By the summer of 1910 Henry Norris owned three football clubs: Woolwich Arsenal (division 1), Fulham (division 2) and Croydon Common (Southern League).
What was he doing? Well, it seems he thought of himself as the man who could build football in the south of England into something as powerful as the football league in the north – and so he fancied himself as chairman of a new football league of the south. It never happened and in the end he focussed on Arsenal, but there was a time when alternatives were possible.
Norris left no diaries or notes so we study his life through his actions and the activities of those around him. And in this sense there is quite a lot of data. The idea of a southern rival to the football league had a series of false starts as I will show below, and this is exactly the sort of situation that would lead Norris to push his way in and shout, “OK I am taking this shambles over.”
He was in many ways a sort of Lord Sugar character but without the humour and self-deprecation.
So, to turn for a moment to Croydon Common.
Croydon Common FC was formed in 1897 as a local league amateur team, and they turned pro in 1907, just as Norris was starting to get into his full football mode – three years before he bought Arsenal.
When Norris took over Croydon Common is not at all clear but they went into the Southern League divsion 2 on turning professional, and such evidence as there is suggests that Norris put in the money at this point, even if his name was not on the books at Companies House.
The London FA had decided to have a bash at forming a new ‘Southern League’ as early as 1890 but the motion to form the new league was lost by one vote.
Woolwich Arsenal became seriously interested in the prospect in 1891 when the side was transformed as a professional club. The authorities had told everyone not to play them, because of the professional issues, and Arsenal were reduced to playing friendlies against northern teams.
When Arsenal called a meeting to discuss the idea of a southern league 26 clubs attended, the new league was agreed and 12 clubs elected:
- Luton Town,
- Millwall Athletic,
- Swindon Town,
- West Herts,
- Woolwich Arsenal,
- Chiswick Park,
- Old St Marks
- Crouch End.
Crouch End then withdrew. The unsuccessful clubs were:
Chesham, Wolverton, City Ramblers, Woodville, Uxbridge, St Albans, Erith, Westminster Criterion, Old St Stephens, Upton Park, and Tottenham Hotspur who came bottom of the poll with one point. Why Tottenham could get no votes other than their own vote for themselves is a matter for another day.
But then no sooner were the celebrations over than some of the clubs had a change of mind, and in total five clubs dropped out. I can’t find any reason why this was so other than that it was “considered by the committee who refused to endorse the decision” and that suggests underhand skulduggery. The London FA had raised the fuss about Arsenal’s professionalism, and was almost certainly at the heart of the lobbying, threatening all sorts of actions if the clubs formed this league.
So in the end the matter was dropped by Arsenal.
Then Milwall Athletic had a go in 1894. At their meeting they attracted Chatham, Clapton, Ilford, Luton Town, Milwall Athletic, Reading, and the 2nd Scots Guards. At a later meeting they also managed to attract Casuals, Crouch End, Crusaders, Old Carthusians, Old Westminsters, Royal Ordnance Factories, and Swindon Town.
But now with the cat (which I assume was the London FA) being out of the bag there was still there was a lack of enthusiasm. More teams came and went, the Scots Guards opted out, Southampton came in and eventually there was a second division of Bromley, Chesham, Maidenhead, New Brompton, Old St Stephens, Sheppey United, and Uxbridge. Woolwich Arsenal suggested their reserves could play in this league (by now having got into the second division of the football league), but the other clubs would have none of it.
But now the drive for another league outside the football league was too strong and so the 1894 Southern League, proposed by Millwall Athletic (which became Millwall) got going with two divisions.
- Luton Town
- Millwall Athletic
- Royal Ordnance Factories
- Southampton St Mary
- Swindon Town
- New Brompton
- Old St Stephen’s
- Sheppy United
The story of Norris and Croydon Common continues in the next article
If you want to know more about Norris and his personality, and what he did 100 years ago, you will enjoy “Making the Arsenal”