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Arsenal History Project

Henry Norris at the Arsenal

Henry Norris at the Arsenal: the latest AISA Arsenal History Society project

by Tony Attwood

In May 2017, The Arsenal History Society launched its biggest project yet: to write a complete history of Henry Norris’ involvement at the Arsenal.

Before we started this massive project the tale of Arsenal in the 1930s and Arsenal in the 1970s had already been written and placed on the Arsenal History Society website - both of them more detailed reviews that had been attempted before. 

But the Henry Norris project was to be bigger still, because the idea was not just to chronicle what happened to Arsenal during Henry Norris’ reign, but also to challenge much (perhaps most) of what had been written before about Norris and his time at Arsenal.

Before the project started it was already known that there was something seriously wrong with the standard story told about Henry Norris at the Arsenal - the story that the man was at best a disreputable rule breaker, at worst a crook and con-man.  However the aim of the series was to go much, much further, and not simply tell a story that had been told before.

For what the AISA Arsenal History Society wished to do was to follow everything that Henry Norris did in relation to Arsenal from 1910 when he took over the club through to 1927 when he left and to explore the truth behind the stories commonly told about Norris.

And because the story that was to be told was one that was radically different from the story told by other writers and indeed by the club itself, a completely new approach to publishing was decided upon.

For it was decided that the draft of the story would be published week by week online so that everyone could see the work as it evolved.   In the end 146 episodes were published at a rate of two or three a week - totalling around one third of a million words - massively more than could ever be included in a book.  Or at least more than could be put in a book that anyone would ever buy and then read!

This approach provided an opportunity for everyone who was interested to see how the traditional story of Henry Norris could be challenged. 

And challenged the traditional story has been.  The chances are if you have heard at all about Henry Norris you will have heard that he somehow fixed the election of Arsenal to the first division in 1919.  How he was a thief who stole money from Arsenal. How he was so mean that he wouldn’t allow his managers to buy players.

As has now been shown, these and other stories told about Norris are all nonsense; finally the true story of Henry Norris at the Arsenal is being published.  The story of a man who saved Arsenal from extinction in 1910, who was the first to expose the match fixing prevalent among some northern teams, a man whose work in the 1st World War gained him a knighthood (at a time when men who had left school at 14 never gained such an honour), a man who rose in the army from having no rank at all as a volunteer to being a Lieutenant Colonel, in recognition of his phenomenal services to his country.

In between this he became the longest serving London Mayor of all time and most importantly from Arsenal’s point of view, not just the man who saved the club from extinction in 1910, but also the man who devised an extraordinary 15 year plan that would turn the south London club that could not pay its bills, into the best supported and ultimately the richest club in the country.

Indeed it is extraordinary to think now that this project could be so utterly ignored by football.  But ignorance of the amazing transformation of Arsenal is merely the latest way that football has responded to Henry Norris.  His extraordinary work has been negated in books (such as an appalling autobiography by one of his managers whom Norris had protected through a disastrous reign) while myths about what Norris did gained a greater prevalence than anything he actually undertook.

The second draft of our largest ever history project, “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” is now complete, and is online for all to read.  You can find it here

Our new task is to go through this draft and revise the text, adding corrections and updates of new information that has been found during the writing of the volume.  

Then as the final step in the process, AISA is hoping to publish a reduced and more manageable version of the story as a book which will place on permanent record the complete history of how Arsenal was saved from liquidation and turned into the most famous club in the world through the vision of one man.

It will of course take a little while to move from the second draft now on line to the final printed edition, but we will be posting further information as we get closer to publication.

Tony Attwood
AISA - Arsenal History Society