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By Tony Attwood
The story of Sir Henry Norris at the Arsenal is central to understanding the evolution of the club, and also the biggest and certainly the most revealing piece of work the AISA Arsenal History Society has ever undertaken. The index to the whole series of 146 articles is here.
But huge though the research project was, it still had some gaps, and I am delighted to say, that information concerning perhaps the biggest gap of all has reached me, which sheds new light on the affair.
I have for some years been asking to read the minutes of the board of directors meetings of Arsenal for 1927: I explain why in brief terms below. For the full account of the events of that time see here.
In May 1927, following significant differences within the club, Sir Henry Norris, who had single-handedly rescued the club from oblivion in 1910, personally paying off the clubs’ debts before managing the move from Woolwich to Highbury, was pressured to resign from the board of Arsenal.
However, the FA then stated it was going to investigate the financial affairs of Arsenal. Herbert Chapman, the manager, sided with the FA in this regard, and it seems likely that the League put pressure on Chapman, reminding him that he had been banned from football for life by the FA following his time at Leeds. That ban had been rescinded so he could join Arsenal, but he could not afford to get on the wrong side of the FA again.
Thus with a new board in place, and his old ally Chapman now switching sides, Sir Henry was isolated.
Having left school at 14 and subsequently earning his money as a property developer, his rapid promotion from having no rank to Lieutenant Colonel in the army caused jealousy. As did his knighthood for his work organising conscription in 1917, and his being put at the very heart of government in 1919 when he was placed in charge of demobilisation.
He was seen to have dangerous views on issues such as the equality of women and providing injured veterans with pensions, and was in short seen as an upstart.
Thus on 2 July 1927, after years of skirmishes with Sir Henry over a fairer deal for players, the abandonment of the restrictive “retain and transfer” rules and of the maximum salary, on 2 July 1927 the FA, launched an enquiry into Arsenal’s financial affairs, with the enquiry team made up of men who saw Norris’ forward-thinking ideas as a danger to their positions in running football.
Indeed even with the enquiry team full of those opposed to Norris they were not taking chances. Norris was told he could only submit a written statement to the enquiry, not argue his case before them. And then, in a farcical development, the commissioners refused to accept his evidence document unless Sir Henry amended it as they wished. Naturally, Sir Henry refused to amend his evidence to suit the prosecution and so his defence document was not accepted!!!
The record of the proceeedings shows that Sir Henry was simply accused of paying Arsenal player Jock Rutherford’s legal costs in his case against his previous employers. The FA Commission ruled against Norris, but failed to say which exact rule he had broken.
Meanwhile there was also no evidence concerning the £125 Sir Henry was alleged to have taken from the club, and no evidence to support a further claim that Sir Henry had pocketed the money from the sale of the club bus. Instead, the club ruled that Sir Henry should not have claimed travel expenses, even though there was no specific rule that said that directors could not claim travel expenses.
Ultimately Sir Henry was banned from football for allowing the club to pay for his hired car and its driver. George Peachey and John Humble were banned from being directors of Arsenal for failing to report these offences.
On 9 September 1927 Samuel Hill-Wood took over the chair of the club, and the new regime was born, which lasted until the Hill-Wood clan sold out to the current owners, the Kroenke family. Jack Humble (ex-player and close ally of Sir Henry) owned 26 shares. William Hall owned 508, Henry Norris 487 and Edith Norris 5.
Then on 28 October 1927 Sir Henry wrote to club manager Herbert Chapman and asked for the right to consult the club’s formal minute books. Following a meeting on 3 November the directors said that Sir Henry needed an Order of Court to do this. Sir Henry replied that this was nonsense, he had a legal right in law to do this as a shareholder.
On 10 November Chapman wrote to Sir Henry on behalf of the board, stating that the club stood by its position. This proved a stalemate and the lack of access to the minute book proved a major problem for Sir Henry when his case against the Football Association reached court in 1929.
Since I started investigating this sorry sage in 2017 I have always wondered what Norris felt he would find in the minute books up to 1927, and so for several years, through the good offices of Arsenal Independent Supporters Association (AISA), I have asking the club if I could see those minute books from 1927 that Sir Henry was so keen to see.
And this past weekend a leading member of AISA told me of Arsenal’s response. All the minute books up to and including 1927 are missing!
That I find very significant. If the new Arsenal ownership under the Hill-Wood family had been secure in their position of pushing Sir Henry Norris out of the club because he had broken the rules, they would have kept those minute books under lock and key as their absolute evidence. And surely no one subsequently would have removed them – at least not specifically the records up to 1927.
Of course, one cannot be 100% certain, but by far the most obvious explanation must be that the club, now run by those who had chased Norris out of the club, removed the minute books, because they did, as Sir Henry asserted, contain all the evidence he needed to show the dirty tricks and downright lies Sir Samuel Hill-Wood and his supporters had used to get Norris out of the club.
As the Centre for Association Leadership says, “Minutes are an official record of actions the board or committee took at a meeting…They serve a historical purpose, but just as important, they serve a legal purpose, documenting the group’s adherence to the proper procedures and the association’s bylaws. And minutes and recordings made during a meeting are discoverable in litigation…”
So the conclusion must be that the coup that kicked out Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris and his team that rescued the club from financial ruin in 1910, subsequently destroyed all the evidence that Sir Henry needed to argue his case. That fits exactly with their behaviour throughout.
Sir Henry, still a shareholder post-1927, continued to attend AGMs as he was entitled and continued to ask awkward questions, but his powerbase was gone. Later, Leslie Knighton, the manager Sir Henry sacked to bring in Chapman, wrote an appallingly inaccurate autobiography which used the board’s version of Norris in an effort to blacken Sir Henry’s name for all time: an approach which until Sally Davis started her research had been successful.
Sir Henry Norris was in fact not just an incredibly significant wartime hero, he was the man who saved Arsenal from extinction in 1910, moved the club into profit in the 1920s, and with Chapman prepared the ground for its first great era. Without him, there would be no Arsenal, and it is a tragedy that the old boys club of lesser men not only pushed Sir Henry out of the club, but then got their own story of the early days of the club told as the truth, when it is anything but that.