Arsenal under Norris: the curious case of Henry White; March 1923

by Tony Attwood

The first event of note in the month came on 2 March 1923 with the transfer of Henry White to Blackpool – and this is an issue that will take up much of this report.  Born on 17 April 1892 in Watford, he had played first as an amateur with Brentford before the war and having served in the Royal Fusiliers moved to Arsenal after the war.  He was the top scorer for two seasons and even had an England trial and now left having played 109 games and scoring 45 goals.  His last games had been the 7-0 away defeat to WBA on 14 October 1922, and then a 0-1 defeat to Everton away, on 4 November 1922.

Sir Henry Norris was quoted as saying later that White was one of those people who couldn’t get on with the men who were his team-mates – nor indeed with anyone else.   He certainly gained a reputation of being a man who made so much trouble in the club that in the end they had no choice but to sell him.   And indeed the rest of his career appears to provide some evidence that something was wrong.  He stayed two seasons at Blackpool, and then had very short spells at Fulham, Walsall, Nelson and Stafford Rangers, before joining Thames Association (one of those clubs created to fill a stadium – which it never managed to do.)   He also played first class cricket for Warwickshire, and died in 1972 aged 77.

But beyond suggestions of White being a singularly difficult character his time at Arsenal, is the fact that he made numerous allegations against Arsenal which like so many other aspects of this period of Arsenal’s history simply don’t add up when considered in detail and with a bit of historical context.  I’ll deal with the first half of his story now, and the rest later, at the time when the allegations he made became more public.

White had been signed from Brentford in the midst of (of course) some controversy, for it seems that when Arsenal approached Brentford for him in 1919, the player wanted to go to Arsenal but was refused permission to leave.

Now there was nothing unusual in this, for clubs could refuse permission for players to leave in accordance with the prevailing “retain and transfer” system which was the foundation of transfers in the League and the Southern League at the time – and indeed continued into the 1960s.

Retain and transfer had been established following a court case in 1893 which involved Arsenal and which has been covered on this site: Davie v Royal Arsenal Committee.  This case established the legality of “retain and transfer” which meant that once a player had signed for a club he was bound to that club until the club released him.  The club did not have to play the player in a team or indeed pay him, but he could play for no other club until the club that held his contract let him go.   The system effectively allowed the player to walk away from football, or to play in another country (Scotland in this regard being considered “another country” in this regard), but he could not play professional football again in England until the matter was settled.

It was of course a thoroughly feudal arrangement but it had arisen because of the habit of players in the early days of the league of simply getting up and moving between clubs whenever they wanted to.  Also, clubs tended not to abuse the situation by holding onto players just for the sake of it, since such action would give them a poor reputation among players who would then hesitate to sign for the player.   And in reality, football was most certainly not the best paid job in the country.

Thus everyone knew the rules, and when Brentford said they did not want to sell their star player that was that.  And indeed it was understandable since Brentford, a Southern League club, were aiming for the Third Division, and were certainly not wanting to sell their players ahead of the biggest development in the club’s history.

White’s action next however was very strange: he went to the Southern League appeals committee.  This was pointless since the retain and transfer laws were clear, and of course he lost immediately.  Although the Southern League had not immediately accepted Retain and Transfer after the initial Arsenal legal case cited above, it had done so eventually and by the first world war retain and transfer was firmly established within Southern League rules.

Sally Davis reports however that White then threatened to go to court, and then Brentford backed down.   Sally Davis says that was “rather than face the legal expenses of the case.”

But that seems unlikely – since there was no reason to assume the system was illegal – and indeed it was not until the George Eastham case that the system was then overthrown.  It was more likely that Brentford, recognising they had a player on their books who was refusing to play for them, decided to negotiate with Arsenal.   They might have put out a press statement to the effect that they “couldn’t afford the legal fees” but even if they did, it would have been a bluff.   Indeed as we have seen, this was the era of rapidly escalating transfer fees; they would certainly have got a couple of thousand pounds for him.

So this tale thus far sounds like a creative retelling of the story by a man with the attitude of the classic barrack room lawyer, a club seeing a good player leave and putting the best spin on it that was possible, and newspapers always looking for scandal in relation to matters pertaining to football.

However then it gets a bit strange because allegedly White then demanded £1000 signing on fee because he couldn’t live on a players’ maximum wage!

This was probably explained by the fact that White was an amateur at Brentford and so was paid expenses.   As we have seen Arsenal had been employing amateurs on expenses for years – Leigh Roose as a famous example, and so was Dr Paterson, currently in the squad.  So why didn’t he continue to be an amateur and get expenses – the common way of getting around the maximum way regulation?  Why become a professional, and then seek to by pass the regulations in a much more convoluted approach.  Presumably he wanted the guarantee of a regular income – but above the regulated norm.

It appears that in response to such demands Sir Henry, knowing the rules perfectly well, then told White that he could offer him a £1000 benefit match if he stayed at the club for five years, which was perfectly legal at the time of the transfer and something other clubs were regularly offering.

White then apparently proposed a deal of £200 a year paid by Sir Henry to White for five years, with Sir Henry getting his money back after five years from the benefit match.

There was no legislation against this under Football League rules and I suspect that Sir Henry and White were not the only people to look at this sort of arrangement, because not long after the resumption of professional football after the First World War in 1919, a limit was introduced on the maximum that could be given to a player from a benefit match – that limit being £650.    (This was also a factor that is also relevant to the departure of Knighton in which he claimed 20 years later that he was owed the entire take of the Arsenal v Tottenham game from the 1925 season as his “bonus”.)

We will come back to the subsequent fall-out from the White case later, but for now it is worth noting that although he was talked up as a player of quality in his early days at Arsenal, getting 16 goals in 29 league games, it is clear that the club had difficulty fitting him into the team, playing him more often at inside forward than centre forward.  In his second season he managed 10 goals in 26.

But we must also consider the question of whether the White case was a one-off, or whether it was in fact commonplace for players to seek their own personal arrangements with the club as a way of getting around the maximum wage rules.   I don’t have nearly enough information to be able to say how often this happened, but we do know that Leigh Roose’s pre-war expenses claims were questioned by the League, and Roose himself made fun of them putting in claims for money to read a newspaper on the pitch while he was bored etc.

We also know about the Leeds City case where the club was ejected from the League for refusing to hand over relevant documents relating to its expenditures during the war.   We also know that Herbert Chapman, who was manager of Leeds at the time, was also banned from football for life, because he was deemed to have been involved, even though there was no suggestion that he knew what the board of directors were doing.   (He later appealed and was, rather obviously, allowed back into football).   And we know that the directors of Leeds City immediately set up a new club (Leeds United) operating out of the same ground, and applied for election to the League the following season – which was instantly granted.   All of which tells us that we can’t judge football in the early 20th century by the standards of 100 years later.

We can perhaps also try an analogy.

Let us imagine that we saw a report, or even a number of reports, dating from this time, in which it was mentioned in court for some reason that Sir Henry’s car had been noted as regularly breaking the speed limit.

That piece of information appears to be factual, and could be used to suggest that Sir Henry was reckless in his attitude towards public safety, but without any reference to the situation at the time it is actually meaningless.   When we learn that Sir Henry never drove and had a chauffeur that would put a slightly different context on the issue.  But then if we find that the speed limit across the whole of the UK in 1923 was 20 mph, and that it was universally ignored we get a little more context.  If we look further and see that this speed limit was introduced in 1903 when few vehicles on the road were capable of going much faster, and note that the police had no way of estimating speed reliably we get a little more clarity.  Then if we note that cars at the time did not have speedometers, we get a further insight.  Finally if we see that on 1 January 1931 all speed limits for cars and motorcycles were abolished under the Road Traffic Act 1930 it will be realised that opinion in terms of the speed of cars was utterly different from today.

Unfortunately, we don’t have such clarity over the workings of the Football Association, Football League and Southern League rules in many cases, not least because they were not law, and rules and their application were often made up as these bodies went along.   Indeed we have seen that in 1919 the League voted to expand the League, but not expand the season, and then to extend the season, but without deciding how to expand the League.  If that were the normal way of proceeding, it suggests a certain level of chaotic thinking.

Thus, without knowing an awful lot more about other cases, if there were any, how the League proceeded, why it took no action in the case of Roose, and so on, it is hard to make a judgement on the case of Harry White and Sir Henry Norris, not only because of the uncertainty of what happened, and the question of the context.

We shall return to this later. What we can note now is that he rarely lived up to his billing as being a top goal scorer.  Here is his record…

Season Competition Appearances Goals
1919-20 FA Cup 1
1919-20 League Division One 29 15
1920-21 FA Cup 1
1920-21 League Division One 26 10
1921-22 FA Cup 6 5
1921-22 League Division One 35 14
1922-23 League Division One 11 1

However there was more to this transfer than simply the moving on of a player who was no longer operating at the top level, because just as White was not happy about being NOT sold to Arsenal now White was not happy about being sold to Blackpool, even though once more under retain and transfer rules he only had two choices: to go to Blackpool or to leave football.

What he now did was allege that he had had a private agreement with Sir Henry as part of the transfer negotiations.  White went to court in relation to this, and lost.   He was transferred.

We are currently evolving a series on 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, is set out below in these articles.

After that there is a complete index of all the articles in the series in chronological order.

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

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 and onwards.

Section 12: 1921

Section 13: 1922

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