A Threat to Morality? Football Before 1863

Here at The Football History Boys we have often explored various eras which the beautiful game has affected. Whether it be pre-1900 with football's first professionals Preston North End or discovering the role footballers played during the World Wars, we have tried to leave no stone unturned. However, there is one part of the sport which we have failed to address and that is it in its earliest form - pre-codification. Yes, we wrote about Tudor Football very early on in our existence but in no real depth, it is here that I will attempt to unearth just what the game was really like, who played it and what people really thought about it. 

When discussing pre-codified football it is first important to find a period of time easily accessible and open to interpretation. In this piece I am going to look at the sport from the Georgian era (1715-1837) and beyond to the origins of the Football Association. Football in its earliest form was one of mob rules - working class, unorganised and vulnerable to foul play. So how was football viewed by those of wealth at the start of George I's reign? The Stamford Mercury made it quite clear,
"On Monday last the commons gave leave to bring in a bill to prevent the mischiefs which frequently happen by throwing at cocks, and kicking footballs within the city of London and Westminster, and bills of morality."[1]
So there you have it, in 1717, football was on a par with cock-fighting and seemingly a real threat to the 'morality' of the city of London. So why was this the case? The game is now given the title of 'mob football' in which an unlimited amount of players would kick, throw and force a football from one parish to another to determine the victor. According to FIFA this could lead to manslaughter or murder, with Tudor football even seeing more deaths than sword-fighting.

Medieval Football
Could football really be so bad? It was a 'sport' deeply centered around traditions and holidays like Shrove Tuesday and the general pre-Lent festivities. Richard Holt cites that the deference between married and unmarried men was a reason for many to play, with football offering an opportunity for single males to display their masculinity towards the women watching. Such events also offered deep local patriotism which were 'part and parcel' of popular recreations during such an era. It is patriotism which is a pre-cursor for sides developing after the 1863 codification of the game, offering players an identity to associate with.[2]

No doubt this masculine approach and the inevitable outbreak of fighting on the field was the reason for such parliamentary bills to stop the game from being played, especially in London so close to those of wealth and status in Britain. This violent approach perhaps helped the rise of boxing throughout the country during the same period. Surprisingly, despite a lack of middle-class support it became one the first sports to develop its own written code of rules following the death of a competitor and the increase of betting within the sport.

Georgian Boxing
Eighteenth-Century sport was a development helped by the emergence of the new middle classes with an increase in leisure time and a greater desire for cultural pastimes. It was the century which saw cricket become the national sport and later one which would help play a role in the growth of the British Empire. Mob football would never hit these heights in a time where social divides were as broad as ever. The gradual menace of the industrial revolution would create a influx of immigration into the bigger cities and a distinct working-class for which sport became an escape from the often dyer conditions they were subject to.

Newspaper mentions of football are fairly infrequent between 1715-1750 but one piece is interesting to read from 1746 as a match is arranged in Derby to the concern of many,
"IT having been represented to the MAGISTRATES of this Borough, that on Shrove-Tuesday which will be the third day of March next, there will be a public FOOTBALL-PLAYING in the said Borough ; and that such has been lately notifyed and proclaimed in towns and counties adjacent to the Borough aforesaid, by some person or persons disposed to be at the Head of Tumults and Disorders. These are to give Notice, that Mr MAYOR, and Others His Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the said Borough, do direct and order, that no riotous or tumultuous meeting of any persons, (and more, typically of foreigners at this unhappy Time of contagion amongst horned cattle) do appear at the time and for the purpose aforesaid in the said Borough, on Pain of being rigorously prosecuted for the same, as well as for the consequences of breaking windows, and doing other Mischiefs to the persons and properties of the inhabitants of this borough."[3]
It is clear from this piece in the Derby Mercury that football was considered a threat to the borough's well-being with the smashing of windows becoming all too common in society. However what this also shows is that even in 1746, 117 years before the formation of the FA people were willing to face prosecution and breaking the law just to play the game they loved. There is no record to know if the game went ahead, and a quick check on the Old Bailey records offers no form of evidence to suggest any arrests to do with football.

However from 1766 and the trial of chimney-sweep Thomas Bradley we can begin to picture what football was like as he describes a mob of thugs running down a highway, 'as if they were at football'.[4] The game was clearly one of disorder and one which could see violence. Richard Holt notes that by the beginning of the nineteenth-century there were campaigns to stop animal sports and even critics of traditional sports like football and boxing citing, "the age old concern that violent sports created violent men." In reality it was more the desire of males to assert a masculinity which led to the games being violent in the first-place.

Shrovetide Football can still be seen
By the turn of the century it was evident that mob football began to develop into a more structured game. Of course it was still one of few rules and lacked a great deal of morality but could even be found being played at the racecourse in Charsfield. The Bury and Norwich Post described the game being played as active, robust but also skillful. The use of skill suggests a change in the general attitude people held towards the sport, with players beginning to appreciated rather than seen as immoral.[5]  

The Derby Mercury in 1827 wrote a rather long-winded article about football, from this piece the changing opinions are most obvious as the author says that, "no public amusement is calculated to call forth such a high degree of public excitement." Cricket may well have been the national sport of Britain, but football could already boast a greater spectacle for spectators. The newspaper notes,
"This annual diversion was on Tuesday last exhibited in our streets with its wonted spirit. How the practice originated is impossible to trace...no public amusement is calculated to call forth such a high degree of public excitement. 
He proceeds to describe the match, with the football even ending up in the river and the victors described as bloodstained 'conquerors.'
And was all this for a football and was this the reward of so eager a strife? When will the folly of the football play end? When the increased intelligence of mankind shall lead them to nobler objects of amusements about the time when subjects shall find out that war is a game too expensive and too wicked in which to indulge their monarchs."[6]
It is clear that by the Eighteenth-Century football had began to become a more accepted sport in society with a number of working class clubs beginning to emerge, bringing with them different sets of rules. Surprisingly however, it was from the public schools that football really started to be played with the rules we see today. Despite being a sport which was a pastime within working-class circles, the gradual development of the game and the wider calls for a Christian Masculinity in young people led to rules being formulated in a number of institutions. In 1848 the Cambridge Rules were adopted to the game to stop the confusion when different students reached university only to find other schools had used alternative rules.

Sheffield FC still wear this badge

So it came to a meeting in which eleven London clubs and schools met to discuss a final set of rules of which to play the game and make it a national sport. The major debate from within the meeting of the "Football Association" was whether to retain handling and hacking (kicking the shins), the latter something Rugby School had been strongly behind. Despite many of the schools being in favour of both hacking and handling, deliberations from Cambridge and Sheffield FC convinced the bulk of the London group. Handling was dropped and a stubborn Rugby school abandoned its affiliation with the FA, forming Rugby Union. William Web Ellis? A Myth I am afraid!

So there we have it, football at least up until 1863 was a game far removed from the one we know today, it was dangerous, violent and often lacking morals. However, despite only looking into the game briefly it is evident that even before the adoption of the game by public schools it was one in which encompassed a wide range of people from all classes in society, and one which was perhaps the real spectator sport prior to the Victorian 'sporting revolution'. People risked arrest and even their lives to play the game they loved. A cultural pastime it was and still remains.

By Ben Jones - The Football History Boys (Follow me on Twitter @Benny_J or @TFHBs)

If you like our posts please VOTE FOR US in the Football Blogging Awards by tweeting -

"I am voting in @TheFBAs for @TFHBs as the Best #New Football Blog!"

Thank you for the support!


[1]: Stamford Mercury - Thursday 18 April 1717
[2]: Richard Holt, Sport and the British, (Oxford: Oxford University, 1989)
[3]: Derby Mercury - Thursday 20 February, 1746
[4]: Old Bailey Proceedings Online,  December 1766, trial of Thomas Bradley (t17661217-21).
[5]: Bury and Norwich Post - Wednesday 15 June 1808
[6]: Derby Mercury - Wednesday 28 February 1827

Also used FIFA.com


1889 books said…
Good article, Ben. However, you are not right in your conclusion that it was from public schools that it took off in its present form. Football was being played in Sheffield and Barnsley in the early 1800s in parks and on recreation grounds: this was clearly not the mob football you refer to, but adhered to rules: games between pub teams were organised at this time fro example. It is likely that the Sheffield rules emerged from what Creswick and Priest saw around them and from games they were familiar with from playing it themselves. Clearly public schools had some role; but it should be kept in perspective: this never was a game handed down by posh boys.
1889 books said…
By the way, for Sheffield's claim to be the cradle of the modern game see: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/sandygate-worlds-oldest-football-ground.html

Popular Posts

Arsenal Direct