MONDAY was the first day in the life of Liverpool John Moores University. There were shiny new signs on every building, though behind some you could see the old name, Liverpool Polytechnic, etched into the brickwork.

Like most polytechnics, earlier this year Liverpool took the Government's charter and became a university. It was, however, an unusual move for an academic institution to choose to name itself after a living person.

Although Sir John Moores - the inventor of the football pool, founder of the Littlewoods empire and the second richest man in Britain - put a cross in his 'no-publicity' box many years ago, most of the new intake of students seem to know all about the man. Sir John is a big name in Liverpool: now in his nineties, he is, Bill Shankly notwithstanding, the closest thing that the city has to a patron saint. 'Oh, aye, yeah, 'course I know who he is,' said one first-year student, negotiating his way past a Nalgo picket line outside. 'Wanna know how I gorra place here? Put eight score draws on me application form, and made a telephone claim for 22 points.'

On Monday, BusinessAge magazine published its list of the richest women in Britain. It was no surprise that four members of Sir John's family made the cut, but what raised a few eyebrows was that three of them - his granddaughter Donabella, and daughters Patricia Martin and Lady Grantchester, were ranked above the Queen. Like the founder of the dynasty (and dynasty it is: one of Sir John's granddaughters is called Alexis), Moores women make John Paul Getty look publicity mad. But if you were running a charity or arts organisation in Liverpool, you would know precisely who they are.

'There are some people who give money and want a profile for it, want their name on the side of minibuses or plaques on buildings,' says Richard Gledhill of the Merseyside Council of Voluntary Services. 'And we are happy to accommodate them. But there are some who give an awful lot of money and want very little back for it.'

The idea of naming the new university after Sir John was nothing to do with him (although by coincidence his son is pro-vice chancellor). 'We have chosen to honour Sir John Moores not only for his entrepreneurial skills and far-sighted drive, but for his legendary commitment to the provision of equal opportunities,' says Professor Peter Toyne, vice chancellor. 'His philosophy in business and in life has always been: 'Man and woman can, if they want to enough, do anything.' '

In 1923, just after Sir John and his late brother Cecil had paid out their first winning dividend of pounds 2.60, people were not so polite about him. Ramsay MacDonald attacked their football pools idea as 'a disease which spread downwards to the industrious poor from the idle rich'. Like many of his pronouncements, it had little effect: by 1932 the brothers were millionaires and such was the government's largesse towards them that no one considered taxing pools revenue until 1948.

After the war, Cecil continued to run the pools side while John diversified into shops and mail order. He ran the business with Victorian paternalism, insisting he was known (at least to his face) by everyone from shop assistants to directors as 'Mr John'. But he was also an advocate of equal opportunities and staff education facilities.

He was equally ambitious for his family. The son of an Eccles building contractor, Moores had left school at 14. His daughters, Betty and Patricia, were sent to Cheltenham Ladies' College; both sons went to Eton and Oxford. John junior was captain of boxing at school and a star sportsman at university; the younger son, Peter, preferred Wagner's Ring to the boxing ring.

The children were all given positions in the firm and were encouraged to love the city in which they were based. These days, the Beatles apart, there is not much on Merseyside that has no connection with Sir John and his clan. Littlewoods is the largest private sector employer in the city and there is a Moores or a Moores employee at the helm of almost all Merseyside's public institutions. Sir Desmond Pitcher, stepping down as chief executive of the Littlewoods group in March 1993, is chairman of Merseyside Development Corporation and North West Water; Barry Dale, the chief executive designate, is chairman of the Liverpool Playhouse; Sir Philip Carter, chairman of the Merseyside Tourism Board, is another Littlewoods man. Even the smallest community project, like the Eldonians Housing Trust in the Vauxhall area of the city, is supported by Littlewoods money.

In the early days of his empire, perhaps embarrassed by the unimaginable sums he was garnering from football, Moores was keen to get involved in the game's administration, but he was snubbed by the Football Association, which did not want to be associated with gambling. According to Rogan Taylor of the Football Supporters Association, 'Moores was looking for a door, even a letter-box to stuff his money through, and the FA kept on slamming it in his face.'

Moores turned to his local team instead. He has been bank-rolling Everton Football Club since the Sixties, taking the same authoritarian approach to his club as he did to his business. He sacked Johnny Carey, the team manager, in the back of a cab in the mid-Sixties. He relinquished the chairmanship at the end of the decade and then returned in a time of crisis in 1972 to sack another manager, Harry Catterick.

According to legend at the Liverpool Post, a journalist who persistently wrote bad things about Everton was invited over the road from the Post's offices to John Moores House, headquarters of Littlewoods, where Moores himself gave him a dressing down in 'write anything more like that and you'll never work in this town again' terms. Writers hoping to seek refuge by attacking Everton's rivals, Liverpool, should be careful: since August the club's chairman has been David Moores, Sir John's nephew.

Sir John's Lear-like behaviour at Everton was not untypical. In his business, despite insisting it should remain a family firm and resist all fashions for going public, he found it hard to accommodate his offspring. He quarrelled ceaselessly with John Moores junior - 'Young John' - over business methods, including a major fall-out over the company's failure in the German mail-order market, which led to the son's departure from his post in 1971, although he remained a director.

The younger son, 'Mr Peter', had always been more interested in opera (he knows the scores of 400) than chain stores. He established the Peter Moores Foundation in 1964, and has devoted most of his energies to giving away his money to artistic causes ever since. To date he has donated more than pounds 4m.

When Sir John retired in 1977, Peter was made chairman. It was not a happy appointment. Profits plunged from pounds 49m in 1978 to pounds 11.5m in 1980, when the octogenarian Sir John took the helm once more. 'Retirement felt like a death sentence,' he said.

His final retirement to his mansion in Formby came in 1982. These days he lives quietly, his health impaired by a blow to the head when he was attacked by two burglars in 1989.

One of his last commercial acts was to pass the chairmanship outside the family to John Clement. Under Clement, and more particularly the managerial direction of Desmond Pitcher, the company thrived, profits rising annually.

Clement's retirement in 1990 left a power vacuum. John junior, though he did not want the chairmanship, preferring to involve himself in community work in Liverpool and breeding Aberdeen Angus cattle, was determined that Peter should not take the helm again. Their bickering had flared in public in 1988, when they clashed over who should present the Littlewoods League Cup to Nottingham Forest after their victory at Wembley.

But there was another drive within the company. John Moores III, Young John's son, who lives in Monaco, began a move to float the company. For the third generation Moores, who make up a significant proportion of the 32 family shareholders in the business, flotation looks a more than attractive option.

Sir John was a parsimonious chairman. The story goes that he once a sent half a pork pie he couldn't eat back to the kitchens at Littlewoods headquarters with instructions that it should be saved for his lunch the next day. He was equally stingy in his dividend payments. While the younger members of the family sit on charity boards, pumping millions into charitable and sporting trusts, mainly in Liverpool, the 32 shareholders split pounds 400,000 between them last year in divvies.

At 30, Donabella Moores may have been reckoned by BusinessAge to be the second richest woman in Britain, but hers is only theoretical wealth. Her father, Peter, signed a significant portion of his 12 per cent of the total shares to his daughter. The estimated worth of the Littlewoods empire is pounds 2bn, if ever quoted on the stock market. So the magazine did its sums and allocated her a net wealth of pounds 234.5m. In fact from dividends, she would have received less than pounds 15,000 last year. Of course she has other remuneration, but her position is similar to other members of the third generation of Moores: equity-rich, cash-poor. Flotation of the company would be worth significantly more to her than a win on the pools.

In 1990, in a fiery board meeting, both John Moores III's move to public flotation and Peter Moores' bid for the chairmanship were defeated by a combination of John junior and Lady Grantchester, who wanted to see the commercial and philanthropic direction Sir John established continue. It must have been some meeting. Another outsider, Leonard van Geest, of the banana dynasty, was appointed to the chairmanship.

'There is not even the vaguest consideration of the company going public at the present time,' explained Sir Desmond Pitcher. 'There is no need. We have cash in the bank, we don't have any debt, we've had satisfactory performance against the most horrific trading circumstances.

'Moreover, there is a big advantage in being a private company in a provincial city. I have little occasion to run down to London. Whereas if we were a quoted company, I'd be up and down like a yo-yo, meeting bankers and investors and brokers. Not just me, but everybody who works with me. Gradually we'd end up in London, the executives would be worn out travelling backwards and forwards.'

In London, the City would go mad for Littlewoods. If John Moores III has his way, if Donabella succumbs to the temptation to liquefy her enormous inheritance, Liverpool would almost inevitably lose its biggest company eventually. It could do the city more damage than any amount of charity could repair.

It would make a very good case study for the Department of Human Resources at Liverpool John Moores University, whose professorship, oddly enough, is financed entirely by the John Moores Foundation.

(Photograph omitted)

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