Born in Kennington, to a working class family but educated privately, Norris left school at 14 to join a solicitor's firm, leaving a year later to pursue a career in property development trade, partnering W.G. Allen in the firm Allen & Norris. He made his fortune building houses in south and west London — Fulham in particular. He was commissioned into the 2nd Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers in 1896, but resigned the following year. He was later Mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Fulham from 1909 to 1919, a member of the London County Council from 1916 to 1919, and served as Conservative MP for Fulham East from 1918 to 1922, retiring after falling out with his party on the issue of tariff reform.
During World War I Norris had worked heavily as a military recruitment officer for the British Army. He served in the 3rd Middlesex Artillery Volunteers and in 1917 he was knighted and given the honorary rank of colonel for services to his country. He was also a prominent Freemason, rising to become Grand Deacon of the United Grand Lodge of England, and a well-known local philanthropist with close connections to the Church of England; he counted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Thomas Davidson as a personal friend.
A keen football fan, Norris first became a director of Fulham, during which the time when the Cottagers won promotion from the Southern League to the Football League. While chairman of Fulham, Norris had an indirect role in the foundation of Chelsea Football Club He rejected an offer from businessman Gus Mears to move the club to Stamford Bridge, so Mears subsequently created his own team to occupy the ground.
In 1910 he became majority shareholder of the ailing Woolwich Arsenal (after the club had gone into voluntary liquidation) while still retaining his post on the Fulham board, and became club chairman two years later. With Arsenal's low attendances and poor financial performance, Norris tried to create a London superclub by merging the two clubs, but this was blocked by the Football League. Undeterred, he turned his attention to moving Arsenal to a new stadium; he eventually settled on a site in Highbury, north London, on the site of the recreation ground of St John's College of Divinity; his close relationship with Randall Davidson helped, and the Archbishop personally signed the ground's title deed. The Arsenal Stadium opened in 1913, and the club dropped the "Woolwich" from its name the following year.
Norris's most infamous contribution to Arsenal's history was his role in the club's promotion from the Second Division to the First in 1919; Arsenal were elected to the top flight in spite of only finishing fifth the previous season (1914-15, as competition had been suspended for most of World War I). This promotion came at the expense of other clubs, including Arsenal's arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur. It has been alleged that Norris bribed or in some unduly influenced the voting members of the Football League, in particular the league chairman and owner of Liverpool, John McKenna; at the League's AGM, McKenna made a speech recommending Arsenal's promotion ahead of Spurs thanks to the former's longer spell in the League (Arsenal joined in 1893, Spurs in 1908). Although no firm proof has ever been offered, Norris's other activities, including the scandal that led to his downfall, are often cited as circumstantial evidence.
Norris made one other lasting contribution to Arsenal's history. In 1925, after acrimoniously firing manager Leslie Knighton, Norris hired Huddersfield Town's Herbert Chapman as his replacement. After Norris's departure, Chapman fulfilled the chairman's ambition and turned Arsenal into the dominant side in English football in the 1930s, although strangely, Norris later cited Knighton's sacking as the only decision he ever regretted.
However, Norris was not in charge by the time Arsenal had come to dominate English football. In 1927, the Daily Mail reported that Norris had made under-the-counter payments to Sunderland's Charlie Buchan as an incentive for him to join Arsenal in 1925; this was in an era of the League's maximum wage, and any additional financial incentives to players were strictly outlawed, although many clubs at the time broke the rules. A subsequent investigation by the Football Association found that Norris had also used Arsenal's expense accounts for personal use to pay for his chauffeur, and had pocketed the proceeds of £125 from the sale of the team bus. Norris sued the Daily Mail and the FA for libel, but in February 1929 the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, found in favour of the FA, and they subsequently banned Norris for life from football.