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Football, Fainting and Fatalities

John Walton looks at the hidden problems of crowd safety off the pitch in England in the first half of the twentieth century.

Questions of crowd safety at football matches in the first half of the twentieth century have received little attention. Yet tragedies occurred, notably at Ibrox in 1902 (when terraces collapsed, killing twenty-six and injuring 500) and Hillsborough in 1914 (where eighty were injured by a falling wall), and the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters of the 1980s. Concerns about the size, nature and behaviour of crowds at leisure have a long history, with those in positions of authority adding legal regulations to the self-policing conventions of the participants themselves.

Surprisingly, the regulation of sports enclosures, and football stadia in particular, was kept on a very light rein compared with pubs, music halls and cinemas, for much of the last century. In the nineteenth century, and especially from the 1870s, theatres, music halls and cinemas were regulated as local authorities responded to fears about alcohol abuse, immorality, subversion, riot, loss of life and damage to order, property and efficiency. Licensing systems with codes of practice involving fire regulations and prohibitions on prostitution could be used to police both the content of programmes and the behaviour of spectators; the threat of closure proved an effective constraint on these increasingly lucrative businesses. In contrast, these systems of control were barely used in dealing with commercial and professional sport, though this was one of the greatest growth areas of this period. Controls over crowds and stadia remained voluntary, with clubs responsible for their own affairs.

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