Did the football pools almost destroy society?

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News


It is 90 years since the football pools started. Most now regard it as a bit of low-risk fun, so why did it have some Labour politicians and Christians in such a flux back in the 1920s and 1930s?

The 20th Century saw the growth of most of what we know today as mass entertainment.

Films, radio, television, pop music, computer games - all came as a result of technological development and entrepreneurship.

But it is 90 years since possibly the biggest explosion in mass participation to have hit the United Kingdom.

Early in 1923, the Liverpool-based Moores family launched the football pools.


Within months hundreds of thousands of fans and even those with little knowledge of the game started filling in their weekly coupons, predicting Saturday afternoon's results in the hope of winning cash prizes.

The first jackpot was £2.60 and the stakes were small.

Image caption,
Labour's George Lansbury was a vehement critic of gambling on football

Promoters described the pools as harmless fun. But some politicians, especially on the left, were less sanguine.

Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald declared the pools a sinister means of spreading gambling fever, warning of "a disease which spread downwards to the industrious poor from the idle rich".

Disease or not, it certainly spread throughout the depression-addled 1930s.

Promoters helped set up a league for the increasingly popular sport of baseball, in an effort to keep the pools excitement going throughout the summer.

They even tried to create a competition to accompany cricket's country championship. A leader in the Times newspaper thundered against the corruption of this purest of national games.


Preachers in chapels railed against the sin of gambling.

In 1936, former Labour leader George Lansbury told the House of Commons that "pool betting is spreading the evil of gambling very considerably". But how widespread was the dismay?

Image caption,
Viv Nicholson famously spent all her winnings but has no regrets

"It came up regularly in the press," says Mike Huggins, emeritus professor of cultural history at the University of Cumbria.

"The nonconformist churches regularly heard preaching against the pools and these sermons were reported. They wrote letters to editors and they were published.

"On the other side, there were very few people willing to say how much they enjoyed doing the pools. It meant the coverage had an imbalance. The fire and the fury got heard more."

Pools-positive or pools-neutral voices were more muted.

"The protesters said it was capitalists exploiting the vulnerable working people," says Prof Huggins. "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."

Several attempts to outlaw pools betting failed in Parliament and campaigners' letters were largely ignored by the Home Office, partly because it was lucrative for the government.

"The amount of money coming to in in terms of Post Office income was huge," Prof Huggins says. "People bought postal orders and stamps to send the coupons in, and the profits were taxed. The government was laughing all the way to the bank, but it couldn't talk about that."

Righteous indignation kept the journalists happy but a more organised threat came from within sport itself.

The Football League - many of its senior figures rooted in Methodism - was unhappy that it was not benefiting from the money generated and, in 1936, launched the "Pools War".

It began trying to keep the identity of away teams off fixture lists, denying the pools companies the ability to produce coupons in time.

But the league soon backed down, as this also unfairly punished away fans making travel arrangements.


"The guys running the league thought betting would corrupt football," Prof Huggins says. "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."

The pools were legal as a form of "credit" betting - people paid in advance by cheque or postal order, rather than in cash on the day, to take part.

After World War II, the various pools companies gradually merged, with the Sportech firm now running the Liverpool-based operation.

Image caption,
More than half a million people still fill in weekly pools coupons

In 1961, Viv Nicholson, a factory worker from Castleford, won £152,000 (equivalent to almost £5m today) and promised to "spend, spend, spend".

And she did. Most of the money went on luxuries, to the disgust of moralists, but Nicholson stated that she had "no regrets" and that she had enjoyed herself more than had been imaginable.

Huge jackpots continued to make the headlines throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, before the excitement was overshadowed by that surrounding the National Lottery, which started in 1994.

"Betting is now an enormous industry of all shapes and sizes," says Sportech's chief executive Ian Perose. "Ironically, pools betting is now seen as a softer type of betting and has caused significantly less of a moral panic than what these early excerpts would suggest.

"At the time, however, there weren't any other ways that you could win an instant fortune from a small stake. It was perhaps the unknown which was the dilemma."

'Saturday ritual'

"People had an opportunity to win enormous amounts of money, instantly... there weren't many ways to do this at that time," says Mr Penrose. "And it was through skill; putting their football knowledge to the test, something we all like to think we are good at.

"Listening for the results on the radio or watching them be read out on TV became a Saturday afternoon ritual."

More than £3.2bn in winnings has been paid to 61 million people over the years and more than half a million people still play the pools each week.

When the Lottery launched, the debate over its effect was slightly different, as it was state-sponsored.

Conservative Prime Minster John Major focused his rhetoric on the "good causes" the takings would help: "The country will be a lot richer because of the Lottery. It is in every sense the people's Lottery."

But the Church of Scotland's board of social responsibility was not happy, given that the money might have to be used to fund its impending millennium commemorations.

Convenor Bill Wallace said: "If Christians decide to hold special celebrations of the millennium, 2,000 years since Christ's birth, but require to be sponsored by the proceeds of a national appeal to greed, the Church is in a sorry state."

Sue Fisher, a research sociologist and secretary of the European Association for the Study of Gambling, was equally scathing, accusing the government of riding "roughshod over its policy of not stimulating demand for gambling".

"It may seem foolish to think that buying a weekly lottery ticket or two could have any connection with problem gambling, but could it be our complacency that is foolish?" she wondered.

Ninety years after the pools started and almost 20 years since the Lottery began, it is a question still being asked.