The Football League Jubilee 1938
The Football League celebrated its Jubilee in 1938. A number of events and matches were staged to commemorate William McGregor’s historic founding of the world’s first professional league fifty years earlier. The original twelve clubs had grown to eighty-eight across four divisions, reflecting the league’s steady rise in popularity since 1888.
The 1937-38 season saw English football in good health, competitive and well attended across the divisions – the league title was won by Arsenal on the last day, pipping Wolves – the top five was rounded out by the first champions Preston, Charlton and Middlesbrough. Against this backdrop, the League was entitled to a celebration, with a lavish eight-course Jubilee Dinner held on 30 May 1938 at London’s Dorchester Hotel to coincide with the League’s Annual General Meeting.
The guest list of 650 included footballing names of the day such as Raich Carter, Stan Cullis and Stanley Rous, plus representatives from the BBC, House of Commons and military alongside the Lord Mayors of London and Westminster. The Duke of Gloucester delivered a speech, toasting the success of the league to date. Congratulatory telegrams came from around the world, together with messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The founder’s son William McGregor Junior was present, as was the famous football architect Archibald Leitch and journalist Ivan Sharpe, who later wrote a league history for the 75th anniversary in 1963.
The Jubilee had a practical purpose beyond the wining and dining – a series of friendly fixtures were arranged ahead of the following season, to raise money for the Football League Jubilee Benevolent Fund. A professional footballer’s career during the first fifty years of league football was precarious, with wages strictly capped (at £8 a week in 1938) and minimal insurance in the event of injury. The Fund aimed to raise £100,000 to assist players (and clubs) in hardship, offering grants to help toward new careers in retirement. A week before the start of the 1938-39 season, the ‘Jubilee Saturday’ games of 20 August 1938 were intended to kick-start the fund-raising. Match officials provided their services for free, and a number of reserve team games rounded out the programme. Clubs also made donations of £1,000, £500 or £250 depending on their division.
The emphasis was on local derbies to maximise attendances and receipts. Close to 450,000 attended 44 first-team matches, with the highest gate 41,997 at Highbury for Arsenal’s meeting with Spurs. Newcastle attracted 30,000 against Gateshead, with 27,788 watching the Manchester derby and 27,745 at Millwall’s clash with Charlton. As the experiment was considered a success, all fixtures were reversed in August 1939 – only a few weeks before the season was abandoned. At the time of the Jubilee celebrations, no-one could have known that 1938-39 would remain the last full season before the Second World War interrupted league football for six years.
The Story of the Football League 1888-1938 was published by the League from its Preston headquarters to commemorate the first fifty years. President Charles Sutcliffe, Secretary Fred Howarth and journalist J.A. Brierley were the co-authors.