Today in London’s sporting history: Football banned in London (again), 1572.

On 30th August 1572, the playing of football was banned in the City of London. And not for the first time.

Some say football has its origins in ancient folk customs deriving from pagan ritual, perhaps from “magical rites performed to raise energy, which is then directed to the desired goal, which is usually the fructification of crops, cattle, people and the well-being of the land itself.” I think it was one of the Chelsea Headhunters wrote that. If this hippy bollocks is true or not, gradually local football games evolved all over the place, played on village greens, wastelands, and in the streets, especially as cities grew.

The first footie in Britain was played by huge numbers of people on vast ‘pitches’ with very few rules. Villages were divided into two sides, often based on where they lived. The stuff about ritual associations may be true in that games were often linked to special dates in the calendar and some of these traditions have survived today. For instance, on January 1 in Kirkwall, Orkney, street football breaks out at 10.00am each year. There is a Hocktide (first Sunday after Easter) game at Workington, Cumbria, and July sees ‘Reivers Week’ at Duns, Borders, where the ‘ba’ game’ is between the married and single men of the town. But the biggest day of the year for folk football in Britain is Shrove Tuesday. Some 50 such local traditions are recorded, although only six survive today, at Sedgefield, Co Durham, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, Atherstone in Warwickshire, Alnwick in Northumberland, Corfe Castle in Dorset and St. Columb in Cornwall.

In medieval London, open spaces, like the legendary Moorfields, on the old City’s northern borders (near today’s Moorgate station) were where the city’s youth played the earliest football games, first recorded around 1170-83. Football was a great passion of the young, especially apprentices; it grew to be a headache for the authorities, as it often led to trouble: obstruction, damage, fights and sometimes riots. In medieval times it was no enclosed spectator sport, but often played through the streets, or in open spaces; hundreds sometimes took part – not so much silky skills as violence and disorder.

Footballers colonised spaces in the city built for more respectable purposes. London’s Royal Exchange, built in the 1560s so merchants could meet and do deals without the ‘unpleasantness’ and trouble of meeting in the street, had, within ten years, become a dangerous place, “ill lit, used by football players, lewd boys, rogues and whores”, especially at night.

In 1314, there was “great uproar in the city… through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public”. This led to a law making the game illegal; a ban repeated in 1331, 1365, 1388, 1410, 1414, 1477 and so on (in fact it was only really legalised in the 19th century.)

The law was repeatedly enforced, though the numerous renewals show that it was eternally defied.

In 1373, London skinners and tailors were busted in Cheapside carrying knives during a football match. Cheapside was a popular place for apprentices to gather & cause trouble. In 1590 three journeymen were jailed after “outrageously and notoriously behaving themselves at football play…”

It’s worth noting that the 1314 ban was imposed at time of a war against the scots; football was constantly blamed for distracting the lower orders when they were supposed to be engaged in proper military pastimes. England’s kings relied on a sizeable contingent of their army being citizen archers trained to use longbows, a devastating weapon in the wars before guns, and time spent kicking a ball around should be spent training in archery. Other bans on football also came at times of war or preparation for it – in 1365, 1414, for example… As late as 1562, 35 London men were fined for neglecting to own bows and arrows and practice archery…

The August 1572 ban arose specifically because of sacreligiousness: football was often most attacked for violating the Sanctity of the Sabbath, when you were not supposed to do anything except worship god quietly. Inevitably, since Sunday was the only day off for working people, many took no notice. The Bishop of Rochester’s demand for the suppression of football on Sundays in 1572, made it clear that it was particularly offensive when when played during church services! (This did not only mean outside, apparently sometimes people took the game inside the church too – fair enough. As early as 1287 the Synod of Exeter had banned ‘unseemly sports’ from churchyards.)

Philip Stubbes summed up the general prejudice against football in his Anatomie of Abuses in 1583: “Any exercise which withdraweth us from Godliness, either upon the Sabaoth or any other day, is wicked and to be forbidden..”

Pre-industrial football also had a long association with unrest: the simple fact of playing in big gangs in the street was a worry to authority, as it caused uproar, damage to property, violence and injury, drew people away from work and other orderly pursuits. However, it was also used as a cover for crowds to gather for other purposes – riots, demonstrations, political meetings and to organise workers in trades (banned from legally ‘combining’ to campaign for higher wages or better conditions).  From the 16th to the 18th centuries crowds would use football matches as cover to gather for anti-enclosure riots, especially in East Anglia.

Football also went together with carnival, ‘Shrovetide’ and other festivals; the outbreak of bingeing, feasting, processions and theatre, as well as often disorder, unrestrained sexuality and partying before period of Lent abstinence seems to have gone hand in hand with a rowdy kickabout.

The ban on football was enforced in other towns too: for instance it was outlawed in Halifax in 1450; Leicester in 1467 and 1488; in Liverpool 1555 and Manchester several times in the 1600s… Imagine if it was still banned in London, Liverpool and Manchester – that’d open up the premiership.

Riotous matches continued long after the 1572 ban however… The puritans of the 17th century also hated the game. Fear of the poor, and increasing hatred of their pastimes and behaviour by the rich, underlies even superficial crowd control and need for military alternatives; even overtly non-political self-organised working class activities were thought to threaten the class system.

Ruling elites simply detested the lower classes, and everything they did; yes, in 1531, when Sir Thomas Elyot wrote in his treatise The Boke Named The Governour that football is “nothing but beastlie furie and extreme violence”, but also in 1892, when an English gentleman was quoted as having complained: “The lower middle and the working classes may be divided into two sets; Fabians [meaning socialists] and Footballers, and ‘pon my word, it’s difficult to say which is the greater nuisance to the other members of society.”

One area where it took longer to suppress street football was North east Surrey, in what is now South West London. Even though by then it had been reduced to an annual ritual game on Shrove Tuesday, this one day was too much for local authorities who had always resented the gathering of crowds & the risks of disorder…. The most explosive confrontation in this region over street football took place in Kingston; magistrates attempted throughout the 1790s to suppress the Shrove Tuesday street football game, (the powers that be were especially nervous about large gatherings of people at this time of war & widespread political radicalism ). Local merchants also resented the ‘loss of business’ the game apparently caused. In 1799 a mob assembled in the marketplace to defy the order banning the match… Some of the most active were nicked, but the crowds refused to disperse. The military based at Hampton Court “failed to turn up” when asked to help in the suppression: they were playing footie themselves on Hampton Court Green! The crowds went on to rescue their arrested mates. The long battles over Kingston’s street football didn’t end till 1867, when the corporation forced it into a new playing field – leading to angry protests & riots.

In Barnes the annual Shrove Tuesday game caused “a great nuisance” in 1829 & 1836, & the vestry (the parish council) urged its suppression. In Richmond a long tradition of street football, especially at Shrovetide, was finally put down by force in 1840; it was also banned in the same year in nearby twickenham, though a local brewer allowed it to be played in his meadow. In Hampton Wick and East Molesey it was forcibly put down in 1857, and in Hampton repression was also forced through in 1864.

In Wimbledon the local beadle was ordered to ban unlawful games on the Sabbath, such as the street football played here, probably on Easter Monday (Fair time) in Football Close. Shrovetide street football was also played in Thames Ditton into the 19th century.

Even in the late victorian times when street football had been largely repressed and the whole ‘sport’ bourgeoisified, outbreaks could still occur: in 1881, “The ancient custom of playing at football in the public streets was observed at Nuneaton on the afternoon of March 1st. During the morning a number of labourers canvassed the town for subscriptions and between one and two o’clock the ball was started, hundreds of roughs assembling and kicking it through the streets. The police attempted to stop the game, but were somewhat roughly handled.”

Street football survives as ritual games in Derby and Ashbourne… now a grovelly affair of royal patronage, and co-opted as an advert for some pissy lager a few years back… There’s nothing worse than violent rituals co-opted and made respectable.

The Upper classes however decided to appropriate the game in the 19th century, but only after they enforced some changes to alter its social status and change its whole ethos. So they tried to remove it from the street, reduce it to small teams not mass participation, and also made in men only. This colonisation though in turn reverted back to the working class, often mediated through clergymen and factory owners using it to instil discipline and hard work on the plebs.

The ‘Muscular Christians’ of Victorian times not only saw that, properly altered, given a set of rules, the game could be used to impose discipline first of all on the upper classes themselves in their public schools; and from there to help impose discipline, team spirit, physical fitness on unruly workers. So loose customary traditions were replaced by a hard set of rules written at Cambridge University by former public schoolboys.

From factory bosses forming teams of workers, to missionaries introducing the game to the benighted foreigners in Britain’s colonies, to psychotic PE teachers today, the imposition of these rules was part and parcel of internalising bourgeois values on the plebs.

Interestingly one reaction to this was an anti-football element among respectable radicals and trade unionists – for instance striking trade unionists in Derby in 1833-34, who saw the local game as “barbarous recklessness and supreme folly”, promoted by the local elite in a display of de-radicalising paternalism, and the Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, approved of repressing street football.

But bourgying up the rules and professionalising the game didn’t entirely pacify football forever: It is something of a myth that football crowds were all well-behaved gatherings of dapper middle-aged men in hats until the 1960s. For instance, the term ‘hooligan’ was invented in 1898. And researchers at Leicester University say more than 4,000 incidents of hooliganism occurred at football matches between 1894 and 1914, particularly from 1894 to 1900 and 1908 to 1914. They suggest a link between outbreaks of football violence and the presence in the crowd of members of youth gangs, the so-called ‘scuttlers’ or ‘peaky blinders’.

The dons who refined the game were however opposed to the idea of football as a mass spectator sport, which led to such unseemly scenes as crowds of working class people shouting and swearing, and kept alive the violence and tribalism of pre-industrial footie, even though a separation had been made between player and fan… In a way, hooliganism attempts to break this separation down, to make the game about the spectator taking part, even if its, er, to kick the shit out of a rival firm. Nationalism, racism and male violence are also in there as well, in a big way – but they were in medieval times too.

Of course football in the street, park, estate continues, if not on the same scale as it once did. I’ve played it on the roofs of council blocks I was supposed to be working on, through the halfbuilt offices of the City; hung over in a misty park after a mad party. Being as silky as a lame donkey I prefer the kick and rush of yer medieval through the streets version, but each to their own.

This post owes something to an article read in Do Or Die way back when, though some of it pre-dates my coming across that piece.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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