Bedford, November 1726 – On Wednesday the 23d Instant, a most obstinate and hard Match at Foot-ball was play’d near Great Harwood in this County, between 7 Men of the Village of Ranse, and the like Number of Great Harwood; which last had challenged the whole Kingdom to match them. The Contest was so great between them, that one of the Harwood’s Champions dropp’d down dead on the Spot, whose Brother being engaged on the same Side, would not leave off till the Decision of the Game, which ended in Favour of their Antagonists the Ranse Men.
This football match, as described in the Ipswich Journal in December 1726, was just as passionate and as hard-fought as any game in the modern era. So passionate, indeed, that one of the players lost his life in the pursuit of victory for his team, Great Harwood, who were ultimately beaten by the village of Ranse.
This was football in the eighteenth century, folk football, that was played between villages on wide open spaces. The sport then had few rules, and often precipitated serious injuries and even deaths amongst those who played it. And in this special blog, we will take a look at football in the eighteenth century, and the dangerous origins of the beautiful game. Using our newspapers, we will explore football’s popularity in the century before the sport was codified. We will discover its ties with gambling, and look at how it was associated with anti-social behaviour.
A Great Diversion
The popularity of football as a leisure pastime can be clearly seen through the pages of our newspapers. The winter of 1739 was a particularly cold one, but the cold weather provided an unexpected chance for the playing of football, both in the north and south of England.
Notwithstanding the Appearance on Wednesday of the Frost’s breaking in Town, Yesterday there were several Booths on the Thames at Brentford, and much Diversion exercis’d thereon, at Skittle-playing, Football, &c.
Football was being played on the frozen Thames, the cause of ‘much Diversion,’ whilst in Newcastle:
The famous River Tyne, on which depends most of our Trade, is frozen so hard, that all manner of Diversions are daily pursued thereon, as Sliding, Jumping, Running, Foot-ball, Dressing of Meat, and selling all kinds of Liquors in Tents, is like a Fair by the Concourse of both Sexes.
It’s a wonderful winter image; men and women both on the frozen River Tyne, the smell of roasting meat in the air, people playing football in between the tents. Football was a popular folk pursuit, a way that people amused themselves in the 1700s.
And more evidence of football’s popularity in the eighteenth century can be again found in the Derby Mercury from July 1751, which reported how:
By a Letter from Newmarket we have an Account, that during the great Cricket Matches, there were above 6000 People to see a great Match at Foot-Ball; and that for the Diversion of the Populace, there was Cocking, Smock-Racing, Camping or Foot-ball, Wrestling and Cudgelling.
Football had drawn crowds of thousands of people, foreshadowing the great spectator sport that it was to become.
And it wasn’t just in England that the sport was popular. The Dublin Evening Post on 20 August 1789 reported how the ‘manly sport of football’ was due to be exhibited in Belfast, which gave ‘promise of much fun.’
Meanwhile, whilst football matches were taking place informally, as people spontaneously entertained themselves, they were also organised affairs, such as the ‘extraordinary match of foot-ball’ that took place at Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire in May 1789. The Ipswich Journal describes how:
…a young gentleman took the hill for 200 guineas, against 11 of the best foot-ball players in the country, which was decided in his favour, after a contest of four hours and a half.
This sole player had taken on a team of eleven, emerging victorious after nearly five hours. That must have been quite the game of football, and very unlike anything we would witness today.
Playing For Hats
The organised football matches which took place in the eighteenth century were almost inextricably linked with gambling. The young gentleman who played at Dunstable Downs would have taken home 200 guineas for his victorious endeavours, a handsome sum at the time, which works out at about £16,000 in today’s money.
And whilst this young gentleman played football for guineas, others played football for hats. Here’s an advert which appeared in the Ipswich Journal in May 1755, which advertised a game of football to be played at Bury:
This is to acquaint all Lovers of that manly Exercise of FOOT-BALL PLAYING, THAT there will be TEN HATS play’d for on BURY RACE-GROUND, by Ten Men on a Side, on Saturday the 24th May instant; to meet at John’s Place Booth, at the sign of the Three Pidgeons, at Three o’Clock in the Afternoon; to play the best of three-quarters of an Hour: The Ball to be thrown off at Six o’Clock; where all Gentlemen and others shall meet with a hearty Welcome, from their humble servant, JOHN PLACE.
So the winning players would each receive a new hat, the match to be decided after three hours, whereupon they were encouraged to visit John Place’s pub, the Three Pigeons.
The stakes were raised in September 1769, when the Ipswich Journal published the following announcement:
This is to give NOTICE, THAT at THORP in the County of Essex, on FRIDAY the 6th DAY of October, 1769, will be given Gratis, TEN GOLD-LACED HATS, of one Guinea value each, to be play’d for at Foot-Ball by twenty Men, Essex against Suffolk.
These hats weren’t any old hats, they were gold-laced hats, that were worth one guinea each, an interesting form of payment indeed. Again, the competing teams would each comprise of ten men, and the match had to be finished by four o’clock, otherwise the hats were ‘not to be play’d for.’
Meanwhile, in February 1778 the Manchester Mercury advertised a ‘match at Football’ to be played between Mr. Ashton Lever, who was to be accompanied by players from Middleton, Blackley and Prestwich, and Captain Aytoun of the Royal Manchester Volunteers, who was to be supported by men from Rochdale, Royton and Oldham. The wager here was 100 guineas, and the match would kick off at noon. Again, the pub was an important part of this fixture, with dinner to be served at the Boar’s Head in Middleton at two o’clock.
This match had a particularly interesting outcome. The Derby Mercury reported how ‘Hand Bills’ advertising the game ‘were delivered plentifully in Manchester,’ with further advertising coming from the notices placed in newspapers. Weavers from the city ‘ran to the place of action,’ and after the match:
…a drinking Bout ensued, in which forty Men found themselves so loyal and courageous, that they offered themselves as Gentlemen Volunteers to serve in the Manchester Regiment: Their Offer was accepted, and they marched to Manchester, distinguished with smart Cockades in their Hats.
The football match had turned into a successful recruitment drive for the local Manchester militia, an unexpected outcome to an afternoon’s sport.
‘Such Dangerous Exercises’
Many such football matches, however, did not end so harmoniously, if indeed a group of 40 tipsy men marching to Manchester could be described as harmonious. Indeed, our eighteenth century newspapers are full of accounts of the injuries sustained in the course of playing football.
Yesterday as some young Men were playing at Foot-Ball in Moor Fields, the Footman of James Wilson, Esq; had his Leg broke in a terrible Manner by a Fall amongst the Crowd; he was immediately carried to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where all proper Care is taken of him.
Last Monday as Thomas Woddams, of Weston, was kicking a Foot-Ball, he fell down and broke his Leg in a terrible Manner: He was brought immediately to the County-Hospital.
But both Thomas Woddams and the young footman were lucky; accidents on the football field sometimes proved to be deadly.
The Derby Mercury reports in February 1796 how:
Yesterday was observed here by playing at foot-ball, according to custom; and John Snape of Darley, in attempting to cross the Derwent with the ball near the boat house in the Holmes, was unfortunately drowned in the presence of a great number of people who could not render him any assistance.
Poor John Snape lost his life playing football, in which local custom saw him trying to cross the River Derwent.
The intensity of the game in the eighteenth century meant that people would occasionally lose their lives, with sometimes onlookers being the ones to meet their fate on the football field. The Derby Mercury in November 1771 describes a particularly violent match that was played between the neighbouring Yorkshire villages of Sharlston and Crofton, near Wakefield, with the wager set at 40 guineas a side:
After they had played for a full two Hours, in which Time there were a great many smart falls and ill Bruises given on both Sides, the Gentlemen of Sharlston got the first Goal. On beginning a second Time, two of the Gentlemen of opposite Parties met together at the Ball with such violence, that one of them had his Leg broke, and the other his Shoulder dislocated.
A mob then ‘rushed’ into the fray, and the match had to be abandoned. However:
There was some damage sustained by the rudeness of the Mob. A fine Boy, about Eight Years of Age, was thrown down among them, and unfortunately trod to Death.
This tragic accident suffered by the boy was met with concerned disapproval by the Derby Mercury:
It is very surprising, that Persons, who call themselves Gentlemen, should be so fond of encouraging such dangerous Exercises.
A ‘Riotous and Tumultuous Game’
It was little wonder then that the game of football throughout the eighteenth century was associated with anti-social behaviour. One of the earliest mentions of the sport we found in our newspapers addressed this issue, the Stamford Mercury reporting in April 1717 how:
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 Mortality.
Such ‘mischiefs’ entailed the mob rule that often followed in the wake of football matches, like the disorder that followed a game in West Haddon, Northamptonshire, in August 1765. The Derby Mercury reported how:
We hear from West-Haddon in this County, that on Thursday and Friday last a great Number of People being assembled there, in order to play a Foot-ball Match, soon after meeting formed themselves into a tumultuous Mob, and pulled up and burnt the Fences designed for the Inclosure of that Field, and did other considerable Damage; many of whom are since taken up for the same, by a Party of General Mordaunt’s Dragoons sent from this Town.
Indeed, football players and spectators often flew in the face of authority, and particularly religious authority, which took a dim view of the playing of the sport on the Sabbath. Sometimes, such football loving mobs made their resistance very plain, as the Newcastle Courant in January 1733 detailed:
Letters from Chester advise, that at Six o’Clock Prayers at the Cathedral on Christmas Morning, the Mob kick’d a Foot-Ball in the broad Isle at the Beginning of Divine Service, and about the Middle of it went into the Choir, abus’d and pull’d the Reader out of the Desk, and the Congregation went out in the dark as well as they could.
One can just imagine the chaos of Christmas morning prayers being interrupted by a mob and their football. Meanwhile, the authorities were keen to cut down on such tomfoolery. In June 1738 the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal wrote how:
Last Sunday the Right Hon. the Lord Mayor committed several Felons to Newgate, for playing at Foot-ball in Oxmantown Green; it is hoped his Lordship’s Vigilance will cause the Sabbath to be more strictly kept.
These ‘felons’ had not disturbed a divine service like their Chester counterparts; their crime was simply to play football on a Sunday. And across the Irish Sea in Dublin in May 1787 the Sabbath was again being disturbed by the playing of football, as reported Saunders’s News-Letter:
For some weeks past a number of disorderly persons have made it a practice to assemble in the fields near Merrion square every Sabbath day, for the purpose of playing football, wrestling &c.
But Alderman Exshaw did not want to stand for such ‘irregularities,’ and ventured to the fields ‘in order to disperse the multitude.’ However:
…a terrible affray ensued, wherein the Alderman himself was most audaciously assaulted, several of his attendants dangerously wounded, and their arms destroyed.
Some authorities took steps to prevent the playing of football in the first place. In anticipation of a Shrove Tuesday game, a traditional day for the playing of football, the Mayor of Derby, Humphry Booth, printed a proclamation regarding the ‘Publick Foot-Ball-Playing:’
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… 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.
It was clear that the authorities regarded football as a precursor to social unrest, and were keen to take steps to prevent the playing of football matches. But football’s popularity survived such a crackdown; it was enduringly popular amongst the people, as evidenced by an incident in St. Ives, Huntingdonshire, in 1739.
The Newcastle Courant wrote how a Methodist preacher, Reverend Mr. Rogers, had been invited to preach at St. Ives by ‘an eminent Presbyterian and Draper’ of the town. ‘Great Numbers of People’ had flocked to hear him speak, of ‘all Denominations,’ and after his sermon in the morning he again spoke in the afternoon in a meadow, ‘to a much greater Congregation of People.’ However, just as the Reverend was going to speak, he was interrupted by the town crier, who announced:
A Dozen Pair of Gloves to be play’d for at Foot-Ball, on the same Spot of Ground, by any Persons thought fit to entertain themselves.
The town crier clearly thought that the football match was of more import than the sermon, the Newcastle Courant chiding him for his ‘insolence.’
But the fact did remain that football in the eighteenth century did sometimes go hand in hand with criminality. Take the case, for example, of Susannah Jobbins from 1731, which was reported in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal:
Yesterday John Stiles was committed to Newgate by Justice Vincent, being charged with the Murder of Susannah Jobbins, by pushing her down in a Crowd, playing at Foot-Ball at Kensington; by which Accident she received a mortal Wound, so that in a few Days she died of the same.
And that of George Twigge, which was detailed in the Derby Mercury, May 1775:
Yesterday was brought to our County Goal, by Virtue of Coroner’s Warrant, William Waterfall, charged with Felony and Manslaughter upon the Body of George Twigge, at Ashford in this County. It is said to have happened in a Quarrel at Foot-Ball.
These sad cases go some way to explain the fear of the ‘mischief’ that followed in the wake of football. And indeed, it is something that the modern game has had to work to expunge, following the hooliganism of the 1980s, for example. The beautiful game does have some murky origins, in a time before it was regulated, when it was very much the expression of folk tradition. It was, however, undoubtedly popular, its popularity growing through the centuries to make it the most popular sport in the world, with an estimated 4 billion fans.
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