Published in ISFA History


Football goes to School. The years before 1850.

Although England was the first country to attempt seriously to codify written “Laws of the Game” in the mid-nineteenth century, several different countries claim to have played football since the earliest times, most notably the Chinese and the Italians. The latter’s version of calcio is still practised in its traditional format in Florence today.

Informal games of football, without any real rules, have taken place in England as far back as the Middle Ages, the most famous of these being the annual Shrove Tuesday match at Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Traditions varied in different areas around the country, and rules, if they existed at all, were limited and the games were all extremely violent resulting in numerous injuries. 

One of the first schoolmasters to take an interest in the game was Richard Mulcaster, Headmaster of Merchant Taylors’ School (1561-86) and High Master of St. Paul’s School (1596-1608). Mulcaster was one of the first to preach the importance of educating the “whole man”, believing that music, drama and athletic development, and not simply academics, should play a part in the education progress. Mulcaster advocated a smaller and agreed number of players on each side, “sorted into sides and standings” (positions) and with a “training maister” (referee) to give advice and ensure fair play. Mulcaster wanted to see a more skilful game involving less physical violence. 

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there is plenty of documentary evidence of football matches between individual colleges at Cambridge and the game was also clearly played at Oxford. There is also evidence of the game being played at schools, notably Winchester College, at this time. In commemoration of the Napoleonic Wars, Stonyhurst College picked “French” and “English” teams for their Shrove Tuesday football match. 

One of the attractions of the game was that it offered an opportunity for the educated man to meet and play against the common man. Such occurrences remained in the minority, however, and football in this era remained most notable as a violent means of recreation for the masses, often disapproved of by the ruling classes. Samuel Butler, Headmaster of Shrewsbury School until 1836, strongly discouraged the game which he described as “only fit for butchers’ boys”. 

In the early years of the nineteenth century, therefore, football suffered a decline, partly as a result of the disapproval of the authorities and partly because, whilst the Industrial Revolution brought large numbers of people into the cities, the very long working hours demanded of the working man meant that there was little time for recreation. 

Perhaps one of the most important decisions in the development of the game came in 1847 when the Factory Act freed women and children, and subsequently men, from full time employment on Saturdays, thus freeing them for participation in sport. At the same time, the first half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the “professional classes”, the effect of this development being described as follows by Percy Young in A History of British Football: 

“The emergence of a new professional class, comprising scholars, physicians, surgeons, the Established clergy, the armed forces, lawyers, and civil servants. Connected to the landed gentry by family ties, by patronage, or both, this class contrived to build up its own ethos of superiority and to conduct the most important part of the nation’s business in a spirit of barely modified paternalism. If anything needed running, then these were the people to do it. By the middle of the century the cachet of a public school education was the warrant for leadership. Old and well-know schools – Winchester, Eton, Charterhouse, Shrewsbury, Westminster, Harrow – and new foundations, such as Cheltenham (1841), Marlborough (1843) and Wellington (1853) adopted the principles of Dr Thomas Arnold and thereby established a compact system for the propogation of quasi-patrician virtues and vices – these in about equal parts. The need for such principles was emphasised by the growth of the number of pupils in the more important schools. Thus in 1844 there were but sixty-nine boys at Harrow. Within fifty years this total had increased to more than five hundred. 

When the eighteenth century apprentices (some of good family) disported themselves gracelessly they were, in fact, following the examples of their betters. Drinking, gambling, poaching and other family occupations were neither conducive to corporate character at which the nineteenth century “public” school aimed, nor convenient to accommodate. Sport, therefore, became and remained at once a means of sublimation and correction. It also afforded pious headmasters suitable analogies wherewith to imbue their less intelligent charges with a basic philosophy”.

Not only did sport help to provide the pupils with leisure activities which they enjoyed, and which consequently kept them away from the temptations of gambling, drinking, smoking, fighting and other less healthy habits, but it also provided a vehicle in which they could learn values such as teamwork, leadership, courage, determination and the ability to accept both successes and setbacks in the correct manner. The concept of educating the “whole man” had returned. Football became respectable.

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