The creation of the football pools and the sport's first gambling obsession
The cold came suddenly, but before long it had spread across the country. Thick snow covered the ground, temperatures fell as low as -20°C and normal life came to a standstill. As far as the eye could see there was whiteness. A constant frost made the roads treacherous and the railway lines impassable.
The winter of 1963 was not a normal British winter. It was the coldest since 1895, almost as cold as some of the worst on record – 1684 and 1740 were particularly bitter – and the weather resulted in the almost complete disruption of civilisation.
On Dartmoor, there were 25-foot snowdrifts. The River Mersey was frozen solid, so children took to skating across it. In Cumberland, wind speeds reached 99mph. Salisbury, such was the level of snowfall, looked more like Siberia.
This all meant, of course, that playing any kind of organised sport was impossible. Pitches were devastated and stadiums nearly buried in snow. For football fans, it was a particularly difficult time.
Three days before Christmas, 18 matches were called off across the divisions. But far worse was to come. Only 17 games were played on 29 December and by New Year’s Day not a single match survived the increasingly severe weather. A few FA Cup ties were played on January 5, but that was the last time a ball was kicked for more than a month. Not until March 11, in fact, did a full set of fixtures go ahead.
This, inevitably, caused problems: clubs’ schedules were disrupted and some had no matchday income for months. Fans, too, were left wondering what to do with themselves on the weekend.
The greatest concern for many, though, was not about matters on the pitch. They were worried about the disruption to the Football Pools, a prediction game which, by the 1960s, had reached inconceivable levels of popularity. Thousands had grown used to filling out their coupon every week, selecting which fixtures they expected to end in draws, and sending it off in the post in the hope of winning the jackpot.
But without football, there could be no Pools. Such was its popularity, the demand remained regardless of whether any actual matches were played. At this point, it seemed, the Pools were of more importance than the football.
Vernons, Zetters and Littlewoods – the three main Pools companies – rushed to find a solution. It was clear that there would be no break in the weather. That much had been shown when, at Norwich’s Carrow Road, flamethrowers were used in a last desperate attempt to clear the pitch of snow.
By January 26, a ‘Pools Panel’ had been put in place. It was made up of six men: the former England players Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton and Ted Drake, the former Scotland full-back George Young, the former World Cup referee Arthur Ellis, and John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, first Baron Brabazon of Tara, a former Tory MP best remembered for attaching a basket containing a piglet to the wing of a plane in an effort to prove that pigs could fly.
These were the men tasked with deciding the hypothetical results of the postponed matches, so that the Pools could continue as normal. They did so in private at the Connaught Rooms in London, and the announcement of the scores, broadcast live on the BBC, was eagerly awaited by the audience. A couple of results were disputed – Leeds to beat Stoke and Peterborough to win at Derby raised eyebrows – but the new method proved highly effective.
The Football Pools, come rain or shine, and irrespective of whether any football actually took place, could continue as normal thanks to the panel. It was a good job. Without it, there might have been uproar.
Gambling in football is as old as the sport itself. As far back as 1872, when the Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers in the first ever Association Challenge Cup Final, bets had been placed.
In the early days it was disorganised. Fans would place bets with opportunistic bookies outside stadiums before the game, and sometimes during. From humble beginnings, though, it quickly developed.
The formation of the Football League in 1888 meant things became more structured. Bets could be placed on several matches at once and, in due course, the first sports gambling newspaper, Answers, was published. It was not long before betting on the football, particularly in the north of England, became an intrinsic part of the experience.
The true potential of the industry, though, was not realised until 1923, when the first Football Pools coupons were printed. John Moores was credited with the invention, although it was the Birmingham-born John Jervis Barnard, who had actually conceived the idea.
Barnard had observed the progress of gambling in football; he had seen it grow from its embryonic stages into an industry with the potential to be worth millions of pounds. And he had hit upon an idea that would eventually become astonishingly popular.
The issue, for Barnard, was that he didn’t follow through with it. He balked at the risks involved, the “management costs” and the likelihood of losing money in the short term. His great business plan was abandoned.
But Moores, a friend of Barnard’s, was not so willing to cast the Pools aside. He was determined to make a go of it, and so saved up the money required while employed as a messenger boy at a post office in Manchester.
Moores could not do it alone, so he explained the business plan to two friends, Colin Askham and Bill Hughes, whom he had met working at the post office. The Pools, Moores told them, would allow lucky members of the public to win large sums of money from the ‘pool’ collected before match days. A man would be employed to call at people’s homes and hand out coupons, containing a list of fixtures. The aim would be to predict which matches would end in a score draw, and for each correct prediction points would be awarded. For a small fee, the working man might have a chance to win thousands.
Askham and Hughes had heard enough. They were convinced. The trio invested £50 each and set about buying a printing press. They rented a small office on Church Street in the centre of Liverpool, where they printed 4000 coupons before handing them to passers-by outside Old Trafford.
By the end of the day they had sold only 35 and recouped just four pounds, seven shillings and sixpence. They were demoralised, but not deterred. A few days later they travelled to Hull and again attempted to sell coupons to fans outside the stadium. This time, they sold one.
Moores had no intention of giving up. He had made sacrifices to start up his own company, which he named Littlewoods, and insisted that it could still be a success. Askham and Hughes were less convinced. When they expressed their doubts to Moores, he offered to buy their shares for £200 each. They accepted and Moores became the sole owner.
Even he was not without his doubts. But he was convinced by the words of his wife. “I would rather be married to a man who is haunted by failure rather than one haunted by regret,” she said.
Soon it became clear that Littlewoods would not be a failure. By the midway point of the 1924-25 season, the nascent company was still operating at a loss. But business gradually picked up. By the end of the decade, the Football Pools had become a staple of the English match day.
The Pools was not without its opposition. As it grew in popularity through the 1920s and 30s, the dissenting voices became louder. Some believed it to be dangerous, a harmful phenomenon that encouraged the working classes to gamble away their money.
Moores’s argument was that it was not gambling in any traditional sense. Players were limited to small stakes and could only predict a certain number of games. Littlewoods insisted that it was harmless fun.
Many politicians, particularly on the left, did not agree. “It is a disease which spread downwards to the industrious poor from the idle rich,” said Labour leader Ramsay McDonald, a fierce critic of gambling in football.
The arguments against the Pools were often similar to the arguments against online gambling in the modern game. The consequences of getting hooked on the Pools were far less severe, of course, but there were concerns that it might be a gateway to more gambling, and eventually addiction.
In some cases, people became obsessive about the Pools. The prospect of winning a life-changing sum of money was tantalising; all it required was some football knowledge. During the depression of the 1930s, winning big became even more desirable. It was a chance, for many, to escape the mundanity of everyday life.
“The protesters said it was capitalists exploiting the vulnerable working people,” said Mike Huggins, a former Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cumbria, in a 2013 interview with the BBC. “They never really understood that, for most, it was a bit of pleasure and the chance of a big win.
“There was concern about people getting something for nothing, making them indolent. Some thought people were putting in big money. It gave them the big dream, like the Lottery does today. Most of these people were never going to be able to save as much money as they could win in one go.”
There was criticism, too, from preachers in chapels, who decried the “evil” of gambling. And the Football League, in 1936, launched the Pools War, having grown concerned that matches would be corrupted by betting. They attempted to hide the identity of away teams, so that the Pools coupons could not be produced in time.
“The guys running the league thought betting would corrupt football," said Huggins. "They feared crowds would be skewed by betting and that players would try to fix matches. But this was ridiculous. Such things didn't matter at all to the Pools. You couldn't really fix the result of eight matches.”
Even George Orwell, writing in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, observed the effect of the Pools on the working classes. “And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries,” he wrote. “Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organised gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about £6m a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people.
“I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.”
Orwell’s observations are typically perceptive. It is difficult to say emphatically that the Pools was simply harmless fun when it resembled so closely the phenomenon of gambling in modern football.
There were differences, of course. The digitalisation of gambling has made it far easier to lose vast sums of money over a short space of time. With the Pools, there was a limit. But it could feasibly be argued that it represented the beginning of a pernicious culture. It was accepted, encouraged, as a part of the sport, a necessary activity for the spectator.
“Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life,” wrote Orwell. “Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution."
The outbreak of war in 1939 meant the closure of the Pools companies. Littlewoods, who handed over most of their properties for the war effort, had by then been joined by several competitors, notably Vernons and Zetters.
After the war, the Pools grew even more successful. The jackpots became larger, the players more numerous and the stakes higher. In 1950, Mrs Knowlson of Manchester made history as the first person to win £100,000. Three years later, Nellie McGrail, from Stockport, won £200,000.
And perhaps the most famous winners came in 1961. Keith Nicholson, a miner from Castleford, and his wife Viv won £152,000. It was, in today’s money, equivalent to around £3 million. When Viv Nicholson was asked what she would do with the money, she replied: “Spend, spend, spend!” That is exactly what she did.
More big winners followed, and the Pools’ popularity did not appear to be diminishing. But the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994 dealt a significant blow to the industry. So, too, did the rise of online gambling that followed.
The Pools offered – and still does to this day – fans the chance to test their footballing knowledge, the opportunity to win some money with minimal effort. For most, it was an enjoyable accompaniment to the main event: the football.
It is interesting to consider, though, whether the popularity of the Pools, the culture it encouraged, has in some way contributed to the concerning trends in football betting today. There was a normalisation of gambling. And the assertion that it gave the working classes “something to live for”, as Orwell put it, is eerily similar to the attitude of many in football betting today. Those most vulnerable, enticed by the prospect of harmless fun and unlikely wins, are too often exploited by companies and develop serious gambling problems.
The Pools was certainly not so blatantly exploitative. There were limits in place and it was far more difficult to lose any serious money on. But it was still gambling. And it still gave people the addictive buzz of winning.
It will, undoubtedly, continue to divide opinion. Nearly 100 years after John Moores introduced it to the country, the Pools’ legacy remains a topic of debate.