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GCR Books

Why did Henry Norris have a fixation with Woolwich Arsenal

By Andy Kelly and Tony Attwood
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Henry Norris bought Woolwich Arsenal FC in 1910.  Quite why he did so has always been something of a mystery, since he already owned two clubs – Croydon Common FC in the Southern League and Fulham FC in the second division.
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Arsenal at the time were struggling, and the 1909/10 season, which ended just before Norris took over Woolwich Arsenal, saw Arsenal escape relegation to the second division with jut two games to go.  So the answer cannot be that Woolwich Arsenal, famous though they were, were a force to be reckoned with.  True they had been to the cup semi final twice, but that was about it.
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The book “Making the Arsenal” struggles to answer this question, and now some further findings on the history of the period make the whole situation even murkier.
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These concern Harry Bradshaw, the Woolwich Arsenal manager from 1899 to 1904.
Harry’s record with the club was good…
Season League position FA Cup exit
1899-1900 8th (Division 2) 3rd qualifying [1st round played]
1900-1901 7th (Division 2) 2nd round [3rd round played]
1901-1902 4th (Division 2) 1st round [3rd round played]
1902-1903 3rd (Division 2) 1st round [2nd round played]
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But tucked inside this rise and rise (and remember at this time, the second division was the only league Arsenal had ever played in),  is a drama which takes some unfathoming.
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During the summer of 1902 Harry Bradshaw was sent to the Isle Of Man to rest as he was reportedly finding the job if managing Woolwich Arsenal very stressful.  Then in January 1904 he told the board that he wanted to retire from the game.
The club then arranged for Phil Kelso to replace and Kelso joined the club in early April 1904. Bradshaw was in charge of team affairs until the end of the season when he retired and Kelso took charge of the team immediately after the last game.
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So Bradshaw retired in April 1904 on the grounds of ill-health, something that must have miffed him a little when you look at the rise up the league table over the years.
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And yet by September 1904 Harry he was in charge of Fulham. We know who was in charge of Fulham at the time…  Henry Norris.
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But, it gets more curious. Kelso handed in his notice at Arsenal in October 1907 and was replaced by George Morrell in February 1908. Kelso went away to manage a hotel in Scotland but he came back down south to manage Fulham in 1909 – just over a year after pulling out of London, England and the whole game of football.
  • Two Arsenal managers
  • Both leave the game shortly afterwards
  • Both come back into the game
  • Both to manage Fulham
It seems a bit of a coincidence.
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Did Norris have an early obsession with Arsenal?
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A few years back I (Andy) went through every Arsenal player and noted which other clubs they had played for. The club with the most connections by far was Fulham.
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Fulham’s next 3 managers after Kelso were:
  • Andy Ducat (ex-Arsenal player)
  • Joe Bradshaw (son of Harry and ex-Arsenal player)
  • Ned Liddell (ex-Arsenal player and one of the main instigator’s of Norris’ downfall)
Admittedly Norris had nothing to do with the running of Fulham by the time these three were in office but there seems to be quite a connection between the clubs.

Fulham were formed as Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School F.C in 1879 (seven years before Arsenal) and won the West London Amateur Cup in 1887 becoming Fulham F in 1888.  They won the West London League in 1893 moving to Craven Cottage in 1896.  .

The club turned pro after Arsenal in 1898,  and went straight into the Southern League division 2 moving into the first division in 1903.   They won the Southern League first division in in 1905–06 and 1906–07 – and then moved into the Football League second division.

So during the time we are talking about Norris was manipulating a Southern League and 2nd division Football League team, and poaching managers from Woolwich Arsenal who throughout the time were a league above them.  Why was this?

Here’s something rather odd.  In May 1903 Fulham were elected to the Southern League Division I from Division II – despite having lost 7-2 to Brentford in the Test Match.   This is odd, because as Brentford won and won so handsomely, they should have gone up.   Even more interestingly this was  was exactly the moment that Norris appeared on the scene.  Did Norris bribe the Southern League, or Brentford, or both?   There is no evidence at all of course.

Such records and notes that exist say that the vote for election to the Southern League Division I was held twice, and even after the second ballot there was a row before Fulham get the nod, and Norris stands up to give the vote of thanks.

By June 1903 he was club chairman.

Here’s another point.   In January 1903 he had left the Fulham Lodge of the Masons Society.   It may have no connection, but I thought I would through it in.

In 1910 when Norris took over Arsenal he certainly did speak up the club, calling it London’s oldest professional team, and ignoring the fact that Fulham was actually an older club.  It all seems like something of a fixation.  And we know that in 1919 Norris was instrumental in exploiting the match fixing that Manchester U and Liverpool were involved in, to get the First Division to accept Arsenal.  There was nothing wrong with this – there was a vote in favour of Arsenal – just as there had been a vote in favour of Fulham going up in 1903.

So here’s a thought.  Did Norris believe he could achieve everything and anything through manipulation of the right people in the right places?  If so, all he needed was simply the right people in the right places.  And just as having two teams (Fulham and Croydon Common) was better than one, so three might well be better than two.

Maybe he just wanted places to exert his power – and maybe from the start he had established links with Arsenal.

It is by no means a full answer, but it starts to make some kind of sense.

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