Social Class and the Invention of Modern Football
Saturday, 25 May 2024 04:17

Social Class and the Invention of Modern Football

Published in Sport

John Storey outlines the relations between football's history and social class.

In the About Us section of this website, cultural activities are described as sites of domination and acceptance, struggle and resistance. And in my featured article, What do we mean by culture and why does it matter, I described culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings. To illustrate these claims, let's look briefly at the relationship between social class and the history of football.

Traditional histories of football present the development of the game as passing through four stages. In its first stage, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, it existed as a wild and unruly game played by all social classes. The term football referred to ball games that involved both kicking and handling and may have even been used to distinguish ball games played on foot rather than on horseback.

What these games had in common was a ball and the idea of getting the ball to a ‘goal’. But the rules were oral and various. Teams could be any size from 2 up to 2,000, and the playing area could be the whole village, or the space between two villages. A game could last all day and was often played during village celebrations (Shrove Tuesday, village fairs and feasts, etc.).

In the second stage, from about 1750 to 1840, under the pressures of the industrial revolution the game disappeared as a popular sport. That is to say, the Enclosure Movement and urbanisation removed areas where the game might be played, industrialisation introduced a stricter work discipline, and the new policing system enforced the law more efficiently. What remained of the popular game survived only in the universities and public schools. But even here the game was discouraged because like the game that had once existed outside these institutions it was violent and unruly.

In the third stage, from about 1840 to 1860, the status of sport began to change, it was now seen as good for the sons of the ruling class. Team sports, especially football, were character building, increased physical health, discipline, and moral responsibility. The Clarendon Commission of 1864, established to investigate the public schools, was very clear on the benefits of sport, ‘The cricket and football fields ……..are not merely places of amusement; they help to form some of the most valuable social qualities and manly virtues, and they hold, like the classroom and the boarding house, a distinct and important place in public school education’. During this period the game is supposedly civilised and codified by the public schools.

In the final stage, from about 1850 to 1890, ex-public schoolboys establish the Football Association in 1863 and the FA Cup in 1871 and then, working like colonial missionaries, gradually introduced the new civilised and codified game to the working class. In an account of the development of the game, published in 1906, the author is quite clear of the role played by, in particular, Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Charterhouse, ‘football, in its modern form, is entirely the product . . . of the various public school games’.

The Wanderers were the first winners of the FA Cup. The social make-up of their team tells us a great deal about the game as played in the early days of the FA. The team included four Harrow graduates, three old Etonians, and one each from Westminister, Charterhouse, Oxford and Cambridge. Football, it seemed, was a game intended for the ruling class, but despite this it very quickly grew to become the ‘people’s game’.

The initial challenge to the public school hegemony came from Blackburn, Lancashire. In 1882 Blackburn Rovers got to the FA Cup final, losing 1-0 to Old Etonians. However, the following year Blackburn Olympic not only reached the final, they actually won the cup, beating Old Etonians 2-1. The Blackburn Times (1883) understood very well how Blackburn Olympic’s victory was entangled with social class. 

'The meeting and vanquishing, in a most severe trial of athletic skill, of a club composed of sons of some of the families of the upper class in the Kingdom . . . as the Old Etonian Club is, by a Provincial Club composed of entirely, we believe, of Lancashire Lads of the manual working-class, sons of small tradesmen, artisans, and operatives.'

Blackburn Olympic’s team consisted of three weavers, a dental assistant, a gilder, a plumber, a clerk, a loomer, a licensed victualler, and two iron-foundry workers. A team of ex-public schoolboys would never again win the FA Cup.

From the 1870s football as a socially organised sport developed rapidly amongst the working class of the Midlands and North. Football clubs were established in different ways: through existing sports clubs (for example, Burnley, Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End, Derby County, Notts County); promoted by religious organisations (for example, Aston Villa, Barnsley, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Manchester City, Birmingham City); representing workplaces (for example, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Coventry City, Crewe Alexandra); and by teachers and ex-pupils (for example, Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, Sunderland).

The establishment of the Football League in 1888 was an inevitable consequence of professionalism. In order to pay wages clubs needed reliable and regular fixtures. In 1884 Preston North End were expelled from the FA Cup because it was claimed they had used professional players. An inquiry was inconclusive, but it did discover that they had arranged jobs for players (i.e. sinecures that allowed them to be in effect full-time players). Preston got support from forty clubs from the North and Midlands. Together they threatened to form a British FA. In January 1885 professionalism was legalized. The Football League was founded three years later in 1888. Of the eleven founding teams, six were from Lancashire (Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Accrington, Everton, Burnley) and five from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke City).

Why did the game develop so quickly in the industrial North and Midlands? One compelling answer is that it had never really gone away. As we noted earlier, according to conventional accounts there was pre-industrial football, which disappeared as a popular game under the pressures of the industrial revolution. However, the public schools held on to the game, codified and civilised it and introduced it to the world with the establishment of the FA and the FA Cup. But there is another possibility: it did not disappear but, as in the public schools, it continued to evolve in the new industrial towns and cities.

In other words, the public school version was just one version, but a version with the power to impose itself on the formal organisation of the game and on the writing of the game’s history. But alongside this version there existed another, which we might call working-class football. The existence of this second version would also help explain how what is presented as the public school game was able to develop so rapidly in the industrial North and the Midlands.

An article published in 1838 in Bell’s Life in London, at a time when the game had supposedly disappeared as a popular sport, offers evidence for the existence of a working-class version of the game, ‘A match at football will be played at the cricket ground, Leicester, on Good Friday next, between eleven (principally printers) from Derby and the same number of Leicester. The winners to challenge an equal number from any town in England, for a purse not exceeding £25’. In 1842 a witness at a Parliamentary inquiry into the conditions of working-class children in the mining areas of the North of England wrote:

'Although Christmas Day and Good Friday were the only fixed holidays in the mining region of Yorkshire, children had at least one day off a week and a fair portion of time in the evening. This they could use to play sport on the considerable areas of wasteland in the neighbourhood. Their games included cricket, nur and spell [a bat and ball game] and football.'

Of course children working long hours in the mining industry and then playing on wasteland offers little to celebrate, but it does present evidence that football had continued to exist outside the universities and public schools. Therefore, although the middle class established the FA and the FA Cup, the game’s rapid development from the 1870s onwards in the industrial North and Midlands suggests that the popular game had not disappeared. Rather, it had simply changed in ways quite similar to what had happened to it in the public schools. Put simply, it is impossible to fully understand the complex history of the development of the game, and how this history has been written, without including as part of the explanation the important role played by social class.