Serialisation. Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football

by Absolute Thai Football

Part One: Football as Class War

Sitting in a plush Premier League VIP box, it’s difficult to imagine football as a weapon of mass social conflict between the working classes and their paymasters. In the mid nineteenth century the game became a catalyst for class war verging on anarchy and revolution. I wish I had been there…

Most games were kicks abouts on patches of wasteland, but the upper classes drew little distinction between them and the anarchic annual games. As a visiting French aristocrat gasped:

“If Englishmen call this playing, it would be impossible to say what they would call fighting.”

The Shrove Tuesday holiday was a riot disguised as a game of football. The ruling classes nervously watched rough country folk troop in from surrounding villages to play for their nearest parish. The mayor originally threw the cork stuffed horse leather ball ball from the Town Hall window to start the riot but, with increasing official disapproval, by the 1840s the previous year’s goal scorer had the dubious honour.
This was pretty much a rule free game. Players smuggling the ball through narrow, rat infested sewers whilst accepting the opportunity to settle old scores with fierce fist fights horrified the genteel onlookers (although some were not averse to joining in the mayhem.) The first side to score ( in their own goal rather than their opponents’) won the day long match.
Football was a battleground between the old rural rhythms and the strict urban mechanization of labour. The great holiday games were heavily ritualistic, mock combats rather than sport. They were meant to be anarchic as Shrove Tuesday turned social order on its head for a day; the streets surrendered to the mob. But by the early nineteenth century the increasingly religious urban middle class recoiled from “brutish and backward” football as part of a broader offensive against working class behaviour.

By the 1840s the rural practice of taking Mondays off was dying out, not yet replaced by the Saturday half holiday. The Sabbath was savagely enforced: football was being squeezed out of the working week. Not only time, but space to play was disappearing. The open fields of medieval England became owned and fenced off as communal land fell into private hands. Whilst restricting the wide ranging holiday games, it also meant less patches of wasteland for lads to play on.
The lives of working people were hemmed in by fences and hedges, by walls and factory gates, by the harsh morality and pitiless work ethic of the rising middle class and the insatiable demands of the new industrial economy. By the middle of the nineteenth century pubs were one of the few welcoming places for the poor, an irony for the moralistic and often teetotal ruling classes whose actions had corralled them in there.

By 1856 only “the occasional knot of lads” might be seen keeping up the old custom. Football was in danger of extinction.