As he likes to remind readers of the Leeds United matchday programme, Kenneth William Bates was born in the early thirties – the era of the great depression – and had a hard and impoverished upbringing. After the early death of his mother and an injury to his father, Bates was separated from his immediate family and raised in London by his grandparents. Humble beginnings would not hold Ken back, and by the mid-sixties he was enjoying the fruits of his first business successes. Bates’ ruthless business acumen had taken him to Lancashire, where ready-mix concrete and his Howarth Construction company brought him a fortune, and took him into the boardroom of third division Oldham Athletic, where he became chairman in 1965. Bates’ aim was to galvanise the stricken club, and while he waited for Jimmy McIlroy to improve things on the pitch, Bates overhauled the facilities off it: £45,000 bought new seats, fresh paint, clean toilets and executive boxes to Boundary Park, and ticket prices were raised accordingly. Also to raise income, Bates disbanded the old Supporters Club and launched The Latics Tangerine Club in its place. The matchday programme became ‘The Boundary Bulletin’, where Ken boasted in his regular column that he would soon spend £180,000 on a super new stand which would incorporate an ‘exclusive 300 Club’, a French restaurant, a bowling alley and a discotheque. The ambitious club even launched a club radio station, ‘Radio Latics’, in 1967.
Bates was not confining his business interests to Oldham. In 1964 he established a new company, Batehill, which would provide finance to small businesses. Batehill was backed by Philip Hill, Higginson, Erlangers Ltd. – which would go on to become Hill, Samuel & Co. Ltd., one of the largest merchant banks in sixties London – and became part of Minerals Separation, a company selling “anything from carpets to Dalek suits.” Alongside Bates and his associate Henry Blackburn, Philip Hill provided Batehill’s chairman, Stanley Newson, and Torquil Norman, manager of a firm called London Bridge Finance, that had pioneered a new method of financing the manufacture of goods for export. Bates’ horizons were expanding far beyond Lancashire. His columns in The Boundary Bulletin began to reflect the international business that Bates was now conducting, as he filed editorials from “30,000 feet above the Caribbean”; “With a glass of Cordon Rouge, ’63 Vintage” from the Mount Nelson Hotel, Capetown; and en route to Rhodesia.
“I hope to renew my acquaintance with Mr Kerr of the Rhodesian Football Association,” Bates wrote in his column in February 1967, and this connection between Bates’ twin worlds of business and football was to prove controversial. That summer Oldham Athletic defied international sanctions and embarked on a tour of Rhodesia and Malawi, playing eleven matches in twenty-one days. Britain, the USA and the United Nations had refused to recognise the state of Rhodesia and implemented economic sanctions after its Prime Minister, Ian Smith, made the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, preserving minority rule for 220,000 white Rhodesians over four million black Rhodesians. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 216 voted by ten to none in November 1965 to “Condemn the unilateral declaration of independence made by a racist minority in Southern Rhodesia” and to “call upon all States not to recognize this illegal racist minority regime in Southern Rhodesia and to refrain from rendering any assistance to this illegal regime.” Resolution 217, which followed a week later, condemned “the usurpation of power by a racist settler minority in Southern Rhodesia and regards the declaration of independence by it as having no legal validity,” called upon “the Government of the United Kingdom to quell this rebellion of the racist minority,” and for “all States not to recognize this illegal authority and not to entertain any diplomatic or other relations with it … to refrain from any action which would assist and encourage the illegal regime.”
Against this background, Oldham’s tour in summer 1967 drew criticism in national newspapers and in Parliament, where George Thomas of the Commonwealth Office declared: “We deplore organised tours of this kind while the state of illegality exists in Rhodesia, and we made our views clear… before the team left.” The Oldham team met no high standard of opposition in Africa, winning ten of the eleven games, scoring forty-five goals and conceding eighteen; and the club recorded just £1,000 profit on the tour, declaring that it would have been pleased to have just broken even. The political importance of the trip was underlined, however, by the photograph of the Oldham squad that appeared in July’s Bulletin – courtesy of the ‘Rhodesia Ministry of Information’ – in which Ken Bates and Prime Minister Ian Smith are seen standing side by side in front of the players, Smith holding in his hand a rolled up copy of the June issue of the Boundary Bulletin.
Bates lasted one more season at Oldham. By summer 1968, Bates’ his football and business interests in England were receding. Howarth Construction had expanded too fast and were struggling, while Oldham’s fans were unhappy with their chairman after he called them “the lambs of Sheepfoot Lane.” Bates had difficulties too with Batehill, as Minsep sold their stake amid reports of personality clashes between Philip Hill and Bates. Batehill was taken over by Ionian Bank, who intended to “develop the potentially lucrative toy side of Batehill’s business.” Bates and Torquil Norman, who remained in control of the company, saw a different future for Batehill, that had the potential to bring them far greater rewards than toy factories.