Summer of 1919. Widespread rioting as Arsenal prepare for division 1.

By Tony Attwood

By 1919 competition for jobs in the war-shattered economy led to a growing level of tension between Britain’s white workers and black workers. At the same time there was a constant feeling of resentment among those men called into the army who had not been demobilised.

One of the big factors was that there was initially no legislation to ensure that soldiers who had fought for their country could get their old jobs back upon demobilisation.  Indeed it was not uneetil August 1919 that the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act came into force to provide for returning servicemen to get their old jobs back.  And even then if an employer simply said he had already taken on someone else, it could be hard going to get that person sacked and force the employer to take back his ex-employee.

These factors, along with such economic tensions as a lack of jobs and rises in rents and train fares, were key issues that led to the outbreak of rioting in the country’s major cities and seaports throughout 1919.

To give one example, Liverpool’s black population had grown dramatically during the war, and these workers were welcomed by industries such as chemicals, sugar refining and munitions in order to fill the labour shortage created when British workers enlisted in the armed forces voluntarily up to 1916 and were subsequently conscripted.

However when soldiers returned from Europe they could then find their work being done by others.    Labour demand dropped with the arrival of peacetime, and white workers began to refuse to work alongside black workers and the ‘colour bar’, supported by trade unions (the black workers being non-unionised), was imposed across the city.

By May 1919, as racist attacks in Liverpool increased, the Lord Mayor reported the growing violence to the Colonial Office and asked for a solution to the “problem of coloured labour.”

On 5 June, a black man was stoned to death by a mob and race riots involving an estimated 10,000 men roaming the streets looking for and attacking black men took place.  The police, rioters, and the media all blamed West Indian men for the trouble.

The courts however were not hoodwinked and blamed the obvious culprits: those in the white mobs.  Liverpool council and police force drew up a plan to house all black citizens in compounds and then repatriate them.

Although this scandal of racist violence did not erupt at such a level in London, racial tensions were greatly heightened through the summer of 1919 and it existed as a backdrop to the continuing efforts to rebuild the economy.

Back with the football, June saw the strange case of Henry White.  He had played as an amateur for Brentford in the 1914/15 season – the last season before the wartime leagues kicked in.  During the war he served in the Royal Fusiliers and as a lance corporal in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and when available played in the London Combination for Brentford.

He had been the top scorer for Brentford in the final London Combination season which Brentford won, and then Arsenal sought to take him to Highbury.  However Brentford said that he was still registered with them, even though he had always played as an amateur, and demanded a fee for his transfer.

In the first week of June 1919, the Southern League appeals board agreed with Brentford and ruled Arsenal had to pay Brentford a fee for his services, which they finally did, purchasing the player on 26 July 1919, thus allowing him to play in the first ever Division 1 match at Highbury.

He became Arsenal’s top scorer in each of the first two post-war seasons, and had a trial for England, as well as playing first class cricket for Warwickshire.  He was sold to Blackpool in 1923 having played 109 games and scoring 45 goals.

Meanwhile the science and technological advances that the war had made a priority for Britain were still bearing fruit as on 14 and 15 June John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first nonstop transatlantic flight.

Elsewhere the government was desperate to raise ever more money to pay for the redevelopment of the country’s industries and so they launched a new government stock which were (like war bonds) sold through the local councils.  The launch meetings took place on 16 June in the Guildhall and thereafter in the local councils.

More rioting took place on 17 June as Canadian troops, who had been getting more and more restless as their return to their homeland had been repeatedly delayed became angry at the arrest of two of their number after a fight in a pub, attacked Epsom police station and killed a police officer.  All told about 400 soldiers were involved and a lot of property in Epsom was destroyed.

But of course amidst such disruption, regular life carried on, despite all the social unrest and on 20 June the London FA held its AGM.  Sir Henry Norris, now the highest profile man in London football was elected as a vice president.

In another post-war incident on 21 June Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, fearful that the German fleet might be taken over by the British navy, which had interned the fleet in Scapa Flow, scuttled the whole fleet.  52 vessels sank, and all but seven were eventually salvaged and the metal reused.

One week on from the London FA’s AGM, on 27 June the London Combination held a meeting to ratify the decision to make the Combination the new reserve league.  This was a direct challenge to the reserve leagues that had existed before the war – the South Eastern League and the London League.

Arsenal had played its first team in the London League Premier Division in 1901/2 and 1902/3 and may well have played its reserve team in the London League thereafter – I regret I simply can’t find details on this.   For whatever reason however Arsenal, and the rest of the London Combination clubs decided that the new London Combination would be the home for their reserves from here on.

Even though the war had been over since the end of 1918 it wasn’t officially finished until 28 June (five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and there were some celebrations throughout the capital although of course most of the population had celebrated the end of the war the previous November.

The treaty made Germany accept the responsibility for the war and the damage caused, the country had to disarm, make territorial concessions, and pay reparations of worth about £284 billion in contemporary money.  The arrangements were however subsequently changed.

Elsewhere, as you may recall, Sir Henry Norris had expressed himself unhappy with the notion of the government becoming involved in house building on the grounds that it would be inefficient in the way that private business was not.  And it seems his prediction was right as on 9 July the mayors of a number of London boroughs met representatives of the new Housing Board of London, this board having been set up specifically because the council housing programme was going too slowly in London.

By July, the country was moving into a period of commemoration of those who gave their lives in the conflict.  Sir Henry gave £105 to Fulham’s War Memorial Fund from his own money, and Arsenal donated around £60 to a war memorial fund also.  On 18 July the Cenotaph was unveiled and the following day was designated Peace Day with victory parades in many towns.  Unfortunately it didn’t always go smoothly as rioting ex-servicemen burned down Luton Town Hall.

I’ve already mentioned the signing of Henry White from Brentford on 26 July – this came after he announced he was taking Brentford to court over their refusal to let him go.  The club gave in.

However it appears that the agreement between Sir Henry and the player (an agreement which had probably convinced White to tackle Brentford head on) was somewhat unusual.

The agreement was that Sir Henry would lend White £200 per year to pay his rent.  Then if the player stayed with Arsenal for three or more seasons Sir Henry would pay him £1000 at the end of five years.  Out of this £1000 the player would pay back the rent money that Norris had lent him without interest.

It was a clever twist and there was nothing specific in the rulebook to stop such a deal, although it could probably be said to be against the spirit of the rules.  What placed Sir Henry on the right side of the rules was that this was a personal transaction between the two men – the club was not involved and the directors were not informed (thus avoiding any suggestion of a conspiracy by the directors to get around the rules).

Such manipulations of the rules is what, in my experience goes on continuously, and indeed some accountants seem to spend their lives working on schemes infinitely more complex than this to reduce the tax paid by their clients.  One may not like such matters, but it is the way of the world.

On 30 July Fulham council accepted Edith Norris’ proposal that more of the money raised for the Fulham War Memorial Fund should be given to the district nursing association in Fulham, as Fulham how now set up its own district nursing organisation (the district nurses being the team who travelled into people’s homes to give them treatment when they couldn’t make it to the doctors’ surgeries.)  The Fund seemingly had enough to build the War Memorial, and thus there was a question of what else should be done.  District nurses were desperately needed to help those servicemen who had returned not only too injured to work, but also too injured even to get to the GP’s surgery.

On 31 July there were police strikes in London and Liverpool over recognition of the police and prison officers trade union.  Over 2000 of the strikers were dismissed from their jobs as a result of the strike.

On the same day the House and Town Planning Act 1919 set the target of building 500,000 council houses by 1922, with the government providing a subsidy for their provision.

That takes us to the end of July.   Arsenal had one more transfer to make before their new season back in the first division began at the end of August, and I shall deal with this, and indeed all the day’s results from the first day of the first post-war season, in the next article.


Here’s the year by year account.  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

Section 9: 1918 and the end of the war

Section 10: 1919, the reform of football

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