Did Arsenal bribe its way into the First Division?

We caused a bit of a fuss yesterday (Monday 16th) when we trailed the ‘Today of All Days’ feature with the above question. Not least as the piece didn’t actually answer the question!

So here’s the answer in short. ‘No!’

Tony Attwood of the AISA Arsenal History Society explains in a bit more detail.

The Election of Arsenal to the First Division

The question as to whether Henry Norris, Arsenal’s financial saviour in 1910 and the club’s chairman through to 1927, fixed Arsenal’s election into Division One of the League in 1919 is one that is often raised by those who like to find negative things to say about the club.

The answer to whether Norris did anything significantly untoward in his time at Arsenal is very clearly, “no.” But the stories persist, so if you want to read the most detailed account written of all the ins and outs surrounding the election of Arsenal to the top division in 1919 you can find it on the AISA Arsenal History Society Website in the series “The 1919 Affair”

However there are a lot of details to be worked through in the “1919 Affair”, not, as I suggest, because Arsenal did anything unusual or dubious, but because Arsenal’s election to the First Division happened against a background of match-fixing, across several years before the First World War, and the desire of the League to expand in the aftermath of the war.  

Yet the fact is that all serious research into the election of Arsenal to the first division shows that there was nothing underhand about the affair.  But people still ask: why, when Arsenal had come 5th in the final Division II campaign before the leagues were shut down for the duration of the First World War, was Arsenal then elected to Division 1 when football resumed?  Why Arsenal, rather than the clubs that came above them in the final season of football before the war?

The reasons Arsenal was elected

There are many reasons why Arsenal’s case was so strong, but perhaps the most powerful was that Arsenal had supported the Football League throughout its time as a professional team, while other clubs (most notably Tottenham) had instead chosen to join the rival Southern League and only later sought to move to the Football League.

The Football League had started as a league for clubs in the midlands and north west and were keen to establish themselves throughout England.  What’s more Arsenal had shown solidarity with their local rivals when they helped Tottenham get elected to the League after that club had left the Southern League but failed to get elected to the Football League – leaving them leagueless.

The existing League clubs also liked Highbury because it was so easy to get to by railway and underground – remembering that in 1919 this was how clubs travelled to away games.  And because of Arsenal’s fame through its origins via the Royal Arsenal, the club was one that many soldiers supported, alongside their home town club. 

But more than this Henry Norris himself was a popular and influential figure at the time.  Not only had he rescued Woolwich Arsenal by paying off all the club’s debts and rescuing them from bankruptcy in 1910, he had also been the first person to highlight the match fixing antics of Liverpool and Manchester United before the war.  He was severely sanctioned at the time when he mentioned this, but others clubs valued his input and saw him as a bastion against the cheats.

Then during the first world war his reputation soared.  He recruited and paid for three battalions of soldiers (the “football battalions”) which subsequently joined the Middlesex Regiment, and for this he was granted a knighthood in 1917.

But he also came more directly to his country’s aid in its greatest hour of need.  Britain had started the war with a professional army, and was proud that it didn’t use conscripts.  Yet it was soon clear that conscription was going to be essential as the war dragged on.  Unfortunately, since young men were not entitled to vote, there were no registers of who could be called up, and the local authorities proved singularly unable to find young working class men to join the army.

Henry Norris joined the army, and proved himself a brilliant administrator, setting up systems across the country that enabled the local authorities to locate and recruit young men to serve.  He started the war as a volunteer in the army with no rank at all, and ended it as a Lt Colonel working in the War Office.  When the war ended it was he who was placed in charge of demobilisation.

Thus although an administrator, he was seen as a war hero, (the anti-administrator sentiments fostered by the notion of “Sir Humphrey” had not been invented then) and he was much admired for his war work – as well as being known as both the man who saved Woolwich Arsenal FC, the soldiers’ club, and as the man who exposed the match fixing antics of some northern clubs.

We might also note that although it didn’t directly affect his campaign to have Arsenal voted into the first division, when it was expanded in 1919, Sir Henry Norris was a man of extremely progressive views.  He repeatedly pushed for equal pay for women, and for the war wounded to be given state pensions – and he never lost his reputation as being the man who publicised the corruption of certain clubs.

Athletic News, the leading weekly football magazine of the era actively promoted Arsenal’s case to be elected to the first division in 1919, and in the voting at the AGM Arsenal were the clear winners in gaining one of the two new places in the top League.

The second place went to Chelsea who were to have been relegated as a result of the endemic match fixing by the northern clubs.

The following day’s newspapers reported the election in full, and not a single one mentioned any unfair doings by Norris or by Arsenal.  Even the local Tottenham paper, where it was noted that Arsenal’s victory meant Tottenham would be in the second division in 1919/20 made no allegations against Arsenal.  Tottenham in fact won the 2nd Division in 1919/20 and so after one season joined Arsenal in the 1st.

Negative stories about Henry Norris were thus unknown at the time, and in fact only started to circulate a quarter of a century later when Leslie Knighton, Arsenal’s manager from 1919 to 1925 published his autobiography in a Sunday newspaper.  It contained a collection of wild accusations and stories about Henry Norris (who had passed away some years before) without any evidence – but they were stories demanded by the Sunday paper, and which helped sales.  Later the supporters of other clubs picked up this thread, and built it into the anti-Norris tale.

In recent years the AISA Arsenal History Society has examined each and every one of these wild stories invented by Knighton, and they have all proven to be completely without foundation.  You can read the full history of the period in fulsome detail in Henry Norris at the Arsenal – the complete story of the Norris years reported on the Arsenal History Society website.

For today’s ‘Today of All Days’ feature, click here

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