Arsenal's Royal Family
My tour around some of Arsenal FC`s longest ever servants has taken me through some long and winding streets. Pat Rice, Tom Whittaker and Bob Wilson have thus far been treated in this series. But this particular foray into Arsenal`s heritage takes a slightly different fork in the road. For this does not focus on one man or even one family. There are two families that have steered the good ship Arsenal pretty constantly for the last eighty three years. Both double barrels still feature prominently on the board. Since Henry Norris` controversial reign over our club, these families have kept a steady hand on the tiller.
In a bout of reverse snobbery in the context of recent boardroom battles, it`s easy to be cynical about the some of the supposedly stuffier shirts at Arsenal. But their lineage has nonetheless seen the club remain competitive and successful for longer than the average male`s life expectancy. War, economic crises, a changing world and a changing sport have not diminished Arsenal`s standing in the game. Henry Norris did the dirty work necessary for the Gunners to survive the Darwinian jungle of Victorian football where more clubs folded than survived. He got some backs up along the way and got his hands dirty. He doesn`t seem to have been a particularly nice man, but if one is to be utilitarian for a moment, the club probably would not have survived without his hands pulling at our bootstraps.
The authorities finally got their way in 1929. Norris was found guilty of embezzling club funds pertaining to the sale of the team bus, pocketing the £125 fee it fetched for himself. He had also been using club expenses to pay for his chauffeur. The F.A. banned him from football for life. In any case, he would only live a further five years. Norris had recruited the great Herbert Chapman as manager. But his parsimony and autocracy had prevented Chapman from undertaking the work he really wanted to do. He wanted the stadium revamped and he wanted to sign a blockbuster player to win the hearts and minds of the supporters. With Norris` tight fist away from the till, he was now free to do so.
Samuel Hill-Wood came in as chairman following Norris` acrimonious removal from office. Sir Samuel was born in March 1872 in Glossop, Derbyshire. During his youth, Samuel`s father, Samuel Senior, made a fortune in the cotton industry. This allowed Samuel Senior to educate his son at the prestigious Eton college. Samuel Junior was also a keen cricketer and would go on to play 34 first class cricket matches for Derbyshire, captaining them between 1899-1901. (It wasn`t just his eventual interest in Arsenal that he would bequeath to his sons, all four of them; Basil, Denis, Charles and Wilfred, would also represent Derbyshire).
Along with cricket, Samuel developed a fondness for association football. He became involved with his local club Glossop North End, it is estimated that between 1900 and 1914, Samuel pumped around £30,000 into the club before resigning from the board of Directors in 1914. Politics had also began to pique his interest and due to his business connections, he was welcomed as a member of the Tory party in 1909 and was elected as the MP for High Peak in 1910. It was a seat he would hold for 19 years. His burgeoning connectivity with the great and good was confirmed further in 1912, when he was granted permission to change his name from Samuel Wood to Samuel Hill-Wood by Royal License in 1912. He did so after the collapse of the textiles industry in Derbyshire led to a huge fallout with his brother John, from whom he wanted to dissociate. By the time the First World War broke out, Samuel was 42 years old. He served in the Cheshire Regiment as a major.
After the war, Samuel returned to his post in Parliament, along with a few other business interests, including owning a greyhound that won the Waterloo Cup. But having severed his connections with Glossop North End, Hill-Wood missed his involvement in football. His private secretary at the time was a young gentleman named Harry Stapeley, who played for West Ham United and had even been capped by England. Conversation with Stapeley would always centre around football. When Norris left the game in disgrace in 1929, Hill-Wood resigned his seat in parliament and accepted an offer to take over as chairman.
In Chapman, Hill-Wood recognised that he had a managerial phenomenon on his hands. In an era when chairmen would often involve themselves in team selection, training and tactics, Hill-Wood gave Chapman free reign. When Chapman wanted David Jack for a world record £10,000 from Bolton Wanderers, he signed the cheque. When Herbert wanted the East and West stands renovated to palatial pillars of luxury, Hill-Wood backed Chapman`s judgement. Hill-Wood`s laissez-faire approach to running the club would have been an anathema to most pre 1950s chairmen. His light touch was best summarised by Arsenal Secretary Bob Wall, "He was not one of the soccer Czars.....but he was content to advise and encourage rather than interfere with the management."
In fact, he would laconically remark to Bob Wall, "Why pay experts to do a job if non-experts are going to be allowed to interfere?" Hill-Wood would make a point of travelling to every single game and would always speak to the players in the dressing room after a match. But his words were never instructive, merely encouraging or commiserative. He enjoyed talking about the games with the players due to his interest in the sport. By all accounts he was a popular figure around the club. But Chapman`s untimely death in 1934 left him with some difficult decisions to make. He rather settled on the fact that the team was so well drilled by Chapman and still in its prime, that continuity was the best approach. But neither of Chapman`s flankmen, Joe Shaw and Tom Whittaker, relished the role on a long term basis, having been appointed caretakers for the remainder of the 1933-34 season.
Hill-Wood appointed one of his Managing Directors, the charismatic George Allison, as Chapman`s successor. Hill-Wood was canny enough to see that Allison had the presence and broad shoulders to deal with the spotlight, even if his football knowledge was not encyclopaedic. But Whittaker and Shaw were kept close by to handle coaching matters away from the glare of Chapman`s shadow. Samuel`s son Denis would adopt a similar approach in 1966 when he appointed disciplinarian physio Bertie Mee as manager. The side required an iron fist as leader. But citing Mee`s lack of coaching expertise, Denis kept Don Howe and Dave Sexton close by on the coaching staff, for a technical guiding hand.
Arsenal maintained their success through the 1930s, but the issue if rebuilding Chapman`s team was looming. However, bigger problems were on the horizon. The Second World War broke out in 1939 and all football was suspended. By the time hostilities ended in 1945, Chapman`s team were a relic and the North Bank roof had been destroyed by the Nazis. The club found themselves in something approaching £200,000 debt due to stadium running costs incurred whilst no football was being played at Highbury (it had been sequestered as an air raid shelter) and an epoch making team to replace. Allison was 62 years old at this point and possessed neither the knowledge nor the wherewithal to rebuild the side. In any case, the funds were not there.
Allison retired in 1947 having conducted a gradual handover to Tom Whittaker. The appointment of Whittaker was Hill-Wood`s attempt at maintaining the knowhow of the 1930s. Whittaker took the job out of a deep sense of duty to the club and his mentor Chapman, memorably saying upon his appointment, "Someone has to push himself too hard for Arsenal. Chapman died for this club and if that is my fate, I am happy to accept it." Hill-Wood`s health was also failing by now, with his appearance at away matches more and more infrequent. (Nobody could prevent him going to Highbury still). Hill-Wood would see his club win the league again in 1948. But in 1949, he died at the age of 77. Bob Wall would say of Samuel, "His deep knowledge of the game and his personal interest in the players made him loved by all."
The club was still wracked with debts. They needed somebody with a hard business nose and keen fiduciary wit to see them through. They appointed Sir Bracewell Smith as chairman. Bracewell Smith was born in Keighley in Yorkshire in June 1884. He attended Leeds University and trained to be a teacher, but instead, at the turn of the 20th century, he decided to try his hand as an entrepreneur. He settled on property investment and, in 1920, built a hotel in London called Park Lane. As I`m sure you can gather, it was a successful speculation on his part! So successful was it, that he was also able to buy London`s other internationally renowned 5 star hotel The Ritz. (His son George eventually sold the Ritz to Trafalgar House in 1976 for a cool £2.75m). He was also the chairman of Wembley Stadium Limited, which gave him strong football contacts.
Like most well heeled property investors, Bracewell Smith, like Samuel Hill-Wood, was accepted into the Tory party and served as a member of Holborn council from 1922. He was able to educate his son George at the prestigious Harrow school. Bracewell Smith was elected Mayor of London for 1931-32 and served as the Tory MP for Dulwich from 1932-45. Bracewell-Smith was known as a hard-nosed businessman, known for his innovation and for his ruthlessness. He had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but also of rewarding hard work and craft in his employees. His appointment as Arsenal chairman in 1949 made business sense. Ex Arsenal player and historian Bernard Joy explained the appointment and Bracewell-Smith`s mission, "He used his wise business knowledge to help the club through a difficult period after the war....he aimed at restoring the club`s finances to a healthy state in as short a time as possible."
Bracewell-Smith immediately used his contacts to get to work. Bernard Joy explains that Bracewell-Smith instantly wiped out roughly a sixth of the £200,000 debt instantly by persuading Prudential to waive all war time interest fees incurred. He brought J.W. Joyce onto the board, who had been chairman of the very lucrative Soft Drinks industry during the Second World War. Joyce both strengthened Arsenal`s contacts in the city, as well as possessing a sharp business acumen. But Sir Bracewell wanted there to be a sense of legacy at the club too, that would extend beyond his tenure. He appointed the deceased Sir Samuel Hill Wood`s son Denis onto the board and also made his son George a Director in 1953.
These were no "jobs for the boys" appointments. He wanted an ongoing lineage in the club so that its modus operandi would remain the same and so that the club would keep a philosophical continuity. It survives to this day. Bracewell-Smith stayed as Arsenal chairman until 1962. By now the glory days had long since left Arsenal, with the club not having secured silverware for nine years. The club had become stuffy and out of touch. Bracewell-Smith felt he had steered the club through austere times and now the time was right to hand over the reigns. Bob Wall would speak warmly of Bracewell-Smith`s insatiable drive, refuting accusations that he was merely a bean counter, "That is quite wrong. He always wanted Arsenal to be a first class club in a first class stadium....He insisted that it should be the constant aim of everyone at Highbury to ensure that Arsenal stayed at the forefront of the game."
Similarities could perhaps be seen with Keith Edelman`s recent reign as Managing Director. His accountancy knowledge steered the club through the austere needs of stadium financing. But with that objective achieved and the game changing, his parsimony was no longer necessary. Bracewell-Smith knew it was time to step aside. Bob Wall said one of Bracewell-Smith`s favourite phrases was "purity of thought in sport." He resisted the idea of advertising hoardings in the ground and in the match day programme. But the game had moved on and money was becoming more and more a part of it. With Denis Hill-Wood and his son George having been on the board for some years, he decided they knew the ropes. Denis Hill-Wood was appointed chairman. Bracewell-Smith retired and died in 1966, aged 84. Bob Wall would later pay tribute, "He was a person who would ask your opinion and, if honestly given, and he could see the logic in your argument, he would back you all the way."
Denis Hill-Wood had been educated at Oxford and had been on the Arsenal board for 13 years by the time he took the club over. He had also served as a tank commander in the Balkans for the British army and wasawarded the military cross. But by now he was 56 years old and, initially, still appeared out of touch. Whilst most stadium P.A`s were reverberating to the sounds of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Arsenal kept the Metropolitan Police band. When a new manager was required in 1962, Denis opted for Billy Wright in a mistaken attempt at tuning into the increasingly relevant pop culture. Wright of course was married to one of the Beverley Sisters. However, as discussed above, his subsequent appointment of Bertie Mee, Don Howe and Dave Sexton, was inspired.
By the time of his appointment, Denis` son Peter, educated at Eton, had already entered the banking trade. He wanted for his son- his only child with wife Mary- to be groomed as his successor. Guy Bracewell-Smith took over his father`s hotel chain and remained on the board of Directors at Arsenal. Denis took after his father as a chairman, preferring to adopt a laissez-faire approach. However, such an approach is always dependent upon the hands you entrust that care to. Denis experienced mixed results as chairman. He saw his coaching appointments oversee the 1970-71 Double. But he unwittingly helped to break up the great managerial team he had forged when he neglected to mention Don Howe in his speech to staff at the 1971 Double celebration banquet. It was enough to persuade Howe he was not held in high enough esteem so that he accepted West Brom`s offer to become manager.
Denis enjoyed discussing football with the players but did not interfere. He was regarded by some as something of a stuffed shirt, something which Bob Wall would refute, "He is far removed from the pre war cartoonists` image of the cigar smoking chairman who knew nothing about football." Wall would further go on to underpin the philosophy the club which Hill-Wood continued in his 1969 autobiography Arsenal From the Heart, "Throughout my service with the club, the manager has always been given complete freedom....Obviously he is not given carte-blanche authority when it comes to spending £100,000. But, if Bertie Mee for instance, wanted to go for a particular player who commanded a big fee, I know the Directors would assist him in every possible way."
Denis` reign as chairman came to an end in 1982, when he died at the age of 76. A bust of his likeness sits at the entrance to Club Level at Emirates Stadium. Denis` son Peter inherited the role. Peter had served in the Coldstream Guards as a young man, but quickly moved into investment banking. He rose to the level of Vice President at Hambros Bank, a role which he retired in 1982 when he took over as Chairman of Arsenal. He has also been on the board of Directors at Cavenham Limited and Hellenic and General Trust. Meanwhile, the Bracewell-Smith arm of Arsenal was changing to. Bracewell-Smith`s son George died in 1976 and his son Guy inherited both his Arsenal shareholding and his hotel chain. Guy sold off the Ritz and had little interest in Arsenal.
But in 1983, Guy died unexpectedly at the age of 30. As a result his baronetcy transferred to his younger brother Charles, as did his Arsenal shareholding. Charles lived a quiet family life, having married Carol Hough in 1977. Charles Bracewell-Smith also did not take much of an interest in Arsenal, presumably maintaining his shareholding for sentimental reasons. His family ties within Arsenal deepened even further however. His cousins Richard and Clive Carr- grandsons of Bracewell-Smith through their mother Eileen Smith, were by now on Arsenal`s board of Directors. (Richard and Clive`s half sister Lady Sarah Phillips-Bagge still owns 2% shareholding in Arsenal and is a Director of Park Lane Hotel with Lady Nine Bracewell-Smith). Clive was a life Vice-President of the club nominally in charge of the club`s youth and development. Clive was also a CEO of Park Lane Hotel until it was sold to the Sheraton group in 1996.
Charles Bracewell-Smith`s wife Carol died unexpectedly in 1994. He quickly married Nina Kakar, the daughter of an Indian diplomat, in 1996. Charles transferred his Arsenal shareholding to her and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, as she is now known, took a place on the Arsenal board as a non executive Director in 2005. Lady Nina was acrimoniously sacked from the board in December 2008, despite her 15.9% shareholding. She had joined an agreed lockdown with her husband`s cousins and Danny Fiszman and Peter Hill-Wood in resolving not to sell their shares for 12 months in an attempt to fight off the advances of Red & White Holdings. In April 2011, Lady Nina transferred her 15.9% shares to Stan Kroenke. She has been welcomed back to the club as a Life Vice President. Richard Carr sold his shares to Stan Kroenke in May 2008, but remains on the board with his cousin Clive.
Peter Hill-Wood has used his business connections to bring additional expertise to the Arsenal board. Sir Chips Keswick was an old Hambros colleague and Sir Roger Gibbs had been a school friend at Eton. Peter Hill-Wood`s role has largely been purely ceremonial during his tenure. He sold much of his family holdings to David Dein in the 1980s, allowing the self made North London entrepreneur to run the club. Hill-Wood sold the rest of his family shareholding to Stan Kroenke but has been retained as chairman. It`s a position he has held for 30 years. He turned 76 in February. Peter maintained the hands off approach of running the club favoured by his father and Grandfather, though he did not shirk the task of sacking manager Terry Neill just months into his reign. He is viewed as an eccentric character with his clipped Etonian tones and his taste for cigars. He has found the wrath of supporters on occasion with his laconic comments. He is often referred to as 'Arsenal`s answer to Prince Philip.` Peter has two sons- Julian and Charlie (Charlie has read this article and corrected a few minute details for me!) and a daughter named Sarah. All three currently reside on New York.
Arsenal`s fortunes have been tied up in a couple of incestuous bonds over the last 80 years. It`s a tangled jungle of double barrels, private schools and entrepreneurism. The Bracewell-Smith`s and the Hill-Wood`s have all enjoyed mixed reviews and adopted a light touch approach to running the club. But whenever there has been hardship to overcome, their hands have remained steady. A club like Arsenal does not stay at the top table of English football for eighty years without sound business and footballing sense behind it. Given their privilege and family lineage, it`s somewhat fitting that Bob Wall compared them to a Royal family. "The directors steel themselves to follow the traditional path of constitutional monarchy, which is to advise, encourage and warn." LD.
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