In 1947 Peter Adolph took out a patent on a table football game. He had wanted to call it ‘Hobby’ but having this rejected he coined a new name, taken from the Latin for the bird the Eurasian Hobby, falco subbuteo. The Subbuteo table football game would go from strength to strength but in fact Adolph’s was not really an original idea. He adapted a game called Newfooty, which had been invented nearly twenty years earlier by a Liverpool man, William Lane Keeling.
Keeling supposedly invented Newfooty to amuse his nephews. He patented his game in 1929 and it introduced the idea of flicking a figure towards the ball. Seeing how popular the game was with his nephews and their friends he set up the Newfooty Company to sell it commercially. This was a very small operation, mostly done from his home, with sales only on a mail order basis.
He continued to develop the game during the 1930s, introducing sets in different coloured kits and enlarging the ‘players’. The first figures were made from card, the plastic version came later, on a plastic base which was lead-weighted. Newfooty proved a popular game and in 1934 the ‘Newfooty Players Association’ was founded to facilitate leagues and cup competitions.
Peter Adolph thought that Newfooty had ceased production before the war whereas it had, like many enterprises, had to suspend operations ‘for the duration’. After the war Keeling worked at the United Photographic Laboratory in Liverpool, a business that noticeably slackened off during the winter. He was able to agree with the company that during the winter he could use the staff and premises to produce Newfooty , picking up the wage bill. This enabled to company to grow and in 1951 Keeling secured his own premises at the ‘Old Post Office Building’ in Rice Lane.
Keeling continued to vie with Subbuteo for market share throughout the 1950s’ introducing other table sports games such as Net-a-ball and New Crikit. However, by the beginning of the 1960’s the company faced terminal financial problems and despite a relaunch and TV advertising it ceased trading for good.
Tracking down biographical details was made all the more difficult because there was another William Lane Keeling living in Liverpool at the time, born 7 years before his namesake but dying in the same year, 1976. An old photo shows William Keeling playing Newfooty with his son David and this enabled me to verify that I had the right man.
He was born on 20th May 1900 at 163 Rice Lane L4 where his father Thomas ran a fruiterer’s shop. In 1923 he married Bertha Gent and they lived firstly at 6 York Street L9, moving to 38 Barlows Lane L9 in the late 1930’s, remaining there until the 1970s.
It does not appear that he made a great fortune out of his invention and the game seems now largely forgotten. Nonetheless without his ingenuity it is unlikely that Adolph would have conjured up the world-famous Subbuteo.
The Keeling family home and premises of his father's fruiterer's business
William Keeling's home after his marraige to Bertha Gent in 1923.
Keeling's home for some 30 years from the late 1930s.
A promotional leaflet showing endorsement by Stanley Matthews and an early Newfooty box.
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