The years were 1925 and 2003. 78 years apart but both are commemorated on 16 August.
And there is something very satisfying about the fact that 16 August is the anniversary of the day Arsenal bought Highbury, and the anniversary of the day that saw the start of by far the greatest ever Arsenal season.
Arsenal bought Highbury for £64,000 on this day in 1925, which was about one-tenth of the cost of some of the more interesting apartments in the redeveloped Highbury when the land was redeveloped following the opening of the Emirates Stadium.
In common with business leases then, as now, this was a full repairing lease, which meant that by and large Norris could do anything he liked with the land (apart from sell alcohol there and use it for public entertainment on Good Friday and Christmas Day). But the deal was that if, when the lease ended, St John’s College wanted the land back for their own use, they could take it back, and demand that the land was put back into its original form.
Now Norris would have recognised that when he took over the land in 1913 St John’s had a problem, and he would have taken this into account. St John’s was a college that took men – often working-class men – who were moved to take up holy orders through a reading of the Bible. However shortly before Arsenal came knocking at the door, the Church of England had changed its ordination regulations to the effect that only men with degrees could become ministers of the church. ; As such St John’s had a problem. ; It could teach its young men about holy scripture, but at the end of their training they would not get themselves a Church of England parish.
This meant that their income was diminishing – hence the sale – and with the Church of England highly unlikely to change its rule, it seemed that St John’s was unlikely to come into enough money to make it able to cope without the monthly rent from Arsenal.
It is interesting to see this from Arsenal’s point of view. By renting rather than buying Arsenal were able to use all the capital it could raise on ground development. ; So the arrangement suited both sides.
The rent is reported to have been £20,000, and the purchase price £60,000 – which makes the purchase price seem incredibly cheap – just three yeas rent. ; I’ve not seen the original documents so I can’t verify this, but if it is true, it suggests St Johns really was in financial trouble and needed the money now, to pay off its debts, before it closed down.
What we can assume is that Norris would have been happier with a lease than a purchase at the start, since so much work needed to be undertaken on the ground, so it is possible that there was an agreement to buy, within the original lease.
According to the Land Registry when the purchase was made in 1925 the ground was known as The Arsenal Football Ground and in the first Highbury programme in 1913 there was a comment that the directors would welcome suggestions from fans for a name for the ground.
It is said in some quarters that the deed of transfer for the property was signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury – but that would suggest that the land was owned by the Church of England, which doesn’t accord with the facts we do know.
Besides the College was set up by a private benefactor – and it was the fact that he put nothing in the deeds to stipulate how the land should be used that allowed the college to sell to Arsenal. ;
And there is something pleasing also that the greatest season in the history of Arsenal – the Unbeaten Season – also started on this day: 16 August 2003 with Arsenal 2 Everton 1. Campbell was sent off on 25 mins for a foul outside the area, Henry scored a penalty on 35, Vieira was yellow carded on 41m and Pires scored the winner on 58. ; Everton got a consolation on 84 before Li was sent off on 87. And so the greatest season ever began.