Since the coming of the Football League in 1888, the competition has seen many chairmen whose actions impacted their club for better or eventually worse. Yet none would have such an impact on several of London’s football clubs as Sir Henry George Norris.
Born in July 1865, Norris first made his name in property development by constructing several thousand houses across West London in areas such as Fulham. His love of football resulted in him buying out Fulham FC in 1903 and becoming a director as well as a chairman.
Chairman for five years, under his tenure the Cottagers would make grand strides. Norris would build Fulham upwards on the pitch, becoming champions of the Southern League in 1906, a league separate from the main divisions of the Football League that was mostly centred on clubs in the North of England and Midlands. Yet Fulham under Norris would be elected to the Football League in 1907 and enter in the Second Division for the 1907-08 season.
However, Norris would in 1905 be involved in a sliding doors moment in English football. A businessman by the name of Gus Mears, alongside his brother Joseph, had acquired the Stamford Bridge Athletics Ground. Their intention was to make it the best ground in the United Kingdom but to do so required a team to play on it.
Gus Mears’ first choice was nearby Fulham FC. But Norris declined the offer to relocate to Stamford Bridge, perturbed by the cost to rent the stadium for £1,500 per year – roughly to £233,000 today when accounting for inflation. The only other offer for the ground came from the Great Western Railway Company, wanting to use it as a coal yard. Though it was an offer Mears did contemplate, he would find a third option and decided to found a team in March 1905. The name of the side? Chelsea FC.
It would lead Norris to begin a footballing odyssey in 1910 that again had wide-reaching consequences in English football. Gazing to South East London in May, alongside fellow director William Hall, both men would acquire shares in Woolwich Arsenal. A club that avoided relegation from the First Division in the 1909-1910 season, Woolwich Arsenal were in deep financial trouble, suffering from falling attendances that averaged just 11,000.
Seeking to own the club, Norris offered to pay off those whom Woolwich Arsenal owed money to. Yet it hinged on a single condition – allowing him to merge Fulham and Woolwich Arsenal to play at Craven Cottage. The Football League rejected the idea due to it being the only body that decided which clubs would participate in the top flight.
Despite this setback, Norris would bankroll Woolwich Arsenal for three years at their ground in Plumstead. However, the 1912-13 season would prove tumultuous for Woolwich Arsenal on and off the pitch. Off the pitch, Norris had set his sights on a new home, keen to improve the club’s finances and attract more fans.
Options included Battersea just south of the River Thames, as well as in Haringay north of the river. But Highbury would prove to be an enticing option. Even so, Norris originally avoided it – aware they would reside just a few miles from potential rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
What swayed Norris was transport links – the recently new train station at Gillespie Road meant the ability of fans to travel to their new stadium would help to generate a large increase in revenue compared to their stadium at the Manor Ground in Plumstead.
Seeing the vast potential, the club settled on the recreation fields of St John’s College of Divinity, paying £20,000 (£2.94 million today) for a 21-year lease. Objections were quickly raised at the move northwards by Tottenham and Clapton Orient (today’s Leyton Orient) but also nearby residents.
To the relief of Norris, these appeals were turned down by the League Management Committee. Despite this, things would prove tough for Woolwich Arsenal on the pitch. The 1912-13 would be a disaster for the club, finishing bottom of the First Division and suffering relegation to the Second Division. Fulham avoiding relegation from the top flight was a small consolation for Norris.
While Norris had to stomach the ignominy of relegation, construction work began on what was originally known as the Arsenal Stadium throughout the summer of 1913. Costing £125,000 (£13 million today), the stadium still wasn’t fully complete when it hosted its first game in September, a 2-1 win against Leicester Fosse, now known as Leicester City.
Now settled in North London, Woolwich Arsenal soon changed its name to Arsenal. Alas, the name change did not coincide with an uptick in their fortunes, as the Gunners failed to achieve promotion to the First Division, finishing third in the 1913-14 season and then fifth in the 1914-15 campaign. Their fifth-placed finish would be a source of a rivalry born a few years later.
Suddenly, the world of professional football would be put on hold with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Despite gallantly trying to continue, the growing escalation of the conflict resulted in professional football officially being put on hold in May 1915. Norris did his duty in the war by becoming a recruiter and later working for the War Office. Given the honorary rank of Colonel by the end of the war in November 1918, he would also be knighted.
Norris’ knighting would lead to a furthering of his political ambitions. Since November 1909, he’d been the mayor of Fulham, but in December 1918 would run as a Conservative MP for the seat of Fulham East in the general election. Though winning comfortably by a majority of 7,000 votes, as well as 69.4% of the vote, the sole negative consequence of being an MP was foregoing his mayoralty.
With the Great War over, 1919 would be a pivotal year for Arsenal as professional football resumed. With it came the thorny issue of what the post-war footballing landscape would look like and change the dynamic of football in North London forever.
By: Yousef Teclab / @TeclabYousef
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ColorSport