Football hooliganism between the Wars

Examining the behaviour of the English football fan 1919-1939

by Gerald Griggs

Hooliganism has long been associated with football in England and has been a common occurrence from the late nineteenth century onwards. Yet following the end of the First World War, incidents of crowd disorder appeared to fall resulting in a period of calm and orderly behavior up until the Second World War. The purpose of this study is to focus upon the inter-war period, examining the theories proposed that explain the apparent calm amongst the spectators of English football.

Prior to the introduction of the organized and professional game in the latter half of the nineteenth century, English football had been something of a savage affair, involving large unruly mobs indulging in mass violence. Although the codification of football and the establishment of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 brought a sense of order to the game, crowd disorder remained prevalent throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, following the end of the First World War in 1918, incidents of crowd disorder and hooliganism appeared to fall, resulting in a period of calm and orderly behavior right up until the Second World War in 1939 (Dunning et al., 1993). Post-war Britain once again witnessed crowd trouble with the re-emergence of disorder, which was to continue until the present day (Sleap, 1998).

Social composition of the crowd
The incorporation of the working class into mainstream respectable society has been offered by Figurational Sociologists as a significant reason why football spectators behaved in a more civilized way between the wars (Dunning et al., 1988, Maguire 1986, Murphy et al., 1990).

The idea is posited that the working class between the wars wished to convey to higher class members of society (and presumably show each other) that they could collectively interact at a large social gathering without disorder being created. Maguire (1986) points out that the FA actually believed that football was especially capable of achieving civilized and orderly behavior among the working classes, particularly in difficult social climates. During the General Strike of 1926 for instance, the “FA committee argued that the playing of football would prove helpful in the present unsettled condition of industrial affairs of the country” (Maguire, 1986, p.230).

In respect to the class structure, another main theme that becomes apparent, is the idea that football spectatorship was becoming increasingly respectable as a result of the re-emergence of the middle classes attending football matches. Both Walvin (1986) and Mason (1979), in particular, refer to mixed classes being apparent at football matches during the inter-war period.

These are significant observations, as before the First World War, middle class men would mostly watch rugby during the traditional football season (Lowerson, 1995). The appearance of women at football matches also indicates too that crowds were becoming more middle class (Hayward, 1995). Evidence indicates that the women present would most likely have been middle class, as during the inter-war period, working class women did not spend their limited leisure time at sporting occasions (Jones, 1992).

Although little else can be derived from the specific composition of inter-war crowds, not least because of the lack of recorded data (Holt, 1990), it is possible to consider how spectators were organized. In respect of where and how a football fan would spectate, a factor that became more evident in the 1920s and 1930s was not so much the social class of an individual but their ability to pay. What resulted according to Bale (1993) was the first case of physical segregation determined by prices, with seating and shelter demanding a higher price. Hargreaves (1986) suggests that such segregation was a necessary demarcation of social position that existed as much within classes as between them.

It is argued that the visible social hierarchy which was evident in the later part of the nineteenth century within football, needed to be re-established, particularly by the ‘petit bourgeois’ in order that their new found social status be acknowledged. Whether the new fashion of segregation somehow pacified and ordered the crowd would be a contentious suggestion but Hutchinson (1982) certainly considers that such physical features as turnstiles and fences helped to control such large numbers.

The reporting of crowd disorder
In examining how incidents of crowd disorder were reported between the wars most research concerns itself with the examination of FA minutes and press reports. During the inter-war period, FA records show a marked fall in hooliganism (Dunning et al., 1988). Between 1921 and 1939 there were a total of seventy one incidents of crowd misconduct recorded by the FA (an average of just under four per season). Moreover, between 1930 and 1934 there were merely five cases, none of which resulted in ground closure (ground closure was a common punishment by the FA after violence at matches).

In total there were in fact eight ground closures in the twenty years after the First World War, whereas there is evidence to suggest that there could have been as many as forty six in the twenty years preceding it. Post-war statistics again show recorded incidents rising steadily, up to as many as twenty five cases per season (Dunning et al., 1988, p.134). It can be assumed perhaps, that the FA took a softer line on crowd disorder during the inter-war period, again perhaps in a bid to make football appear more respectable, given the poor reputation it was trying to shed. However, it must be said that the incidents recorded are ‘sketchy’ at best (Dunning et al., 1988).

According to Murphy et al. (1990) the press too under-reported incidents of crowd disorder between the wars, though this was less to do with becoming more civilized but more to do with the new commercial pressures being placed upon editors. As the 1920s and 1930s heralded a new era of consumption and consumerism, advertising became an increasingly significant means of revenue for newspapers. As a result, headlines and print grew in size and more photographs were included. As Murphy et al. (1990, p. 110) point out “under the twin constraints of lessened space and the emerging, competition-induced desire for a more attractive presentation, editors seem to have become more sensitive to the issue of ‘newsworthiness’ and the need for selectivity”. Therefore, given that football hooliganism was not seen to be a social problem at that time, it would therefore have been deemed to hold little or no interest to a newspaper reader.

Dealing with unruly behaviour
According to Williams et al. (1991), at a time of soaring attendances the “patterns of spectating of the period were indicative of considerably more self policing and internal discipline within soccer crowds compared with those of twenty years or more later and, indeed, those in the early years of the century” (Williams et al., 1991, p. 164).

This is supported by Maguire (1986) who makes reference to a number of FA minutes recorded in the 1920s which indicate that ‘respectable’ people should exercise self control and aid in the controlling of fellow spectators, allowing what was agreed upon, to be ‘permissible’. Maguire (1986, p.230) suggests that “attempts to promote self regulation and increasing agreement over what was considered permissible may well have reflected the continuing successful endeavours of the middle classes to impose their values on society as a whole”.

When self regulation failed however, the police themselves restored law and order, with Walvin (1986) indicating that stricter and more rigorous policing methods were employed during the inter-war period. This raises a number of interesting questions. First, were the police reacting to an apparently more uncontrollable crowd? Secondly, did the implementation of such strategies represent a shift in police policies during the inter-war period? Thirdly, did the action taken during this period in fact result in there being less spectator disorder? Although, as mentioned in the introduction that crowd disorder always existed there is little evidence to suggest that the police were unduly concerned. Hooliganism was not the social phenomenon that it later became.

However, it would be reasonable to suggest that more effective methods of general crowd control indicated by Walvin (1986) were probably more to do with personal safety than outbreaks of violence. Whether or not the action taken by the police in any way quieted crowd disturbances is questionable, though they may have contributed through their presence, as relations between the police and the public were considered to be at there most harmonious during the inter-war period (Reiner, 1985).

Relations between the fans and the club itself between 1919 and 1939 were also considered to be closer than they had ever been. Taylor (1971) proposes that this is based upon the perceptions of the subculture of the working class that would be most likely to create trouble. His theory of ‘Participatory Democracy’ details that “in the inter-war years, the illusion persisted that power – over the future of the club and particularly over the possibility of victory was distributed between management, directors, players and the sub culture, all of whom were seen as standing in some kind of unambiguous relationship to the working class of the area as a whole” (Taylor, 1971, p. 362).

It must be remembered however that those that administered the club were markedly middle class and had only the watching of football in common with the working class on the terraces. After the Second World War, as football became more professional and affluent (Bourgeoisification), more overt and frequent hooliganism resulted, which was considered a working class reaction to not being consulted over the new direction of football (Taylor, 1971).

Clarke (1978) too believes that the subsequent professionalisation, along with the transformation of the social situation experienced by young working class people, together resulted in the breaking of ties between members of the same family or community which were strong amongst the pre-war working class. Consequently as Clarke (1978, p. 25) points out “working class boys before the Second World War typically went to football with their fathers, uncles, older brothers or neighbours; in that context, their behavior was subject to relatively effective control”. Working class youth, the most likely group to engage in hooliganism, were therefore effectively babysat for most, if not all of the inter-war period. It was only later in the century when they went to matches in gangs with their peers that control from elders ceased to be exercised effectively.

In summary, after examining the theories proposed that explain the apparent calm amongst the spectators of English soccer during the inter-war period, it would appear to be somewhat naïve to suggest that one overriding idea could be held accountable. An interplay and evolution of a great number of social factors such as Clarke’s (1978) idea of the ‘family on the terrace’, coupled with a general willingness to implement more effective regulation by all parties concerned, would seem to offer a more plausible but less clear cut explanation.

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