Hooliganism has long been associated with soccer 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 soccer.


Prior to the introduction of the organized and professional game in the
latter half of the nineteenth century, English soccer had been something
of a savage affair, involving large unruly mobs indulging in mass violence.
Although the codification of soccer 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).

The intention of this paper is to therefore focus upon the inter-war
period, examining the theories proposed that explain the apparent calm
amongst the spectators of English soccer. First, issues relating to the
social composition of the crowd will be discussed. This will be followed
by considering how crowd disorder was reported upon by both official and
media sources. Lastly, consideration will be given to how unruly behavior
was dealt with by the different parties concerned.


The incorporation of the working class into mainstream respectable society
has been offered by Figurational Sociologists as a significant reason
why soccer 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
soccer 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 soccer would prove helpful in the present unsettled
condition of industrial affairs of the country” (Maguire, 1986, p.

In respect to the class structure, another main theme that becomes apparent,
is the idea that soccer spectatorship was becoming increasingly respectable
as a result of the re-emergence of the middle classes attending soccer
matches. Both Walvin (1986) and Mason (1979), in particular, refer to
mixed classes being apparent at soccer 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 soccer season
(Lowerson, 1995). The appearance of women at soccer 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 soccer 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 soccer, 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.


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 soccer
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 soccer 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.


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 sub culture 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 soccer in common with the working class on
the terraces. After the Second World War, as soccer 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 soccer (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 soccer 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.


  1. Bale, J. (1993)   Sport, Space and the City. London: Routledge.
  2. Clarke, J. (1978) Football and Working Class Fans: Tradition and Change.
    In Ingham, R. (Ed.) Football Hooliganism. London: Inter-Action.
  3. Dunning, E., Murphy, P., Willaims, J. (1988) The Roots of Football
    Hooliganism. London: Routledge.
  4. Dunning, E., Maguire, J., Pearton, R. (Eds.) (1993) The Sports Process.
    Leeds: Human Kinetics.
  5. Hargreaves, J. (1986) Sport, Power and Culture. Cambridge: Polity
  6. Hayward, T. (1995) Women and Football Factsheet: A History of Female
    Football Fans. Leicester: Leicester University.
  7. Holt, R. (1990) Sport and the British. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  8. Hutchinson, J. (1982) The Football Industry. Glasgow: RD.
  9. Jones, S (1992) Sport, Politics and the Working Class. Manchester:
    Manchester University Press.
  10. Lowerson, J. (1995) Sport and the English Middle Classes 1870 – 1914.
    Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  11. Maguire, J. (1986) ‘The Emergence of Football Spectating as a Social
    Problem 1880 – 1985: A Figurational and Developmental Perspective’.
    Sociology of Sport Journal, Volume 3, (pp.217-244).
  12. Mason, A. (1979) Association football and English Society 1863 – 1915.
    Sussex: Harvester Press.
  13. Murphy, P., Williams, J., Dunning, E. (1990) Football on Trial. London:
  14. Reiner, R. (1985) The Politics of the Police. Brighton: Wheatsheaf.
  15. Sleap, M. (1998) Social Issues in Sport. London: Macmillan.
  16. Taylor, I. (1971) Football Mad: A Speculative Sociology of Football
    Hooliganism.   In Dunning, E. (Ed.) The Sociology of Sport. London:
    Frank Cass & Co.
  17. Walvin, J. (1986) Football and the Decline of Britain. London: Macmillan.
  18. Williams, J., Wagg, S. (1991) British Football and Social Change.
    Leicester:   Leicester University Press.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email