Following on from last week’s post about The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, in the run-up to Qatar 2022 this week we’ll look at football in interwar Britain more generally. Football was invented in England, and it remains the most popular spectator sport in the country today. During the interwar period, the sport itself as well as the spectator culture around it were frequently represented in popular media.
First, the basics. League football was (and is) governed in England by the Football Association (FA), which was formed in 1863. In the 19th century, the FA unified football rules to a single set that applied across the country and started running various leagues including the FA Cup. In 1923 a new dedicated stadium was built at Wembley as part of the Empire Exhibition. The stadium was inaugurated by that year’s FA Cup final.
League matches usually took place on Saturday afternoons, after the 5 ½ workday week was finished. From the start, football had primarily been a working-class sport, with some spectator groups building a reputation for unruliness or even violence. The FA cup was keen to improve football’s image during the interwar period, and argued that playing and watching football increased a sense of community. They even went as far as arguing that football would ‘prove helpful in the present unsettled condition of industrial affairs of the country’ during the 1926 General Strike.
Another aspect of the FA’s attempts to make football more socially acceptable during the interwar period was to attract middle-class spectators. One strategy for lowering the barrier of attendance at games for middle-class spectators was to create segregated pricing: certain sections of seats would be more expensive than others, thus creating an automatic division between middle-class and working-class spectators. This concept was very familiar to anyone travelling by train in interwar Britain, as trains retained first, second and third-class carriages. Cinemas used the same strategy during the 1920s to also increase middle-class attendance and thus become more respectable.
Attendance of women at football matches was also a sure sign of increased respectability. By the time The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was written at the close of the interwar period, it was believable that two young, unmarried women would attend an Arsenal match together. Yet at the start of the interwar period, women’s participation in football had been much more comprehensive. Women had been playing football since the end of the 19th century, but the sport’s popularity increased significantly during the First World War. During the war, many young working-class women worked in munitions factories, which often set up their own football teams to give workers a chance to exercise, let off steam and bond with co-workers.
By the time the war was over, women’s football had become established and also increasingly popular. Its growth as a viable sport was cut short, however, by the FA’s decision to ban women’s teams from playing matches on any FA-affiliated pitches. The decision was allegedly influenced by jealousy at the crowds women’s matches were drawing, and the associated income this represented to women’s clubs. The decision did not completely end women’s football in Britain, as evidenced by this British Pathé clip from 1925 of a match at Herne Hill. It did, however, severely hamper the development of women’s football in Britain.
Off the pitch, thousands of people turned out to watch their favourite team win or lose, each week. Apart from the thrill of the game, spectatorship also brought in additional pleasures. One activity that has been indelibly linked to both football and British culture is betting. As sports historian Mike Huggins has argued: ‘Betting combined excitement, sociability and the prospect of becoming temporarily better off. (…) [A]cross the classes, across the country, and across age and gender, betting was increasingly ubiquitous and socially acceptable’ during the interwar period.
Exactly how socially acceptable betting was is evidenced in the plot of the 1938 film Penny Paradise, starring popular actor Edmund Gwenn. In this film, Gwenn’s character Joe Higgins, a tug-boat driver, believes he has won the ‘penny pools’, a newspaper competition that asks readers to accurately predict the outcomes to all the league’s football matches. Joe gets all the scores right, but he doesn’t realise that his friend Pat forgot to post his scores to the newspaper office on time. The film good-naturedly chronicles Joe’s initial belief that he has become a rich man, and then the subsequent realisation that he has missed out. By the late 1930s, betting constructions like penny pools were evidently so widely understood and accepted that they could form the basis of a gentle comedy film.
Football in interwar Britain then was as pervasive as it today, whether that was as a sport to participate in at an amateur level; a game to watch every Saturday; an activity that allowed you to bet and dream of a better future; or something that you saw on newsreels when you went to the cinema. Like many elements of interwar popular culture, it responded to changing gender roles and class divisions, whilst never losing its ability to draw people together.
 Joe Maguire, ‘The Emergence of Football Spectating as a Social Problem 1880 – 1985: A Figurational and Developmental Perspective’, Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 3, (1986), 217-244 (p. 230)
 Lisa Jenkel, ‘The F.A.’s ban of women’s football 1921 in the contemporary press – a historical discourse analysis’, Sport in History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2021), 239-259 (pp. 243-44)
 Ibid., p. 240
 Mike Huggins, ‘Betting, Sport and the British, 1918-1939’, Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2007), 283-306 (p. 285)
 Mike Huggins, ‘‘And Now, Something for the Ladies’: representations of women’s sport in cinema newsreels 1918–1939’, Women’s History Review, vol. 16, no. 5 (2007), 681-700