23 July: the birthday of the founder of the modern Arsenal FC


23 July 1865: Henry Norris born

Look around the Arsenal today and you will not find a single mention of Henry Norris.  No statue, no plaque, no picture.

Mention Henry Norris to your average Arsenal fan and either he or she will not have heard of the man or that supporter will say something like “he was a crook wasn’t he?”

Yet in fact, Henry Norris, or Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris, as he was by the end of the first world war, was repeatedly the saviour of Arsenal.  Just as Jack Humble made the Arsenal by being involved in the club from 1887 to 1927, by being the first chairman of the league club, and by being a constant servant of the club at director level, so Henry Norris made the Arsenal by rescuing the club in 1910 when it was about to fall into oblivion, by having the vision to move the club to Islington in 1913, by creating there a modern stadium that became the envy of all football, and by recruiting Herbert Chapman.

Both men – Henry Norris and Jack Humble risked everything they owned for Arsenal.   Jack Humble did it in 1893 by being a guarantor of the new club – a club that was from its birth under attack from a rival football club (Royal Ordnance Factories FC) who showed they would use every foul means possible to bring down both Woolwich Arsenal FC and its guarantors.

Henry Norris did it in 1910 when he paid off all the money owed by the club as it entered administration.  Not paying out 1 penny or 1 shilling in the pound as was common for companies entering administration – but every single penny that was owed.  All from his own pocket.

And in fact from 1910 to 1927 Henry Norris and Jack Humble worked together and ran the Arsenal.

But for Henry Norris rescuing the club from oblivion in 1910 was just the start –  for knowing that the club had to be moved if it were to survive, he signed the lease on the land he wanted to transform a set of college playing fields into a new ground, personally guaranteeing not only to pay the rent, but guaranteeing also to hand the ground back in its original condition at the end of the lease, if the owner so required.   It was an amazing risk, for he would have been legally required to dismantle the entire stadium and flatten the ground if the owners had demanded it.

And as if this guarantee were not enough, he then had the stadium built, he saw off the opposition from Tottenham who appealed both to the league and directly to the rest of football for the move to be prohibited.

During the war Arsenal were financially devastated, probably more than any other club, and yet Henry Norris didn’t stop.  He worked endlessly for the war effort (which is how he won both his knighthood and the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the army) and supported the work that he undertook in support of the war effort through his own money.

Ultimately he was in charge of conscription for the army, and then the demobilisation of the conscripts after the war was over.

Arsenal ended the war massively in debt, and yet he managed to open the club again, in the first division, and take the club forwards, eventually bringing in Herbert Chapman who launched the modern era of football for Arsenal and the Football League.

So why does he have such a poor reputation that Arsenal have now seemingly disavowed him?

There are many reasons, but primarily when Henry Norris was forced out of Arsenal by the League’s technical ruling on court proceedings, Sir Henry still owned his shares in the club, and through these questioned the way the new directors were running the club by turning up at AGMs and asking questions.   This hardened the already existing split between the new Arsenal under the Hill-Wood clique and Sir Henry.  There is no direct evidence that the Hill Wood family engaged in spreading stories against Sir Henry, of course, since they had total control of the club, but they were in power and had influence in the League and it seems very likely they took their message to the League.

And Norris already lacked friends in the league after his tireless exposing of match-fixing scandals before the war.  Although the League and FA dismissed his complaints the match-fixing reached such a height in 1915 the league took action, but never admitted they were wrong to put Norris down initially.

However the modern Arsenal has not turned its back on Henry Norris totally, for a few years back the club not only spent money cleaning up the grave of Herbert Chapman, it did the same for Henry Norris.  A long overdue, but nonetheless kind and generous move

Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris 23 July 1865 – 30 July 1934.  Founder of the modern Arsenal.

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