Arsenal meet the king, Ireland split in two, Scotland says no. December 1920.

By Tony Attwood

Post war Britain, in 1920, was (as you might expect with the war having finished only one year before) in a dreadful mess with many of the institutions of the 19th century completely unable to cope with the reality of 3 million men returning from the the battlefields, or with the new industrial militancy by the emboldened work forces, a government still primarily made up of those who had little or no understanding of life for the working classes and a wholesale revolt taking place in Ireland.

The question of supporting the poor became a major issue and late in 1920 there were numerous outbreaks of protest focused around the offices of the Boards of Guardians which administered the support to the impoverished.

Such a demonstration occurred in Fulham at the start of December 1920 in which the offices of the Board was besieged by the unemployed.  Companies were of course free to take on whomsoever they wanted and there was a distrust of many of the men who had known little other than warfare for four years – a matter which concerned Sir Henry Norris as one of the local MPs.

He had repeatedly spoken out in favour of lower rail fares (a major issue for commuters from Fulham into the City of London), more house building, equal pay for women do the same jobs as men, and financial support for those returning from war.

Meanwhile against the backdrop of civil unrest, in football the month opened with Arsenal in 9th position.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Burnley 16 10 3 3 33 16 2.063 23
2 Newcastle United 16 10 2 4 33 16 2.063 22
3 Bolton Wanderers 17 8 5 4 33 20 1.650 21
4 Everton 18 7 7 4 27 22 1.227 21
5 Aston Villa 17 9 3 5 31 26 1.192 21
6 Liverpool 16 8 4 4 31 17 1.824 20
7 Middlesbrough 16 8 4 4 24 21 1.143 20
8 Manchester City 16 8 3 5 26 23 1.130 19
9 Arsenal 16 6 6 4 23 19 1.211 18
10 West Bromwich Albion 15 5 7 3 18 19 0.947 17

The first match of the month on 4 December saw King George V (President of the FA) attend the game between Arsenal and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and was presented to both teams.  I suspect Sir Henry Norris was rather pleased about it all especially if his majesty met his Lt Colonel after the match.

Indeed His Majesty was by all accounts a keen watcher of matches, and was regularly to be found at games, in addition to the ones he was obliged to attend such as the FA Cup Final.

Chelsea were currently in 13th, three points behind Arsenal and so the away win for Arsenal was not wholly unexpected although still somewhat unusual as the club had only won one match away from home prior to this date.

The king arrived 20 minutes before kick-off and was presented to all the players in both teams.  I suspect he was presented to the directors of the teams either before or after the game – and indeed he would have met Sir Henry at least once before, to give him his knighthood in 1917.

In the game Pagnam scored two goals making it a total of seven goals in the last four games – an extraordinary achievement for a modest scoring club like Arsenal.   White had got five in seven in October / November – a good ratio for an inside forward, and Blyth also playing inside forward had got four in six earlier in the season, but no one else was making a significant contribution around this time.

Nevertheless as a result of the win Arsenal were 9th, just four points off the leaders and with a game in hand on three of the clubs above them.

Meanwhile in Scotland, on Sunday 5 December, in a vote that is perhaps hardly remembered now, the country voted against prohibition of alcohol in the country.

On a more mundane level than meeting the king, the following week saw Arsenal’s appeal against its rating assessment.  Rates operated in a curious way being based on the notional amount that a tenant might pay if the property were leased or rented out.   The higher the rating band that the council could put properties in, the more money it had available to use for council services.

Setting the rates for businesses was a different matter from setting it for private dwellings, since businesses could always threaten to pull out of the council’s area, which would affect local employment, and would enable the business to claim that it would have stayed had the council been more reasonable.

Of course Arsenal were not about to leave Highbury, and the council knew this so were probably trying their luck with a high rating assessment.   I have no idea how matters were arranged at this time, but across the years the process became quite farcical with agreements being made on the day before the appeal hearing, on the basis of “if we take you down one level will you withdraw the appeal?” simply to reduce the burden of work on the committee – who as people independent of the local council were on occasion liable to act with a certain amount of caprice.   In this case it was agreed that the assessment was too high and a new, lower assessment was agreed to run for five years.

Meanwhile the war in Ireland continued and on 11 December British forces set fire to 20,000 square metres of land in the centre of Cork, including the City Hall, in reprisal for the killing of a British auxiliary in an ambush. 

On the same day (11 December) the return match with Chelsea was held, this time with 50,000 in the ground, and it ended in a 1-1 draw, despite very poor weather.  It was Arsenal’s 10th game unbeaten although it did mean an end to the run of four consecutive victories Arsenal had just had.

The next game came on 18 December and here, finally, the good run came to an end with the result Bradford City 3 Arsenal 1.  What was interesting was that prior to the game Arsenal were showing in the tables as the sixth best performing team away from home while Bradford were 18th in effectiveness at home.  Everything pointed to an away win – or at least a draw.

It was all the more surprising as this was also the time when the city of Bradford started to move from being a club with two 1st division teams to a club with two third division teams – in the space of six years.

On 23 December the Government of Ireland Act was finally granted the Royal Asset, partitioning the island into two segments each with its own Parliament, and each with a measure of home rule.

The traditional games over Christmas now meant Arsenal had a chance to recover from the unexpected defeat to Bradford and this they duly did by beating Everton away 4-2, having been 2-1 down at half time.  Prior to the game the clubs sat 3rd and 11th in the League and Everton had won 5, drawn 4 and lost just one of their home games.  Arsenal had still only won two away games, drawing four and losing four.  Arsenal were maintaining their position as 9th in the League.  The only negative note struck was the fact that Pagnam was injured although he recovered in time for the next game.

As for present giving on this day of the year I can’t find reports of what the leading presents were for children at this time, but 1920 was the year that Meccano introduced their first Hornby clockwork train set with the Gauge 0 model railway.  I suspect quite a few of these were bought – at least by families that could afford them.

On 26 December there were no league matches since Boxing Day fell on a Sunday, but there was one game that became famous, as Dick Kerr’s Ladies F.C. drew the largest-ever crowd to attend a women’s match: 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park for a game against St. Helen’s Ladies.   The attendance was undoubtedly expanded because it was not just a Boxing Day match when factories were closed, but also a day when there were no League matches being played.

Back with Arsenal, there was thus a lot of positive feeling for the return game with Everton on 27 December, but it ended in a 1-1 draw in front of 40,000 at Highbury.

It meant that at the end of the year the table looked like this with London’s three teams highlighted.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Burnley 21 13 5 3 43 17 2.529 31
2 Bolton Wanderers 22 10 7 5 44 28 1.571 27
3 Liverpool 21 10 6 5 38 21 1.810 26
4 Newcastle United 21 11 4 6 36 22 1.636 26
5 Manchester City 21 11 4 6 35 27 1.296 26
6 Middlesbrough 21 11 4 6 33 27 1.222 26
7 Everton 23 9 8 6 35 32 1.094 26
8 Tottenham Hotspur 21 10 4 7 49 30 1.633 24
9 Arsenal 21 8 8 5 32 27 1.185 24
10 Manchester United 21 9 6 6 36 31 1.161 24
11 Aston Villa 22 10 4 8 39 37 1.054 24
12 Blackburn Rovers 21 7 7 7 32 28 1.143 21
13 Preston North End 21 8 4 9 34 30 1.133 20
14 West Bromwich Albion 20 6 8 6 25 31 0.806 20
15 Sunderland 21 6 7 8 26 34 0.765 19
16 Chelsea 21 6 7 8 22 34 0.647 19
17 Bradford City 20 6 6 8 29 28 1.036 18
18 Huddersfield Town 22 7 4 11 18 27 0.667 18
19 Sheffield United 24 3 8 13 18 45 0.400 14
20 Oldham Athletic 21 3 7 11 23 54 0.426 13
21 Bradford Park Avenue 21 4 3 14 25 46 0.543 11
22 Derby County 21 1 9 11 14 30 0.467 11

Thus the year in League football terms came to an end, as the British Empire reached its largest point covering 33 million square miles and with a population of 423 million people.  From here on it was downhill all the way.   This year also saw the all-time highest annual number of live births in the country, reaching over 1.1 million.   The 2016 level was around 700,000.

Here are the details of the Arsenal games for December 1920.

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd Pos
04/12/1920 Chelsea A W 2-1 60,000 9
11/12/1920 Chelsea H D 1-1 50,000 9
18/12/1920 Bradford City A L 1-3 20,000 9
25/12/1920 Everton A W 4-2 35,000 9
27/12/1920 Everton H D 1-1 40,000 9

This article comes from the series “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.  The most complete review of this, which puts right the numerous misunderstandings of the events of that year appears, and most importantly cites contemporary articles and reports, such as the minutes of the FA meeting where the promotion was confirmed, and the reports in local papers thereafter, here in these two sets of articles…

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel


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, the promotion of The Arsenal

Section 11: 1920 – the second half of the first post-war season

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