Only the strong survived: remembering the brutal Boys’ Pen at Goodison Park in the 1960s

Only the strong survived: remembering the brutal Boys’ Pen at Goodison Park in the 1960s

Throughout history, many societies across the globe have imposed a rite of passage on young boys who wished to be accepted and welcomed as an equal member of their clan or tribe. Such initiation ceremonies were not traditionally a part of Anglo–Saxon culture in modern times. Yet one such tradition survived in the 1960s in the city of Liverpool in order to prove your manhood.

Even now, recalling those traumatic events can still bring tears to a grown man in his 60s. Those who failed have buried their shame deep in their souls. To have the status of adulthood confirmed, you needed to survive the traumatic near-life-threatening experience that was watching a match from the confines of the cavernous enclosure known to all as the Boys’ Pen, located at the rear of the Gwladys Street terraces at Everton’s Goodison Park

These days, football clubs try every marketing gimmick at their disposal to attract the younger fan. Discounted season tickets are offered for every part of the stadium, while junior supporters receive personalised birthday greetings from club’s star players via social media. Children are welcomed with open arms – but it wasn’t always like this.

In the 1950s and 60s, most clubs were firmly of the view that children should be seen and not heard. Indeed, the very notion that a parent might want to bring their daughter to a game was laughable. Indeed, the Football Association refused to recognise women’s football at his time.

Everton and Liverpool, like many other leading clubs, paid scant regard to the idea of attracting a younger family-friendly fan base. Their only concession was to offer a reduced entry price for admission to the Boys’ Pen section of the ground, which was generally half of the full adult admission fee. For a family in restricted financial circumstances, this was an important consideration. However, the downside was that this meant entering without the protection of your parents.

Liverpool in the 1960s was undergoing an urban transformation that was ripping the heart out of the city and the local communities. Many were transported to new green belt estates in rural areas of Lancashire such as Huyton and Kirkby; others were left behind in the old back-to-back terraced streets of Anfield, Everton and Walton.

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Amongst the kids born in the 1950s, a clear social divide was emerging as ragamuffins roamed the cobbled streets near Anfield and Goodison, whilst their counterparts were being mollycoddled in their new houses in the suburbs with the luxury of modern indoor toilets and bathrooms. Instead of playing in the streets, this new generation grew up playing football on lush green playing fields. They even spoke a rural variation of Scouse. Such an upbringing left them ill-prepared for the rigours of life in the Boys’ pen.

It was the equivalent of throwing Walter the Softy into a playground full of Dennis the Menaces. I confess that I was a “softy”. Our new estate was only four miles from Goodison Park, yet our maisonette overlooked a farm, woods and a stream. A visit to our local pub, – the Liverpool Arms in Litherland – was still considered an evening jaunt to the countryside by the denizens of the inner city.

My maternal grandparents actually lived in the district of Everton, which reeked of urban deprivation from every angle. Kids played out on the streets from dusk till dawn, roaming around with dubious intent. My mother, despite my grandmother’s insistence, refused to let me play with them.

The 1962/63 season was the first that I started going to football matches with my dad. He used to take me into the Upper Bullens for home games, with my ticket costing the same as an adult. After the bitter winter of that season, which led to Everton not playing a league fixture for over six weeks, I was desperate to attend another match.

However, there was an unexpected complication: my tales of going to Goodison had created feelings of envy amongst my classmates. My best friend at the time, Alan, asked if he could come along. How could I refuse? I approached my dad, who was happy to take us to the match, but he couldn’t afford the cost of three tickets for the stand. The deal was that we would have to go in the Boys’ Pen. The admission price was the sum of one shilling and six pence. We were both just seven years of age.

Everton were due to play Wolves on 23 February 1963. Alan and I spent the whole week looking forward to the game. My dad accompanied us on the bus to the match as we arrived in the environs of Goodison about two hours before kick–off. As per the established traditions of the era, my dad enjoyed a few convivial libations with his friends whilst Alan and I sat outside muffled in our duffle coats, being feted with bottles of pop and bags of crisps. We felt like royalty.

At about 2:30pm, my dad emerged and escorted us to the entrance of the Boys’ Pen, which surprisingly didn’t appear to have any queue despite the fact that a crowd of over 60,000 was predicted. We said our goodbyes as the turnstile clicked to allow access to the arena. We were totally unprepared for what happened next.

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Technically, you were supposed to be under the age of 14 to gain admittance to the Pen, but the number of junior Blues who were six-foot-tall with bushy sideburns and smoking cigarettes appeared to flout that requirement. Little did we realise that most of these younger fans had actually been in situ since the gates opened at 1:30, determined to secure the best vantage point for themselves.

We tried to inch our way through the seething mass but were greeted with a series of kicks and punches, followed by a tirade of hair pulling and verbal threats. Terrified, we stuck together for safety but were hopelessly outnumbered.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some young girls. I smiled, hoping that they would empathise with our plight. It was a serious misjudgement. Even the leaders of the Pen would never dare to interact with these mid-adolescent Medusas. They made the legendary Amazonians look like Barbie Dolls in comparison. Without question, they could trace their lineage back to the Witches from Macbeth as they delivered a series of curses and threats that delivered a dagger of fear into our hearts. With a series of hideous cackles, they added to our torment.

Suddenly, I was pinned up against a crash barrier by one wastrel, whilst his fellow felon emptied my pockets of their contents. My friend, transfixed in a stupor of helplessness, willingly handed over his money to avoid a beating. It didn’t work; he got thumped anyway. The way we looked, the way we spoke, confirmed us as “suburban softies”. In the Boys’ Pen, the cobbled streets brigade ruled the roost and we were like lambs to the slaughter. Actually, there was a policeman present, but he just smiled knowingly and looked away. He was probably due a percentage of the takings.

Unbeknown to us, the game had actually kicked off but, wedged between platoons of strapping, burly juveniles, we were both penniless and sightless. We looked at each other and, with words unspoken, edged our way towards the exit. A kindly steward took pity on us and opened a set of gates to allow us to escape. With tears rolling down our eyes, we sat on a wall outside the ground. It was 3:10. Fortunately, this was the place we had arranged to meet my dad post-match. Unfortunately, we had arrived at the rendezvous 90 minutes early.

Surprisingly, being outside was quite entertaining. We watched the police horses trotting down the street, witnessed a succession of supporters being frogmarched into a waiting Black Maria, and read a discarded programme. Another police officer, on hearing of our plight, shared a bag of sweets with us. I surmised that he probably dealt with a similar situation every home game.

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An ambulant newspaper vendor gave us a free copy of the pre-match Football Echo special. We spent our time trying to guess the score by listening to the roars of the crowd. The minutes flew by. As it turned out, we hadn’t missed much and the game ended 0-0.

My dad was shocked when he heard our story, although deep down I could sense his disappointment that I had failed to rise to the challenge of the Boys’ Pen. Like most protective parents, he chose the easier option of blaming my friend. Still, with the bribe of a few extra bags of cheese and onion crisps and bottles of cream soda, a formative non-disclosure agreement was devised whereby our respective mothers would hear nothing of the day’s events.

I was back in the stands for the rest of that season, from where I could safely observe the antics of the denizens of the Pen. Despite a fearsome, imposing set of pointed railings which separated the juveniles from the Gwladys Street, during the course of a match, several young warriors would successfully clamber to the top of the spikes and then drop down into the terraces scurrying into the masses to avoid capture by the constabulary, who were thwarted at every stage by the Gwladys Street loyalists. 

I would wager that the money saved by this unusual entrance could be spent on a packet of Woodbines on the way home. Unsurprisingly, the club took the decision to raise the height of the railings so that not even Spiderman could escape.

In the 1960s, a frozen drink called Jubbly was extremely popular amongst the younger fraternity. It came in a four-sided package (a tetrahedron apparently) and you tore the end from a corner and proceeded to eat the ice lolly whilst continually pushing it upwards. For many school children of my generation, the joy of crunching a Jubbly has never been surpassed. However, the regulars of the Boys’ Pen soon discovered another use for those cartons.

During any dull periods in a match, they would run to the drinking tap at the back of the enclosure, fill the container with water and then launch a series of fully loaded projectiles with deadly precision into the midst of the Gwladys Street terraces. They generally hit their targets with unerring accuracy. They goaded their victims, secure in the knowledge that the cage protected then from any response.

Some supporters made a laughable attempt to toss them back. They simply hit the railings and bounced back into the crowd. Wickedly, the more devious elements within the Pen decided to replace the contents of the water tap with the contents of their own bladders. It wasn’t a welcome development.

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After numerous complaints from shell-shocked season ticket holders, the club had to take decisive action. The Boys’ Pen was now fully meshed across the top, effectively creating a caged enclosure from which there could be no access. How many health and safety stipulations this breached, I have no idea, but at least fans in the Street End didn’t have to worry about being targeted by a barrage of flying projectiles.

However, as social mobility and aspiration started to influence the offspring of the baby-boomer generation, there was a noticeable shift in perceptions of rites of passage. Now, the rules had changed. To gain acceptance from adult society, one had merely to attend matches with your peers and stand, without your parents, on the terraces of Gwladys Street. 

As the end of the 1960s approached, to admit that you watched matches from the Boys’ Pen started to carry a social stigma at secondary school, implying that you came from an impoverished family. As wearing expensive Wrangler jeans and Ben Sherman shirts became de rigeur match apparel, nobody wished to be associated with the ill-garbed wretches in the Pen, with their “bobby washable “ jeans and Woolworths shirts.

Incredibly, the Boys’ Pen lurched on through the 1970s until the new regulations of the Football Licensing Authority signalled the end of its days. During the summer of 1977, new regulations decreed that each terrace required a certain number of exits. Everton, after years of institutional inertia and complacency, were faced with the prospect of losing income as the ground capacity was being restricted to 37,000 before the first game of the season against newly promoted Nottingham Forest.

The solution was simple: they closed the Pen, which meant that a new egress point had been created. It was a swift and sudden end to an institution that had served generations of young Blues. Even worse, it meant that there was no longer a reduced-price option for younger Blues. Nevertheless, nobody really lamented its passing.

Perhaps the last word on the legacy of the Boys’ Pen should be left to the much-lamented Foul Magazine, which offered these cautionary words of advice for any unsuspecting visitor to Goodison Park: “For any youngster tempted to join the local youth in the Boys’ Pen, a simple warning – don’t! The reasons these lads are enclosed is to protect the other fans. I entered this dangerous area once …. they were trying to set fire to a policeman.”

As time passes, nobody under the age of 45 can recall the terrifying experience of watching a football game from the Boys’ Pen, but it was part of our rich footballing tradition and deserves to be remembered as such. The Boys’ Pen at Goodison Park: gone but not forgotten. And I lived to tell the tale.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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