Football’s Original Environment

British football grew and thrived in northern industrial towns. The environment that fostered the game survived pretty much intact until the late 1950s.

For people of my generation, the 1950s will always feel twenty years ago – albeit twenty very long, entirely revolutionary years. In truth, it’s half a century now, and the people who lived and worked in the conventional surroundings of a northern industrial town are beginning to succumb to old age. In another twenty years, there’ll be nothing left but film, photographs and oral history.

Photographs like these, taken in Scotswood Road, an area of Newcastle Upon Tyne by a man, Jimmy Forsyth, who could see which way the wind was blowing and decided to record what was around him before change could sweep it all away.

I am particularly struck by this photograph of a frosty terraced street. Is the photograper leaning too hard on the bleak button?

This kind of affectionate approach to working class life was a feature of the thirties, forties and fifties, and I can’t help but think it’s significant by its absence now. At the same time, that very affection is affected: what’s been affected, distorts, and leaves nostalgia or frustrated ignorance as the only available reactions. What makes us dislike today can do that without telling us so very much about what that yesterday, for all its prevailing imperative, was actually like.

Housing Problems“, filmed in London’s East End in 1935, gives a different view. When Jimmy Forsyth was taking his pictures, all of what he observed was shortly to be swept away. The peculiar difficulties and problems of that kind of life were about to be solved – or so everyone thought – which opened up the mental room to remember what had, after all, been good about it. In 1935, those difficulties and problems were not only live and kicking – literally, in the case of a vermin-infested wall – but seemingly interminable, stretching away into the future unresolved. In this context, Scotswood Road reminds me of all that Milton scholarship since the 1950s, so nostalgic for hell and so confident that hell is off the agenda for good this time.

If there’s one thing that’s forgotten now, apart from the sheer noise, 24/7, of industrial towns, it’s the smoke. Ever wonder why so many of those early football films look the way they do? It isn’t just the poor film stock. Even on a clear day, there’s an edge taken from the light. Newcastle v Sunderland, 1913:


23 years later, and by the coast at Redcar, the difference is palpable, and again it’s not all in the film stock:

8 years later, at Gateshead. I’m not so sure about this clip in terms of what it shows – a hint of grey in the background on occasion, but nothing to cloud, as it were, a moving, cheering wartime clip:

The pall is much more obvious in this VE Day film produced by Gateshead Police:

5 Replies to “Football’s Original Environment”

  1. I think the 1950s might be a unique decade, in that because of the War a lot of the industrial and housing landscape had not been invested in since 1939 (and I suppose in some areas (wales?) due to the Great Depression since 1920). Thus it’s ‘older’ and shabbier than the number of years ago it is would suggest.

    Slightly different, but this is very noticeable in newspapers. 1930s (middle-class, ie the Express, probably not true of some others) newspaper are thick, glossy affairs with adverts for holidays and consumer goods. By the 1950s they were thin and dull and seem further ago.

  2. Yes: I’ve a photo-essay here about 1930s coalmining that emphasises how much the industry had mechanized since 1920. I’m not sure that it’s really possible to generalize Corelli Barnett-wise about industry as a whole 1920-1960, although the effective removal of heavy industry as a whole in the Industrial Revolution sense since 1960 probably removes any need to for these purposes.

    In a related way, I’m beginning to wonder if the whole football-nostalgia thing (traditional values, eleven roaring lions, jumpers for goalposts) isn’t just a subset of nostalgia for the ways of life of industrial communities, one that’s taken on a Frankenstinian life of its own.

    I’m hoping to get my hands on some of those 1930s Express issues in the immediate future, so it’ll be interesting to make the comparison.

  3. Not just industrial cities. I heard the story of an old boy returning to Cambridge for a College reunion, his first visit in 50 years. The big change, he said, is that the buildings aren’t black.

  4. Express – My mother (from her mother) has a great collection – mostly Royal events (and there were a lot in the 1930s). They’re really good reads – so much better than they were for the next thirty years. But I’m beginning to repeat myself.

    Dearieme – I read the other day that No.10 is actually standard whitehall white/grey colour, but noadays it is painted black as that’s the colour people expect it to be as it used to be so polluted. Can that be true? I was surprised St Pauls was such a light colour when I saw it the other day.

  5. I anyone really feels nostalgic, they can always go to China (YouTube link).

    The Turner Whistler Monet exhibition at the Tate a while back was basically a paean to the aesthetic qualities of industrial pollution; those Monets of the Houses of Parliament aren’t just blurry because that’s the way he painted.

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