16 August 1925 Arsenal buy Highbury

 Ordinary is Pointless

By Tony Attwood

Today is the anniversary of the day on which Arsenal FC finally bought Highbury for £64,000 – 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.

I’ve delayed putting this post up until this afternoon because the excellent Arsenal on this day beat me to it.     But I wanted to put this point in, not just because it rounds off the story of what happened in 1913, which we are commemorating on this site, but also because it reminds us of the extraordinary risks that Henry Norris took when he signed the lease for the St John’s College of Divinity land in 1913.

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, if, when the lease ended, St John’s 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.

This was never the case in the Manor Ground in Plumstead which was owned by the club from 1893 because of the attempts by the renegade Royal Ordnance Factories FC to allow Arsenal to develop the Manor Fields into a ground, and then buy it from under their noses, thus bankrupting the club.   This story is told for the first time in Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football.

Arsenal on this day tell us that the rent was £20,000, but I am not sure if that was the rent at the start or at the end of the lease.  Maybe someone can tell me.  (Commercial property today normally incorporates a rent review every three years – I imagine there was something of the kind in place in the early 20th century.)

There is a point that needs checking here however.  Today we often consider that the purchase price of a property might be ten years rent – or a lot more.  But Arsenal only paid just over three years rent.  Why was this?  After all, if they had refused to sell, Sir Henry would then hardly have been able to say, “right, we’ll go elsewhere” since the club had sunk so much money into the ground, and had gained great success in getting the crowds in, because of the excellent transport links that had attracted Sir Henry back in 1913.

So, why so cheap?  Was it in the original lease?  If it was then maybe the price was established, but both sides would still have to agree to the sale.  I have to admit I have no historic knowledge of lease habits.  Maybe that was the deal – a 12 year lease with an option to buy at the end.  Certainly, given that Norris would have been happier with a lease than a purchase at the start, he may have felt that in 12 years he would have been able to buy it.   We’d need a copy of the lease to resolve this one.

According to the Land Registry when the purchase was made in 1925 the ground was known as The Arsenal Football Ground.  That would accord with the story that Herbert Chapman renamed the ground “Highbury” – and with the fact that 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 then would suggest that the notion that St John’s was in trouble due to the change of C of E rules is not so.  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.  It is all a little contradictory, and perhaps there is some research somewhere that can help sort this out.

Thus in one real sense this is another major marker in the Highbury journey – with Arsenal once more owning their own ground as they had done from 1883 to 1913.


One Reply to “16 August 1925 Arsenal buy Highbury”

  1. I’ve got a cutting from the Islington Gazette on 14 March 1913 that states the annual rent would originally be £700 rising to £1000. Arsenal had committed to spend £20,000 in building the ground which may be where that figure came from.

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