University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Urban football as a nineteenth-century blood sport

Second-year UoP student Mandy Wrenn discusses a 1846 engraving showing a large group of men playing football in the centre of the town of Kingston in Surrey, and the contemporary concerns over the control of urban spaces and popular leisure activities it reflects. This piece was originally written for the Fear and Fun module, taught by Dr Rob James and Dr Karl Bell.

The primary source is set in 1846, at a time of continued transition in Victorian Britain from the past to modernity. The depiction of the game, with a large crowd of men playing a game of football in the centre of a town, will have been received in very different ways by different onlookers. This piece examines the context of the picture along with the conflicting views of the time with regards to upper class fears of mass participation activities, the uses of urban spaces and the need for a reliable industrial workforce.

The middle and upper classes were becoming increasingly detached from the lower classes and, as such, saw the lower classes as more of a threat than ever before. Robert Storch observes that classes had participated in activities together far more in the past, notably at horse racing or boxing events, but this had diminished as the classes split more into that of employer and employee with a consequent change in relationships.[1] Storch argues that this new, deference-based relationship, defined as ‘urban paternalism’, would replace old popular culture – if not there was a problem.[2] David Cannadine contends there are other reasons why the gap between rich and poor was more evident at this time, with the 1840s being the ‘most disturbed of the century’ and that this was understood at the time, with Benjamin Disraeli writing, in 1845, about the ‘deep split’ between the classes.[3] Cannadine explains that a severe depression between 1837 and 1843 had caused huge amounts of poverty and unemployment, and there were increasingly adverse effects of urbanisation and industrialisation with life expectancy in some areas in the North West as low as 22 – all of which had contributed to lower class resentment and joining radical political parties such as the Chartists. Brad Beaven and Jeffrey Richards argue that large groups of men, engaged in leisure, was a particular concern and thought to be very threatening to the social order – men would go to pubs with social events then turning into uncontrolled gatherings that might spread radical political ideas.[5]  Peter Swain does offer the counter argument that any fears were irrational as people would only hear about football games if they were reported in newspapers and provides many positive reports of games of ‘old English’ football, with even groups of clergy, employers and employees playing together. [6] Nevertheless, the prevailing view from the upper and middle classes was that mass gatherings of working class men e.g. at football games were a potential threat.

The source shows a town setting for the football match at a time when the ‘ownership’ and control of urban spaces was being contested. Christopher Hibbert provides a contemporaneous description of football variously described as ‘smashing the panes of glass of buildings and carriages’ and that players would ‘knock you down with no compunction and laugh while they were doing it’, which might explain why there are no onlookers or bystanders (particularly upper class) in the picture.[7] Steve Poole demonstrates that, whilst urban spaces had always been accessible over the centuries, albeit with permission for who could do what, there was far more control exerted by urban elites by the mid-nineteenth century, with the removal of common land and creation of safe, municipal parks.[8] Poole argues that this was in reaction to several decades of radical political meetings and a wish to remove older, less orderly customs – all of which were a challenge to the elite.[9] However, contends Storch, more and more public gatherings were orderly and sober; events such as Chartists, trade unions and some workers were actually anti-popular culture.

The fact that we see a game of football in a town setting as late as 1846, could be explained by Edward Royle’s argument that in fact towns and cities at the time were not as separate as urban and rural as they are today; streets would be filled with animals (and their waste) coming to live markets and that rural immigrants had brought their own customs with them.[11] Given that a rural sport like football was a very violent game, indeed Royle goes so far as to designate it as a blood sport in a ‘bloodthirsty age’, there would have been high levels of anxiety for the match shown in the primary source.[12]

Engaging in uncontrolled, popular culture was also a problem at a time when Britain wanted its workforce to be at its most productive, in order to drive the industrial age. E.P. Thompson argues how this led to elite concerns about the amount of unproductive, uncontrolled leisure time of the working class, especially as British workers seemed able to be drawn back to ‘old, uninhibited ways’.[13] Institutes, set up by industrialists or other middle-class benefactors, focused on self-improvement and education for the working man and attempted to provide alternatives to the propensity for the ‘old ways’ – Beaven and Richards contend that these were of limited success as there was little or no entertainment involved.[14] This is supported by Peter Bailey who argues that the working class adopted respectability to their advantage as and when required but were tied to their own popular culture.[15] However, the timing of this match is at the start of significant changes for the working class – shorter working hours, improved working conditions and increases in real wages culminating in a more considered approach on how to spend leisure time, with violent activities such as football, as argued by Rosalind Crone, gradually controlled with a respectable working class.[16] Nevertheless, given that the source records a game of football on a Shrove Tuesday, which was not a public holiday at the time, there might be some legitimacy to concerns about wasted leisure time.

In conclusion, the source gives insights of some of the concerns of the elite in the practices of mass working class activities such as football, especially in an urban setting. With the increasing divisions between the working, middle and upper classes leading to concern about radical politics, large groups of working class men engaged in uncontrolled leisure was a real concern. In an urban setting this would have been particularly worrying as it brought unwanted (by the elites) old, rural ways into spaces which were being increasingly controlled to control the working class. Added to the desire to modernise and maximise the productivity of the working class, unregulated games were another threat to the order the elites desired.

Primary Source Document:

‘A nineteenth-century game of football – Kingston-Upon-Thames, Shrove Tuesday, February 24th, 1846’.

[1] Robert D. Storch, Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth- Century England (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Group, 1982), 3.

[2] Robert D. Storch, Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth- Century England, 3 – 4.

[3] David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (Bungay: Penguin, 2017), 202.

[4] David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 , 202 – 204.

[5] Brad Beaven and Jeffrey Richards, Leisure, Citizenship and Working Class Men in Britain, 1850-1940 (Manchester:    Manchester University Press, 2005), 17.

[6] Peter Swain, The Origins of Football Debate: The Continuing Demise of the Dominant Paradigm, 1852-1856, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 31, No. 17, (2014): 2214.

[7] Christopher Hibbert, The English A Social History, 1066-1945 (London: Harper Collins, 1994), 170.

[8] Steve Poole, ‘Till our liberties be secure’: popular sovereignty and public space in Bristol, 1780-1850, Urban History, 26, No. 1, (1999): 41.

[9] Steve Poole, ‘Till our liberties be secure’: 42.

[10] Steve Poole, ‘Till our liberties be secure’: 42.

[11] Edward Royle,  Modern Britain, A Social History, 1750-2011, 3rd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 273.

[12] Edward Royle,  Modern Britain, 273.

[13] E.P. Thompson, ‘Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, Past and Present, 38, No. 1 (1967): 90.

[14] Brad Beaven and Jeffrey Richards, Leisure, Citizenship and Working Class Men in Britain, 1850-1940, 19.

[15] Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control 1830-1885 (London: Routledge, 1978), cited in Crone, Rosalind, Violent Victorians : Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 261 – 262.

[16] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians : Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 260, 264.













, , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply