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?”
Indeed only last week there was a comment posted on Untold Arsenal, after I had mentioned Henry Norris, suggesting that I really ought to read up on Norris to find out what a nasty piece of work he was.
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, by giving the club 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 out 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 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 our stadium if the owners had demanded it.
But 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 clubs for the move to be prohibited.
During the war Arsenal were financially devastated, probably more than many clubs, 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.
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.
So why does he have such a poor reputation that Arsenal have now seemingly disowned him?
There are many reasons. In no particular order they include.
1. He was a fighter who (particularly in pre-war days) took his views to the public via his columns in newspapers. As a result those in power distrusted his “man of the people” approach, and would organise against him. He was MP for Fulham, for example, but was de-selected eventually because of his views which were thought to be inappropriate for a Conservative and Unionist MP. These views included supporting votes for women, pensions for all servicemen injured in the war, jobs for all men who served their country between 1914 and 1918, the view that the endless strikes Britain suffered from in the pre- and post-war eras were down to government stupidity, rather than the rise of the dreaded socialism, and the view that in order to get the economy going the government had to invest in the country with re-building, much lower rail fares, subsidized coal etc.
2. He took on anyone who disagreed with him – often in the courts. This was his ultimate downfall as after a series of victories in the courts he finally lost patience with his erstwhile friends at Fulham and the directors of Fulham FC and Norris started suing each other. The League rules prohibited this, since all inter-club matters were, according to the rule book, to be resolved via the League and its committees. On hearing of the case the League instructed both men to stand down from their clubs as directors, which of course they had to do.
3. When Henry Norris was forced out of Arsenal by the League’s 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 family and Sir Henry.
4. Henry Norris exposed corruption everywhere – including the match fixing scandals of pre-war football. Although the League and FA dismissed his complaints in 1914, his insistence on taking the match fixing of Liverpool and Man U into account in 1915 caused him to be the champion of smaller clubs who had themselves been worried about the power of the big teams to ride roughshod over the basic rules of the game. The League hated Norris for this, and Tottenham seized on this when putting about the story that Arsenal had fixed its way into the first division in 1919.
There is much, much more that could be said about Henry Norris, why football turned against him, and why Arsenal should have a whacking great statue of him at the Emirates next to that of Herbert Chapman.
The early stories concerning the saving of Arsenal in 1910 are told in the fullest detail in Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football. The story of the promotion of 1919 and the early years of Arsenal at Highbury are told in the third volume of the AISA Arsenal History Society booklets covering the history of Arsenal.
Today however, on the anniversary of his passing on 30 July 1934, we remember Sir Henry Norris, the man who along with Jack Humble, saved the Arsenal, and re-made the Arsenal. I have no contact with Sir Henry’s descendants but if they should come across this piece, please accept not just my good wishes but also the good wishes of everyone in the Arsenal History Society.
Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris 23 July 1865 – 30 July 1934
ISLINGTON 100 – a celebration of Henry Norris’ removal of the club to Highbury, in 1912/13
3: Proposals for a major exhibition to celebrate 100 years of Arsenal in Islington at the Emirates Stadium.