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British Sporting History

A cockpit from the Hawk and Buckle Inn, Denbigh, Clwyd, preserved at the National Museum of Wales

In the earliest days of leisure people generally devoted their free time to three things: alcohol, gambling and sex. The former two influences are illustrated by the cockpit preserved at the National Museum of Wales. This building originally stood next to the Hawk and Buckle Inn, Denbigh. People could drink and gamble as they watched the cruel sport of cock fighting. Some historians of sport suggest that attempts to encourage other ways to spend leisure time only succeeded because they retained links with the roots of leisure, particularly with alcohol and gambling. You only have to think of people going to a betting shop to put money on the result of a football match, or of fans drinking before a match to see the truth of this. 18-30 holidays continue the fine tradition in the third original use of leisure.


Sport of course requires leisure time, and a surplus of money to spend on it. For the vast majority of people, money and time became available during the mid-nineteenth century. There is a popular perception of life in nineteenth century industrial towns as being one of unremitting toil for subsistence pay. The reality though is slightly different, and the history of sport shows this. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, pay for most people had gone up. By around 1850 there was also the beginning of a trend towards more leisure time. In the 1850s, textile mills in northern England were tending to close at 2pm on Saturdays. According to A.N.Wilson in The Victorians, Wordsells of Birmingham, in 1853, was one of the first factories to give its workers Saturday afternoon off. It is no coincidence that the 1850s were the time when sport really began to develop. Horse racing grew hugely in popularity. Sixty two new horse racing events were added to the calendar in the 1850s, ninety-nine in the 1860s, fifty four in the 1870s. Football's rules were formalised at the formation of the Football Association in 1863. The development of railways from the 1830s onwards allowed people to get to new sporting events. Clearly the Industrial Revolution and sport as we know it today, went hand in hand.

Industrialism changed sport fundamentally. Sports historian Tony Mason points out that in a pre-industrial society sport was governed by religious and seasonal rhythms, with events usually taking place on the festivals associated with those rhythms (see Sport In Britain, A Social History). Modern sports can still be associated with seasons and holidays - cricket and tennis in the summer, football in the winter, with special events on public holidays - but essentially modern sport is organised in a much more regular manner. There is a programme of fixtures. Sports themselves have become highly structured, and are played in a way that often reflects an industrial society. It has been remarked, for example, that modern industrial techniques have been applied to football. David Goldblatt writes of Herbert Chapman who brought an industrial style of football to Arsenal from 1925: "Chapman's Arsenal... developed many of the key characteristics of modern Fordist production processes: a high degree of specialisation of tasks; systematic repeatable sequences of tasks; task design; close observation and control of players by management" (see The Ball Is Round by David Goldblatt P189 - 190).




St Andrews - 18th Hole

Clearly the Industrial revolution created sport as we know it. However, it is also undeniable that sport in Britain demonstrates a symbolic resistence to nineteenth century industrialisation. Many sports recreate a kind of idealised vision of the rural life which preceded industrialisation. Golf became popular in the late nineteenth century, and this was a game played in what amounted to huge Capability Brown landscaped parks. Cricket idealised a village game, even though most of its early history was in London. The middle classes had tennis, a game played on a representation of a country house lawn. The working classes took up angling as a way of recreating the rural dream. In an age when for the first time Britain's urban population came to outnumber its rural population, sport had much rural nostalgia about it.

This nostalgia also had a darker side, in the way sport became a way of maintaining old ideas of inherited status. From the 1860s a group of Oxford and Cambridge university rowers and athletes came to the conclusion that sport could not be used for monetary gain. The idea was to keep sport "pure", a pursuit of excellence for its own sake. But beneath the veneer of sporting ideals, amateur sport was also designed to maintain inherited social status. Nineteenth century sport was, quite simply, about keeping people in their place. Before the nineteenth century sport tended to lack dramatic class division. Eighteenth century competitive rowing on the Thames took place between professional watermen. The history of eighteenth century cricket also shows a refreshing lack of class division. But from the mid nineteenth century onwards professionalism was rejected. Amateurism naturally gave an advantage to the privileged who had enough money not to worry about gaining an income from sport. Professional players in nineteenth century cricket were subordinate to amateurs. A cricket captain was always an amateur of high local standing. Amateurs and professionals ate, travelled and dressed for the game separately. In some sports things were taken a step further, with the complete exclusion of working class people. In rowing the "mechanics clause" excluded manual labourers from amateur competition. In the 1920s Jack Kelly an Olympic gold medallist was banned from rowing at Henley as he had once been a brick layer. The amateur ideal had a world wide impact, with Britain exporting its team games and sporting ethos to a far flung empire. Amateurism was also taken up by Pierre Coubertin when founding his Olympic movement. Only relatively recently has all this begun to change. Rugby Union did not fully accept professionalism until 1995.




A game of cricket at Mote Park, Kent

In yet another reaction to the coming of the industrial age, modern sport is seen by some as a translation of religious feeling into a new form. Technological and scientific advance might mean that religion in its traditional guise is declining in Britain, but sport recreates many aspects of religious experience. Certainly early sports clubs were often linked with churches. David Goldblatt describes a strong link between early football and the Church. In the 1880s, for example, a quarter of all football clubs in Birmingham had their roots in the Church. There were similar links in rugby. According to Gareth Williams every church in late nineteenth century Leeds had its own rugby club (see Sport In Britain, A Social History). Meanwhile in cricket Lord Harris, a rather mad Victorian politician and senior figure in the MCC wrote: "... to play the game keenly, honourably, generously, self sacrificingly, is a moral lesson in itself, and the classroom is God's air and sunshine" (quoted in A History of Cricket P128). While sports often grew around churches, they also reproduced the feelings that people once looked for in religion. There's the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself - seen in huge chanting crowds, or Mexican waves flowing around football stadiums, or massive opening ceremonies of Olympic Games which feature large numbers of people staging some kind of vast synchronised display. This feeling is characterised by Liverpool Football Club's motto "you'll never walk alone". Then there's the outlet for heightened emotion, especially welcome for some, as opportunities to display intense emotion have declined in modern society. Just as important is a sense of continuity and tradition, which is particularly welcome when life is changing dramatically. Tradition was important in cricket for example, where there was all kinds of soul searching over something as apparently inconsequential as changes in style of bowling. The greatest compliment that Christianity has paid to other religions over the centuries has been attempted assimilation. This happened with all kinds of pagan rituals and festivals, and it happened with sport: in 1887 a group of Catholic churchmen founded Celtic as a way of keeping Catholic football players within a Catholic institution.


Sport then is a strange combination. It has been created by the Industrial Revolution, which gave the ability for huge crowds to attend events, and shaped the kind of sport people watched. And yet sport is very much a reaction against the industrialism that created it. This is just as true today as it was in the nineteenth century. The amateur ethos which dominated sport through the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century may have gone, and sport has become a huge business. But the fact remains that sport is different to other businesses. As Wray Vamplew points out the ideal situation for a coventional business would be a monopoly, but this is less desirable in sport, "for what use is it to be heavy weight champion of the world but to have no challengers?" (Professional Sport In Britain 1875 - 1914 by Wray Vamplew P 13). Any sports club or team does its best to win, but it cannot put on a good show and bring in a good audience without good competition. Many sports take steps to maintain the fortunes of the opposition. The French football league has a system of cross subsidies to help teams in the lower reaches of the league. Even in a sport as competitive as Formula 1 motor racing there are plenty of examples of teams helping each other out in the interests of the larger show they have to put on together. As well as being obliged in some way to support a competitor, sports clubs are also characteristically willing to sacrifice profits for the sake of winning games and championships. This point is demonstrated in horse racing where top owners of race horses seem oblivious to the economics of owning and running their horses. Prize money is not the reason they are racing. There are even more dramatic examples from football, where David Goldblatt points out that "it has proved almost impossible, by legal means, to make a football club profitable. The stock market does not lie: of the twenty two clubs that have been listed in the UK only twelve remain, and those that do have consistently traded at a mere fraction of their initial offer price" (The Ball Is Round P685). Sport still has a "higher meaning", still tries to recreate what is seen as a lost ideal. That is why Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea football club in 2003 and poured uneconomic amounts of money into the club, so much so that in 2005, Chelsea posted the biggest annual loss for a club in English football history, at £140 million. On the other hand Chelsea were very successful in winning competitions, and the "glory" of all these victories is what Abramovich was paying for. Sport then is an expression of the modern age, a creation of the Industrial Revolution, and an illustration of a continuing desire to find a meaning in life that goes beyond money and the daily grind.










©2006 InfoBritain (last updated 01/11)