Tuesday, June 15, 2021
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When we dived into the pools

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I’M sure many lockdown-weary souls have been hoping more than ever to win the lottery over the last ten months – I certainly have.  

But after I somehow failed once again to scoop Camelot’s jackpot last weekend (a rather handy £3.8million) it got me looking back with a nostalgic eye to the lottery’s doddery old ancestor, the football pools.  

I don’t know why I’m taking a rose-tinted view, because the pools, like the lottery, never gave me so much as a sniff of any riches. But in their heyday, they seemed somehow more relatable, more involving and more interesting.  

From the 1920s to the 1990s, winning the pools was the weekly dream that gave millions of Britons a glimmer of hope amid the quiet desperation of trying to earn a living.   

It was the one chance for ordinary people to get an immediate life-changing windfall for a small outlay, as Stan Kelly-Bootle rather poignantly portrayed in his song Liverpool Lullaby, made famous by Cilla Black: We’ll buy a house in Knotty Ash / When Littlewoods provide the cash.  

So checking if you’d won the pools was a tense five o’clock Saturday evening ritual in homes everywhere as the football results came in over the wireless and later the television.   

In our house it was the job of my father, sitting with his ear close to the speaker, licking a pencil and ticking off the little squares he’d marked on his copy coupon.  

I remember as a child in the 1950s hearing adults talking in awed tones about the holy grail of the pools, the £75,000 treble chance prize on Littlewoods. I had no idea what the treble chance was, but I had some idea what £75,000 was – paradise.   

I’d walk around dreamily muttering to myself: ‘Seventy-five THOUSAND pounds … SEVENTY-FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS.’ It was certainly enough to buy every Dinky toy I ever wanted, particularly the Tank Transporter, which cost an astronomical, forever unattainable 17s 11d. 

The football pools became a British institution thanks to John Moores, a cable company telegraph operator born in Eccles, Salford, who in 1924 bought out the then unprofitable part-time venture from his two partners – he gave them £200 apiece – and turned it into a goldmine. 

Eight years later, his Littlewoods Pools company, based in Liverpool, had made him a millionaire and he went on to become one of Britain’s richest men. Several other successful pools companies also emerged, including Vernons, Zetters, Copes, and Empire.  

In the 1930s, most large-scale lotteries were prohibited by law. But the pools escaped this legislation because it was deemed to be a game of skill rather than chance.  

You either mailed your completed coupon with a postal order to Littlewoods early in the week, or it was picked up from your home with your stake money by a collector, who’d probably be knocking on your door on a Thursday evening.   

Whether your pools actually reached the huge Littlewoods checking offices in Liverpool was something of a gamble in itself. The small print reminded you that ‘proof of posting is not proof of delivery’ and transactions were ‘binding in honour only’. So if the collector scarpered with your money, or your entry was lost in the post, tough luck.  

The most famous pools winner was, of course, Viv Nicholson, the housewife from Castleford whose husband Keith scooped £152,319 in 1961 (equivalent to around £3.2million today). Viv memorably announced that she would ‘spend, spend, spend’. A few short years later, the money was spent, spent, spent and Keith had tragically died in a car crash.  

I never knew anyone who ‘came up’ big on the pools (or admitted doing so). When I was little, I heard vague family rumours that a relative had won £100 just after the war, which would have been a tidy sum. But looking around at my grandparents, aunts and uncles, I saw no sign of diamond earrings, fur coats or fat cigars.  

Certainly, the small office pools syndicate I used to run later in life never struck gold despite around eight years of trying – our only win amounted to £40, between five of us.   

Littlewoods and the rest of the big pools firms never survived in their original form after the National Lottery was launched in 1994 with its mega-millions in prize money. So I was pleased to find that the football pools are still going in an online format and are called, er, The Football Pools.

It’s impossible to write about the pools without a mention for Horace Batchelor, the Bristol-based pundit who in the 1950s and 1960s sponsored a short music slot on Radio Luxembourg to advertise his ‘famous infra-draw’ method for winning a fortune.

At the end of his show, he’d ask you to write for details of his scheme to his home in Keynsham, with his immortal spell-it-out address reminder – ‘Horace Batchelor, Department One, Keynsham … that’s K-E-Y-N, S-H-A-M, Keynsham, Bristol.’  

It’s not certain if any of his customers ever won anything substantial with old Horace’s infra-draw method, but he clearly didn’t. When he died in 1977, although he’d put Keynsham on the map, he left not a multi-million-pound fortune, but just under £150,000.   

However, Horace holds a place in many hearts as a reminder of a gentler, more innocent, age. And when I finally scoop that lottery jackpot, as well as buying that long-coveted Dinky Tank Transporter, a pilgrimage to Keynsham (that’s K-E-Y-N, S-H-A-M, Keynsham, Bristol), is on my must-do list.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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