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

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)

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