthcoming general election.  Meanwhile differences between the FA and the League about restarting professional football had rapidly become apparent, although there was very quickly an agreement that the current season of wartime leagues would continue through to the spring of 1919.  No one wanted to rush into a new league format or into a continuation of the pre-war approach, without proper debate.

In football, Arsenal had had a good start to the season, but as had happened in previous wartime seasons Arsenal had faded as winter had approached, and had lost their last three games in November.

With Sir Henry nominated as a candidate for Parliament for the constituency of Fulham East interest turned to the question of who he would be up against.  The thinking was that it would simply be the Liberal Party, as there was no sign of a Labour candidate, and no other groups seemed to have the organisation needed to run a campaign.  On this basis it seemed that assuming natural Labour voters would go to the Liberals, and thus there could be a tight contest.

Sir Henry Norris launched his campaigning on 3 December by asking a soldier, Lieutenant Niss, to speak.  The Lieutenant made much of the fact that Sir Henry was the local man which is Liberal opponent was not.  His speech was one of Sir Henry’s service to his country and the need to repatriate all Germans (not least so that they did not compete for jobs) and that Kaiser Wilhelm should be prosecuted for war crimes.

With just two candidates in the field it seems that Sir Henry was as surprised as anyone when on 4 December a Labour Party candidate emerged, although it seems the Labour Party itself was not aware that this was about to happen.

The following day Sir Henry attended his second election meeting and anyone who had followed his personal history as a working class lad who left school aged 13, and his political career thus far (in the Fulham Council and the London County Council) would probably not have been surprised to hear him speak not only as an out and out patriot, but also as a man who working class origins were strongly influential in his  views.

Sir Henry had spoken out and voted (in the London County Council) in favour of much greater emancipation of women – not least with giving female teachers the same salaries as their male counterparts. In his election speeches he said that many jobs that were carried out by men could equally be carried out by women and that therefore women should have equal pay.

In this he was actually going further than Labour Party policy, as he did with saying that there should be state care for all servicemen who returned home unable to work making the point that since the war cost £8m a day, then some more could be spent on support for injured ex-servicemen.

He also criticised the whole basis of industrial relations in Britain, and said that it was largely the employers fault that the UK was not racked with strikes and employer/employee divisions.  Strikes, he said, were not caused by the determination of working men to overthrow the capitalist state, but by the mismanagement of industrial affairs by the owners of industry.

In all of this Sir Henry was showing not his position as a Colonel in the British army, nor as a Knight of the realm, nor even as an employer, but as a man who had left school at 13 and watched the nobility and the middle classes lord it over him as he started work in London as a lowly paid clerk.  He also argued that the 50% rise in train fares that the government had introduced during the war should be reversed forthwith.

This was, self-evidently, not the policy of the Conservative and Unionist Party, but of the Labour Party, and this speech and those that followed are phenomenally important when it comes to understanding where Sir Henry stood politically.  These views also help us understand much more clearly the issues that the Arsenal manager Knighton raised in his book published in 1947, many years after he was dismissed from his job at Arsenal, and indeed after Sir Henry’s death.  Also it helps us understand the animosity towards Sir Henry when he was removed from his position at Arsenal because of the legal dispute between Fulham and Arsenal.  He was replaced by members of the social classes that he so vigorously attacked during his political career.

Indeed when the Hill-Woods and others took over Arsenal, they were not just taking over the club, but looking back at a man who had for years attacked everything they and their families stood for.  It is not surprising that they had nothing positive to say about the man they were replacing.  His role in setting up the Footballers’ Battalion, his rise from non-military man from a working class background to Lt Colonel, his achievement in saving Arsenal in 1910 and moving the club to Highbury in 1913 without bankrupting the club, and his role in exposing the corruption which existed in the League from 1912 to 1915 – all this counted for nothing when it came to settling matters of class.

There is of course much more to say on this issue, but to move back to December 1918, on Friday 6 December the London Combination held its second post-war meeting which considered the FA’s attempt to set a rule on the payment of players in the rest of the 1918/19 season.  It didn’t like the plan and instead passed two key resolutions.

One was to ignore the FA and press ahead with their own plan to allow the payment of players immediately.   The second was to set up a London Combination Victory Cup – something that led to the first huge row between Arsenal and Fulham, as we shall see shortly.

And of course meanwhile the football went on, as on 7 December Arsenal lost at home to Tottenham 0-1 in front of 12,000.   One reason for the modest size of the crowd might have been that temperatures had fallen dramatically, and certainly didn’t rise above freezing all day.  It is also more than likely that the flu outbreak, although now in decline, had still left many men feeling unwell enough to face a few hours on the terraces.

What is interesting is that George Elliot the mayor of Islington attended, making it (I believe) the first match at Highbury attended by the local Mayor.  It is worthy of note given the amount of protest organised to try and prevent Arsenal moving to Highbury in the first place.  The Highbury Defence Committee had launched a petition against Arsenal moving, and persuaded a majority of members on Islington Council to oppose the development.  But Islington Council itself had limited powers in the affair, and there was never any chance that they could have an effect on developments, no matter how much noise local councillors made.

Nevertheless it seems to have taken a long time for the Council to feel it was safe for its most senior worthy to attend the ground.  Still there was an election going on and votes come before principles.  Or so it seems on occasion.

Sir Henry’s position within the Conservative and Unionist Party was further explored that evening when he launched his campaigning slogan, ‘Empire Before Party’.  It should have been a clear warning to Fulham Conservative Association that Sir Henry’s politics could not be expected to align themselves with the Party, especially after ten years of being left alone to run Fulham according to his principles rather than the dogma of his party.

Next, on 9 December, Athletic News gave voice to the discussions that had been evolving around football since the initial little battle between the FA and League over the payment of players.  And it also showed how seriously Sir Henry was now taken in footballing matters.

Having established his credibility over the way he saved Arsenal from extinction in 1910, but then having been so vigorously slapped down by the Football League after his article at the end of March 1913  in which he alleged a Liverpool match was fixed, only for another match in April 1915 again involving Liverpool to be shown by a formal enquiry to be completely fixed, Sir Henry was in an incredibly powerful position.

He had argued there was corruption, he had been told to shut up, he had become a significant player in the organisation of recruitment in the war, he has been knighted and raised to the rank of Lt Colonel, and he has rescued and rebuilt one of the most famous names in English football: the Arsenal.

Indeed, although Arsenal had not been promoted in its two years at Highbury, he had built a club that was by far the most popular club in the second division with an average crowd higher than the majority of first division teams.

The Athletic News article made it clear that the whole of professional football was ready for reorganisation, and quoted an idea from an acquaintance of Sir Henry, TA Deacock of Tottenham, who was suggesting the creation of a third division.

However, and this is something that is readily forgotten in reports of football this time, some London teams actually quite liked the London Combination and fancied continuing with a regional league.

If we look at the crowds of the clubs in the penultimate season before the Combination took over in London we can see just how adrift most London teams were by that time…

No. Club Div Average crowd  Change over previous season
1 Chelsea 1 37.105 10,6%
2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 28.020 17,4%
3 Manchester City 1 26.805 11,9%
4 Manchester United 1 25.515 8,1%
5 Aston Villa 1 25.350 -2,8%
6 Everton 1 25.250 26,6%
7 Bolton Wanderers 1 25.055 19,8%
8 Newcastle United 1 24.710 -0,9%
9 Liverpool 1 24.315 8,4%
10 Arsenal 2 22.745 142,1%
11 Blackburn Rovers 1 22.295 20,1%
12 Burnley 1 21.820 68,2%
13 Sheffield Wednesday 1 21.360 13,0%
14 Sunderland 1 20.865 16,3%
15 West Bromwich Albion 1 20.135 19,4%
16 Sheffield United 1 19.935 26,3%
17 Birmingham City 2 17.620 9,9%
18 Bradford City 1 17.045 15,1%
19 Preston North End 1 16.265 62,6%
20 Bradford Park Avenue 2 15.995 44,0%

Figures from European Football Statistics

There were five London league teams at the time, and Fulham and Clapton Orient did not make the top 20.  A league in which they could play more regular games against the clubs with the big support (Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal) would surely be welcome, and would of course reduce travel costs.

The final season before the war leagues started showed a similar situation, although of course attendances were massively down following the outbreak of war, with Arsenal’s average slipping almost 40% to 13,820, while Chelsea dropped 50% and Tottenham just under 53%.   A local London league incorporating the London clubs noted above plus the Southern League clubs that had joined the London Combination looked quite attractive.  The debate continued.

Back with politics, Sir Henry now ventured into court launching a libel case against the independent Labour Party candidate standing against him in the election.  The case being related to the forthcoming election reached court quickly.

To understand the legal case we must remember that Sir Henry made the point in many speeches that he had met representatives of organised labour during his work with the War Office.  His case to become an MP was enhanced by the fact that during the volunteer and conscription periods of war he had used his football connections and origins to bond with trade unionists and talk with them about the best ways that working men could be encouraged to work for the country and indeed possibly lay down their lives.

Sir Henry also stated that he expected labour relations to be revolutionised post war, arguing as we have noted before that strikes were caused by government or employer ineptitude.  (A conclusion I expect he drew both from his time in the War Office where he was just about the open senior person who was not from the middle or upper classes, and from the way the Irish recruitment situation in 1918 – with which he was not involved – was appallingly mishandled by an upper class clique with no understanding of the situation.)

He spoke about his support for the right to strike, he demand for an immediate dramatic cut in rail fares, equal rights for women and adequate pensions for all men injured in the war.

It was a day or two later that David Cook the Independent Labour Candidate put out his manifesto and it was this that Sir Henry took action against.  Cook did not attack Sir Henry on any of the points in his manifesto, but as an employer of footballers.

Cook described football as a professional sport in which the transfer system gave “fat sums to many who do not play at all” and “expenses on a liberal scale to directors when e.g. they travel” and to shareholders, while the players had to live on a fixed wage and with the transfer system rigged against them.

He said the directors of football clubs were “notoriously the most arrogant, provocative, and cynically callous employers of labour in Britain”, and he called professional football a “scandalous blood-sucking masquerading as sport”.

That was not libel, because in libel one can only libel a person, not an idea.  But he then wrote of Sir Henry as “a leading man in professional football…. His vehement opposition to freedom of contract for players has made him notorious [and] Sir Henry Norris has approved, advocated and attempted to justify the degraded policy…[of]..buying and selling men as if they were cattle and in limiting their wages.”

Now there were several problems with this.  One obvious one is that Sir Henry had not taken any expenses from football, and anyway doing so was against Football League rules at the time. He also had no dividend from Arsenal because the club had been making a loss all the way through his tenure, and he had been ploughing money into the club just to keep it afloat.  The club, in fact, owed Sir Henry vast amounts in terms of loans he had made to the club.

What Cook also seemingly didn’t know was that “buying and selling men as if they were cattle and in limiting their wages” was in a policy that was established in law by a case Woolwich Arsenal had brought, and was Football League policy (the maximum wage being a fundamental part of their structure of football.)  And indeed if Sir Henry was guilty of anything it was the reverse – of finding a way around Football League maximum salary laws by paying players like (Leigh Roose who had died in action in October 1916).  In fact Sir Henry was a constant opponent of the maximum wage – as indeed his support of trade unionism would suggest.

Whether Cook acted alone or was persuaded to launch this attack by enemies of Sir Henry, it is impossible to say.  Certainly the Labour Party didn’t know about Cook when he suddenly popped up, and certainly by this time the Party was organised enough to know a potential libel when it appears.

Sir Henry won the case without hardly having to lift a finger.  Cook had one line of defence – that the manifesto was a privileged document (in the same way that a speech in the Houses of Parliament is, and so MPs cannot be sued for something they say in the chamber), that it was fair comment (it certainly wasn’t because it was untrue) and was in the public interest (ditto).

In court Sir Henry made the point about the maximum wage being fixed by the League, the lack of dividends he had received and his loans.  Cook gave up the fight, apologised, offered £100 plus legal costs and Sir Henry accepted this at once.

One wonders about Cook.  Was he just a man who saw a chance to take on a capitalist, and really believed the stories that were told about football, without bothering to check them, or was he put up to this by members of the Conservative Party who were appalled at the political views of the man they had given a safe Conservative seat to?

It could be either.  But the oddity is that Cook did agree to pay the £100 straight away.  Was this because he didn’t have £100, and so he knew there was no chance of collecting it?  Or did he have someone behind him who had guaranteed to pay all expenses?

Either way, what we see is the sort of ludicrous attack on Sir Henry which had no foundation, and that was very similar to the tale that haunted him after his death – the story of his approach to football put out by the Arsenal manager Sir Henry was soon to appoint and would later sack: Leslie Knighton.

We are currently evolving a complete series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  The full index to the articles that cover the period from 1910 to this point are given in Henry Norris at the Arsenal

Perhaps the most popular element in the Norris story is that of Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919.  Therefore we have separated that story out below.  It raises in part the question of the validity of the chief critic of Henry Norris: the Arsenal manager from 1919 to 1925 who Norris sacked.  Thus in the selection below we include articles which consider the question as to the validity of Knighton’s testimony.

For the complete index on Norris at the Arsenal please see the link above.

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation

The Fourth Allegation

Did Henry Norris really beg Leslie Knighton to stay and offer him the hugest bonus ever?  And if so, why were there no new players?

The Fifth Story:

The Sixth Allegation

The Seventh Allegation

The Eighth Strange Story

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