The British, it’s often said, have a particular genius for inventing sports and games. Considering how many of these sports and games turn out to have evolved elsewhere in the world too, this may or may not be true. However, we can be certain about one thing: the British invented modern sports in all their money-drenched and over-hyped glory. To put that another way, you can trace a direct line from Britons setting down recognised rules for horse racing, boxing and cricket through to football’s World Cup, the Indian Premier League and the modern Olympic Games.
“Although most countries have variations of folk tradition sports, which can range from hitting a ball with a bat through to mob forms of football through to maypole dancing – traditions that are very rooted in rural, agricultural lifestyles – Britain was the first place to develop what we would see today as codified, organised and commercialised sports,” says Tony Collins of De Montfort University in Leicester.
It’s a story that begins in earnest in the 18th century. “The reason why Britain developed these sports was it was the first nation to become an industrial, capitalist economy where people had disposable income,” comments Collins. “There was the wealth to generate both an interest in sports and also markets for sports.”
From the off then, money was central to sport’s growth. It’s no coincidence that this was also an era when, especially in a south-east growing prosperous as the centre of empire, the theatre grew in popularity and newspapers began to flourish. Beginning with the aristocracy, Britons were discovering the joys of leisure time.
This meant games played for high stakes and gambling. Cricket matches with prize money of 1,000 guineas weren’t unheard of. Predating today’s ‘in-game’ wagers, on-site bookies would even offer odds on individual batsman’s scores.
If this doesn’t tally with the familiar idea of stolid chaps playing up, playing up and playing the game, that’s because the idea of the noble amateur dates from the 19th century. This was a reinvention of sport linked to the growth of muscular Christianity and expressed in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), a novel set in Rugby School that pushed “the moral and the educative lessons that sport could teach”.
However, the idea of the amateur was always problematical. Cricketer WG Grace is reputed sometimes to have refused to walk when given out, perhaps in part because he was conscious that his generous ‘expenses’ made him better paid as an amateur than professional cricketers and that his role was to draw a crowd. As for why Grace hypocritically preferred expenses to a match fee, it’s because amateurs were gentlemen but professionals were lower class.
The 19th century was also an era when mass spectator sport began to take off. The 1895 split between rugby union and rugby league, for example, wasn’t, as it’s often portrayed, just about clubs such as Widnes and Warrington wanting to pay their players. It also came about because northern clubs wanted rule changes to make rugby more attractive to Saturday spectators who were increasingly deserting for association football – the Football League, at first made up of teams based in the north of England and the Midlands, was founded in 1888.
Fast forward to today and what Tony Collins calls the “arc of the amateur era” has most definitely ended. You could even argue that popular spectator sports, unashamedly professional and rich with the munificent sums paid by television, have returned to their 18th‑century roots. As for a figure such as Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, it doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable to see him as a spiritual successor to louche aristocrats looking for amusement.
And yet sport is never just about rich individuals. In Britain, as sport has become a national obsession, it’s also become tied up with national well-being and identity. Hungary’s 6-3 rout of England at Wembley in 1953 had as much of an impact on the national sporting psyche as the 1956 Suez Crisis did on British politics.
“It was a tremendous shock to the system because it seemed to place a question mark over British superiority,” says Collins. “It’s not an accident that a lot of those kinds of doubts came to the fore in the 1950s when there’s lots of soul-searching and discussion about the role of Britain as its empire starts to disintegrate.”
The dance between sport and the state of the nation continues. Leaving aside for a moment the problem of conflating English and British sport, what price a future historian contrasting England’s victory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, when Clive Woodward’s strategy-fixated coaching methods seemed rooted in the management thinking of a then buoyant City of London, with the team’s dismal, undisciplined performance at the post-crash 2011 World Cup.
Ten sites related to the development of British sport
1. The Kirkwall Ba’ Orkney Islands
Where rival ‘factions’ go head-to-head
Football may be ‘the beautiful game’ but its deepest roots are plum ugly, mass contests where entire communities wrestled with an animal’s bladder trying to score a ‘goal’. The Kirkwall mass football game, which takes place twice a year, on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, pits ‘Uppies’ against ‘Doonies’ – those born south of the local St Magnus Cathedral against those born to its north.
It’s a primal spectacle and also a glimpse back to an agrarian society where people made their own entertainment on holidays – south of the border mass football often took place on Shrove Tuesday, Whitsuntide or May Day. The ba’ itself is a handmade, cork-filled leather ball, weighing about three pounds with a circumference of around 28 inches.
While these football games typically had few if any rules, their reputation for violence may be overstated. Unlike modern sports, where injuries are often a by-product of the athletes’ great speed, traditional football is a slow-moving, attritional maul. You’re in far more danger of getting crushed than anything else. Typically there are local conventions to ensure that those who don’t want to be at the centre of the action can get away.
The two annual ba’s begin on Kirkwall’s Broad Street, near St Magnus Cathedral, with the Men’s Ba’ starting at 1pm. Spectators are welcome, but be warned, the Men’s Ba’ can last up to eight hours!
2. Subscription Rooms, Newmarket, Suffolk
Where 19th-century gentlemen had a flutter on horse races
Newmarket’s Subscription Rooms were where 19th-century betting men met after a day’s racing and is now home to the National Horseracing Museum, which traces the history of the ‘Sport of Kings’. Back then the splendid building was the venue for gambling men such as George Payne, Sir Joseph Hawley and the Marquess of Hastings to wager their bets, while outside large crowds would gather to find out from emerging members which horses were being backed.
In the case of British racing, the most important king is arguably Charles II, who didn’t just reopen the theatres after the Restoration but was also keenly interested in the horses. Charles regularly moved his court to Newmarket, a town he adored, to enjoy the racing. As well as inaugurating the Town Plate, still run today, he founded the Palace House Stables and even raced as a jockey himself on occasion.
Newmarket has been a home for British flat racing ever since and thus occupies a uniquely important role in the commercialisation of British sport. The first professional horse trainers were based in the town as early as the late 17th century, an era when other sports were hardly organised at all. Tellingly, the Jockey Club was founded as early as 1750, while the St Leger, the oldest-established of the English ‘classics’, was first run in 1776. The Rooms closed in 1981 after a decline in their use, but the building opened as a museum in 1983.
3. Hambledon, Hampshire
Where the ‘gentleman’s game’ came of age
While the exact birthplace of cricket is unclear, few dispute that its cradle lies in Hampshire. In the late 18th century, Hambledon was home to the best team in the land, a village side so good that it famously walloped a strong All-England XI by a full innings in June 1777.
Captain of the side in its glory years was local publican Richard Nyren. His son John would later immortalise his father and other members of the Hambledon team in The Cricketers of My Time (1833).
It’s said that crowds of 4,000 and 5,000 would regularly turn out to watch the side, whose members were often poached by aristocratic teams based in London. The club was also important in developing the game, even pioneering the idea of a third stump in the wicket.
Hambledon played at Broadhalfpenny Down, making this particular green space arguably the site of the first major cricket ground in England. Have a pint in the Bat and Ball Inn and you’ll be supping in a place that was once, in the words of David Gower, “the centre of the cricketing universe”.
The idea of the athlete whose fame somehow transcends his own sport doesn’t begin with David Beckham. Or even Muhammad Ali. In December 1810, bare-knuckle pugilist Tom Cribb took on American former slave Tom Molineaux at Shenington Hollow in Oxfordshire. After a brutal and bloody fight that lasted more than 30 rounds, Cribb was declared the winner and became world champion.
In 1811, Cribb broke Molineaux’s jaw at a rematch that drew at least 15,000 spectators, including many representatives of the great and good. Following Cribb’s win, his celebrity was such that he was mobbed wherever he went. A former coal porter had become a star, known personally to Byron and the Prince Regent. He was even
a page at George IV’s coronation.
Cribb later became the landlord of the Union Arms, a few doors from the boxing memorabilia-decorated pub that now bears his name on Panton Street. He is buried in St Mary Magdalene churchyard, Woolwich.
“Even today any boxing fan with an awareness of the history of the sport would know Cribb’s name,” says Tony Collins. “For someone’s reputation in a sport to last more than 200 years is testimony to the impact he had on the national psyche.”
5. Much Wenlock, Shropshire
Where a Victorian local sports day took place
Organised by surgeon and magistrate Dr William Penny Brookes, the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games first took place in October 1850. This was a very Victorian local sports day in that it came complete with a strong social agenda: “The promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes.”
The games, which emphasised cultural pursuits such as poetry as well as hearty physical activity, were a big influence on Baron Pierre de Coubertin, credited with being the father of the modern Olympics, which were revived in Athens in 1896. In 1890, de Coubertin visited Wenlock and met with Brookes at the still-trading Raven Hotel, where you can still see memorabilia relating to the two men. He later gave a glowing account of his visit and referred to Brookes as “my oldest friend”. Unlikely as it may initially seem, there’s thus a direct link between muscular Christianity on the English-Welsh border and the ballyhoo surrounding London 2012.
The Wenlock games themselves continue to this day. Should you visit between 8 and 15 July 2012, there’s the chance to view locals competing in pursuits ranging from volleyball to fencing and athletics to clay pigeon shooting.
6. Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, Wimbledon, London
Where top British tennis players are remembered
While the Victorians favoured vigorous exercise for boys and young men, their prudery meant there were few opportunities for women to participate in sport in the 19th century. In this context, what Tony Collins calls “more suburban, middle-class sports” such as tennis and golf were important because they offered women the chance
to get involved.
In 1884, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club held its first ladies’ singles championship, won by a local vicar’s daughter, Maud Watson. However, the first true female sports star of the modern era was Lottie Dod, who won the first of her five titles in 1887, when she was just 15 years old. A versatile sportswoman, Dod also represented England at hockey, excelled in golf and winter sports, and won a silver medal in archery at the 1908 Olympics.
Wimbledon’s museum, where you can see championship trophies and a collection of tennis memorabilia that dates back to the 16th century, pays due respect to Dod’s achievements. The All England Club also offers guided tours and holds an annual public ticket ballot for those who want to attend the championships.