By Tony Attwood
This week the AISA Arsenal History Society will be publishing the second in a series of reviews of Arsenal’s history – this one covering the start of the Norris Era, and the move from Plumstead to Highbury.
As with the first publication in the series the publication contains revelations about Arsenal’s history that effectively turn much of what was previously known about the club’s past upside down. In fact a quick count that I did on the final proof of the review revealed over 20 facts that have not seen the light of day in printed material for at least 80 years, and which certainly are not in the standard histories of Arsenal that have been released in recent years.
The Start of the Norris Era looks at why Henry Norris, leading shareholder in Fulham FC, Mayor of Fulham, and regular columnist, should even be interested in taking over a club like Woolwich Arsenal – a club so clearly in trouble.
It also considers why Arsenal were in financial trouble (forget the old story about it all being down to the fact that Woolwich is difficult to get to), and explores why Woolwich Arsenal had a reputation across the UK and the Empire that was far greater than its achievements on the pitch would lead us to expect.
And in particular we look at that extraordinary partnership that emerged in 1910 to rescue the club – the partnership of new owner Henry Norris, and club founder Jack Humble. This in turn leads to a re-evaluation of Norris himself, as we find he was far more left-leaning that every previously considered, and would have had many views that were in accordance with Jack.
The review charts the arrival of George Allison to the club, the signing of the legends Leigh Roose and Alf Common, and perhaps most dramatically, the move to Highbury which was a most extraordinary affair. Normally dismissed in a couple of lines in Arsenal histories this saw opposition from the local council, the formation of a fanatical Highbury Defence League, and the increasingly desperate attempts by Tottenham to stop Arsenal’s move, at any cost.
Indeed it is this final point that is of particular interest as we approach the annual set to with Tottenham. For the moment we can forget that this is the 51st year since Tottenham last won the league, and instead remember issues 99 years ago for it was in February 1913 that the Islington Gazette announced for the first time what it had discovered after following Henry Norris around north London, that Arsenal were planning to move to Gillespie Road.
Immediately Tottenham and Clapton Orient demanded that the move be blocked by the management committee of the Football League, saying that the League should control who played where. (Rather ironic to think of this in the year that Tottenham tried to get the right to use the Olympic stadium).
Tottenham’s appeal 99 years ago was really rather silly since there had been a number of such appeals over the years and the Football League and its committees had repeatedly said that there was nothing in their rule books about where a match might be played and where a ground could be. They had re-iterated this when Tottenham had appealed before over grounds (in the case of Chelsea’s arrival) and as recently as the previous summer when there was a proposal to move Woolwich Arsenal to Craven Cottage.
Tottenham even tried to get an emergency general meeting of all the league clubs in the country, but they would have none of it, given that they actually preferred to have Arsenal in a big stadium near a railway station, rather than tucked away at the end of a long ride into Plumstead.
So it was that on 4 March 1913 Henry Norris confirmed in public that Arsenal would play at the Gillespie Road ground next season.
There was then a Highbury Defence Committee formed, which Tottenham supported, and which attempted to get Islington Council to stop the move. On 4 April the council held a debate and voted to do everything they could to stop Arsenal coming to Highbury.
But Norris held firm, and amazingly built the stadium (or at least enough of it) so that it was ready to open in September 1913. The only concessions he had to make was that he would not allow gambling on the site, would not sell alcohol, and would not play on religious holidays, such as Christmas Day.
The notion of clubs moving grounds was not at all unknown at the time – indeed Millwall moved from the Isle of Dogs south across the river to New Cross in 1910 – the only issue this time was the fuss made by Tottenham and Orient. But in the end both clubs benefited. Tottenham’s average crowd was up in the 1913/14 season by 5,000 and Orient gained record crowds for their matches against Arsenal with 27000 turning up to see the match at Orient in December 1913. Arsenal’s crowds shot up too – the last match in Plumstead had a crowd of 3,000 whereas crowds of 25,000 plus were common from the start at Highbury.
The Start of the Norris Era will be sent free of charge to all members of Arsenal Independent Supporters Association in the next couple of weeks, and will also be on sale price £5, from the AISA web site.
If you are not a member of AISA I would strongly recommend it. You automatically become a member of the AISA Arsenal History Society, and receive our reviews – of which this is the second, with the next one currently planned for the start of next season. You will be invited to AISA’s AGMs (this season’s having been held in the club’s media centre at the Emirates, with Ivan Gazidis as the guest speaker). This year you would also have had the chance to attend our reception at the House of Commons, in which the great grand daughter of Jack Humble was the guest speaker – the first time a member of Humble family has been a guest at an Arsenal event since the 1920s.
There are more details on www.aisa.org