Until the 19th century, football 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. 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.
Repeated disorder 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.
Football was banned both to encourage more wholesome and warlike pursuits (like archery), and because it was often played on Sundays, and was thus considered sacreligious.
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.
As the reformation took hold in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the political and religious powers tried to close down popular sports, festivals, fairs and holidays. This was not only for ideological reasons of their immorality; more and more, moralists were expressing the need for the rowdy lower orders to be disciplined, trained to more law-abiding and respectable ways, which would not only make them ore productive wage slaves, but also reduce the likelihood of them turning to dangerous radical politics or disturbing the bourgeois peace.
As street football was often associated with holidays like Shrove Tuesday, it became a major target. Over a number of decades, street football was gradually outlawed in many towns.
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. Which does seem a bit grouchy, given it was only one day.
On 5th February 1799 a mob assembled in Kingston marketplace to defy a magisterial order banning the Shrove Tuesday match. Attempts to suppress the match had begun two years before, as a letter from the Magistrates to the Home Secretary relates (without much regard for punctuation):
“It having been a practice for the populace to kick football in the market Place and Streets of this Town on Shrive Tuesday to the great nuisance of the Inhabitants and of persons travelling through the Town and complaints having been made by several Gentlemen of the County to the Magistrates of the Town they previous to Shrove Tuesday 1797 [old style, so 1798 we would say] gave public Notice by the distribution of hand bills of their determination to suppress the Practice which not having the desired effect several of the offenders were Indicted and at the last Assizes convicted but sentence was respited and has not yet been declared the Judge thinking that after having warn’d them of their situation that they would not attempt to kick again…”
However, the following year they learned the warnings were likely to be ignored:
“We the present Magistrates of the Town having been previously informed it was their intention with others to kick again as on last Shrove Tuesday some days before issued handbills giving Notice of our intention to prosecute any persons who should on that day kick foot ball in the said Town and apprehending that we should find great opposition two days previous thereto addressed a Letter to the officer commanding the Cavalry at Hampton Court informing him of the Circumstance and stating that if we found it necessary we should call on him for the assistance of the Military.”
Some of the most active footballers 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…
“On Shrove Tuesday a great number of persons having assembled and begun to kick a ball in the market place we caused three that seemed the most active to be taken into Custody hoping that would induce the others to disperse but not having that effect we then caused the Riot Act to be read and the Mob not then dispersing but increasing in Number and threatening to Use violence in liberating those in Custody we addressed another Letter to the Officer on Command at Hampton Court requiring him to send part of the Cavalry to our assistance but not receiving an answer in a reasonable time one of Us went to Hampton Court in search for the Officer when it was said that major hawker was the Officer on Duty there but was gone from home and not to be seen not could any other by found who could Act and the Men at the same time kicking foot ball on Hampton Court Green.”
The crowds went on to rescue their arrested mates, and the Magistrates letter turns to sour recrimination:
“Nor being able to obtain the assistance required the persons in Custody were rescued by the mob as Constables were conveying them to Prison and the Keeper was violently assaulted and much hurt. If the Military had attended we should have succeeded in abolishing the nuisance without much difficulty but not having met with such support the Game will be carried on to a greater night than it ever has been the mob conceiving they have got the better of Us and that the Military would not attend.”
The long battles over Kingston’s street football didn’t end till 1867, when the corporation forced it into a new playing field – again leading to angry protests & riots.
It’s worth putting the 1799 events in Kingston into the immediate context: the authorities’ usual fear of crowds gathering was especially heightened in this decade, under the shadow of the French Revolution. British support for the French Revolution had fluctuated, but there was constant worry among the wealthy that the lower orders could ally themselves to radical ideas and begin their own Terror. In London and its environs the Gordon Riots would also have been a dark memory…
The long wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France had already led to rising food prices, which had in turn sparked food riots…
Only months after the 1799 football riot, Kingston saw further unrest in 1800, at a time of bread riots. Radicals distributed cards calling for cheap bread in Kingston pubs.
Other areas of Northeast Surrey also hosted annual football shindigs… 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.
Street football now survives largely 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…
This is since the Upper classes however decided to appropriate the game in the 19th century, and 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 instill 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…
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar