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GCR Books

Norris at the Arsenal 12: How Henry Norris chose Highbury as Arsenal’s new ground

By Tony Attwood

The summer of 1912 was the time when Henry Norris’ ideas on the future of Arsenal solidified.   It is quite possible that when he first became involved in early 1910 he thought he might be able to lend a hand to Arsenal, help sort out their finances and then exit; a ploy that might have gained him further traction inside Fulham and possibly lead to his being chair of that club – and perhaps London’s first representative on the Football League Management Committee.

But the supporters at Woolwich Arsenal had been suspicious, and the League most certainly would not be led into the notion of an amalgamation of Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham playing at Craven Cottage.   As the League Management Committee had said in 1910, they couldn’t actually stop the two clubs merging, nor could they say where the clubs would play, but they most certainly could decide which league they would play in, and that would be the Second Division, not the First.

Yet from these set backs, Norris had regained the higher ground.  From being a team on the edge of relegation, they had now had two seasons ending up a respectable 1oth.   The horrific drop in crowd numbers had been stopped and there had been two years of crowd increase.  A successful foreign tour, exploiting the name of Woolwich Arsenal had been undertaken, and the promise of two years at Plumstead from the summer of 1910 had been kept.   Plus for the first time Arsenal (and indeed the south) now did have a representative on the Football League’s management committee, which took Norris’ voice and opinions into a wider audience (although the actual rep was not him but his close colleague William Hall).

However despite all this it was clear that Woolwich Arsenal as a growing First Division club was not viable at its Plumstead home, and since the local population were not going to support the club either in terms of very large (as opposed to growing) crowds nor in terms of buying shares in the company, it was type for Plan B.  And what a Plan B – moving Arsenal elsewhere.

This was not a totally radical thought.  In 1910 Millwall had moved from the Isle of Dogs on the north of the Thames to Bermondsey in South London.  So why not Arsenal move Arsenal the other way – to play in the north.

But there were distractions – not least the weather.  The wettest summer on record suddenly got worse just as the 1912/13 season was about to start with phenomenal downpours leaving many pitches including that at Plumstead, unplayable in any meaningful sense.  However these were the days when only fog would stop a game (and that very rarely), and the matches progressed through waterlogged pitches which were churned into mudheaps by the end of the first month.

Although Norris did not give any hint as to where or when the move of the club might take place it was clear to everyone that now the two year grace period was over something was going to happen.  The first mention of a site came in Athletic News in October 1912.  Athletic News was indeed highly regarded as a source of accurate footballing information, but it was very much a northern publication and short of having a car tail Norris’ vehicle (something that would have been spotted given the paucity of cars on the roads, for these were the times when a chauffeur driven car would cause everyone to stop and look) it was impossible to keep track of him.

Athletic News’ story was that some land had been bought at Harringay Park Station.   I have no further information on who had bought this, but it quite probably had nothing to do with Norris.  He might well have gone to have a look – he was after all a land buyer par excellence for his burgeoning house building company, but then he probably went to look at many such sites.

Indeed the “Norris was spotted at…” industry seems to have been something akin to the stories of players spotted at the airport when they are (supposedly) about to transfer to another team in the 21st century.  Battersea was a favourite “Norris was spotted” location, but this too could well have been a series of house building expeditions.

Meanwhile, things were not good on the home front.   With a manager who had left but then been persuaded to stay, and a team that had just sold its one star player, a chairman who was distracted with moving the club, and a local press that was aware of the plan, and hostile to it, how could it be anything else?

The season opened badly with a draw and three defeats, plus the scoring of just one goal.   However it would be wrong to say that the team had been torn apart.  Many of the players were experienced – some could be counted as stalwarts – and they included Joe Shaw (the captain and the man who went on to run Arsenal’s reserve team in years to come), Peart (at left back who had played 34 times for the club the previous season, Percy Sands (centre half) another stalwart who had played 34 games in the previous campaign, and McKinnon (left half) again with games in the latter part of last season as the run was put together to lift the club up the table.

Greenaway, Common, and Flannagan in attack were all tried and tested Arsenal men, so although there were some newcomers, this was not just a team of odds and ends thrown together for the season as is sometimes suggested.

The away victory on September 21, 3-1 at Sheffield United, followed by draws with Newcastle and Oldham, suggested that the club was steadying the ship, but then suddenly McKinnon, Greenaway and Common all missed the home game with Chelsea on 12 October as Arsenal started its most disastrous run of all time: 23 games without a win.  A run that of course effectively relegated the club.

During this run only 12 goals were scored and indeed only once during the entire league season did Arsenal score more than one goal in a game – in a 2-5 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on 29 March.

Clearly the squad had no depth because there was no investment, the best player had gone and the owner was away ground hunting.  But more than that, the press was full of the “Arsenal moving” story, and there was a feeling that this was the end, not just among the journalists who criticised the club and its owner at every turn, but also among the fans.

As for Henry Norris, he knew exactly how much it was going to cost to build a new stadium, and he was therefore not minded at this stage to bolster the team for a local support that had shown itself completely unwilling to turn up for the team.

For the home game against Chelsea in October – the start of the terrible run – 20,000 did come to the match, but thereafter never once was that figure reached again.  Even the home game with arch rivals Tottenham (and it must be remembered that Tottenham were the arch rivals long before Arsenal moved north) only drew 13,000.   Likewise the highly attractive 2nd round game in the FA Cup against Liverpool which Arsenal lost 1-4 had a crowd recorded as a mere 8,653.

There was also a growing feeling supported by the newspapers that the south was not the natural homeland of football.  Watford and Croydon Common FC (of the Southern League) were reported to be in serious financial trouble and by the start of November Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham were the bottom three clubs in the First Division.

On that weekend Arsenal lost 0-4 at home to Manchester City with just 8,000 in the ground.   George Allison, still working as Gunners Mate, writing the Arsenal programme, but now also writing as The Mate in Athletic News suggested Arsenal were low on confidence and lacked both a natural leader and anyone who looked like they could be relied on to score.

The only relief was that Tottenham and Chelsea were also having hard times.   Tottenham went on an opening run of 12 games without a win – although they turned things around with four wins and a draw in December, and matters picked up for them thereafter.  After three opening defeats Chelsea had picked up a couple of victories but a run of 10 defeats in 13 had them in serious trouble.

On 15 November, writing in the West London and Fulham Times Norris had to admit that things were not going well for Woolwich Arsenal.  Maybe he admitted it because not even Fulham could provide him with any relief as they were near the foot of the second division.

Now I don’t think that Henry Norris had seriously started looking for a new site for Arsenal by this time, although it was on his mind.  I think the dire run in form and low crowds propelled Norris to take action now, rather than later.  I am sure the move was in his mind, of course, but it was the fact that the crowds had collapsed so rapidly that made him feel he had to move the club.   In short, he could not buy in new players without money pouring into the club, and the source of money was primarily the crowds.  He needed a way to get people into the ground, no matter what.   And that meant that he needed somewhere new.

My guess is that as he went on holiday to Switzerland, this was in his mind, and that it was during the holiday that he resolved to find a new ground that would generate the money.   The question was, where.  What sort of ground would keep the interest of people up even when times were tough?

The 1911/12 league attendance figures give us a clue as to how Norris’ thinking progressed at this time.  The club with the top attendance figure was Chelsea with 26,295 – an increase of 7.3% as they came second in the second division to gain promotion once more.   Second was Tottenham with an attendance of 25,031 – an increase of 8.1%.  They were 12th in the first division, two places below Woolwich Arsenal with its average gate of 11,630.

Thus two London clubs had the top two average crowds for the whole country – which utterly contracted the media view that the south was not natural footballing country.    So what was it that they had?  What took so many more people to games and Chelsea and Tottenham rather than to games at the more successful Arsenal?

The answers were not hard to fathom.  Chelsea had a very large ground, Tottenham had a lesser sized ground but attracted crowds because it was in the midst of an urban area which would attract people from north, south, east and west.

Arsenal had nothing to the north (save the Thames) and rural Kent to the East.  Much of southern London was not yet fully developed, and transport systems were modest – although improving.  But above all, as mentioned before, the local workforce was dominated by one employer whose actions were erratic to say the least.  Cuts to the workforce followed by hasty recruitment and double shifts on saturdays, and the removal of the Torpedo factory to Scotland all made life impossible for Woolwich Arsenal FC.

Thus Norris looked for an urban area that was not bordered by the Thames, with excellent transport links, and without a dependence on one wholly undependable local employer.

And I think he looked for something else.  He knew the value of publicity in the local press (and of course in 1912/13 the local press dominated football coverage), and he knew that local rivalry between two clubs could bring in a lot of extra supporters.

He knew this not just through everyday observation, but through being a director of Fulham – a club with Chelsea under two miles away.  Not only were matches between the two bound to deliver full stadia, but also the local rivalry meant that  the local paper would cover football every single day, not just before and after games.   In short Fulham’s proximity to Chelsea meant that the press had no option but to make football a major part of the daily papers in the area – which generated publicity for both clubs.

But even if this lesson had not been learned, Woolwich Arsenal’s rivalry with Millwall before 1910 was enough to show anyone just how the crowds would turn up for a derby game.

Thus Norris knew exactly what he was after: he wanted to build a club near an existing club, and right by existing transport connections in terms of the currently expanding underground network, and the established overground railways.

The London league teams of the day were Woolwich Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Clapton Orient, and Fulham.  In the Southern League (which certainly had a part to play in Londoner’s interest in football) there was West Ham, QPR, Crystal Palace, Millwall, and Croydon Common.

The last of these was in serious financial trouble, and ripe for takeover, but I believe Norris rejected south London at once as it was not going to get underground trains, and he saw that as a major way of delivering fans to the matches.

Fulham was out – there already were two clubs there, and Norris was still a director of Fulham FC.

But Tottenham and Clapton Orient were only four miles apart.  Although Tottenham had only played the Orient twice in league games – in 1908/09 – Tottenham then going up to the first division they still kept the local press occupied.  And with Woolwich Arsenal’s first division status under serious doubt the fact that in that part of north London there were two league clubs, one in each division, was another attraction.

I believe that at the end of 1912 Norris became convinced that a ground in close proximity to Clapton’s Millfield Road ground (just by Hackney Downs) and Tottenham’s ground in Tottenham High Road was perfect.  And in the end he found a ground half way between both clubs – the perfect spot.

In short I don’t think Norris toured the capital looking for a ground.  I believe he followed the same sort of logic that determined which land sites he bid for to build houses.   And then he spotted the piece of ground he wanted, and went for it.

If Norris’ car was spotted hither and thither in other parts of the capital as Athletic News and other sources suggested, I suspect it was not past Norris to tell his chauffeur (and he certainly had a chauffeur since he could not drive) to go and park somewhere around Stamford Hill for an hour and take a lunch in a local pub.  Just to put the journalists off.

Norris was, after all, a journalist himself.

The Henry Norris Files

Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

 

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