The Sporting Revolution: How Important is it to British History?

Back when Gareth and I were studying history at Swansea University - one module in particular captured our interest like no other - 'Sport in Society, 1860-1960'. Going in to our first lecture, we naively assumed we knew a great deal of sports history and more specifically, football history. The actual fact was, we didn't and still don't. The history of sport is one which has continually reflected the societies in which it has been played. The themes of class, identity, gender and the media flow through it from start to finish and it has in some way affected each and every one of us. This piece is going to explore the initial boom of sport in the UK - the so-called "Sporting Revolution". When did it start? Who did it affect? And why is it still relevant today? Let's find out.

Sport changed Britain forever
So when did it start? It is a question which throws up a wealth of ambiguity. Indeed, sport had been played and watched in Britain prior to the Victorian era. Shrove football, cock-fighting and boxing had been apparent in British society - encompassing different social classes. Some of these 'sports' were being played as early as Tudor rule in England and Wales. Rules and regulations with regards to sport became more prevalent in the 18th Century. It was in Boxing or 'Pugilism' where this was clearest. As a result of a death within the sport - the Broughton rules introduced some governance. Only, it was during the 19th Century that games played around the nation were finally universally codified and brought under various governing bodies.

For this this blog to work, it would be wise to set a certain date as one in which we can pivot around - for us, it is going to be 1863 and the creation of the Football Association. Prior to the introduction of codified football to society - the nation held one sport above any others - cricket. Cricket had been played in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland as early as the sixteenth-century - only in a different format to that we are accustomed to. It is from around 1750, that cricket developed into a game similar to today's form. Importantly, this development coincided with the start of the Industrial Revolution. If sport would have a big impact on British society, the industrialisation of the United Kingdom would be colossal.

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This doesn't explain exactly when the sporting 'revolution' began, however. Indeed, there was an 'upsurge' in sport and gambling after the Restoration of 1660 - but a revolution it was not. Likewise, the growth of cricket was important, but did little to engage the disenfranchised masses. Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century was indeed one full of clear social class differences, north/south divides and a tiny ruling elite deciding the future of the nation. How things have changed, eh? The industrialistation throughout the country created new urban communities and forced cities to expand, creating jobs and identities for millions. In the first half of the 19th Century however, the standard of living was particularly poor and working conditions left little to the imagination. Social and cultural change was needed.

If the working-class standard of life was destitute, upper-class living was quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, it is from here that the sporting revolution truly began. Holt writes that the 1850s was the crucial decade in public school sport. Changes in school masters, who were also 'games players' meant organised sports like football (with various rules dependent on which school you went to) were introduced as a way keeping the boys together and stop them from causing havoc. By 1863, there was a great number of public school sides, alongside clubs founded by Oxbridge alumni - Blackheath, Barnes and Crusaders just three of note.

Football was undoubtedly at the very heart of the revolution which was to come. By agreeing on a set of rules and forming what was to become the Football Association - the sport had proven itself capable of organisation and more importantly, it opened football up to expansion and innovation. Over the coming years, more and more teams wold join the association giving it extra acceptance as the best code of the game. In Sheffield, the rules instigated by Sheffield F.C. were perhaps its only real rivals - eventually, they too would succumb to the Football Association.

The 1860s were to be pivotal in the growth of sport in the UK, but the following decade is perhaps its most important. Despite most clubs agreeing on the rules outlined in 1863, there were also clubs who disagreed. Blackheath for one withdrew their membership following the removal of two rules they believed vital to the game - handling the ball and hacking. Hacking was the kicking of an opponent in the shins. Holt notes the discussion between Blackheath and the other members of the FA,
"If you do away with it (hacking), you will do away with all the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week's practice".
By 1871, the Rugby Football Association had been established. Indeed, when researching newspaper over the era, it is difficult to decipher which code of football is being discussed - soccer or rugger! Rugby was soon to become the game of the new public schools.
"It was thought to require more courage. Courage shorn of cruelty, a civilized sort of simulated battle, that was what the country needed and the public schools set out to provide it." 

The 1870s would also see major competition. In football, the FA Cup was founded as a way to improve the level of play and continue the growth of the FA's sphere of influence. Former public schoolboys would prevail in the first editions of the tournament, with Old Etonians, The Wanderers and the Royal Engineers all victorious in the decade. Elsewhere international friendlies between England and Scotland in both football and rugby, helped to disseminate the game to a larger audience both north and south of the border.

Newspaper clippings
Society was changing too. Political and social reform, often born out of a pragmatic need for power, meant suffrage was granted to more people than ever before in 1867, before Forster Elementary Education Act in 1870 provided the opportunity for children to attend school, no matter their background. An increase in leisure time and wage meant the working-class now had a new way to spend their weekend - watching football. Spectatorship grew in the 1870s and reached new heights the following decade. The influence of the amateur game provided class for works teams and local clubs to be founded across the industrial north.

Class divisions were evident in other pastimes too. In 1874, the game of 'Sphairistike' was 'invented' by Walter Wingfield. A commercial venture - Wingfield has developed an outdoor version of 'real tennis', to played in upper-class gardens. Originally as a means of social interaction and as a more exciting game than croquet, it was not long before sphairistike also became a competitive exercise. By 1877, a mere three years after Wingfield's innovation, the sport had a major tournament at Wimbledon and a new name - lawn tennis. This short turnaround from invention to competition is impressive in comparison to the nation's other major sporting tournaments - The FA Cup for one took place 9 years after football's codification. Indeed, the Pall Mall Gazette is accurate enough in its praise for the game - Lawn tennis' popularity was sudden and universal.
“Though there is always a congenial soil in England for any form of fair sport, no game has ever attained such sudden and universal popularity.”
Elsewhere, the overwhelming passion for the 'culture' of sport was found across Britain. Indeed, it after football, tennis and rugby - modern athletics, cycling, golf, hockey, baseball, badminton can all be accredited to this era. Each game had their own position to fill in society. Golf was suited to the affluent and suburban sportsmen and women, whereas cycling was relatively free from a distinct class division. Amateur sports and recreation had taken over the nation and its pace continued to increase.

Cycling found itself right in the centre of the sporting boom - the modest pricing of bicycles led to rises in the sport's popularity, first in the 1870s, and then the 1890s. It was the second period of growth which Richard Holt describes as a genuine craze. Clubs known as 'Clarion Clubs' began to be found all over the country as a means of preserving the sport and as a propaganda tool for left-leaning ideologies. Cycling became a vital tool in the middle class ventures into the countryside and out of the city spaces, a chance for adventure and socialising. John Lowerson has written on cycling's 'boom', calling it a 'mass phenomenon' - words only previously used for football and rugby.

Cycling was a phenomenon
So what do historians think about the sporting revolution - did it really exist? And what impact did it have on society? Holt writes that the introduction of sport helped to develop a coherent national culture in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Holt's writing on sport is that it holds a distinctly social role in society. Neil Tranter says there is 'no doubt' that the period saw a notable transformation in British sporting culture. On the other hand, he continues to write that some sports like cricket and horse racing were already mass spectator sports before 1863. Brailsford agrees - the sporting revolution was no 'blazing phoenix'. Yet, it no doubt existed. J.A. Mangan is quick to note that historians are yet to truly get to the heart of the sporting 'revolution' and that we should be careful when using the word 'revolution'. Indeed, its mass use in all form of historical debate has meant its meaning is becoming lost.

Mangan's words are wise. Indeed, calling any old change a revolution is tricky and without knowing who really was 'in charge' of sport in the first place, means it is difficult to assess the alterations. Furthermore, despite sport not being exclusively upper, middle or working class, can we truly call it a revolution? I think we can. The sheer fact that sport was played, spectated and discussed by everyone in society (no matter their position), coinciding with wider social and political change was something unique to Britain at the time. Sport was disseminated through society by the upper-classes, commercialised and managed by the ever-growing middle-classes and adopted and played to a fanatical level by the workers. For me, there is little else in British history which has had such a lasting and influential impact on our society.

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Modern football has a lot to thank the Victorian for! Diolch!


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