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Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne through the ages

The traditional – and fairly violent – game of Royal Shrovetide Football is entering its second day in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne. Played for centuries, its origins are now forgotten. But while the world may have changed, the game’s popularity remains the same.

Each year, hundreds of participants try to “goal” by banging the cork ball against one of two stone plinths which are three miles apart. There are few rules – pushing and shoving are essential, but it is forbidden to intentionally harm other players.

In 1890, a fire destroyed much of the Derbyshire town’s written records, leaving the origins of the game lost in time. But the advent of cameras allowed the spectacle to be captured on film, and photographers have been chronicling the annual scrum ever since.

As the picture above shows, players in the 1920s were not afraid to take a dip in Henmore Brook to wrestle the ball from the opposition.

March 1952: The annual Shrovetide football match in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, which has few rules.

And, while the rules have remained mostly the same over the decades, the outfits of those taking part have not – a full suit was once not uncommon, as here in 1952.

Historical pictures are displayed in the town hall before rival teams the 'Up'ards and Down'ards' battle for the ball in the annual Shrove Tuesday 'no rules' football match on February 12, 2013, in Ashbourne, England.

There were huge crowds in 1966 when footballing hero Stanley Matthews “turned up the ball” (started the game) – an event recorded in the organising committee’s archive.

Arthur Frogatt and Arthur Chadwick sing the Ashbourne Football Song during the Shrovetide luncheon in 1969

Every year, before the game begins, local dignitaries meet for a traditional lunch. In 1969 they were serenaded with the Ashbourne Football Song, which was written in the 19th Century.

The Earl of Yarborough performs his duties as the honorary 'turner up of the ball'. He is carried on the shoulders of competitors to the start in Shaw Croft field.

That same year – when fashion in the town was dominated by knitwear – wealthy aristocrat the Earl of Yarborough started proceedings.

The ball

That year’s ball, leather wrapped around cork, was donated by the Earl and was duly decorated with his family’s coat of arms.

The ball is obscured in the 'hug' during the Shrovetide football game in Ashbourne 1969

The early calm was shattered once play had started and the “hug” formed.


In 1969, despite the snow and chilly temperatures, competitors still took to the water to chase the ball.

Competitors grapple for the ball in Henmore Brook during the Shrovetide football match in Ashbourne 1969

Over the centuries, many of the games have played out in the river. According to one of the few rules, those living north of the river play for the Up’ards, and those to the south, the Down’ards.

Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough addresses the crowd before starting the game in 1975

In 1975, Brian Clough, then manager of Nottingham Forest, had plenty to say to the crowd before he got the game under way. Confusingly, the ball used dates from 1973 when he was at Derby County.


By then, fashions had changed again, with more hair and fewer hats on show. Despite the black and white photograph, it is still possible to make out steam rising from the scrum – the ball is harder to spot.

Prince Charles being lifted up holding the ceremonial ball before starting the ancient Royal Shrovetide Football game, in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Holding the Prince shoulder-high were Dougie Souter and Mark Harrison (right of Prince with dark hair).

The 21st Century did not get off to a good start after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease forced the cancellation of the game in 2001, but everyone was in high spirits when Prince Charles turned up the ball in 2003.

Spot the ball.. Rival teams Up'ards and Down'ards battle for the ball in the annual Shrove Tuesday 'no rules' football match on February 24, 2009, in Ashbourne, England

Today, the event’s popularity is secure. It attracts thousands of players and spectators each year, while dozens of photographers continue to document the eccentric pastime.

Source: BBC News


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