16 June 1917: Sir Henry Norris under attack

Sir Henry Norris, the man who rescued Woolwich Arsenal from extinction and moved the club to Highbury was given a knighthood in recognition of his work in forming and paying for the Footballers Battalion, plus his exemplary work in running his recruitment office in a way that few other local authorities were able to do.

His first full-time job during the first world war however was at the War Office in Worthing, during which time he was given the rank first of Lieutenant and then later Captain), where he was charged with the task of finding out why the local authority has put in a return to the War Office with the claim that the area had no (really no) men of conscription age who should be serving their country in the armed forces.

The answer was simple – but it was one of those that can readily be covered up if all parties agree to hide the story. Quite simply the local authority was using elected councilors to collect the data and they were working their way round their own local areas. And while of course the good citizens of Worthing were as patriotic as everyone else, they also felt that although the front line in France needed lots more soldiers that didn’t necessarily include their sons.

So there was a trade off it seems. Don’t put my son’s name down on the list, and you can be sure of my vote in the next local election. Norris tumbled what was going on at once, and reported back to the War Office. It seems they were impressed. Norris had just been knighted for his fund raising activities, now he had been shown to be a man who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty on the ground, and would obviously stand for no nonsense.

But that did not assuage the assaults on him in the local Fulham newspaper for it now appeared that a shortage of manpower (due of course to men joining the military, which is what Sir Henry had been working on) had meant that the Council had not been carrying out its statutory obligation to clean the borough’s sewers, and on 16 June 1917 they started flooding.  It was just what the newspaper needed, and Sir Henry was held personally to blame.  The fact that the Borough simply had no one available to do the work was not mentioned.

Now I do appreciate that a newspaper article about sewers is not exactly the normal anniversary celebrated in an article on football history, but it was a key moment for Sir Henry, and thus for Arsenal, for from here on personal attacks on Sir Henry Norris became more common in the local press, and it was this attack that was the start of a constant campaign against him which ran on through all his time at Arsenal.

What gave the newspaper more ammunition against Sir Henry was that he was missing a fair number of meetings of the local council of which he was leader and the London County Council on which he represented Fulham, and the full explanation was not given until 8 August, when it was revealed that Captain Sir Henry Norris had been promoted to Lt Colonel in the British Army, and had been made a Deputy Director of Recruiting.  

This promotion reveals the level of service he delivered to his country during his stint in working for the War Office in recruitment in Worthing and the efficiency of that work was recognised. The same efficiency as he showed in rescuing Woolwich Arsenal from extinction, and moving them to Highbury.

Indeed I think we might pause for a moment, as the leap in his status within the army is something to behold.  From holding no rank at all, and having no military experience, and indeed having been turned down for active duty on account of his age and eyesight at the start of the war, he had in the space of three years become first a Lieutenant, and then a Captain.  He had then by-passed the rank of Major completely and become now a Lieutenant Colonel (and would henceforth have been generally addressed as Colonel).   Officers of such rank would normally be commanding battalions of between 300 and 1000 men, although it is a rank also used for task force Executive Officers, and for administrators of army matters of the highest rank, who had not served in battle, which is exactly what Sir Henry now was.

All told there were eight Deputy Directors of Recruiting in the country, each controlling a different region: Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris was in charge of the South-East of England including Kent, Hampshire, Sussex and parts of Surrey.  It was a position of great responsibility, given as a result of the way he had, at great personal cost, conducted himself and served his country thus far.

Clearly Norris’ experience and ability in this specific field had been recognised.  He had responded to the outbreak of war by using football matches as a recruitment ground for what became known as the Volunteer Army.  He had then organised the “Derby Scheme” in the autumn of 1915 in a way that completed the gathering of data and the analysis in a far faster way than was achieved anywhere else (the aim being through a series of interviews to determine whether British manpower goals could be met by volunteers or if conscription was necessary.)

He had then organised Fulham’s response to the  Military Service Bill which was introduced in January 1916 and effectively introduced conscription and then following that was posted to Worthing to organise conscription in Sussex.

And now he had been put in charge of conscription and recruitment over a significant part of the south east of England.  During this period he had risen from Mr Norris to Lt Col Sir Henry Norris.