This Week in Football History: The White Horse Cup Final of 1923

Mounted police keep an excess of 300,000 fans from spilling onto the Wembley pitch, including constable George Scorey and his white horse Billy
Mounted police keep an excess of 300,000 fans from spilling onto the Wembley pitch, including constable George Scorey and his white horse Billy
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Today, Adrian North looks back to the 1923 FA Cup final between Bolton and West Ham. A game that saw half a million people descend on the brand new Wembley Stadium and one man and his horse win the hearts and minds of a nation...


"But Wembley’s most iconic figure it is not Stanley Matthews, or Stan Mortenson, or Alan Sunderland, or Ricky Villa, or Eric Cantona, or even Sir Alf and those 11 heroic men from 66’. For all its glory and all its grandeur, and out of all of the heroes to have passed through the Twin Towers, Wembley’s most famous figure is a white horse called Billie."

April 28, 1923 - Bolton Wanderers 2-0 West Ham United, Wembley.

The 1948 Olympics, The Matthews Cup final, Cassius Clay vs Henry Cooper, The World Cup Final, Evel Knievel, Queen, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Live Aid, Gazza's volley and Psycho's penalty - The Old Wembley is undoubtedly the 20th century's most iconic venue.

And it is the FA Cup most of all that is synonymous with the "cathedral of football" as Pele once put it, a cathedral that has deified many a footballer.

But Wembley's most iconic figure it is not Stanley Matthews, or Stan Mortenson, or Alan Sunderland, or Ricky Villa, or Eric Cantona, or even Sir Alf and those 11 heroic men from 66'. For all its glory and all its grandeur, and out of all of the heroes to have passed through the Twin Towers, Wembley's most famous figure is a white horse called Billie.



By November 1918 the socio-political landscape of Europe had been forever altered. Machine guns, mines and tanks had decimated the continent. Austria-Hungary was gone, as were the Ottomans, Germany were to be strangled by economic punishment, and Lenin had realised taking power and keeping power weren't the same thing while Britain and France soldiered on, their empires still intact, for another 20 years.

And football mirrors life. Just as the Great War was perhaps the turning point of contemporary human history, the years after 1918 saw football grow into its own as the world's favourite pastime. The horrendous suffrage and sacrifice endured by the working classes of Europe between 1914 and 1918 would reconstruct the political face of the continent, and by the early 20s the working class suddenly had a voice in every walk of life, including football.

Football's popularity across Europe, and particularly in Britain swelled at an enormous rate after 1918. Having been largely a game for the elite and the wealthy, now it was the working class, seeking to heal the horrors of war who took to football in droves.

In England Divisions One and Two added two more sides each in 1919 and by 1921 amateur leagues across the north and south got together and formed two more professional tiers. England had its 92 clubs, a number that has existed ever since.

Attendances soared, radio broadcasts entertained millions, the press started to gossip, star players slowly became celebrities, and the entry of women into the labour force during the early 20s saw the women's game take off ever so slightly before being swiftly crushed by the patriarchy of the time.

The world had embraced the ball, and England ruled, its empire now extending to the sporting realm. And the pinnacle of 1920s football was the FA Cup final. Every football fan from every corner of the world and every walk of life wanted to see the FA Cup final, and such demand prompted the FA to construct a new stadium fit for such an event.

Built in 300 days on a plot of land roughly six miles northwest of Regents Park, Wembley Stadium, or The Empire Stadium as it was known then, could hold an unprecedented 125,000 spectators. Which was a number about four times too low for the amount of fans that swarmed past North Circular Road for its inaugural event on April 28, 1923 - Bolton vs West Ham, the 47th FA Cup final.



Wembley was the new jewel of the British Empire, a symbol of its prowess in industry and sport, and half a million people flocked in good spirit to its grounds in the hours before the supposed 3pm kick-off. An estimated 300,000 managed to get inside, a number that would make it the most attended non motor-racing sporting event of all time.

At 11:30 the gates opened, by 13:00 the stadium was almost full, and at 13:45 the gates were closed. The authorities were hopelessly outmatched by the horde of fans that descended upon them, which hilariously included the entire Bolton team, who were forced to ditch their bus a mile from the stadium.


1923 Wembley 2.jpg


But the crowd were in good spirits, the emotions of humour and excitement prevailing over any potential scuffles. Amazingly, out of the 300,000 that made into the stadium, only 900 needed treatment for minor injuries, and just 12 required hospital services.

By 3pm, with no kick-off in sight, mounted police units were called to push the crowds, who were now all over the pitch, back beyond the touchlines. And then King George arrived to whip the crowd into an even bigger frenzy. But following "God Save The King" the crowd, with help from those officers and horses proceeded to retreat past the white lines so the players could finally kick-off, only 46 minutes late.

Bolton eventually won 2-0 through goals from David Jack and Jack Smith while the crowd continued to surge onto the pitch following every moment of excitement and the players had to remain on the pitch during half-time as the path to the dressing rooms was blocked by a just a few thousand people.

The legacy of the 1923 FA Cup final however has nothing to do with the final score, or even the colossal number of people that turned up at Wembley that day. The legacy and iconicity of Wembley's first event belongs to Police Constable George Scorey, and his gorgeous white stallion, nicknamed Billie.

Shortly after the mounted police unit were called in at 3pm PC Scorey showed up atop his horse to aid in the attempts to push the crowd off the pitch. Billie was the only white horse there, and in the primitive black and white footage and photography of the time the other black horses were mostly indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd. Thus it appeared that it was the solitary attempts of Mr. Scorey and his horse Billie that were responsible for the controlling of 300,000 fans and come the morning Billie was pictured on every back page across the country.

92 years on and the image of Billie remains as the FA Cup's most iconic, and in 2006 the footbridge leading from Wembley station to the new stadium was named White Horse Bridge in memory of George Scorey and Billie.

It really is a magnificent picture to be honest, a fitting memory of football's greatest stadium.

For a further goldmine of high-quality pictures of the 1923 Cup final see here.


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