By Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and Tony Attwood
For much of its existence Arsenal has been dependant on benefactors – men who put their own money into the club in order that it may survive.
One such was George Leavey, who, although now long forgotten by the club, was a man of whom it could be said that without him, Arsenal would have died at some stage in the early 20th century.
Born in Basingstoke, Hampshire in 1858 he managed and ran a successful Gentleman’s outfitters, which opened a shop in Woolwich in 1896. Following George Lawrance’s death Leavey was mainly on his own as the financier until 1910 when he liquidated the club, after which it was taken over by Henry Norris. The only other director we have found who shouldered some of the finances at this time was apparently Dr Clarke.
Leavey was first elected a director in 1898, becoming Chairman in 1899. He struggled to find the time to run his business and hold such a prominent role in the club, so he stepped down from the board but was elected club President in 1900, a post in which he remained until 1910. He was installed as Chairman again when Norris took over, the only current serving director to remain after Norris took on the club, retiring at the end of April 1912.
Leavey, while Chairman, felt he had to address the prevalence of the drink culture which surrounded football. At the June 1899 AGM he concluded with a request to the public present not to offer drink to the players. He went further at a pre-season dinner for the players in August 1899 when he stated: “Woolwich is a place fraught with much mischief to young men. Half past twelve closing may be good in its way, but it is unquestionably bad for football. Don’t let people stand you drinks. They will do you and the club the greatest evil that can be done. No man with a skinful of whisky can play football”.
In 1898 he became a shareholder with 1 share, but between then and 1903 he added to his stake taking it to a total of 155 shares. In 1899 he proposed a motion to introduce £500 worth of preferential shares at £1 each, and as many as 140 of his shares were preferential. As the name suggests these were of a higher level than ordinary shares and were mechanisms to ensure holders received dividends or an annual interest rate before the ordinary shares, if there were financial reasons why a full payout could not be met.
As chairman at the half-yearly general meeting in January 1900 he made an impassioned speech concerning the very existence of Arsenal as a going concern, but he was determined to keep them afloat during the Boer War and he moved the resolution: “That this meeting hears with regret of the difficulties of the Arsenal Football Club owing very largely to the continuous pressure of work in the Royal Arsenal, and hereby pledges itself to use every endeavour to assist the club through its present financial difficulties and heartily wishes the old club success and greater prosperity in the near future”.
One way in which Leavy sought to secure the survival of the club during the Boer War was to link himself with the Football League and he was elected to the Football League Committee in 1901. Additionally, around this period, Leavey opened an outfitters in Birmingham and purchased one share in Aston Villa. It is a mystery why he did this, although it is possible that he thought it might help his business to be seen as one who was linked to the club. However he did not play any significant role in the club and his address was lost to the Midlands club by the 1920s.
His and Lawrance’s finances, and the re-introduction of Humble’s administrative nous ensured the worst deficit in the club’s history was overcome in 1900. The improvement was such that Leavy was quoted as saying the finances were back to being “eminently satisfactory” by the 1903 AGM.
Despite his importance to the club he generally liked to keep a low profile, as can be seen by the fact that at many meetings he presided but let others do the talking, and his key centre of attention was the finance.
In 1909 the Kentish Independent stated that Leavey had paid the players’ wages several times during that close season, and it may have been this that was the final proverbial straw which led to voluntary liquidation. Following the low share take up in 1910, Leavey turned to Norris, and the Kentish Independent noted: “Arsenal club saved. Fulham Gentlemen on the board. The Arsenal Football Club crisis has taken another and a sensational turn”.
Leavey reported the rescue arrangements at the Football League sub‑committee meeting on 18th May 1910. So Leavey had handed over the financial reins to Norris and as part of the takeover Norris agreed to pay the liabilities of the company. A large part of those were the £3,600 owed to George Hiram Leavey.
It is frightening to consider how much he had given the club in addition to that which was formally recorded as in 1908 it was stated by Humble that Leavey had lent the club in the region of £15,000 for transfers over the previous years.
Leavey wrote to the Kentish Independent on 16 April 1912 explaining that he could no longer spend the time nor provide adequate support for the club, wished Norris and Hall success in the venture, and resigned.
The above article on the one the men who was utterly vital to the development and continuation of Arsenal, appears in the Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football.