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Norris at the Arsenal 3: March and April 1910 – the crisis deepens

By Tony Attwood

This is the continuation of the series of articles tracing the work of Henry Norris at Arsenal from 1910 to 1927.  The first two articles are available here

To continue…

In March 1910 it was being widely reported in local newspapers, the national press and the specialist press (particularly Athletic News) that Woolwich Arsenal FC was in significant financial trouble.

This had come about partially through the excitement generated by the evolution of the club into a first division side in 1904 and a club that reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1906 and 1907, not being maintained thereafter in terms of crowd numbers.  It looks as if the crowd seriously expected Woolwich Arsenal to rise up to a position of dominance following its promotion and two cup semi-finals.  When this did not happen, the crowds fell away.

In the last article we looked at the shareholders meeting of 18 March 1910 and the appearance of William Hall before the meeting.  My suspicion is he was there to express the interest and intentions of Henry Norris and himself.

However it should not be thought that the work of the club had dried up while all the negotiations continued about the club’s future.   Evidence to this effect comes from the fact that on 4 March 1910 George Grant joined Woolwich Arsenal from Invicta FC as an amateur.   He later turned professional at the club and had the remarkable record of playing for Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal, and Arsenal.  

And indeed there were even moments to celebrate as on 5 March 1910 when Archie Devine won his one and only cap playing for England. 

But results on the pitch were not helpful.  On 12 March 1910 the result was Arsenal 0 Man U 0, a score that left Arsenal and Tottenham equal on points near the foot of the table, with Arsenal in the relegation zone on goal average.  Worse for Arsenal, Tottenham had two games in hand. 

In terms of the survival of the club however we left matters in the last episode on 18 March with a shareholders’ meeting for 18 March 1910 to discuss the possibility of liquidating Woolwich Arsenal FC and forming a new limited company.

Although we have an account of what happened at that meeting, Sally Davis has made the suggestion that there was an additional ulterior motive for calling the meeting on that day, specifically because “there was a problem with the articles of association of the 1893 limited company which stated that ownership of only one share was required for someone to stand for election onto the board of directors.”

No modern company would do this, because it would mean, (and indeed it did mean for Woolwich Arsenal) that the board of directors changed year on year and decisions made by the board one year could be changed by the new board a year later.  Different factions could win and lose control and thus there would be no continuity.

Leavey’s plan, according to Davis, was to allow only shareholders with over 25 shares be eligible to be a director.  But the problem is that to be passed, such a proposition would have to be agreed by the board, which had benefited from being elected under the old system.

But if this was Leavey’s plan, then seemingly he did not mention it at the meeting.  Instead he made his pitch by noting that the club had liabilities of £12,500 and was still losing money. His proposal was that they should agree to attempt to keep a club in the area, agree that the club (possibly a direct rebuff to Hall, if as I suggest Hall did let Leavey know of Norris’ thoughts about Fulham becoming entwined with Arsenal) could not continue in its current financial state, and that it should be wound up voluntarily, and must appoint a liquidator.

Now this looks like a proposition to see off Hall and Norris: a plan to wind up the company on the grounds of its debts and then set up a new company with the 25 shares provision.   Hall and Norris’ plan was only just emerging and we don’t know how much had been shared with Leavey by the Fulham duo, but at some time talk evolved of Arsenal moving onto a ground share arrangement with Fulham at Craven Cottage (a ground that had been upgraded – using Archie Leitch as architect – in 1905).

So Leavey turned down or ignored the Fulham plan and seemingly did not tell his fellow directors about it.  Instead his accountant was appointed liquidator.

On Saturday 19 March Arsenal were away to Bradford City, and won 1-0 with 14,000 in the crowd.  Ultimately it was to emerge that Arsenal’s average crowd for the season was 10,395, a decline of 20% over the previous season, so at least this was a touch of good news – an above average crowd, and a win that helped stave off the threat of relegation.

The following day the long fight to set up a new local company which could buy the assets of the existing Woolwich Arsenal FC began in earnest.   This company not only needed to raise money, it needed to find shareholders and directors, and reach deals with the creditors.  Typically that would mean saying something along the lines of, “we will pay you 50% of every £1 that you are owed, if you support us.  If we do not succeed the club will fail, and you will get nothing.”

The trouble with this approach was that (as is still the case in the 21st century) most people – indeed most business people – did not understand the way voluntary liquidation worked, and thus an offer of half the amount due would seem more like a con trick than a generous offer in the face of quite possibly getting nothing.

But despite some difficulties an offer to buy the club was made and under the rules of liquidation the liquidator had to accept what in his/her professional opinion was the best offer on the table.  In this case that was easy.  Hall and Norris had made no formal approach and thus the Leavey New Deal was the only offer on the table.

The following day, 20 March 1910 Dr John Clarke, the head of the Arsenal fund raising committee began a tour of the public houses of Plumstead offering shares in the new club at £1 each.  This was a job that needed doing quickly as the rules of offering shares in a company put a strict time limit on how long the shares are on offer for.  If not enough shares are sold by the end of a very short offer period then the offer falls.

It appears that the attempt to sell shares locally did not go well, and on 23 March 1910, with Arsenal now very publicly revealed to be in serious financial trouble Tottenham considered buying part or all of Woolwich Arsenal.  We have no knowledge of what Tottenham’s interest was, but again it could have been for a ground share, with both clubs playing on alternative weekends at White Hart Lane.

Rangers (of Glasgow) also considered the offer and ultimately did make a small but symbolic investment in the club which remained until the 21st century when it was sold to help resolve Rangers own difficult financial position.  Rangers’ interest has always been seen as one of solidarity but it is interesting to note that on 28 April 1908 Rangers had played Woolwich Arsenal for the first time: the result was a 1-1 draw.  It was part of (or perhaps the highlight of) a major Scottish tour by Arsenal of eight matches in nine days!  It is certainly possible that the contacts established then were maintained.

On 25 March 1910 (Good Friday) Arsenal had another away game – this time against Newcastle and got a draw in front of 20,000 – another good above-average crowd, which again helped both the club’s position in the league and the club’s coffers.

After the result of the game at Newcastle came through by telegraph, Arsenal held a public meeting and then a shareholders meeting in Plumstead regarding the financial crisis and various fundraising systems were set in place.

But any buoyancy that might have been felt was quickly dissipated.  On the following day Arsenal were at home to Sheffield Wednesday, and lost 1-0 in front of just 8,000.  If ever there was a moment that represented the nail in the coffin of Arsenal it was this crowd.  8,000 on Easter Saturday was not good news.

The only excuse might have been that the supporters were saving themselves for Easter Monday – the game that the much of London had been looking forward to – the biggest match in the capital of the season.  Chelsea at home to Arsenal.  40,000 turned up as Arsenal won 1-0.

Better again, at least in terms of result, Arsenal won their next match – away to Bristol City on 2 April,  The crowd was again only 8,000 but Arsenal’s position in the league was looking more secure by the day.

Meanwhile the group looking to buy out Woolwich Arsenal FC Ltd had been active finding subscribers to its proposed share bid.  They met on Wednesday 6 April and by 9 April, while Arsenal were playing out a goalless draw with Bury in front of 10,000 spectators, they felt secure enough with their pledges of finance to make a bid for the club which the liquidator and George Levey (who had a say in such matters as he was lead creditor) accepted.  Not that the smaller creditors thought it was a good offer, but that it was probably the best offer anyone would be likely to see.

And this is where I have to be a little tedious and venture into the world of liquidations.   The best voluntary liquidations are planned carefully by the directors of the company and their accountants, and have the whole process of the liquidation thought through and worked out well in advance of anyone knowing that the process will be seen through: in short an orderly winding up of the company, with the arrangements in place for paying all debtors in full over a period of time, and quite often the setting up a new company (although today there are of course strict rules about this, to avoid liqduiation being used simply to avoid past debts).

Whether Leavey had such a clear plan in mind or not we can’t say; if he did he was being Machiavellian in his planning; if not he was simply being emotional.   Either way after Arsenal had played out their (previously abandoned match of 6 September) against Aston Villa on 12 April Leavey met with the group Dr Clarke had put together to buy out the company from the liquidators.

But this is where the story takes another twist because it seems that at this point (and only at this point) Leavey informed the new group that the deal would involve the new directors of Woolwich Arsenal FC Ltd being personally liable for paying rent, rates and taxes on the Manor Ground.

I cannot prove it, but I suspect this clause was inserted because Leavey himself had given just such a guarantee at some stage to the owners of the Manor Ground.  Certainly the owners of the ground might well have suggested that Arsenal could default on their rent, and so the landlord had made the directors of the club personally liable.  In that case all Leavey was trying to do ensure an actual liability was made plain to the new owners.

But the fact that this was not mentioned before suggests either that Leavey had forgotten about it, or did not know about it, or was deliberately leaving the issue until the last minute, knowing that it was a potential deal breaker.

Reading the history of Leavey, I suspect he had forgotten about the clause; he never comes across as a Machiavellian character to me.  Rather I see him as someone who enjoyed being a patron of Woolwich Arsenal FC but then was unable to say “no” as greater and greater requests for finance came his way.

But that is supposition.  From Sally Davis’ account it appears Leavey then worked to convince the would-be directors of the new club that they also had to sign this arrangement in order to let Leavey out of his obligations, which presumably existed outside of the lease as a separate legal document.

This again shows us why Leavey desperately needed a new company to take over Woolwich Arsenal FC.  If the club simply failed and ceased trading (without the setting up of a new company to take it over) he would still be liable for paying the rent on the ground, and for returning it to the landlord in the condition it was when the club took it over.  For a man already in financial difficulty because of his loans to Arsenal, that could send him into bankruptcy.

Then something quite strange happened for (again according to Davis) on Friday 15 April Leavey went to see Archibald Leitch.  Now Leitch was the man who oversaw the development of the Manor Ground around the turn of the century (seven years after Arsenal first moved in), and it appeared he had never been paid for that work.

Leitch had worked on Ibrox Stadium in 1899 for Rangers just outside the Glasgow city limits (and thus outside their planning control).  Three years later part of the stadium collapsed causing many deaths.

In the subsequent enquiry Leitch was not charged with any crime (partly because the stadium was so carefully placed outside the city and therefore not subject to city regulations) but there was considerable doubt expressed over whether the builders used the right materials.  Leitch had specified a high grade of wood, and was in charge of overseeing that this stipulation was complied with, and the evidence presented in the hearings shows that other than writing a letter or two expressing concern, he was not fully engaged on the issue.  It was beyond doubt because of the lowering of the specifications that part of the terracing collapsed.

Leitch did the job for Rangers for no payment – he was a supporter and a young architect making his way, and it was one hell of a commission to get.   But before the disaster unfolded Leitch had left Glasgow and headed for London, and took on the job of developing the Manor Ground.

Now why Leitch did not get paid, and why he was not suing Arsenal for payment by 1910 (ten years after the work was done)  is not at all clear.  After the Ibrox disaster in 1902 Arsenal could have had good reason not to pay him on the grounds of previous incompetence, but as to how Arsenal managed to avoid paying him up to that point, I really don’t know.

But the records show that here they were, ten years down the line, with Leitch unpaid.  And Leitch and Leavey agreed a deal with Arsenal to conclude the debt, although it is not at all clear that at this point Leitch got the money.  It seems quite possible that the deal was that if Leavey was able to sell the club then Leavey would pay Leitch a percentage of the debt – or that Leitch would put in a lower bill to the new owners of the club.

However we should also note that in 1905 Leitch had worked for Fulham in upgrading their ground, work which itself had involved a legal case concerning planning permission.  Henry Norris therefore knew Leitch; one wonders if there was any involvement again at this point.  Did Norris persuade Leitch to accept whatever terms he was offered in return for a promise to use Leitch again either at Fulham or Arsenal?  No paperwork has survived from that meeting so we don’t know, but Leitch certainly did work for Arsenal again – at Highbury.

Meanwhile the arguments in Woolwich continued, and ultimately a new rescue package was agreed with a new set of would-be directors but still with Leavey as the chairman, which given the fact that Leavey wanted above all to get out of his liability to Arsenal seemed odd.  His obligation to pay the rent on the ground if Arsenal defaulted, seems to have remained in tact at this point.

Perhaps Leavey was influenced by Arsenal’s upturn on the pitch.  Between 28 March and 16 April Arsenal played five, won three and drew two.  Best of all, the run that had started in front of a 40,000 crowd at Chelsea, ended with a game in front of 39,000 at Tottenham.  Perhaps he had no other way to get any of his major loans to the club back – even in part payment.  Maybe he had another exit plan – but I still find it most likely that he was letting his emotional engagement with the locality cloud his judgement.

But it is worth noting that it was also at this time that the first stories concerning a link between Arsenal and Fulham started to be heard.  In one way this is not surprising given that Henry Norris had been at the opening public meeting and William Hall had turned up at the shareholders meeting for a word with with Leavey.

However what was new around this time was the fact that there was a notion of saving money for Arsenal by ground sharing.  You will recall we have already had some talk of moving away from Woolwich, and the fact that Millwall were ready that summer to move across the river, a distance of about eight miles (far less as the crow flies, but eight miles was about right for most supporters).   Manchester United had moved from Bank Street to Old Trafford earlier in 1910, a distance of about six miles, and my point is that such moves were not at all unknown.  Many clubs had started out in makeshift grounds, and now, as the crowds grew, they found the need for something better.

Next, on 8 April 1910 Arsenal revealed the club’s debts to be £6200 including £1630 to Mr Leavey, and £1347 to Archie Leitch.   The following day Arsenal drew 0-0 at home with Bury.  

On 11 April 1910 Arsenal beat champions Aston Villa 1-0, and thus gained valuable points in their battle with relegation.  However Villa, having already won the league, put out a reserve side for this match, and Chelsea and Middlesbrough protested vigorously to the League, but to no avail.

And  all the time William Allen, William Hall and Henry Norris were preparing to act.   We don’t know this from factual documents, but rumours certainly started appearing the local press, and the implication is that around this date these three gentlemen started talking more openly about an Arsenal – Fulham ground sharing arrangement at Craven Cottage.

William Hall and Henry Norris played the sentiment card much of the time talking about the need to preserve the capital’s oldest Football League member, but underneath it all was a financial arrangement.  Hall and Norris had no influence over Arsenal of course, they were simply offering a way out of Arsenal’s problems.

And it must be remembered that Woolwich Arsenal had a name – a name associated with the military, with the term “Royal Arsenal” and with being the first professional and first league club in London.  This was the club of the fighting man, the club of the working class man, set up by working class men, not aristocrats or religious leaders.  And Norris was most certainly in origin a working class man, although by now he was quite wealthy.

Sally Davis makes the point that Fulham was “not in a position to buy up Woolwich Arsenal FC, debts and all.  The club was heading for a loss of £722 and didn’t pay its shareholders a dividend in 1910.”

That is undoubtedly so, and that again gives credence to the notion of the two clubs playing at one ground.  Maybe in Norris’ mind there was also the idea that Arsenal and Fulham could merge and take over Arsenal’s much cherished first division status to become the pre-eminent London club, playing at Craven Cottage.

Leavey however resisted all talk of playing in Fulham or of amalgamation, and pushed ahead with his own plan.  The Kentish Independent on Friday 22 April then published a letter from George Leavey announcing that shares in the limited company set up on 15 April would be on sale from 23 to 30 April at £1 each.  But the printing of the share prospectus was delayed, and in fact the shares finally went on sale between Fri 6 May and 4pm Tuesday 10 May 1910.  Shares were £1, payable in instalments, and £2000-worth had to be sold for this latest rescue bid to go ahead.  But by the close of sale, only £1200 had been applied for, and so the offer failed.

And so, as a result of this failure, on 25 April 1910 the limited company that was set up to run Woolwich Arsenal in 1893,  The Woolwich Arsenal Football And Athletic Company Limited was dissolved.  A new company was set up on the following day. bearing the same name as the old one. This company still trades today and continues to carry out its business as Arsenal FC.

However that did not get Leavey out of his commitment to pay the rent and dilapidation charges on the ground if it was handed back to the landlord, and nor did it get any of the money he had loaned Arsenal back.  Arsenal may have had a reprieve in walking away from some of their past debts (such a course of action is not allowable in law today, I should add) but Leavey personally was still stuck.

On Wednesday 11 May 1910 an interview with Leavey appeared in a London newspaper in which he said that he was now facing personal ruin and that he couldn’t continue to run the club.  He once more asked for another group of people (making the third so far) to come forward – from anywhere, not just Woolwich – to try to form a new limited company to take over Woolwich Arsenal.

Suddenly, it seemed, he was willing to talk seriously with Henry Norris and the people at Fulham.  He would also certainly have to talk to the Football League who would want to know that Woolwich Arsenal FC would be able to meet their fixtures for the 1910/11 season.

The series continues…

The Arsenal History Society has published many series of articles on the club’s past including

A full index is to be found on the home page of the Arsenal History Society website

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