December 1926: Henry Norris takes on the FA with no holds barred

By Tony Attwood

This article is part of the series “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” – details of which can be found at the foot of the article.


Although through the early part of the 1926/7 season Arsenal were clearly struggling to live up to last season’s achievements, not all was doom and gloom as the reserves were doing rather well.

Now this might seem to be scant compensation for supporters who were watching defeats and draws from the first team, but because away support was still very slight (unless the supporters persuaded the railway company to organise a “supporters special” train service, the majority of dedicated fans tended to watch reserve matches at Highbury on the Saturdays when the first team were playing away.

Indeed from the scant information available it appears that crowds of 10,000 were quite common for some of the reserve games – aided by the fact that the reserves played in the London Combination, meaning that a fair number of matches were against rival sides from close by.

I can’t say for sure where Arsenal were in the London Combination, the reserve team league, by this date, but Arsenal did indeed go on and win the League for the first time this season. Indeed on 1 December St Ivel in the Islington Gazette suggested that the reserves were on course to win the league – a significant improvement on their 5th place the previous season.

On 2 December martial law in the UK was ended – it having been introduced on the outbreak of the General Strike.  And the following day there was an incident which has become the theme for many a play and “documentary” in the years since.   Agatha Christie – famed writer of detective fiction including the stories of Poirot and Miss Marples  novels – vanished from her home.  She was eventually discovered by a journalist living in a Harrogate hotel under the name of her husband’s mistress.  I don’t think she ever used the story as a plotline, but this was the sensation of the day.

Also at this time (I think 3 September but I can’t be 100% sure) the FA made Tom Whittaker it called its “final offer” of £350 in compensation for his career-ending injury suffered in June 1925 on the FA tour of Australia.

Both Sir Henry Norris and Herbert Chapman expressed themselves outraged by this – not just arguing that this was too little, but arguing that £350 was an insult to a player who had gone on tour on behalf of the FA, to promote football in another continent.  Sir Henry decided, and the Arsenal board agreed, that the club should no longer stay silent on this issue (as it had done up to now), and that they would make a public complaint concerning the affair.  The club gave £100 to Whittaker (which may not seem much, but the club had continued to employ him while he was developing his skills as a physio) and minuted their profound disapproval in the records of the board’s proceedings.

But then they went further for in the match day programme of 4 December the club ripped into the FA with no holds barred.  This was most certain to bring the matter to the attention of both the FA and football journalists, as of course it did.  And it had a profound impact beyond this matter, because this was Sir Henry throwing down the gauntlet to the FA in public – something that although not contrary to any rule, was against the understanding that disputes within football were settled by football’s authorities and not aired in public.

This incident over Whittaker’s future was of course not the first battle between Sir Henry and the authorities – we may particularly think back to the allegations of match fixing in 1913 when Henry Norris wrote a newspaper article in the West London and Fulham Times concerning the match on 24 March 1913 which he had attended, between Liverpool and Chelsea, in which he accused both teams of match fixing.

There was a formal enquiry, Liverpool were exonerated and Norris was warned as to his future behaviour.  However it was only two years later that another match involving Liverpool was thought to be fixed, and this time there was no chance of the matter being hushed up.

So Sir Henry had a history of breaking the silence of the authorities in matters wherein he believed they should be called out.   And he had severely embarrassed the League by reporting the match in 1913, being strongly reprimanded by the League, only for Liverpool to be caught out match fixing in no uncertain manner two years later.

We may also recall just how strongly Sir Henry had disagreed with the footballing authorities on other matters such as his long running campaign to get the maximum wage of players removed and instead have a limit on transfer fees.  Such a move, as we have noted before, would have benefited the players but restricted the ability of wealthy club owners of buying success through offering ever higher transfer fees.  Indeed the free-for-all that was the transfer market meant that it was often difficult to the League to keep track of exactly how much had been paid, and where the money had gone.

Indeed if we go back to an earlier incident, there had been the payment to amateur player Dick Roose who, with Arsenal, exploited the very ill-defined rules on the level of expenses amateur players could legitimately claim.  It was yet another long-running dispute between Henry Norris and the authorities as was the case of the contract of Clem Voysey which in fact resulted in two inconclusive inquiries of the management of Arsenal.

Sir Henry had also invented the notion of the payment per goal for Charlie Buchan, a brilliant piece of publicity which the League for some reason did not like (I suspect other chairmen objected largely on the grounds that they hadn’t thought of it), and which was subsequently outlawed at the AGM of 1926 – another rap on the knuckles for Sir Henry and another example that the authorities really didn’t like the free-thinking attitude of a man who had not come up through the ranks of the aristocracy and established football families.

And above all we must remember that Arsenal, for all that the club did for the League by joining the Football League not the Southern League, were considered outsiders from the very start.  With their thoroughly working class origins, their ground being closed because of crowd behaviour, their radical ideas such as merging Fulham and Arsenal, the notion of ground sharing at Craven Cottage, their move across London, and their rise from outsiders to become one of the best supported clubs in the country, the club was simply “not one of us”.

Thus Sir Henry was a dichotomy for the FA and League.  He had cast football in a most positive light with his creation of the football battalion in the first world war, and was clearly recognised by the state through the award of his knighthood and his promotion from having no rank to the rank of Lt Colonel in the army as part of his work in the War Office.  But Sir Henry had an attitude towards women (particularly in regard to arguing for equal pay for women at a time soon after the pre-war arson and destruction attacks by the Suffragettes, and while the authorities were doing everything they could to stop women playing football) and other progressive views (like not limiting the pay of players) which did not sit easy with the powers that be.

Thus throughout his time in football Sir Henry had been a thorn in the side of the League and FA.  He had supported the Football League by rescuing one of its few southern members from bankruptcy in 1910, but he had what the officialdom of football must have considered to be seriously dangerous views on social matters.  Yet had been recognised for his extraordinary work in recruiting volunteers, organising conscription, while being proven absolutely right in warning against conscription in Ireland, and finally playing a major role in organising the demobilisation of troops.   And yet now here he was again engaged in an all out assault on the Football Association.

The programme in which the attack on the FA was published was for the match which resulted in a 1-0 win against Bury.  Butler was out injured and Hoar took over while Brain played his fourth consecutive game at insight right, Buchan at centre forward and Lambert at inside right.  It looked a very powerful forward line and Brain got the goal.

It was Arsenal’s second successive win, which brought some relief after four games without a victory in the league, but the match was overshadowed by those programme notes.  Clubs absolutely did not attack the FA in any way – and this criticism of them by Arsenal was probably unprecedented.  Indeed my view is firmly that this affair had a major impact on the way the authorities responded to subsequent events over the allegations concerning the money from the sale of the club’s reserve team coach, which we have already noted.

The Daily Express ran the story on 6 December, asking the FA to comment on the article in the Arsenal programme.  No one would speak to the paper on the record, but there were enough people in the FA who did not like Sir Henry for it to have been easy for the paper to find someone who would give them some good anonymous copy.  Sally Davis speculates that the person interviewed by the Express was Charles Crump, who was on the FA Council, and was noted as an opponent of Sir Henry’s forward thinking views, and that might very well be right.

So on 6 December the Express ran a piece stating the FA’s position, saying that Whittaker had been treated “handsomely” and claimed that it was the FA and not Arsenal who had been paying Whittaker’s wages from the date of the injury until the date of the settlement, and that Arsenal had not even re-signed Whittaker for this season.

This latter point might well have been technically true.  Whittaker would not be re-signed as a player since he could not play and was unlikely ever to play again, but Arsenal had taken him on as trainer of the reserve team, and he was by now giving the club advice and guidance on the use of the new technology of electrical treatment for players’ injuries, to speed up the recovery process.  (This notion of electrical treatment might seem a little worrying to anyone who has not experienced it but the use of very mild electric shocks to help speed up the recovery from muscle injuries is still very much one of the options today – I write as one who has had it himself after a sporting injury).

As might be expected, Sir Henry was not going to accept this sort of statement from the FA and so he wrote a letter to the Express, which it published on 7 December, noting that all the FA had offered Whittaker was one year’s salary, and only after a lot of haggling, and this for an injury which ended his career.  What’s more they had started out with an offer far less than even this very minor offer.

Worse, he claimed, the FA had behaved intolerably by not insuring its players for the tour, and that if they had not scrimped on this matter, there would be no problem. Sir Henry also called the FA “impudent” for responding to the commentary in the programme anonymously.

The FA chose not to respond to Sir Henry’s commentary, and there the matter stopped, at least for the moment, but the battle lines were well and truly drawn.

Meanwhile in the other area of Sir Henry’s business life, there are signs that the work of the Kinnaird Park Estate Company was continuing what might be thought of as a leisurely existence  – two more semi-detached houses were approved by the council during the week leading up to the game.

But whether Sir Henry’s mind was on the FA or the Kinnaird company, Herbert Chapman’s thoughts were very much on the failure of his team to build on last season’s success, for on 8 December Herbie Roberts joined Arsenal for £200 from Oswestry Town where he was a part time player at one of the oldest football clubs in the world. His “day job” was as a policeman.  Arsenal was Herbie’s second and last club – he played as a central pillar of the Arsenal defence through the 1930s, playing almost 300 league games for the club, but tragically died during the second world war.

Roberts’ transfer caused very little commentary, as was to be expected, but on 10 December  Chapman followed this up with a much more high profile player: Horace Cope purchased for £3125 from Notts County.  Although he stayed for seven seasons he fell out of favour after three years with the arrival of Eddie Hapgood, and only played 65 league games for the club.  However he did play 11 games in this season, allowing Bob John to left half as Cope played at left back.

Arsenal’s next game was on 11 December, a goalless draw away to Birmingham.  Having won just two of their last six games before this match Birmingham were, it seems, clearly happy to get a draw.  Buchan was out for this game and Ramsay came back in.  Arsenal were undoubtedly relieved to have gone three without defeat.

Then the transfer business continued as on 15 December  Harold Peel joined the club from Bradford PA.  He played for the first time on 1 January 1927, and went on to play nine times that season at either inside or outside left.   

But although Arsenal’s results had improved a little, on 18 December the club slipped back once more losing, this time 2-4 at home to Tottenham on 18 December.  This was one of the most extraordinary north London derbies with Arsenal 2-0 up inside two minutes through Butler and Brain, and with Tottenham then grabbing a goal one minute after that.  The Times also used the occasion to quote Herbert Chapman as supporting Henry Norris’ attempts to take a stand against ever-increasing transfer fees.

Despite 25 December being a saturday, and despite Arsenal now being free to play games on Christmas Day at Highbury, Arsenal had no game this year on this date, but did play away to Cardiff on 27 December – and suffered another defeat, the result being Cardiff 2 Arsenal 0.  Lewis returned in goal for the first time since last May (he went on to play 17 games in the rest of the season, and in six of the FA Cup matches including the final). Cope came in at left back and Peel at outside left.  Blyth and Haden made way in the re-shuffle. It was also the last match for James Ramsay who move to Kilmarnock on 30 December.

That defeat meant that Arsenal had now won two of their last nine league games – a figure somewhat reminiscent of Knighton as manager.  There was however one match more to play in the old year – and it ended Arsenal 1 Manchester United 0.  Hoar returned as outside left and started a run of 15 consecutive league games.  He too then became a fixture in what we are about to call the “Arsenal FA Cup team” which was quite different from the “Arsenal League Team” – as will be explained in the next chapter.

Milne also came into the team at right half, one of six games he played this season.  In each of  the final three Knighton seasons he had played over 30 league games, but Chapman used him vary sparingly. However although Chapman did not rate Milne as a player for his new look Arsenal, he did see his value and in 1927 he retired from playing (after 114 league games for the club) and became an assistant trainer.  He eventually became first team trainer after the second world war, and finally retired completely in 1960 after 39 years service to the club.  He was thus trainer through an era of seven league titles and three FA Cup victories.

The victory over Manchester United meant that Arsenal had won three of their last ten games, lost four and drawn three.  It was not what was anticipated, but Chapman was now about to make one of his most dramatic and unexpected decisions in football – as we shall see in the next episode.

Here is the top of the league at the end of 1926.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Burnley 23 12 6 5 58 37 1.568 30
2 Newcastle United 22 12 5 5 56 32 1.750 29
3 Sunderland 24 12 5 7 55 39 1.410 29
4 Huddersfield Town 22 8 11 3 45 34 1.324 27
5 Leicester City 22 10 6 6 53 42 1.262 26
6 Bolton Wanderers 22 10 5 7 45 31 1.452 25
7 West Ham United 22 10 4 8 37 31 1.194 24
8 Tottenham Hotspur 23 9 6 8 49 43 1.140 24
9 Sheffield Wednesday 23 9 6 8 41 46 0.891 24
10 Aston Villa 23 9 4 10 46 46 1.000 22
11 Arsenal 22 7 8 7 38 42 0.905 22

And here are the games for December 1926…

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
04/12/1926 Bury H W 1-0 30,375
11/12/1926 Birmingham A D 0-0 22,982
18/12/1926 Tottenham Hotspur H L 2-4 49,429
27/12/1926 Cardiff City A L 0-2 25,386
28/12/1926 Manchester United H W 1-0 30,111

Details of the whole series of articles on Henry Norris at the Arsenal can be found here including a selection of articles covering the election of Arsenal in 1919 – which is a topic that is still seemingly considered contentious in some quarters despite all the evidence to the contrary.

An index to our various series published prior to this one, and to the anniversary files can be found on the home page.


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