Mundane observations | In ‘Worktown,’ games of chance, snapshots in time

Editor’s note

For additional background, see the 40-minute Worktown documentary by Eloise Whitmore, available in full on the BBC Radio 4 website.

Link to Humphrey Spender's documentary photographs (sport)
Humphrey Spender, “Football crowds after the match,” Burnden Park, Bolton, ca. 1937. Opponent unknown. (Bolton Museums Art Gallery and Aquarium)

Bolton, England | A New Yorker article by Caleb Crain has peaked our interest in the Mass-Observation phenomenon and its relationship to football in Britain. Near the top of Crain’s treatment (see “Surveillance Society,” 11 Sept 06), “Anthropology of football pools” appears, tucked between “The aspidistra cult” and “Bathroom behaviour,” as one of the potential objects of study.

The group conducting this scrutiny of the mundane, aiming to create “weather-maps of public feeling” of everyday Britain in the 1930s and ’40s, took guidance from a triumvirate of leaders but relied on a cadre of volunteer scribblers to assemble data. The study of football pools, according to Crain in a separate conversation on his weblog (see “Mass-Observation in The New Yorker,” 4 Sept 06), appeared as part of one of M-O’s earliest productions, First Year’s Work, 1937–38.

They reported that in the town they surveyed, a third of the population played the pools, and that for purposes of social mingling, the pools were “as essential as smoking and swearing.” There’s even an illustration of a pen-sized device sold at Woolworth’s that generated pool numbers. The Mass-Observation writers seem to have taken a dim view of the pools, which one player described as “like a sort of growth that eats into one,” and thought they preyed on workers’ fantasies of escape. (The inference, I imagine, is that the desires would have been more productive if channeled into the labor movement.) The observers reported, however, that those who played the pools thought that people who opposed them did so because they wanted to keep the working class down. Politicians who attacked the pools in a moral tone were thus doomed to fail, and M-O advised them to pay closer attention.

Link to Mass-Observation Archive

The third in a series
of Mass-Observation
publications, containing a
chapter on football pools.

George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier commented on the Yorkshire fascination with the pools (see our report from London earlier this year). In context, Orwell laments that the locals could not channel this energy into interest in world affairs. According to the Guardian (Andrew Culf,Pools Firms Hit by Tidal Wave of Online Betting,” 27 Aug 05), John Moores organized the first betting pools in Liverpool in 1922. But the entry in When Saturday Comes: The Half Decent Football Book alludes to newspaper competitions as early as 1909 that asked readers to correctly predict a limited slate of fixtures. In time, the pools found a format that would ring somewhat familiar to participants in modern-day office pools based on the weekend’s National Football League schedule:

The football pools ask entrants to correctly forecast drawn matches from a coupon of 49 English and Scottish games. Three points are awarded for a score draw, 2 points for a no-score draw and 1 point for a home or away win. If the best 8 selections (from 10 or 15 paid for) amount to a total of 24 points, the jackpot—a proportion of the pooled entry fees of all participating—is shared between all the winners. Smaller payouts can result from a score of 23 or 22 points.

Thus the Guardian describes days of telephone claims of 24 points, times now made nearly obsolete by online and TV betting, more sophisticated wagering schemes and a nationwide lottery. Nevertheless, one of the pools companies, Littlewoods, still employs door-to-door pools coupon collectors who take a commission on punters’ £2 wagers, and newspapers such as The Times have retained advice columns for those playing the pools. But wagers in pools now compose a minuscule slice of the £40 billion in annual football betting.

Bolton, home of the football team (Wanderers) named for an itinerant 19th-century existence after it threw off affiliation with Christ Church Sunday School, grew into a hive of M-O activity. This was because of the influence of Tom Harrisson, writes Crain, who chose Bolton for his working-class observations “[i]n much the same spirit in which George Orwell went to Wigan, and James Agee to Alabama.” Bolton was called “Worktown” in the M-O reports, and Harrisson directed fellow observers from his own hovel. He asked Humphrey Spender and others for chronicles of various minutiae. Spender, in turn, concealing a 35mm Leica at times in his mackintosh coat, produced documentary photos that have been collected at Bolton Museums Art Gallery & Aquarium (see above). “The austerity of Bolton frightened Spender,” writes Crain, “and his empathy for the people sometimes put him on the verge of tears, but the photographs he took there, not published until four decades later, match Walker Evans’s in honesty and Helen Levitt’s in aesthetic flair.” (Evans, too, had used a hidden camera to capture his famous New York subway photographs.)

Spender took photographs at what was, until 1997, the Wanderers’ ground, Burnden Park. The pictures form a worthwhile chronicle of pre-war terracing and hint darkly at the disaster waiting not quite 10 years later, when 33 died as the result of overcrowding at an FA Cup match with Stoke City on 9 March 1946. The facility looks Spartan even through Spender’s lens, and one can imagine the crush of spectators—an estimated 80,000 packed into a 65,000-capacity stadium—tumbling down the terracing. Harold Riley recollects in the Guardian 50 years later:

I felt the incredible power of a crowd, it was surging like waves of the sea. So my uncle said to me we’d better get you down to the front, so I was passed over the heads of the men, it was like a ride, sliding down. Then as I reached the front the disaster happened, the barriers fell down and the people fell and there was this moving forward, a kind of a release of a tidal force and I just ran out, I pushed, I got on the pitch. (quoted in Martin Johnes, ” “Heads in the Sand’: Football, Politics, and Crowd Disasters in Twentieth-Century Britain,” Soccer and Society 5 [summer 2004]: 139)

Additional recollections are available at the website of a local-history project, Bolton Revisited. And a trove of source material on wartime and postwar football exists in the Mass-Observation Archive (TC 82/2/E) at the University of Sussex, including such ephemera as “description of match (Golders Green v Enfield at Golders Green), printed programme and interviews with cashier and secretary 11.11.39)” and “comments by Blackburn electrician on local matches October–November 19-?”


  • A second conference tied to the Spender archive, “Recording Leisure Lives: Sports, Games and Pastimes,” takes place in Bolton on 7 Apr 09. At the inaugural event, Bradford City artist in residence Ian Beesley compared his photographs of Bradford supporters with those of Spender at Burnden Park, a paper he titled ” ‘You’re Not Singing Any More’: Twenty-first Century Football Photography.” Beesley remembers playing football against gable ends in West Yorkshire and has written a poem about it. “We had to be careful whose gable end we chose,” he tells the BBC in 2005. “Some people were particular about their ‘ends.’ Many a game of footie included a chase by an irate house-owner who got fed up with the muffled thuds of a ball against his gable end.”
  • National Trust and English Heritage, inspired by the materials in the Sussex archive, selected 17 Oct 06—a “run-of-the-mill day”—as the subject of a nationwide “blog” at “This morning I ate some Weetabix and a marshmallow rice crispie,” begins one entry from Gloucestershire. This author has embraced the “One Day in History” spirit. “It’s those mundane details, those boring details that will seem extraordinary to people hundreds of years in the future,” says historian Dan Snow (“Blog Records Britons’ Daily Lives,” BBC News, 17 Oct 06).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

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  1. Andrew says:

    Spender’s photographs are a yet undiscovered national treasure. It’s great to see them referenced here.

  2. [...] supporters at Burnden Park, in this image by Humphrey Spender (see 12 Sept 06), circa 1937, demonstrate the simple pleasures of standing and smoking at football. Now both [...]

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