This edited article about organised sport in Victorian Britain originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 735 published on 14 February 1976.
Hacking, tripping and scragging were out: that was the edict in 1871, at which point Rugby Football ceased to be a form of warfare.
The Rugby Union Code of 1871 was more than the organisation of a great modern game; it was one of the many signs that Britain’s off duty sporting pastimes were becoming less barbarous.
Readers will recall the sheer savagery of much earlier sport. For all the manliness displayed, bare-fisted boxing, the most popular sport of all, was a brutal business, and from our point of view cock-fighting and bear-baiting have nothing to be said for them. As for football, early in the 19th century it had much in common with the medieval game where a whole village would take on another village and teams up to a thousand strong would fight it out with no holds barred.
Cricket, the one organised sport early in the century, and fast developing into the modern game, was not lethal, but like nearly all other sports, it was a gambler’s paradise, with money for many being more important than the game. So what was it that happened to change the Briton’s basic attitude to sport?
There were two main reasons, the first being that workers began to get some leisure by law. We saw last week the splendid effect of the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, which gave clerks, shop assistants and many other non-factory workers four blessed days off a year. But as early as 1850, the textile industry was given Saturday afternoon off legally and the revolutionary idea, though it appalled some granite-hearted employers, soon spread.
The half holiday was an ideal chance for a game of football or cricket. The Football Association governing soccer was founded in 1863, and in 1885 professional football was officially permitted. Meanwhile, County Cricket proper began in 1873, by which time the modern game had been established and the phenomenal W. G. Grace had begun his amazing career as batsman, bowler, fieldsman and eminent Victorian.
The other reason for the change in attitude to sport was more fundamental, and today it is only too easy to sneer at it, easy and not quite fair. From the 1860s onwards, the middle classes, especially at public schools, and soon nearly everyone else, took up organised games on a vast scale, and suddenly the team spirit was born.
Cricket, especially became morally as well as physically good for you. Phrases, like “It’s not cricket” and “Play the game,” were expressions of Victorian moral fervour, and schools were affected by the new climate.
When organised games were booming, off-duty hours became a sportsman’s paradise, and even sportswomen were allowed to exist. The lawn tennis age began in earnest in the 1870s, rapidly overtaking croquet in popularity. Both had a unique charm for young ladies and gentlemen, who had a chance of meeting each other, all too rare in those times.
During this period, the British invented, or developed, the majority of the world’s great ball games, and Scottish readers will rightly insist that golf, whatever its origins, was their gift to the rest of Britain and the world.
What caused this extraordinary sporting revolution, as remarkable in a less important way, than the earlier Industrial Revolution? The answer must lie in the fact that the British had always been sports-minded and that the combination of leisure for workers plus the sudden elevation of the new team games to almost religious status by the middle-classes triggered off a sporting revolution.
As the British owned a quarter of the globe and were the most powerful race on earth, it was their sports that were most successfully exported.
The passion for organised games, allied to late Victorian attitudes, divorced money from sport, for as we have seen, in earlier times gambling and sport were totally linked. Money could still be put on horses, though legally it became more difficult, but the Briton’s passion for gambling was dampened for at least a generation.
One last off duty activity remains to be mentioned. It is taken for granted today, but not by our ancestors, whose off duty hours were revolutionised by it. Millions took it up, the “it” being cycling. From the 1860s to the 1880s the fearsome penny-farthing was king, but in the mid 80s, the combination of the Rover Safety Cycle and Dr. Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres brought about a bicycling mania. Cycling gave women’s lib a bigger boost than anything else in the entire century, and the ladies often wore long baggy trousers called bloomers after an American heroine who tried to introduce them back in 1849.
The full force of male fury had killed them off before they got started in those days, with timid women meekly agreeing that bloomers were a moral outrage. Now the ladies revived the fashion and took no notice of the tut-tuts. And as young men had even more chance to meet the opposite sex than at tennis or at musical evenings, they weren’t going to complain about the fashion.
Bicycling clubs blossomed up and down the land and there were often a thousand cyclists congregating for mass rides in those almost car-less days. When free-wheeling was invented in the mid-80s, everyone’s joy was complete.
Perhaps an added joy was that no one could claim that cycling was morally good for you. It was certainly a most liberating and exhilarating sport, and a fine one with which to end this series of the off-duty activities of our ancestors.
Today things have changed, for off-duty activities multiply and so does the amount of off duty time that most people enjoy. As we have seen, only the privileged few had much leisure in earlier times, but now, happily, leisure is the birthright of the entire nation.
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