Arsenal in January 1927: Sir Henry Norris acts strangely

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal started 1927 in 11th place in the league.

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 we are now back in a period in which Sir Henry Norris did not attend any matches at Arsenal.   This had happened before, as the family had got into the habit of moving to their winter home in the south of France – something which itself had come out of Sir Henry’s illness and subsequent operation.   Without modern antibiotics (penicillin was not discovered until 1928, and even then took years to become available on a widespread basis) travelling to warmer climes was just about the best way to recuperate, and the house in France was perfect for this.

What’s more, I have a very real feeling (and of course this is just my interpretation of the facts – he left no diary, so we can’t really tell) that Sir Henry felt he had completed his fifth and final grand project.  He had built an incredibly successful property business, he had engineered Fulham’s promotion to the top division of the Southern League when the directors of the club did not see any reason even to apply for this, he had become a leading politician in his area (the longest serving London Mayor ever, and an MP for the area as well), he had served his country with enormous distinction in the war, being rewarded with his very senior military rank and a knighthood, and he had completed his grand Arsenal project, rescuing the club from extinction and turning it into the most profitable club in the land.

One may well ask, when you have done all that, and you have had poor health recently, and now your wife is similarly afflicted, what else do you want to do other than move to a modern home in the warmth of the south of France?

What made the situation particularly bad for the Norris family was that the winter of 1926/7 had seen yet another flu epidemic – not as great as the 1918 pandemic of “Spanish flu” but nevertheless an epidemic which would have been of frightening proportions to everyone in an age without the sort of medicines we are used to today.

Separately from this Lady Edith Norris was taken seriously ill and had to have an operation, after which quite naturally the family went to France to escape both the flu and the harsh winter climate – not to mention the growing level of smog in London.  Although the Great Smog in London did not occur until 1952, smogs known as “pea soupers” had been around for a century.  Indeed in 1880 a leaflet was widely circulated blaming these smogs on the heating of houses rather than factories, but noted that whatever the cause the smogs damaged London’s historic building, deprived vegetation of sunlight and increased the cost of doing the laundry!   (An interesting insight into what was seen as the most important issues of the day).

The leaflet did however also deal with the human suffering caused by smogs in the 19th century noting bronchitis and other respiratory diseases caused, the leaflet claimed, by the “perpetually present” sulphurous smok.

The leaflet concluded that over 2000 Londoners had ‘literally choked to death’ as a result in this one smog alone, noting also that the smog aggravated pre-existing lung conditions in a way that could be fatal.  No one living in or near a major town would be unaware of the dangers of that their place of domicile could bring them.  So every reason for a family with the money and a house waiting to receive them, to get out and move to the south of France.

Back with the football the first fixture was on 1 January the result of which was Arsenal 3 Cardiff 2.  It was the first game for Harold Peel; Brain got a hat trick.  

Now this match was of particular significance since it came just one week before the third round of the FA Cup, and what Herbert Chapman did from here on is singularly interesting.   Quite clearly Arsenal had no chance of winning the league, but Chapman felt he did have in his squad the firm basis of a team that could in the future win trophies.   So in effect he created two teams.  One that would play to win the FA Cup, and another that would play in the league.   And although including some of the FA Cup team, the league team would also both include some experimental players and positional changes.  Any of the FA Cup XI who showed any sign of possible injury or fatigue would be given a rest from league games, to make them ready for the next round of the cup.

As you will know, 1927 was the year of Arsenal’s first FA Cup final and I will explain the “two team” approach by looking at the FA Cup final team, and showing how many FA Cup matches each member of the team played in the Cup.

Arsenal’s team through most of their cup run of seven games that took the club to the final, showing in brackets the number of games.

Lewis (6), Parker (7), John (7), Baker (6), Butler (6), Blyth (7), Hulme (7), Buchan (7), Brain (7), Hoar (7).

That is ten players out of the 11 who played in the final, played in either all seven, or six of the FA Cup matches that season.  The final player of the cup final XI was Cope who played in five of the games.

Now in one sense this was not that remarkable – all managers seek to have stable teams.  But in the league matches in the second half of the 1926/7 season Arsenal’s team was anything but stable, for in these league matches 26 players were used.   Of course there were many more league matches than cup games, but even so, it is quite clear that Chapman saw an opportunity to keep up the momentum of the 1926/7 season by challenging strongly in the cup, and this was to be achieved with a stable squad.

One other diversion occurred before we get to Arsenal’s opening FA Cup match of the season, in the week before the 3rd round of the cup. St Ivel writing in the Islington Gazette reported that Tottenham were about to lose their manager of 14 years as he had been poached by Middlesbrough.

This was Peter McWilliam, an important man in Tottenham’s history who had joined the club in 1913 just when Arsenal moved to within a couple of miles of White Hart Lane.   The club finished, as we have noted in earlier episodes, at the foot of the table in 1915, and thus contested with Arsenal a place in the expanded first division in 1919.  Having lost the vote quite heavily, McWilliam took Tottenham through their second division season, in which he won the title, and on to the winning of the FA Cup in 1921, as well as being runners up in 1922.  However after that Tottenham slipped to mid-table.

It was money that enticed McWilliam north, the salary offered was stated to be £1500 a year – an extraordinary amount for a manager at the time.  That is around £87,000 today – but we have to remember football’s only source of money in the 1920s was the gate receipts.

Middlesbrough were always certain to win the 2nd division in 1927, and McWilliam joined the club as the season ended, but the following season he saw his side relegated back to the second, only to return to the first once more in 1929.

It is said in some accounts that in 1934 he became chief scout for Arsenal, having declined Arsenal’s offer to manage the club.  That seems highly unlikely to me; after Chapman’s death in January 1934, Joe Shaw took over the manager’s position, with George Allison as his mentor.  Allison’s autobiography makes it clear that he was appointed manager-in-waiting shortly after Chapman’s death, with only his contracts elsewhere prohibiting him from taking over the post at once.  Why on earth would Arsenal want a person who had failed at Middlesbrough and whose one trophy was an FA Cup with Tottenham, at a time when Arsenal had just won the league two years running, and once with the all time record number of points?

It seems to me like another of those managerial fanciful fairy stories of the type which Knighton indulged in.  In the end McWilliam returned to Tottenham, by then back in the second division, leaving them on the outbreak of war, retiring in 1942.  It is said that during his time at Tottenham he devised the “push and run” style of play that in the media became known as a the “Spurs Way” of playing.   It may be better described as “pass and move”.

McWilliam’s greatest claim to fame however is probably that he worked with the very young Vic Buckingham who much later managed Ajax and Barcelona and has been credited with some of the evolution of “total football”.

But enough of Tottenham.  Let us now return to the start of Arsenal’s 1927 cup run, with its selected, dedicated cup team.  The run to the final began on 8 January 1927 with the game Sheffield United 2 Arsenal 3.

All the Arsenal directors were at the game except for Sir Henry Norris; thus William Hall, George Peachey, John Humble, J J Edwards and Samuel Hill-Wood all saw the match.  The Times called the result “one of the surprises of the day”.

As I have worked on this series of articles I have gradually come to realise that some football correspondents (particularly those recruited by the Times) didn’t have any idea whatsoever what they were writing about.  Indeed I suspect that Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop” might well have been based on the sports departments of some of these papers.

In the last three games prior to this match Sheffield United had lost 4-0 to Aston Villa away, beaten Aston Villa 3-1 at home and then lost 5-0 away to Manchester United.  As a result of these and other misadventures they were now 14th in the league.  Hardly a dead cert in a match against as wily a manager as Herbert Chapman.  Brain, Buchan and Hulme scored, and the only member of the FA Cup team missing was Baker who having missed all of October and November through injury had played the last two league games, but was clearly feeling the effect of being back in the thick of it.  Milne who had deputised during Baker’s absence once more played right half – but it was his only FA Cup match.

If the Times had really wanted to find a surprising result they might have picked Bournemouth’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, or Reading of the Third Division South beating Manchester United 2-1, or even Walsall of the Third Division North losing to the London amateur team Corinthian 0-4.   The newspaper really was totally out of touch with reality.

Sir Henry was not at the Cup game for the simple reason that his wife, Lady Edith, was about to have her operation. He did go to the meeting of the Feltmakers’ Company on Monday 10th, I imagine because Lady Edith was by then sleeping, recovering in hospital.

On 15 January the BBC undertook its first live sports broadcast, this being of the rugby international between England and Wales.  The first football commentary happened one week later.  Arsenal meanwhile had an away game against Derby County.  Derby had just won three league games in a row and had progressed to the fourth round of the FA Cup beating Bradford City 2-6 away.

For this match Baker was again missing but Buchan and Parker got the goals to give Arsenal a 2-0 victory.

Now we move away from the actual games as 18 January was the date for the next in a series of payments of £125 to be made by the club to Charlie Buchan in respect of his payment per goal deal in relation to his transfer.  In 1929 Sir Henry confirmed that he paid Buchan the money he was due, out of his own pocket and not via  the club.  Quite why this happened is all part of the unfolding mystery.

Next we come on to the first live radio broadcast of a football match, and as with the television experiments of broadcasting football, it was Arsenal that was chosen.  The result was 1-1, and the commentator was H B T Wakelam, the rugby man who had commentated on the rugby match the previous weekend.  Buchan scored again and the team remained the same.

At this match from just after 2pm community singing was organised as part of a publicity campaign (or should that be stunt) by the Daily Express which made the same arrangements for the FA Cup.  Although this was always promoted by the paper as being promoted for the benefit of the crowd and the unity of the people, the Express guarded their right to produce their own branded song sheet which later included the lyrics of the participating clubs’ own official song.   The habit was continued until 1971 when the newspaper’s attempt to decide what was Arsenal’s official song for the occasion was met with derision and the process was ended.

On this occasion Arsenal’s own brass band and the Band of HM Grenadier Guards played.  The following day the band gave a concert in Pentonville Prison with Herbert Chapman and George Allison present representing Arsenal.

And so we move on to 29 January, the 4th round of the FA Cup with Arsenal away to Port Vale.  As in the third round Buchan and Brain scored, but it was not the game Arsenal had hoped for again, ending in a 2-2 draw.

Vale results at the time were very up and down – they were 11th in the league, but had only won half of their home games.  In their match before the Arsenal game they had drawn 0-0 with Bradford City who were 21st in the second division at that point.

To give an example of their erratic form, the previous November they had lost 6-2 away to Fulham, and then beaten bottom of the table Grimsby 6-1 at home.   They had then in late November and early December had three draws and a defeat followed by a couple of wins over Leyton Orient at Christmas and a defeat to Middlesbrough.  In the third round of the Cup they had beaten Orient in a replay.

As we have noted the game was broadcast live on the radio, and so Arsenal fans could hear of Charlie Buchan’s 250th goal in league and cup, an own goal by Parker and finally an equaliser in the 87th minute for Arsenal.  The only bit of good news for Arsenal after such a display was that the reserves kept on winning, and so were still top of the league.

One explanation for the result at Port Vale might however be not only the smallness of the stadium (18,000 were in the ground – a sell-out) but also the growing winds which reached their high point the following day and were recorded as being at 112 mile per hour.  23 people were killed as a direct result of the storm.  Maybe I am clutching at straws, but that may have caused Arsenal some extra problems.

But now we must once more pause the football story, for at this point the murk relating to the cheque for the bus one more reared its head, as it became clear that the £170 had gone into Lady Edith’s personal account. 

Who told who what is very unclear although we do know that somewhere around this time Edward Liddell saw the cheque for £170 which was intended to be paid into the Arsenal account, but which Sir Henry had countersigned by forging Herbert Chapman’s signature, and given to his wife to use to pay off the overdraft she had run up on her bank account.

Liddell who was an ex Arsenal player had played for Arsenal during the first world war as an amateur (as all players did) and for the first post war season.   He was by this time employed by Fulham as part of their scouting team.  He claims he saw the cheque in the offices of James MacDermott, who was the lawyer who acted for Arsenal in the sale.  Sir Henry later stated that Liddell told the Fulham manager Joe Bradshaw, who had also played for Woolwich Arsenal reserves.  His father was Harry Bradshaw who had been Fulham FC’s manager when Henry Norris was chairman pf Fulham and who was Arsenal’s first long term manager, running the club from 1899 to 1904. These two now told Fulham chairman John Dean who also knew Sir Henry.

Now to me (and of course I might be completely wrong in this) Dean looks to me like a man who bears a grudge over the decades.  Going right back to the start of our story, on 4 July 1910 at Fulham’s AGM Henry Norris who was standing for election as a director of the club and told the meeting that his intention as a director would be go get Fulham into the first division.

But it seems Dean and others criticised Henry Norris and William Hall about everything from team selection to using club funds to give money to charities, and his personal growing involvement with the bankrupt Woolwich Arsenal (although there was of course no allegation about using anyone’s money except his own).  At the meeting John Dean retired as a director of the club and only returned when both Henry Norris and William Allen had left the club.

Carrying the story forward, by 31 January it seems Herbert Chapman had heard part of the story that Sir Henry had forged Chapman’s signature on the cheque which had been used by his wife.

So what do we have at this point?

First Sir Henry forged Chapman’s signature and paid a cheque into his (Sir Henry’s) wife’s account.  That’s undeniable.

Second, Sir Henry was clearly paying the bonus payments to Buchan out of his own funds, when the money due was clearly a bill owed by Arsenal FC.  That two is undeniable.

Third, the cashing of the team bus cheque came long after it was issued – there is no doubt that it had been somewhere (Sir Henry suggests in his pocket) for quite some time.

Fourth Sir Henry was a millionaire (I think actually a multi-millionaire but I can’t prove it) who most certainly didn’t need £170 and who was obviously worried about his wife’s operation.

At one level none of this makes any sense – and certainly the attempt to portray Sir Henry as a cheap crook who stole £170 doesn’t hold water, given that he was paying at least some of the money owed by the club to Buchan out of his own pocket.

Once option we have is to conclude that Sir Henry was clearly not thinking straight, and we can argue this on three points.  First, he had more than enough money to sort out his wife’s account by a single visit to a bank.  Second, he should not have been paying Buchan out of his own pocket – the club should have been paying the player, and he must have known that the forgery would be discovered.  Third, he cheque had been sitting in his pocket for months.

What we are therefore totally lacking in all this is any motive.  What motive did Sir Henry Norris have for forging the signature?   The answer it seems to me to be none.  If we were to argue that Sir Henry was greedy, then why was he paying the club’s debt to Buchan?

So why does any man commit a crime of forgery without any motive?  It is a question I have not seen asked in any of the books or reports that mention this set of events, and yet motive always seems to me to be one of the most important elements in any situation in which we try to unravel someone’s actions.   And then we must ask, why was he paying Buchan personally?  Why did he forge the signature of Chapman?

While you ponder that I will leave you with the matches for the month and the league table…

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
01/01/1927 Cardiff City H W 3-2 30,000
08/01/1927 Sheffield United (FAC 3) A D 3-2 28,137
15/01/1927 Derby County A D 2-0 21,899
22/01/1927 Sheffield United (FAC3r) H D 1-1 16,831
29/01/1927 Port Vale (FAC4) A D 2-2 18,000

And the league table at the end of the month for the top of the first division…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Newcastle United 25 15 5 5 60 33 1.818 35
2 Huddersfield Town 26 11 12 3 55 38 1.447 34
3 Burnley 26 13 7 6 66 43 1.535 33
4 Sunderland 27 14 5 8 64 45 1.422 33
5 Bolton Wanderers 25 12 5 8 50 33 1.515 29
6 Leicester City 26 11 7 8 59 49 1.204 29
7 Tottenham Hotspur 26 10 7 9 52 47 1.106 27
8 Arsenal 25 9 9 7 44 45 0.978 27

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.

The series continues.

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