Georgian - Football History - 1700-1840

Britain’s Georgian Public Schools all played the Game of Football during the 18th century.  Eton are recorded as playing Football as early as 1747 and Westminster started two years later, in 1749.  Certainly, Harrow, Shrewsbury, Winchester and Charterhouse had all started playing by 1750.  One wonders if the schools awarded Football Trophies?

In 1772 a Football Game in Hitchen resulted in the ball being "drowned for a time in the Priory pond, then forced along Angel Street across the Market Place into the Artichoke beer-house, and finally goaled in the porch of St Mary's Church"!

Shrove Tuesday was the popular day for large Games of Football. In 1796 it was reported that John Snape, of Derby was "an unfortunate victim to this custom... which is disgraceful to humanity and civilization, subversive of good order and government and destructive to the morals, properties, and lives of our inhabitants".

Joseph Strutt, Engraver and Antiquary, published his 'Sports and Pastimes of the People of England' in 1801, in which he says "When a match at football is made, two parties, each containing an equal number of competitors, take the field, and stand between two goals, placed at the distance of eighty or an hundred yards the one from the other. The goal is usually made with two sticks driven into the ground, about two or three feet apart. The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder, and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which, being achieved, the game is won. The abilities of the performers are best displayed in attacking and defending the goals; and hence the pastime was more frequently called a goal at football, than a game at football. When the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs". The illustration is a woodcut from Strutt's book, showing a football being inflated.


In 1823, William Webb Ellis is recorded as picking up the ball and running with it during a soccer match at Rugby School.  A statue is outside the school, with a plaque, which reads "This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of Football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game AD 1823" However, there are no records to suggest that soccer existed at that time, so we can only presume that it was a variation of the game played today.  When Thomas Arnold was appointed headmaster at Rugby School in 1823, he made some radical changes to school life, which permeated throughout Britain.  Amongst which, was the belief that “games like football provided a formidable vehicle for character building”.

Each school had its own rules and style of game. Some schools allowed handling of the ball, if kicked below the hand or knee. If the ball was caught near the opposing goal, the catcher was allowed to score, by carrying it through the goal in three standing jumps.


Rugby, Cheltenham and Marlborough Schools used rules which allowed the use of both hands and feet, while Winchester and Shrewsbury allowed only feet.  Some schools made do with playing within courtyards, while Eton and Harrow had huge playing fields to play the Game of Football.  Westminster School was notoriously violent, a report of the time states "When running... the enemy tripped, shinned, charged with the shoulder, got down and sat upon you... in fact did anything short of murder to get the ball from you".

 Up to 1830, Footballs were made from a pig’s bladder, blown up like a balloon, tied at the ends, inside a leather case, giving it an egg shape.  Although rubber had been invented, balls made from this substance were found to bounce too high.  A famous Scotsman, Charles Macintosh (the same man who invented the mackintosh), then discovered how to roll out leather in thin sheets, enabling the production of rubber bladders for the leather football. 

 In 1835, the Highways Act allowed for a fine of 40/= (a considerable sum of money) for “playing football or any other game on any part of the said highways, to the annoyance of any passenger".



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