by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

28 April 1923: The ’White Horse’ FA Cup Final

The 1923 FA Cup Final between first division Bolton and West Ham, then of the second division, kicked off on 28 April 1923.  It was the first football match to be held at the original Wembley Stadium, and was to become legendary as “the white horse final” in recognition of the role mounted police played to ensure a game could be played after a flood of people turning up far exceeded the capacity of the new stadium and led to spectators swarming on to the pitch.  The official crowd figure for that day was given as 126,047, but sources have estimated the crowd that forced itself into the stadium designed for 125,000 was anything between 200,000 and 300,000 people.  Mounted policemen, including one on a light colour horse, were brought in to clear the crowds off the pitch so the game could start, albeit 45 minutes late and with the crowd standing around the edge of the pitch.

The three finals after the First World War had all seen below capacity crowds.  This allied with the fact that Bolton and West Ham were having attendances averaging around 20,000 for their home games meant the FA were unsure that they could fill Wembley, and so they had launched a large advertising campaign in the run up to the game, and announced there would be ticket sales on the day.  However, they did not take into account the lure of the new stadium which, completed a year ahead of schedule, was boasting that it was the greatest venue of its kind.  Added to this was the fact that a London team being in the final was as an added attraction for the locals as it was only for the fourth time since the turn of the century that this had happened, indeed many neutrals were viewing the game as a North v South game with all the bragging rights that would guarantee.  This gave the game a mass appeal and fine weather, and the improvements in public transport to the new stadium which had seen roads widened, new bus routes implemented and train stations upgraded, all meant that the crowd was to far exceed anyone’s expectations.

The gates were opened three and half hours before kick off at 11.30 and there was a steady flow of spectators during the early afternoon until 1 o’clock when a huge number of people began pouring into the stadium.  By 1.45 it was decided the stadium was full and a decision was taken to close the stadium gates.  Even though this information was relayed back to train stations on the route to Wembley, thousands still continued to arrive and mass outside.  At 2.15 the crowd rushed the barriers and began to force their way in, and, in the words of a reporter for the East Ham Echo, “Spectators, who had taken up and held their positions since early morning, were bundled unceremoniously out of place by the rush, and swept on to the green.”  Meanwhile the roads around the stadium had been bought to a standstill and, while the Bolton players had arrived safely before the crush, the Bolton directors and their guests were forced to abandon their coach a mile away from the stadium and fight their way through the crowds to the ground to join the scrum to get in.

In true trooper style the Guard’s band continued playing surrounded on all sides by a sea of people while their circle of grass was growing ever smaller.  Eventually a call for police reinforcements was made to the surrounding police stations and a number of mounted police were bought in to attempt to clear the pitch.  These included off-duty PC George Scorey, who with his horse Billie had answered the emergency call.  Billie, who was actually grey but appeared white on the primitive film used for newsreel footage, caught the media’s attention and the public imagination and a legend was born.

The police managed to clear enough space for the teams to somehow make their way onto the pitch to be presented to the King, and then had to contend with passing the ball amongst themselves while new attempts were made to clear the whole of the pitch.  Seeing the players had focused the crowds minds and working with the mounted police they linked hands and stepped backwards with the police prodding any lingerers back until the they reached the edge of the touchline.  In an interview with the BBC some years later, Scorey said, “As my horse picked his way onto the field, I saw nothing but a sea of heads. I thought, ‘we can’t do it. It’s impossible.’ But I happened to see an opening near one of the goals and the horse was very good – easing them back with his nose and tail until we got a goal line cleared. I told them in front to join hands and heave and they went back step-by-step until we reached the line. Then they sat down and we went on like that … it was mainly due to the horse. Perhaps because he was white he commanded more attention. But more than that, he seemed to understand what was required of him. The other helpful thing was the good nature of the crowd.”  Scorey, who passed away in 1965, was later to be rewarded with free tickets for all future finals, although not being interested in football he never attended.  After the death of his horse, Scorey also received from the head of the Mounted Police the dubious gift of one of Billie’s hooves polished and mounted.

The match itself has become almost incidental in the history of this particular final.  When it did finally kick off it was to be affected by the crowd standing on the perimeter of the pitch.  After just two minutes West Ham’s Jack Tresadern became trapped in the crowd after taking a throw in and was trying to get back on to the pitch when the now unmarked David Jack of Bolton became the first goalscorer at Wembley.  He not only gave Bolton the lead, but also knocked over a whole group of spectators who were pressed up against the net, rendering one of them unconscious.  Eleven minutes into the game the crowd again surged onto the pitch leading the game to be halted and mounted police again being required.

At the half-time break the players were unable to get through the crowd on the side of the pitch to reach the dressing rooms, so play started again after just a five-minute break on the pitch.  Within eight minutes of the restart Bolton scored a second, but again the proximity of the crowd to the pitch led to controversy.  West Ham insisted that Jack Smith’s shot had not entered the goal but rebounded off the post, but referee Asson was convinced that the rebound had come off a spectator behind the net and allowed the goal to stand.   To add insult to injury, West Ham were also adamant that Vizard, who supplied the pass for Smith’s goal, had initially received the ball from a kick by a spectator, but again the referee was unmoved.

After that the game drifted to its climax, leaving Bolton to become the first Wembley cup winners.  West Ham were left bemoaning their luck and the state of the pitch, which had been carved up by the police horses’ hooves.  Things though would look rosier for them the next weekend when, despite a 1-0 home loss to Notts County, they still managed to achieve promotion from the second division on goal average as their main rivals Leicester lost 2-0.

It is perhaps something of a miracle that although around 900 spectators, and two police officers, received injuries received during the day, only 22 of them required hospital treatment, and all but 8 of them were discharged the same day.  Certainly the good humour of the crowd helped and when the matter was discussed in Parliament all those present at Wembley on that day were praised for keeping calm.  In fact when the then MP for Harrow Sir Oswald Mosley tried to label the crowd as hooligans he was shouted down and forced to retract his statement by the Speaker.  The FA for their part at first refused to accept any liability and put the blame squarely on the Wembley authorities, but when it was pointed out that their enthusiastic and extensive advertising of the game had mostly led to the problem they back-tracked and refunded all those who had bought tickets before the game but had been unable to take their seats.  Not to be caught out twice they ensured that all future cup finals would be all ticket affairs only with no sales on the day of the game.

The image of the white horse has lingered on in public imagination and when the new Wembley Stadium was built the bridge leading up to it was named the White Horse Bridge after a poll of the public put the horse ahead of Sir Alf Ramsey, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst.  The Scottish newspaper, The Daily Record, has claimed that the poll results were skewed by large numbers of Scots voting to prevent any English player being honoured, plus the fact that White Horse is a brand of whiskey, but whatever the reason, the legend of the White Horse will continue to live on.