Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, March 1902


EXACTLY what people are saying to-day about Mr. Rudyard Kipling, they were saying (in whispers) about King Edward III. in the year 1349. It was in that year that the monarch, fearing that the practice of archery would suffer owing to the time spent by Young England in playing football, put his royal foot down, and said the thing must stop. And the thing did stop. But only for a time. The muddied oafs were still oafs. All they had done was to scrape off the mud for a season or two. Directly the king was safe in his coffin, out came the ball again, and the life of the hon. secretary once more began to be a burden to him. Richard II., Henry IV., and Mr. Kipling have also done their best since to stop the game. But one still sees an occasional match if one knows where to look.

Football (of a sort) dates as far back into the misty past as the first Roman invasion of Britain. The Romans had been taught by the Greeks. Who showed the Greeks how to do it is not known. The Roman name for the game was harpastum. When it afterwards became known as football, there must have been as much disgust felt by men of conservative opinions as the conservatives of today feel at the substitution of table-tennis for ping-pong.

The new game soon became popular. Clubs (under Roman rules) were started at Derby and Chester, and in a short space of time these two cities produced some very hot stuff indeed. The club colours, it is believed, were blue, placed on the skin in thick layers. Some players wore in addition worried looks and wolf-skins, but this latter garment was considered an affectation, and was not much in demand.

In these early matches there was a delightful indifference as to the exact nature of the ball. So long as it was substantial they did not greatly care if it were leather or not. They liked leather if they could get it, but they were not bigoted. On one occasion, on the very eve of a match, the Sports outfitter at Derby happened to have sold out his stock of footballs. The hon. secretary was at his wits’ end. “Look here,” he (probably) said to the captain, “what on earth are we to do? Here are those Chester fellows coming down by the 12.15 plesiosaurus express, and not a ball to be had in the town for love or money.” “That’ll be all right,” said the captain, soothingly, “wasn’t there a battle of sorts round about here the other day? I thought so. Well, go and cut off the head of one of the Danes. That will do at a pinch.” His instructions were carried out, and a very enjoyable game played after all.

Football at this time was more akin to the Rugby code than the Association. The number of players was apparently considered of little moment provided that the sides were equal. Also the rules were not complicated. The main object was to carry the ball behind your opponent’s line. Play as a rule was rough, which indeed was the chief reason for the favour with which the masses regarded it, and the disfavour with which the above-mentioned kings regarded it.

At Derby the game was played to mark the anniversary of an occasion in the year 217, when a cohort of Roman soldiers was forcibly ejected from the town by the populace. At least, so the historians say. A far more probable explanation is that the Derby team, after a series of disastrous defeats, at last contrived to beat the visitors at their own game by a substantial margin, and were so elated that they took up football in earnest thence onward.

The first school game was played at Bromfield Free School. The method by which the necessary holiday was obtained throws rather a curious light on the customs in vogue at schools of that day. The rule was that if the boys could for a space of three days support a siege by the master, honourable surrender was granted to them on condition that a cock-fight and a game of football should celebrate their victory. This custom seems to have died out. On this occasion the three days were successfully negotiated, and football for the first time introduced.

Definite rules appear to have been introduced in Queen Elizabeth’s time. The game was known as camp-ball, and flourished chiefly in the Eastern counties. Good Queen Bess effected one excellent reform by forbidding the iniquitous practice of passing forward. In the language of the time, a player was forbidden to “deal a fore-balle.” A fore-balle, of course, must not be confused with a fives-ball. Another innovation was the substitution of an organized scrummage for the rough-and-tumble, catch-as-catch can struggle which up to that time had been the method of play. This probably lowered the death-rate considerably.

Carew, in his History of Cornwall, describes a game—he calls it football—which to the unsophisticated mind appears to present all the more salient characteristics of a steeplechase. The course extended over two miles and more of difficult country. The player who tried to drop a goal under these conditions from the halfway line was probably disappointed when he found that his shot had missed by a trifle over nineteen-twentieths of a mile. The number of players was unlimited. The ground on the day of an important fixture must have resembled Hampstead Heath on Easter Monday. The final reform took place as late as 1801, when goals in the shape of two sticks took the place of natural boundaries or “bushes stuck in the ground.” After that the game improved itself into what it is to-day.

One of the most remarkable matches that has ever been played took place in Venice in the fifteenth century between two teams of the aristocracy and people. The City happened to be in a state of siege at the time, and when the referee blew whatever mediæval instrument corresponded to the modern whistle (possibly a sackbut) for the kick-off, cannon-balls were flying over the field in all directions. Once the game was begun, however, the two teams had little time to notice such trifles. Every member of the people’s team had a grudge against the upper fifteen, and, as the game was played under the Rugby code, they proceeded to wipe it off. Play opened with a fine run by one Antinori of the popular team. He was tackled by a gentleman whom, owing to exigencies of space, we shall have to call Jones. Antinori, though fairly held, refused to put the ball down. The referee appears to have been slain by a cannon-ball about this time, for he allowed Antinori and his adversary to indulge in a spirited free fight without interference. “Thereupon,” says the historian, “a bestial rage seized Antinori. Every time Jones told him to put the ball down, he answered with a blow or a kick.” (How like the present day!) In the end, Jones’ eyes began, in the naïve words of the reporter, to be “bunged up in a most uncomfortable manner.” Subsequently he lost his grip and was led off to the local mortuary, Antinori continuing his run and scoring amidst applause. Play ruled rough throughout. At intervals “trained menials” would rush on to the field and drag their masters from the scrum “spitting blood and teeth.” It must have been a really excellent game to watch.

To-day football has become a business rather than a sport, but the game still shows an occasional gleam of humour. This sometimes comes out in the rules. Here is a curious case:—In a match between Woolwich Arsenal and Newton Heath, Woolwich were attacking, and one of their players ran to the six yards line, where he was deliberately fouled. Just as he fell, he contrived to net the ball. The referee disallowed the point and gave a penalty. Woolwich took it and scored. As, however, there was some technical breach of rule in the way the kick was taken, it had to be repeated. This time no goal resulted, and Woolwich thus suffered for a foul by Newton Heath. This strikes the lay mind as Gilbertian.

Reports have recently come to hand of a Red Indian football match, played between the Missisauga Beavers and the Ojibbeway Snakes. It seems to have been a brisk game. We read that Eagle Eye, the Beavers’ custodian, saved in the nick of time. With two men clinging to his back he ran smartly up to the three-quarter line, and punted into touch. He then turned his attention to the men on his back, and when the dust had cleared away it was noticed by the observant that the Snakes were playing two short, and “there were loud cries for the medicine-man.” After the game Lone Wolf, of the Snakes, and Laughing Water, of the Beavers, who had scalped Lone Wolf’s brother in the final tie of the previous year, disappeared together. A search party was organized, but though Lone Wolf was discovered, all that could be found of Laughing Water was his scalp, which was neatly suspended at his opponent’s belt. “A general settlement of the long-standing differences between the Beavers and Snakes ensued,” says the reporter, “in which honours were divided.”

Certainly football is a game of possibilities.



Published unsigned in Sandow’s Magazine; entered by Wodehouse as written “in collaboration with F. Overy” in Money Received for Literary Work.

Editor’s notes:

Kipling … muddied oafs: Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 poem “The Islanders” emphasized the importance of training for war, and in contrast trivialized Wodehouse’s favorite sports with the lines:

Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.

harpastum: see Wikipedia for a useful summary of what is known about this game, played with a smaller ball than a football.

table-tennis for ping-pong: British manufacturer J. Jacques and Son Ltd. trademarked the name “Ping-Pong” in 1901, and licensed it to Parker Brothers in the USA, even though the name had long been informally used in both countries. Other manufacturers and sporting associations were forced to use the generic term of table tennis.

club colours were blue, placed on the skin: in other words, painting oneself with woad and often wearing nothing else

Neil Midkiff