John Cairney still has his match ticket, yellowed and minus its stub, in his drawer of mementos. He doesn’t remember much about the actual match. It was 78 years ago. He’s 85 now, an acclaimed actor, painter and writer with a lifetime of football memories. But he does remember the vast sea of people, the ear-splitting wall of noise and the sort of collective madness that surrounded and enveloped him. “The excitement was palpable,” he says. He was just seven years old, a small boy in the middle of Britain’s biggest ever football crowd.

The date was Saturday 17 April 1937, and the match was Scotland versus England at Hampden Park, Glasgow. It was the first all-ticket international. The official attendance figure was given after the game as 149,407. (Some later sources give the figure as 149,547.) Once non-ticketed guests, reporters, stewards and police were taken into account, newspapers agreed that the attendance must have been close to, or in excess of, 150,000. Even judging by the lower official figure of 149,407, this was a world record attendance. It remains a British – and European – record.

It was John’s first football match, and he was so excited that he’d barely been able to sleep the night before. John lived at Parkhead in Glasgow and was raised as a Celtic supporter in a football-loving family. He’d go to hundreds of subsequent matches, many with his dad, Tom, and his Uncle Phil, but few would equal the experience of that first match at Hampden in April 1937. A photo of his prized match ticket adorns the cover of his book A Scottish Football Hall of Fame. He’s never been able to forget that immense crowd and its clamorous noise, labelled by newspapers at the time as “the Hampden Howl”. 

To put the size of the crowd into perspective, the 1937 attendance was three times bigger than the attendance at the most recent Scotland-England match in 2014, and more than twice as big as the attendance at the 2014 World Cup Final. In a non-football context, picture the familiar vision of the vast crowd that spreads as far as the eye can see in front of the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival. That area has a capacity of 90,000, so imagine adding all of those folk to a 60,000 capacity crowd at the Emirates Stadium and you’ll have a decent idea of what a crowd of almost 150,000 people might look like. 

But what was it like to be part of such an enormous football crowd? Modern fans are unlikely to ever get the chance to find out. TV coverage and the more distanced nature of fandom, coupled with safety concerns and other practicalities, mean there is no place for such a crowd within modern football. Existing all-seater football stadiums could not accommodate 150,000 people and it would be impractical to try to build one that could. The biggest football-specific stadium in the world at the moment is Barcelona’s Camp Nou, which holds around 99,350 fans – a third fewer than Hampden in 1937 – and it is rarely close to being full. Barcelona’s average attendance is currently around 73,000.

Hampden Park was the biggest football ground in the world in 1937 and it would remain so until the opening of Rio’s Maracanã for the 1950 World Cup finals. Hampden already held the football attendance record, set in 1933 when 136,259 went through the turnstiles for another Scotland-England international. Reconstruction ahead of the 1937 match was supposed to increase the ground’s capacity to 180,000. In fact, a safety inspection by Glasgow’s Master of Works assessed the expanded capacity to be 149,969, with 14,269 seats and 135,700 standing places.

By comparison, the capacity at Wembley in 1937 was 93,000. The Empire Stadium’s record attendance was 126,047, set at the 1923 FA Cup Final, known as the White Horse Final in tribute to Billy, the Metropolitan Police horse charged with keeping order after hordes of ticketless fans climbed into the ground. Certainly there were more than 126,047 people inside Wembley that day, but exactly how many is unclear, as many of them hadn’t passed through the turnstiles. As a result of the 1923 chaos, Wembley’s capacity was slashed.

Hampden, though, was relatively accustomed to handling crowds in excess of 100,000 for international matches and Scottish Cup Finals. The ground had been regularly expanded and improved since its opening in 1903 and the 1937 redevelopment was regarded as essential to meet the huge demand to attend internationals and finals. League matches involving the club tenants Queen’s Park, meanwhile, saw only around 4,000 spectators rattling around the massive ground.

The enormous attendance for the 1937 international is particularly astonishing given the match was effectively a friendly – a dead rubber in a home international championship that had already been won by Wales. Consider also the economic climate of the 1930s, when few football fans had much disposable income. Britain was still dealing with the effects of the Great Depression and unemployment remained a major problem. (The Jarrow March had taken place just a few months earlier, in October 1936.)

There were also other distractions. Britain was consumed with preparations for the coronation of George VI, with rehearsals for parades and processions taking place in towns and cities across the nation. Yet the Scotland-England international retained utmost importance among football fans on both sides of the border. As the Times noted in the build-up to the game, “The Association match between England and Scotland has an appeal which is quite independent of goals and points, and not even the FA Cup Final at Wembley can surpass it in pageantry and excitement.”

Internationals were traditionally an opportunity to see star players who could otherwise only be read about in newspapers or glimpsed in occasional newsreels. Tommy Walker of Hearts and Bob McPhail of Rangers were among the Scottish team’s star draws. John Cairney’s favourite player was the Celtic outside-right Jimmy Delaney, whom he could easily recognise from pictures on his cigarette cards. The relatively young and inexperienced England team may have been less familiar to Scottish fans. Famous favourites such as Cliff Bastin and Eddie Hapgood were missing, replaced by newer names including Stanley Matthews of Stoke and Raich Carter of Sunderland.

The scramble for tickets (or ‘briefs’) began in January, with fans advised to apply via their local clubs. Tickets for the ordinary terracing cost two shillings (equivalent to around £5 today). The only way to follow the game live was to be there in person, as it wasn’t being broadcast on the radio due to a dispute between the BBC and the SFA. (The recently-launched BBC TV channel, meanwhile, would instead be airing “a demonstration of locomotives”.)

Match-goers who intended to travel by car were required to pay an extra shilling for a colour-coded parking disc. An elaborate scheme was prepared to direct the expected 3,000 cars into the city and to suitable car parks via 14 separate routes signposted with coloured markers by the RAC. Drivers who deviated from their prescribed colour-coded routes faced a fine of £1.

In addition to more than 100,000 fans from all over Scotland, up to 50,000 were expected to travel from England in what was described as a “greater-than-ever English invasion”. The railway company Great Western offered English fans “cheap trips”, departing Friday evening and arriving in Glasgow on Saturday morning. The travel agent Thomas Cook advertised a deluxe excursion from London, including a pre-match sightseeing trip to Loch Lomond.

Necessary preparations were made to feed and water visiting fans. Restaurant and pub owners applied for extended licences, and civic halls were turned into mass feeding stations. Newspapers estimated that 250,000 meals would be served to match-goers. As for alcohol, according to the Dundee Courier, “The tonic taken if Scotland win will be sufficient to float a battleship.”

A huge police operation was planned to deal with the crowd. 700 “stalwarts of the force” would be on duty in and around the ground, and detectives and plainclothes constables would mingle with the crowd to watch for pickpockets. It was publicised that the police would be “directed by radio” – an experimental method of communication at the time. 

There were fears that the reconstructed Hampden Park might not be ready in time, with steel workers threatening strike action over a delayed pay rise. But by early April it was announced that work was complete. The expanded ground had 117 turnstiles, each of which, it was estimated, could cope with 40 admissions a minute, or 24,000 an hour. 

As the big day approached, newspapers printed instructions for match-goers. “Remember your brief!” advised the Dundee Courier. “The enthusiast who arrives at Hampden without a ticket will be right out of luck.” Fans were instructed to arrive early (“a crowd of 150,000 cannot be accommodated in comfort if there is a last-minute rush”), and to wear a “bunnet” – a flat cap rather than a bowler hat so as not to block the view of those behind.

On the morning of the match, newspapers on both sides of the border anticipated a record-breaking occasion. “Soccer crowds invade Scotland!” reported the Daily Mail. The Scotsman heralded “football’s biggest day”, and predicted that the noise produced by the unprecedented crowd would hand a huge advantage to the Scottish team. “Now for the loudest-ever Hampden Howl,” said the Dundee Courier, adding that the match promised to be “the greatest spectacle of a sporting lifetime”. 

England fans began to arrive in Glasgow in great numbers from the early hours, “before even the milkmen had started their rounds”. They arrived in trains decorated with the colours of St George and marched into the city through heavy rain. Many wore white roses in their buttonholes. One large group was led through the streets by a man carrying a stuffed lion. Queues formed outside restaurants and tea-rooms, with many opening as early as 5am to serve the visitors with breakfasts.

Newspapers reported the story of one ticketless England fan who walked from his home in Preston to Carlisle, then hitch-hiked to Glasgow. He wandered around the city asking if anyone knew where the England team were staying, as he knew several of the players and if he could find them he could get a ticket. As one reporter remarked, “He must be Britain’s super-optimist today.”

By noon, tens of thousands of Scotland fans were arriving from all around the country, many of them via 150 special trains. Also arriving were 40 Scottish dockyard workers from Portsmouth, led by one Bob McDonald. “Bob is such a good organiser that the entire cost will only work out at £2 4s [equivalent to £140 today] per head,” reported the Portsmouth Evening News. “This includes reserved train accommodation, three meals at a swagger Glasgow hotel, and tickets for the match.”

After arriving at Glasgow Central, fans took a tram – or a walk – across the Clyde and south to Mount Florida, where Hampden Park is located. John Cairney was among their number, riding through the crowd on his father’s shoulders, piggybacking above a stream of damp caps, the air thick with drizzle and hubbub. The route was lined with street vendors selling hats and buttonholes, yelling, “All the colours!”

At Hampden, the preparations made to ensure smooth access to the ground appeared to be successful. A correspondent from the Motherwell Times noted that he was able to enter the ground an hour before kick-off without standing in a queue. “Even for a man without the slightest interest in football this crowd was a wonderful sight,” he wrote, also noting that women were “present in big numbers”.

“Hampden Park with its throng of humanity was something to remember,” the correspondent continued. “Accents heard ranged from Caithness to Devon, from Lincoln to the Western Isles. Roses, thistles, white emblems and tartan favours made a brave show. Bowler hats, thanks to the official request, were few and far between and the humble hooker-doon had a field day.”

“Hooker-doon” caps provided some protection from the rain, which continued to drizzle as fans took their places on the terraces. One chap raised an umbrella, but was swiftly “told all about it”, his umbrella having to withstand a barrage of orange peel and “other ammunition”. Short shrift was also given to aeroplanes that circled above Hampden, trailing adverts for Cuticura medicated soap and Bile Beans laxatives. When the planes flew too low, the crowd gave them “the bird”, gesturing with raised middle fingers.

John Cairney arrived through the gates at the back of the terracing, and was initially confronted by “a flat-capped, grey-coated mass”, but ended up with the best view in the ground. Along with other youngsters, he was lifted into the air and passed forward over spectators’ heads all the way to the front of the terrace, where he took up a position in front of the perimeter wall, just six feet from the touchline. “We had a better view than anyone in the posh stands,” he says.

As kick-off approached, the crowd was treated to a programme of music involving a Scottish pipe band and community singing led by Elliot Dobie, a popular music hall and radio singer. Community singing was a familiar part of the big match experience, and spectators joined together to sing “Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, “Hail Caledonia” and, with a nod to the forthcoming coronation, “God Save the King”. The music and singing continued as the teams entered the field, greeted by “driving rain and ear-splitting cheers”.

England came out first, led by their captain George Male, to “Heart of Oak” (the official march of the Royal Navy). Next came Scotland, led by Jimmy Simpson, to the more familiar “Scotland the Brave”. Then came a voluminous wall of “shattering noise” – the Hampden Howl. “Starting on the embankment opposite the pavilion,” said the Scotsman, “the famous cheer spread round the lofty terracing until the huge bowl echoed and re-echoed with the heartening roar that is perhaps the most notable demonstration known of enthusiasm and sporting patriotism.”

Sitting at the front of the terrace, young John could not hear himself speak. He describes a wall of noise of such power that he felt he could have leant against it. It could have been a terrifying experience for a small boy, but John found himself carried along with the crowd and joined in with them, screaming and shouting “in a kind of wild hysteria”. “It was never frightening,” he says, “because we were safely among our own.” 

Male won the toss and allowed Scotland to kick off, accompanied by what the Dundee Courier called “the mightiest roar in international history”. Within seconds, the referee blew for a foul, setting the template for a rough, stop-start game. England had the better of the first half and opened the scoring through the 20-year-old Stoke City centre-forward Freddie Steele. “A tremendous roar seemed to shake the stadium to its foundations,” Steele later recalled. “Spectators stood and clamoured all round the ground. I shall never forget that goal.”

Scotland improved in the second half and scored an equaliser via a quick passing move that saw Tommy Walker beat the English defence and square the ball to Francis O’Donnell for a tap-in. The reaction was described by the Dundee Courier as “absolute bedlam in the most amazing crowd ring in football!” “The Hampden Howl might have been heard in the centre of the city,” said the paper. “The Englishmen might well have taken fright.”

The Hampden Howl did frighten the English players – a fact confirmed by Stanley Matthews. “If ever a match was won and lost by a roar, it was this one,” Matthews wrote. “Those who have never heard the roar cannot appreciate the effect it has on a player. It shook me and my colleagues in the England team.”

Led by Tommy Walker, and inspired by the immense crowd, the Scots began to pile pressure on the English defence. Ten minutes from time, a goalmouth scramble ended with Bob McPhail firing home from a narrow angle. And McPhail made it 3-1 in the dying minutes, scoring with a header from a free-kick. The vast majority of the crowd celebrated in a raucous frenzy. “Hampden’s first all-ticket international must remain a happy memory,” said the Dundee Courier.

As Hampden began to empty, young John began to worry about how he might find his dad – and how he could go to the toilet. A policeman told him to wait by the side of the pitch, and take a pee against the perimeter wall. Eventually, John’s dad arrived and they gleefully headed back up the terracing towards the gates, the concrete steps littered with beer bottles and cigarette packets, plus the odd hat and umbrella. John recalls his dad finding half-a-crown and remarking, “Must be my lucky day!”

The exit procedure was smooth and successful. “Incredible as it sounds, the ground was practically clear 20 minutes after the game had ended,” commented the Times. “The Hampden Park executive and the Glasgow authorities deserve every praise for their handling of 150,000 people. There were some complaints that it was not possible to see much of the game from certain sections at the top of the terracing, but those who did get a good view were conveyed to and from their places with astonishing comfort and celerity.”

The Scotsman reflected that it had been a remarkably safe event. “Inside the ground there was relatively little crushing, although at parts the crowd were loath to move down the embankments, and this led to some discomfort on the upper tiers,” the paper reported. “The number of fainting cases dealt with was 46, an unusually small total.” The number of arrests was also small and reported to be no more than would be expected on a normal Saturday.

“There was no delay in getting back to the city for tea – or other refreshment,” commented the Motherwell Press. “50,000 English football fans took possession of Glasgow after the game. It was the biggest invasion of Scottish territory since Bannockburn. It was almost as noisy as that event, but much more amicable.”

Sadly, one England fan did not make it home. William Robert Bell should have returned to Bristol with his friends on the Sunday, but stayed in Glasgow as he was feeling unwell. By the Monday afternoon his condition had deteriorated, and the management of his hotel called for an ambulance. Bell was taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary, but by the time he arrived he had died of unspecified causes.

Newspapers were quick to confirm that the official attendance of 149,407 was a world record. (They also revealed that the revenue generated from ticket sales was £12,373, equivalent to almost £800,000 today.) It was the high watermark of an unparalleled period of football fanaticism. A full English league programme was played on the same day, and there was no discernible effect on attendances. A week later, 146,433 turned up at Hampden for the Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Aberdeen.

Hampden’s huge crowds prompted calls for Wembley to be expanded. “The Ranger” in World of Sport wrote that Wembley’s capacity of 93,000 was “totally inadequate” and claimed that demand for FA Cup Final tickets exceeded 500,000. “How long are we to tolerate this impossible position?” he asked. But Wembley’s capacity would not be increased, and Hampden’s would be reduced.

In the weeks that followed the international, complaints emerged from spectators who had been caught up in crushes or had been unable to see due to the size of the crowd. Newspapers reported the plight of one unnamed chap from Carnoustie who had been unable to see the game. “His lack of inches, and the height of the spectators in front, debarred him from catching a glimpse of the players in action,” reported the Arbroath Herald. “His companions kept him informed, except when excitement held them more or less speechless.”

An unnamed SFA official responded to criticism by saying there had been no crushes and that anyone who had not been able to see had “only himself to blame”. However, after a complaint was raised with Glasgow Magistrates, it was recommended that subsequent attendances to be limited to 135,000. As for the chap from Carnoustie, he did not give up hope of seeing some action from the big match. “He is paying frequent visits to the cinema,” reported the Herald, “in the hope that the newsreel will give him what he wants.”

Hampden’s 149,407 attendance remained a world record until the 1950 World Cup, when it was beaten twice at the Maracanã. First, 152,722 paid to see Brazil beat Spain and then 173,850 saw Brazil lose to Uruguay in the decisive final game on 16 July 1950. It’s estimated that the actual attendance for that game could have been as high as 200,000. But it is the official figure of 173,850 that is recognised by Guinness as the world record, while 149,407 remains the British and European record. Neither is ever likely to be broken. Hampden’s current capacity is a little over 52,000, while the Maracanã’s is 78,838.

For John Cairney, the 1937 match remains a cherished memory. “The crowd was immense, and I feel privileged to have been part of it,” he says. “It was an important, living experience to feel a tiny part of a sudden population of more than a hundred thousand males crammed into a football ground.” He recalls being carried home on his Dad’s shoulders and then telling his younger brother all about it over a bowl of soup.

John still loves football, but no longer goes to matches. He prefers the magic of his memories to the machinations of the modern game. Football, he acknowledges, has indelibly changed. “I fear we shall not see the like again of the beautiful game it once was,” he says. “Or am I just an old codger who loved being a wee boy?”