Summer 1927: Sir Henry Norris leaves the Arsenal

By Tony Attwood

This continues our history of Henry Norris at the Arsenal; there is a link to the full series at the end of this article.

And in a very real sense our story that began on 22 January 1910 in a meeting held at Woolwich Town Hall, to discuss the future of Woolwich Arsenal FC at which Henry Norris was in attendance has now reached its final stages.

For now 17 years and 6 months later, on the evening of 1 July 1927, the man who had been Henry Norris and now was more properly addressed as the Rt Hon Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris, the man who had rescued Arsenal from bankruptcy and without whom there would be no Arsenal FC, wrote to his fellow directors at Arsenal FC, resigning as chairman of the club and as a director of the club.

Quite why he had delayed writing this letter until this day I am not sure.  Certainly he had wanted to help his friend George Allison (whose friendship had dated from the very moment Sir Henry approached Arsenal with thoughts about helping save the club) become a director, and this had been now been arranged.  Even though Allison was clearly Sir Henry’s nominee no one could have reasonably opposed the new man on the board, since Allison had been a brilliant PR man for Arsenal for getting on for 20 years, and had become nationally famous as a journalist and the radio voice of football since then.  So maybe it just took a week or so to square up issues with Allison and make sure his nomination as a director would be accepted, and then in went the letter.

I suspect Sir Henry’s biggest regret must have been that he had been betrayed by one of his longest friends, William Hall, with whom he had built up the astonishingly successful house building partnership in Fulham, and who had personally benefitted from Sir Henry’s work at Arsenal, for it was through this that Hall had managed to get himself not just a directorship at Arsenal but also a position on the executive of the Football League.

Sir Henry made it clear in his letter of resignation that he felt that Herbert Chapman was a significant part of the problem (particularly with what Sir Henry considered his high handed treatment of George Hardy – and no matter how one looks at it, there can be no doubt that Chapman did not have the authority that he took into his hands in dismissing Hardy).   Indeed Sir Henry accused Herbert Chapman of having his own agenda and in effect waging a vendetta against him.  Perhaps reflecting his army days, Sir Henry accused Chapman of insubordination.

But we should remember that at this stage it must have been clear to Chapman that if he lost this battle with Sir Henry he might well not only lose his job at Arsenal, but find it hard to work in football again, given that he already had one cloud hanging over him, that being his own lifetime ban from football after the Leeds City affair.   So Chapman was not just claiming to be right and saying Sir Henry was wrong, he was fighting for his own personal future.

Sir Henry’s state of mind was, I think quite different.   With his wife still recovering in France he knew he would be drawn back there.  But there is something else that we can learn from this history – and again it is something I think other commentators have missed.   The personality of Sir Henry.

For Sir Henry has revealed himself through this history as a man who could both take on risky new ventures and make an excellent job of them, but also as a man who could walk away from these ventures when he felt ready.

If we consider this for a moment on the personal front, he had built a stunningly successful house building business, and I think it is no exaggeration to say that the partnership had in fact transformed rural Fulham into a part of urban London.  And then he had stopped.  Even when given a chance to do more with Lord Kinnaird’s company, he had not returned to wholesale property development.  He simply stopped.

In politics he became the longest serving London Mayor of all time, and then walked away.  True he had stayed in politics in order to become an MP, but when his first term in office ended after four years in 1923, he not only chose not to stand again, he also broke totally with his party in Fulham, and stopped the huge amount of voluntary work he had been undertaking in the borough.  We can imagine that most people who had served this long and done so much in terms of charitable work would want to stay and be feted, but not Sir Henry.  He simply walked away.

In the army he had volunteered as soon as he could, and the army found him exactly the right work for his talents, with him rising, as we have seen, to a very senior role in the war office, organising conscription and working a the end of the war then as Chairman of the Ministry of Labour’s Advisory Committee on demobilisation.  After that he walked away.  As far as I can tell he went to no reunions, and took no consultancy work – he simply left.

In terms of football, Henry Norris had taken Fulham up to the top division of the Southern League with great success.  But there were tensions within the board, so he turned his attention to Arsenal.  And now I think we find the same situation: he created the most daring rescue plan of any club probably ever envisaged, and certainly the most daring ever undertaken. It took 15 years, he had done it, and now he was walking away.  I am not trying to argue that he would have walked away from the club at this time if he had not been pushed to resign, but I very much suspect he would have done it sometime.

And we might perhaps reflect for a moment on the extraordinary plan that Sir Henry introduced in 1910.  His view was that a football club in exactly the right part of London, with a large ground, could be turned into a highly profitable, and thus self-sustaining, club.  So that is what he created.  He found exactly the right place, close to railway and underground connections, he first leased and redeveloped the land, and then later arranged for the club to buy it outright, and he placed the club near two rivals so that there would be derby matches to heighten interest throughout the season.

What’s more he had the vision of a club owned by its fans, not by himself and his friends.  In this regard he was very different from most other club owners, but by 1927 he had done it.   The club was among the best supported in the League, it had one of the biggest grounds in the League, it was easy to get to, and it served exactly the right local population of city workers and local tradesmen.

So why was he disliked so much that the League and FA would do all they could in 1927 to get rid of him?

Certainly he was not “one of them.”  He did not come from one of the artisocratic families, nor one of the long time business or industrial families.  He had left school at 14 and actually worked for him money.   No public school, no university, he was also that thing most despised by the English then as now: an adminstrator.

Worse, everything he touched worked – business, solving the recruitment problem, conscription, demobilisation, the football battalions; he was even right about not conscripting in Ireland.  Indeed he had made Fulham successful in winning the Southern League before he moved across to Arsenal.    There is nothing the establishment hates more than an outsider who is a success at everything he touched.

But it was now over.  For on 2 July Hall presented an application for the FA to enquire into Arsenal’s financial affairs.

In particular he wanted an investigation into whether Sir Henry had used Arsenal money to make illegal payments to players and to recover money he had lost (according to Hall) in the case of Harry White.  He also wanted to prove that Sir Henry was wrong in claiming that if there were found to be illegal payments he (Hall) had known about them (Hall denied this of course, for had he not done so he feared he too could have been banned for life as well).  And finally Hall wanted to show that he had not received money to pay for his chauffeur.

The FA agreed with this plan straightaway, because it gave them just what they were after, a chance to get back at the man who was “not one of us”.  And so they did not just select men from the FA Council to be part of a Commission of Inquiry.  The men chosen were long term members of the committees that ran the League and the FA – exactly the sort of people who had always opposed Sir Henry.   These men were…

Sir Charles Clegg of Sheffield Wednesday, the most senior member of the FA

John McKenna of Liverpool FC, the club that Henry Norris had implicated in the match fixing scandal of 1913, after which he had been warned by the League not to write anything further about match fixing.  But of course had been proven right with the match fixing scandal of 1915.

Arthur Kingscott of Derby County, a referee and the FA’s honorary treasurer since 1919.

Harry Keys of West Bromwich Albion who had helped rescue the club from insolvency in 1905 and was also a member of the Football League management committee

Arthur Hines, a referee and linesman, again a member of the FL management committee; a vice-President of the FA since 1923.

A J Dickinson, also of Sheffield Wednesday; and also of the FL management committee.

Now what makes this particularly interesting is that Keys and McKenna had been on the committee that oversaw the botched winding-up of Leeds City in 1920 in which Chapman himself was banned from football for life and the club wound up, only to be readmitted the following season with a new name but playing at the same ground and run by the same directors.  In other words, the people who had banned and then un-banned Chapman and had shown themselves incapable of handling the biggest scandal to be set before the League since its foundation were here again, lording it again.  The most incompetent judges of football scandals were back.

Obviously J J Edwards protested to Charles Sutcliffe that they had an agreement that once Sir Henry had resigned there would not be another enquiry, and I suspect the excuse that was made that Sutcliffe had only promised there would be no Football League enquiry.  This was an FA enquiry – that just happened to have on it a group of Football League directors.  That would have given Sir Henry a clear view of where this was going.

The following week Sir Henry wrote to the newspapers concerning his resignation and his natural willingness to cooperate with the FA emphasising that he was still on good terms with the board at Arsenal (which was probably quite true since William Hall was no longer a director of the club).

And indeed Sir Henry was not in hiding – that would have been completely against his nature.  He attended the meeting on 4 July of  the Feltmakers’ Company along with JJ Edwards.  Notably William Hall did not attend.

The FA began collecting data at Arsenal on 5 July and continued to do so over the following week.  Meanwhile in another moment of history quite unconnected with football, on 7 July Christopher Stone presented a programme made up of gramophone records on the BBC, thus becoming the first DJ.  I doubt anyone thought anything of it.

On the same day Wall wrote to Sir Henry and others confirming that the commission of inquiry was taking place and invited everyone to submit any evidence they had and inviting Sir Henry to set out his position in writing.

Evidence was then pulled together and the whole report was presented to Fred Wall on 18 July 1927.   Meanwhile Sir Henry and J J Edwards, prepared the statement requested by the FA, which was in fact the history of Henry Norris and Arsenal since 1910.   It is indeed a handy document since it is gives us in Sir Henry’s terms, details of his time with the club.  Other evidence was requested and provided, as is common in all such enquiries.

Yet just how manipulated this whole procedure was going to be was revealed on 18 July 1927 when the chair of the Commission, Charles Clegg declared himself too ill to continue, and he resigned.  The Commission then appointed Charles Sutcliffe in his place.

Now Sutcliffe, as we have noted had already suggested to Sir Henry that he should withdraw from the case (an implication that Sir Henry was self-evidently guilty), and so was hardly going to be a fair artiber of the hearings.  What’s more it was Sutcliffe that Sir Henry’s solicitor had written to on 26 May 1927, confirming that Sir Henry would resign from the board of Arsenal no later than the next AGM of the club and it was Sutcliffe who suggested that the League had agreed that there would be no further investigation into Arsenal’s account.

Yet here was the same man now chairing the hearing he had given he word of honour would not take place!

Indeed there were yet more reasons for Sir Henry to be annoyed about Sutcliffe’s position, for Sutcliffe was the man who in 1912 had established the legality of retain and transfer as a method of handling players’ contracts (effectively keeping the players chained to a club until the club agreed to release the player) on a technicality in a court case (the solicitor representing the players failing to disclose all the evidence he should).

Sir Henry Norris had always been just about the only League club chairman totally against the retain and transfer system with its limit on player freedom and maximum wages, and he had instead campaigned constantly for a restriction on the size of transfer fees as a way of keeping the transfer system in order.    Indeed we have seen that several times Arsenal under Henry Norris used amateur players legitimately to get around the retain and transfer system and the maximum wage system.

And there was yet more reason to be suspicious of Sutcliffe for Sutcliffe was also, at the same time, an employee of the Football League being paid 150 guinees a year to create the league’s fixture list (approx £10,500 in today’s money).  Would an employee of an organisation ever find against that organisation and thus risk losing a valuable annual income?

The whole situation looked clearly as if the appointment of Clegg just a week or so before, had been made knowing that he was too ill to undertake the job.  The purpose undoubtredly had been to wrong foot Sir Henry and his solicitor and bring Sutcliffe (who could be relied upon to give the decision the FA wanted) in through the back door.

On 20 July the hearing of the FA Commission of Inquiry into Arsenal FC took place, at the Royal Victoria Station Hotel, Sheffield.   All the directors of Arsenal were present, along with Herbert Chapman and John Peters, the secretary / bookkeeper at Arsenal.

But even now, the FA were not going to take any chances.  They had told Sir Henry that before the hearing officially began he could present the commision with a written statement putting his side of the case.   But then, in a farsical development, the commissioners refused to accept the document unless Sir Henry amended it.   The words in question stated that in Sir Henry’s opinion, the commission had no legal standing.   Naturally Sir Henry refused and so the document was not accepted.

Put another way the commission stated “we’ll only take evidence we like”.

To make this clear, the equivalent in a court of law would entail the defence presenting evidence and the court refusing to accept it because it didn’t like it.  It was probably one of the most bizarre moments in an increasingly weird situation and one that in a more balanced and just world should haunt the FA forever.

Evidence was then taken, but there was no investigation into the issue of expenses, and the meeting was ajourned until 8 August.  Meanwhile the FA, despite having opened the hearing, continued to collect evidence, including an affidavit from Leslie Knighton, the man who appeared (at least 20 years later in his autobiography) to be so bitter about his dismissal.  Evidence was also taken from the long term Arsenal player Clem Voysey.

Meanwhile of course, back at Highbury, pre-season training began on 2 August and that evening the AGM of Arsenal was held.   Sir Henry could no longer attend as a director, but he was still the largest shareholder in the company and so had every right to attend.  At the meeting there was a move by a very large number of shareholders to co-opt him back onto the board, and to give him the chair of the meeting.  Sir Henry turned these proposals down, giving weight, I believe, to the notion that he was now quite determined to leave his position at Arsenal.

Jack Humble and J J Edwards were both re-elected to the board and the meeting was adjorned to be concluded after the FA Commission of Inquiry had made its report.

Meanwhile despite the case against Sir Henry now being run the FA were still looking for evidence, sending out at this time a letter to the company that sold Sir Henry’s wholesale building company, the second team bus.

On 5 August Sir Henry wrote to Fred Wall, the Secretary of the FA agreeing to the FA Commissioners’ request for him to provide a different set of evidence, and asking to know which rules the FA were investigating him under.  Fred Wall replied that the hearing was apertaining to rules 45 and 46.  Sally Davis reports that in 1929 Sir Henry said he’d submitted his amended document when it began to look as though the FA Commission was simply going to accept Hall’s story, and that as a result John Peters, the club’s book keeper would be sacked from Arsenal on the FA’s orders.

On 8 August the FA Commission resumed its hearings taking evidence from Herbert Chapman, John Peters, Leslie Knighton and Clement Voysey along with other employees.  It is interesting to note that no evidence about Sir Henry’s expense claim for office furniture or his claim for travel from Nice was heard – although both matters found their way into the final report.  Sir Henry did however provide further information to the FA in writing on 10 August confirming that payments made to players were made from his own money, not by using the club’s money.  That would make him the guilty party, not the club.

And then, the FA gave no indication of what it was going to find, and so the press started to speculate. 

As Arsenal played their usual pre-season Reds v Blues match at Highbury Sir Henry was given a verbal report as to the findings of the commission.  Presumably William Hall got the same report because on 15 August he resigned from both the Football League Management Committee and the London Combination Management Committee.

Sir Henry’s reponse was different.  On 16 August he consulted his lawyers.

On 20 August the second Reds v Blues match was played at Highbury with Sir Henry present.  After the game he talked to reporters, expressing the view that the League and FA should be replaced by a new single body governing all football in England – exactly as happens in almost all other countries.  (A view which, if you have read my commentaries on the FA on Untold Arsenal you will know I still 100% believe in).

Next, on 23 August, Sir Henry’s lawyers applied for an injunction to stop the FA from publishing the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Arsenal FC.  On this occasion Sir Henry lost.  Nevertheless, the Daily Mail, always somewhat at odds with reality, reported that the report would not be published.

The FA then claimed that on 26 August they sent out copies of their report to all Arsenal directors, but Sir Henry said that he had still not received his copy by 28th.   But he did get a letter ordering all diretors to attend an FA Council meeting on 29th to hear the findings.  Sir Henry refused to attend on the ground that he had not yet had a chance to read the report.  Meanwhile on 27 August Sir Henry’s solicitors wrote to the newspapers warning them that the report of the FA was now a matter of legal action and thus they should not report it.

Incidental to all this, the football season began on 27 August – although obviously without any involvement by Sir Henry in Arsenal’s affairs.

On 28 August Sir Henry received a letter from the Daily Mail saying they were going to publish the FA’s report, asking him to make a statement.  The letter, Sir Henry claimed, clearly indicated that the report had been leaked to the Mail by the FA.

Finally the meeting of the FA to consider the report took place on 30 August.  And here I shall pause in order to avoid this chapter from becoming unmanageably large.  More in the next chapter.



Details of the whole series of articles on Henry Norris at the Arsenal can be found here including an index to 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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