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Norris at the Arsenal Part 13: Amid protests from the locals Arsenal’s future is secured

By Tony Attwood

It is sometimes wondered, and indeed I have wondered it myself, why Henry Norris did nothing in the early part of the 1912/13 season to bring in new players to help pull the club away from the relegation zone.

The answer I think is that he was convinced that the salvation of Arsenal was not another patch and mend job to get the club out of the relegation mire, but rather the fact that everything depended on a move to an area where the crowds would turn up.  In short he wanted the crowds to generate the income so that this income could be used to bring in better players.  Norris would thus use his business skills to get the ground sorted, and filled, not his wealth to buy players.

And one can see the logic of his since his predecessor as chair of Woolwich Arsenal – Leavey – had followed the reverse route (ploughing money into the club) and it had failed to secure the club’s long term future.

The story of Norris’ search for a ground very specifically mid-way between Clapton and Tottenham did of course reach the press, for even without trailing his limousine he had been spotted and so on 5 February 1913 the Islington Gazette reported that Woolwich Arsenal planned to move to the borough.  Rumours had abounded about the new location for Arsenal throughout the season but this was the first correct reporting.

Back on the pitch with the club clearly doomed to relegation (saving a miracle which as we know did not happen), on 8 February 1913 the club gave a debut to Stephen Stonley who was signed from Newcastle City, having never played a league game for them.  The selling club was probably based in Staffordshire, and his signing either shows that Arsenal’s scouting system was widespread or that the player travelled to Woolwich looking for work.  

On 8 February Arsenal also gave the first match outing to Joseph Fidler – one of the men who played the last game in Plumstead and the first game at Highbury.  The game was a goalless draw; it was Arsenal’s first point after four defeats.

This was indeed a month of debuts since on 15 February 1913, Archie Devine was another to gain his first game for Woolwich Arsenal away to Chelsea which ended 1-1.  He had transferred from Bradford City, but only lasted the one season with Arsenal.  The game was one of a sequence of 28 in which Arsenal either failed to score or just scored one goal.  Arsenal had still won only one of the previous 26 league games.

And then finally on 22 February 1913 Gillespie Road was named in the press for the first time as the site of the new ground.  There had been rumours for weeks that the site would be somewhere in Islington, but no one quite knew where.

What we now know is that Henry Norris had settled (in secret) on the Highbury site as the new home for the club, as early as November but had since then been involved in months of painful negotiation until he actually purchased a lease on the property and was able to start turning the land into a stadium.

The land Norris found was part of the sports facility owned by St John’s College, Highbury, a religious centre that trained young men for the church. The college (a private foundation) was unhappy about the possible change of use, but they had problems of their own and N0rris turned out to be their only viable solution.

Their income was declining as the Church of England had changed the rules for the qualifications that men needed to become ordained, and selling or leasing the land was just about their only option as the College’s numbers declined. Fortunately for them the land had been given to the College by a benefactor without restrictions as to its use. With no one else interested in taking the lease, Norris must have seemed to the college as (if you will excuse the expression) a Godsend – although as we have just noted not so much of a Godsend that it didn’t take nearly four months of negotiations to procure the lease.

Even on 22 February 1913 Norris was not planning to reveal the site of the new ground – and it only came about when two local journalists found him at the College in Gillespie Road.  Given that there is only one site in the area which could possibly have been turned into a football ground the obvious conclusion was reached.  Woolwich Arsenal were going to Highbury.

But there is one other factor that is normally forgotten in the telling of this tale but which gives a real insight into Henry Norris.

Neither Norris nor the club bought the land in February 1913 – the land was leased from the College.  According to the terms of the lease, at the end of the lease the College could ask for the land back IN ITS ORIGINAL STATE if it wanted to end the agreement.  In other words Norris and Arsenal were taking an almighty gamble.

Now I have not seen a copy of the lease (indeed I don’t know if one still exists) but today such leases include the clauses that the lease will be reviewed at specific intervals and it will then be renewed, with such renewal not being unreasonably withheld.  I’m not sure if the Arsenal lease on the property had such a clause in it, but if not, Norris was taking a gamble and a half because if the lease ended without renewal or (as in fact happened) the club eventually purchasing the land then he would have lost everything.

Everything spent on the stadium could thus have been money thrown away if the College decided to ask for the ground back.  Worse Norris and Arsenal would need to remove the grandstand and terracing, the offices and everything else, to return the arena to its original state upon handover.

The following day, 23 February, Tottenham Hotspur went on the attack, demanding that the Management Committee of the Football League state that Woolwich Arsenal could not move to Highbury.

Tottenham were aided in this by Clapton Orient and on one front it looked like they might have a case, since clearly the region already had two clubs.  Clapton Orient had joined the League in 1905, and Tottenham had joined the League in 1908.  A third they argued, was too much.

But Norris had chosen carefully.  First, he relished the transport links.  Although he had actually opposed the introduction of trams to Fulham (as a Unionist mayor of Fulham he was obliged to listen to his party, and they were resolutely against the move), he knew that the transport issue was key.  Even 100 years ago, the days of the fan walking along a couple of streets to see his/her local team had gone.  Now fans were travelling by train, underground and bus.  Indeed an important part of Woolwich Arsenal’s support in Plumstead came from a group of fans in Rotherhithe.

Gillespie Road had transport options ready-made: Finsbury Park rail and underground services were working by 1913, as was Gillespie Road (later Arsenal) underground station.

But Norris knew that Tottenham had no ability to object to the move, because Tottenham had been down this road before.   When both Chelsea and Clapton Orient had applied for places in the Southern League in 1904 and 1905 respectively, Tottenham had objected.  The Southern League, having accepted Clapton in 1904, rejected Chelsea in 1905, in response to Tottenham’s pleadings, but then Clapton and Chelsea then jointly applied to join the Football League and were accepted and here Tottenham could have no objections since they played in the Southern League until 1908.  When Tottenham joined the League in 1908 it was Clapton Orient who could have objected on the grounds of proximity, but they chose not to.

But as we have said, these arguments had been rehearsed from 1910 onwards and Tottenham’s request for the League Management Committee to hear the case was rejected at once, since the Management Committee were perfectly aware that their rules, re-iterated in 1910, were clear: they did not control where clubs played.

Sally Davis reports that then, on Monday 24 February, a director from each of Tottenham and Clapton Orient “went uninvited to the scheduled meeting of the Football League management committee to ask them to prevent any move by Woolwich Arsenal to north London from going ahead.”  They probably knew it was a lost cause but felt they should try and do something.

On Friday 28 February the Kentish Independent published Norris’ response to the paper’s suggestions that Woolwich Arsenal were on the move but by that time the letter had been overtaken by events.  But nonetheless the paper ran it, and it said that if the directors of Woolwich Arsenal were to move the club to a more populated area of London they could scarcely be blamed for doing so with gates at the Manor Ground as low as they were.

But mostly what was on Norris’ mind was the case of Chelsea.  In the season 1909/10 Chelsea had been relegated to the second division, and there they stayed for the next two years.  In 1912/13 they were back in the first division but came just one place above Notts County who went down with Woolwich Arsenal.  Here is their record…

Season Division League position Average crowd Crowd position
1909/10 Div 1 18 / 20 28545 1
1910/11 Div 2 3 / 20 24515 3
1911/12 Div 2 2 / 20 26295 1
1912/13 Div 1 18 / 20 33555 1

These crowd positions relate to the entire two divisions of the Football League – in short Chelsea were the most supported club in the country in three of these four seasons, despite twice being in the second division, and on the other two seasons ending up one place from relegation (the 19th and 20th placed club going down).

As I mentioned in the last piece, Norris knew his figures and could draw conclusions, and his conclusions were that he needed to create a club near one or better still two other clubs, away from the Thames and where there were excellent transport links to bring people to the game.

The matter was discussed again on Friday 28 February in Glasgow where the committee gathered prior to the Scottish Football League v English Football League fixture.  This time the issue of Arsenal was on the agenda, and so this time William Hall made something of a show of vacating the room for the discussion.

As a result of the discussion the League issued at statement on Saturday 1 March, saying that it was recognised the for clubs to move was unusual (the last big move was Manchester Utd going to Old Trafford in 1910), but not unheard of, and that they could not stop the move.  There was nothing new in that, but this time they went a lot further saying that if it was North London that Arsenal wanted to move to, then north London was perfectly able to support three football clubs.

But there was something else.  The point was made by Arsenal that the vast majority of teams were in the Midlands and the North of England, and they came to London by train.   Having arrived at Kings Cross or Euston, as most did, they could now get an underground train straight to Gillespie Road instead of making a second long journey to Plumstead.   Thus, rather craftily Arsenal suggested that although Tottenham might not like it, virtually every other team would find Arsenal in north London an improvement.

Indeed it was probably mentioned in passing that Bradford had two league clubs, as did Sheffield, as did Birmingham.  Bradford had a population of under a quarter of a million at the time, and north London was about eight times that size.  The argument was poor to say the least.

Certainly the norther based and norther biased Athletic News found itself in Arsenal’s camp, recognising that crowds did not just follow success (a popular misconception) but that they came because of the location of the ground.   The magazine also now published the exact location of Arsenal’s new ground and  Arsenal admitted the truth of the matter at a press briefing in Covent Garden on Tuesday 4 March,

One of the most interesting aspects of Norris’ statement, made in the Connaught Rooms, was the revelation of of the gate money that Arsenal had received for home matches this season:

  • Sunderland £246
  • Manchester City £226
  • Everton £199
  • Blackburn Rover £195
  • Notts County (on Christmas day – a day that typically brought in bigger crowds) £235
  • Liverpool £234
  • Sheffield United £200
  • Oldham £227
  • Bradford City £247
  • Liverpool (cup second round) £343

Norris also made reference to the other two clubs already in North London.  He also made the point that Tottenham was in Middlesex, while Arsenal was in the county of London, not forgetting in passing that Woolwich Arsenal, as the first League club in London, had vote FOR Chelsea Fulham, Clapton Orient and Tottenham being admitted to the league when their applications had arisen.

Norris finally stated that Arsenal had been in the Football League for 20 years, and through this made the point that whereas at the start the footballing public stayed true to their local club, now with improvement transport Arsenal’s local support were going to other grounds, rather than Plumstead.

William Hall also made a point that is sometimes missed – there at this meeting there was no debate.  The Tottenham and Orient statements had been made by their clubs, and then a vote taken.  The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Arsenal as it had to be, because the committee had no power to stop Arsenal moving, as they had already said.

The Times made an interesting point too, saying that, “It has been the experience when professional football has been established in any quarter that a new public has been created for the game.  Chelsea is a case in point.

“It would be a thousand pities if a club like the Arsenal had to put up its shutters for lack of support, seeing that for twelve years they were the only members in town of the Football League, and most people will wish the Arsenal good luck in their pluck endeavour to keep the flag flying under the most disastrous conditions in recent years.”

Tottenham however would still not let go and continued to argue that there should be an emergency general meeting of the League to discuss the issue.  There is no doubt that they also encouraged either the setting up of, or the development of, the Highbury Defence Committee which was formed by local residents to oppose the move.  The Committee launched a petition, and did manage to persuade a majority of members on Islington Council to oppose the development.  But Islington Council itself had limited powers in the affair, and there was never any chance that they could have an effect on developments, no matter how much noise local councillors made.

But so strong were the anti-football claims that came out of the Highbury Defence Committee that football fans from across the country began to respond to the accusations, and for some time Athletic News was full of denouncements of the residents of Islington.  Whether Islington residents noticed this backlash or not is not recorded, but it certainly did nothing to raise the positive profile of the area.

The Henry Norris Files

Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912/13

The book “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” is the only complete history of the club ever published, covering its entire lifetime from 1893 to 1915.  There are a small number of copies left available of this 234 page volume.  It is available for £14.95 with no postage charge for delivery within the UK.  Just email Tony@schools.co.uk with your details at made payment via PayPal or contact me and I can arrange another other method of payment.

 

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