The History Of Football (P Swain)

New Directions in Football's History: Some notes from the North-West of England.


            Until comparatively recently the history of the development of modern football seemed uncontroversial, rooted in the certainties handed down through the texts of such  respected writers as C.W. Alcock (1890), Geoffrey Green (1953), Percy M.Young (1968), Morris Marples (1954), Francis P.Magoun (1929, 1931, 1938), Montagu Shearman (1888) and Gibson &  Pickford (1906). In these texts the authors give an account of football"s development that later resonated with professional historians' (Malcomson 1973, Cunningham 1980) descriptions of 'popular recreations under attack" in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (Malcomson 1973. 118-157). Blood sports, in particular, were condemned and subjected to systematic attack - throwing at cocks, dog fighting, bear and bull baiting - so that by the 1840s most of these 'sports’ had been ‘almost entirely eliminated’ (Malcomson 1973.119). In similar fashion to this ‘attack’, ‘folk football’, the unruly mass game played by the working classes particularly on Shrove Tuesday, had come under pressure from the authorities, to the point where Joseph Strutt (1801) wrote that ‘the game was formerly much in vogue among the common people, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute and it is little practised’ (quoted by Young 1968.96).

            Contemporaneously, as folk football declined, other forms of football were taken up by the sons of the middle classes at public schools with particular forms of football being dependant upon the public school that the young men attended. There were unique variants of the game at most public schools but the most important were at Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester (Curry 2004.103). In the view of the above cited historians of football it was these codified forms of football that were passed on to the working classes who took them up from the 1860s onwards to their eventual mutation into the modern form of association and rugby football. This account was then reinforced by more modern sociologists (Elias & Dunning 1971, Dunning & Sheard 1979, Dunning 2001, Dunning & Curry 2002) as it seemed a ‘perfect fit’ with the notion of ‘the civilizing process’ (Elias 1978).  


            Lately however the certainties of this standard account of football have come under pressure from two scholars John Goulstone (1974, 2001) and Adrian Harvey (1999, 2001, 2002, 2005). Working separately and independently, but using many of the same sources, they have constructed an alternative account of football’s history.

            Using ‘the premier, indeed unique, sporting paper’ (Mason 1986.169) of the day ‘Bell’s Life in London’, ‘without which a gentleman’s Sunday is not complete’ (Mason 1986.169) they evidence the number of games being sponsored by publicans to attract customers in the 1840s at a time when the so-called ‘attack’ upon football was at its height with the passing of Highways Acts. These games however were not mass events understood today as ‘folk football’ but were played amongst teams of agreed numbers and on a marked field and presumably with agreed rules (for a game to exist), usually for prize money or some other inducement put up or held by landlords to further their own commercial interests. The entrepreneurial commercial interests of these publicans, arguably, seem to have kept a particular form of football alive amongst the working classes. An exception to this was in the Sheffield area where a powerful football culture emerged with its own codified rules, independent of the public schools, where the commercial element of the game was rejected (Harvey 2005.231/2).   

            This short paper offers some introductory notes on the development of football in the North-West of England, particularly in Bolton and its surrounding district.

            Bolton has been chosen as a case study, not because it is unique - it was undoubtedly subject to national trends in relation to the changing structure of popular recreations and football but because it is arguably typical of the cotton towns of Lancashire where amateur football developed alongside its professional counterpart in the period 1870 and 1914. Its possible typicality offers itself as a potential exemplar of the complex relationship between amateur football, the class structure and the changing nature of social institutions around which football was, and is, constructed. The research upon which this paper is based aims to give credence to the claim that ‘sport sociology is most effective when blending empirical research (particularly fieldwork) with theoretical analysis (Giulanotti 2005.212). These are some preliminary notes towards such ongoing empirical research and theoretical analysis.

Folk Football and Fairs in Bolton and District.

            The Reverend James Folds - Parson Folds - was appointed curate of Old Walmsley Chapel and Lecturer at Bolton Parish Church in 1755, a position he held until his death on the 13th of August 1820 at the ripe old age of 92 (Winterburn 1879). He was well known throughout his sixty-five year incumbency for his eccentricities - drinking, playing cards, gambling - as well as being part of the long tradition of football playing clergy (Magoun 1931). Even in 1879 Folds was remembered for his participation in the ‘juvenile pastime of football kicking’ where the ball was ‘purred out in the main street’ (Winterburn 1879.33). As football players then wore clogs, the play was described as ‘purring’, a phrase which was usually applied to clog-fighting where the shins were deliberately kicked (and the fighters were sometimes naked), although the distinction between folk football and fighting seems, at times, to be blurred. One such game of ’purring’  that took place in the market place and through the streets of Bolton on the 5th of January 1791 was considered by the Lancashire Quarter Sessions in May of that year to have been a serious disturbance of the peace (Malcomson 1973.139).)

            Folds was part of that section of the population that included many other parsons, farmers and other country gentlemen who seemed to have retained a basic regard for established recreational customs. He was a member of the elite and was at the forefront when it came to football. In the season he

            ‘betimes purchased the ball for presentation, and as per custom, pitched it over from          the back of the Swan Inn, or Man and Scythe into Churchgate, a practice then           adopted to hide the pitcher, so that the ‘kick off’ (as per modern phraseology) might    not be inspired by personal feeling. At this period the kicker wore clogs ( and not low-            sandaled shoes, more fitted for a ball-room) when and where the contest began; and those were accounted the best kickers who might kick the bladder of wind, in         spite of opposing kickers, either across the River Croal in Churchbank, or at Great    Bridge’  (Winterburn 1879.11).

‘Purring’ would also probably have been in evidence on Royal Oak Day on the 29th May. This was a day’s holiday for working people that celebrated the escape and restoration of King Charles II after his exile when he had entered London on 29 May 1660, his birthday. Tonge Fold Fair was held in Bolton on this day to celebrate the event and in usual custom was an excuse for the working classes to celebrate with a fierce game of folk football with matches starting on the highroad between Bolton and Bury. A flavour of ferocious game nature of this game can be derived from the speech given by a local poet to an Irish character:

" If thou one wild audacious sport did see,

  the mighty mob appears as fierce as we,

  Where each with lofty look the law disdains;

  For once I saw the old Boltonian swains,

  With wooden shoes, with iron plated strong,

  Fierce o’er the rattling pavement roll along;

  A bladder pent in leathern case

  Was tossed aloft; a smile arrayed each face,

  ….. Clogs and crashing windows sound;

  Confusion, tumult riot reign o’er all.”

                                    (Gibson & Pickford 1907.13).


Following the standard history of the ‘attack’ on popular recreations Peter Bailey (1978) argues that in the towns and villages of Lancashire many of these feasts and fairs simply ‘ceased to function’ during the 1840s without much protest from working class people who were the main supporters of such occasions. These supporters were ‘meek and withered under the pressure of moralists and influential gentlemen’. In Bolton and District Horwich Races, the Cross Keys Fair and Tonge Fold Fair disappeared quietly within a few years of each other he claims (Bailey1978.38) and is supported in this by Poole (1981,1982) who says Tonge Fold Fair ceased in the 1850s and Cross Keys Fair in the 1840s. However this is a difficult position to maintain given that the Bolton Chronicle published articles about Tonge Fold Fair from the 1820s to the1870s. In 1870 itself on the 11th of June Sarah Guffog, Joseph Royle and Samuel Haslam were prosecuted for selling beer at the Fair without a licence. Their defence however indicates that they thought that they had ‘rights to sell beer’ as it had been the custom for many years past (BC.1870.5). Poole also asserts in his History of Popular Leisure in Bolton (1980) that the licence to sell beer all day during the Fair had been lost ’sometime during the 1850s’ (Poole 1980.13). From the defence of Guffog, Royle and Haslam it seems that not only had beer under licence been sold at the Fairs until the 1870s but that over the years ordinary people also saw it as a time to earn income through selling beer.

            The legal repressions imposed upon football in the middle decades of the nineteenth century have been widely interpreted as evidence of a greater degree of repression than was perhaps the case. In 1843 the Bolton introduced byelaws under which it became an offence for any person to play football in ’any of the streets, squares, courts, highways, alleys, or public passages, within the said Borough‘ (Poole 1980.12). It is, however, important to note that this was within legislation prohibiting a wide and varied range of leisure activities that included prize-fighting, dog fighting or other animal baiting, wanton abuse of horses, cattle, dogs or cats, throwing stones, playing pitch and toss, flying pigeons or kites, sliding on pavements, letting off squibs, firing guns, making bonfires or even bathing in ’public situations’. These by-laws were intended to apply principally to the streets and highways and not for fairs, feasts, fields and holidays. Their rationale was essentially to keep the ’rabble’ off the streets so as to negate opportunities for political gathering and not to interrupt the flow of goods and services to businesses. The legislation was thus primarily intended to protect the commercial interests of the middle class. The legislation does show, however, that these activities must have been taking place in the town and the very fact that football was banned indicates that is was still being played on the streets. Street football of the 1840s would clearly not have been the same as street football today but would have assumed the form of a mass game involving large numbers, possibly hundreds, of people. However these byelaws tell us nothing about football in the fields surrounding the town or indeed at any of the fairs. Bolton, despite being a growing industrial and urban centre, still had a considerable amount of open spaces in the town and the rural countryside. These spaces were and still are, within walking distance for the vast majority of the population. As William Bolling Bolton’s Conservative Member of Parliament in 1833 said about children in the town ‘they do play at football in these parks, children do have plenty of places to play in Bolton, the town not being much more enclosed now than it was in the past‘ (Harvey.2005.59). It is worth noting also that these bye-laws though would have only applied to Bolton, that is, the Incorporated Borough which comprised Great Bolton with the Haulgh and part of Little Bolton with a population of 47,000 (Saxelby 1953.74) and not to the outlying townships where space for football would have still been available. It is in these townships that subsequently became part of the County Borough of Bolton that evidence of the ongoing presence of football can be found. 

Football and Commercialism.

            The Darwen News of the 9th of March 1878 recalls, in a report based upon interviews with participants, a match between Darwen and Tottington played 48 years previously in 1830 in the outlying village of Turton. This was a return match after a game had been held on ‘Collop Monday’ (the day before Shrove Tuesday) at Round Barn, near Edgworth. In this the   teams had fielded twenty players each and played for £2 10s a side with the ‘stakes lodged in the hands of the landlord of the Round Barn Public House’. Interestingly, they played on what was described as a ‘triangular pitch’. The fixture ended in a dispute upon which the Darwen players returned to the public house first and claimed the five pounds and ‘spent the whole of it in the Grey Horse Inn before leaving’. This was considered not to be a fair match and another challenge was placed for £5 a side which took part a month later at Turton’s pitch ‘a few hundred yards from Turton Church’. The ‘ Darwen News’ went on to report that

            ‘all the players now living agree that there would be 5,000 or 6,000 spectators        present. The stakes would have been held by Willey-at-Wood at Chetham’s Arms, Turton, but we believe never were fairly put down. The teams met as at Round Barn     with the exception of one or two names different and our opponents had engaged            among others Ben Hart from Bolton, the great sprint runner’.


            Hart was a local athlete, well known for taking part in foot racing or ‘pedestrianism’, a sport that was popular in Bolton and District in the 1830s and 40s. It is claimed that ‘his feats could empty the town’s mills for half a day as people flocked to watch’ (Poole 1980.7). On race days ‘thousands would crowd the course usually between 100 yards and a mile long (Poole 1980.7).  After defeating a sprinter from Preston it is indicative of the local pride Hart invoked that the Bolton Chronicle boasted that that the town is ‘possessed of the best runner from 100 yards to a quarter of a mile, the best man at one run jump, and the best bowlers on two greens in the British Empire’ (Bolton Chronicle 4.10.1834). From this evidence Harts influence on local sport was considerable and, as we shall see below, that influence extended to football as well.     

            The report in the ‘Darwen News’ goes on to describe the ferocity of the Darwen - Tottington match and it is interesting in that it supports the evidence gleaned from ‘Bell’s London Life’ and elsewhere by Goulstone and Harvey in their account of footballs development - that forms of football other than ‘folk football’ or ‘public school football’ existed in mid-19th century, certainly in the North West of England. Football, according to the report, was being played at this time by an agreed number of players, usually 20, and on an agreed pitch with agreed rules (a priori for a game to exist) and for money or other prizes. Indeed the Darwen News locates this trend from around 1820 when football as ‘played about the end of the last century’ with ‘no limit to the football ground’ had given way to a ‘boundary’ being ‘a good sized meadow or field, as square and level as could be got; none but players were allowed inside the field, the spectators being in the adjoining lands’. The addition of the local celebrity Hart into the Tottington team would enhance the size of the crowd and concomitantly gambling and is indicative of the role he later played as a commercial entrepreneur who, after his sprinting career was over, went on to own several public houses and promote foot racing and betting (Bolton Chronicle 15.11.1834). He is also someone who figures prominently in other accounts of Bolton football. The report also indicates that Darwen having adopted this form of football ‘was more famous and envied by the surrounding clubs, considerably than it is at present’. It is noteworthy that there were ‘surrounding clubs’ playing a similar style of football.           

            Further evidence of the importance of commercialism to the survival of football is found in account by Goulstone (2001.27) of a game of football in Tonge Fold, close to the site of Tonge Fold Fair. On Monday the 3rd of January 1848 John Greenhalgh, landlord of the Hare and Hounds Pub, decided to encourage business in the New Year by reviving the ’old sport of football’ and

            ’put up an excellent cheese of 40lb weight, to be played for by an unlimited number of             persons, the arrangements to be agreed upon by the parties entering before going to         the field, according to the old Lancashire fashion of drawing sides.


Three points of note here are that clearly football was still being played and that, more importantly, Greenhalgh is asking that the game be played on a field (not in the street) and that the number on each side, although unlimited, should be determined though an ‘arrangement’ agreed by the teams. This seems to imply that games were arranged not in the form of mass folk football but of sides with agreed numbers with winners going on and playing each other. It was not mass football but football as an organised game that was surviving the attack on popular recreation.

            In mid-century publicans in Bolton and District appear to be at the heart of resistance to efforts to ban football by promoting their own commercial interests. It has been suggested that the unrivalled range of functions offered by the public house cemented its place at the centre of working man’s leisure‘ (Vamplew 1988.46) and this can certainly be seen in Goulstone’s (2001:28) account of a game in Kearsley, an outlying township of Bolton  where proprietor of the Moss Inn, William Seddon, put up a ’free £5.00 note’ on the 2nd of February 1845 to be given ’tomorrow to be played for at football …. to all England, at an entry of 2s 6d , which is to be spent in a supper’. In a further example in nearby Pendlebury on the 31st of December 1843 the landlord of the Royal Oak intended to give a treat to

            those who are fond of football playing on New Year’s Day; the balls to be thrown up           at eleven o’clock a.m. Eleven games to clear the field, after which those who have     joined in the sport will be regaled free of expense, with ale and cheese and bread’    (Goulstone 2001.28).


It seems like a number of teams would be present, hence a number of balls, while ‘eleven games to clear the field’ seems to be further evidence of those organised teams playing to an agreed set of rules on a field. In Bolton itself the noted athlete Ben Hart had become the Landlord of the Sir Sidney Smith Tavern from around 1837 (Goulstone 2001.33). Hart, a weaver, was a Bolton legend who as a ’pedestrian’ racer and had made himself a wealthy man from the thousands would turn out to watch him - as many as 5000 one Monday in 1834 when he raced against the famous ‘mountain stag’ from Belmont (Poole 1980.7). Gambling was ’de rigeur’ at these events and considerable sums were wagered. Betting and Hart were also in evidence in football when twenty Boltonians were

            ‘prepared to play at foot-ball with twenty of the best men in the Rifle Regiment now stationed in Bolton, for £10 a side; to come off on New Year’s Day, in the

            neighbourhood of Bolton, providing the regiment be stationed in or near Bolton. The             veteran Ben Hart is a player, and is appointed to pick out the men of Bolton, and    unless approved of by him such person or persons will not be allowed to play in the          match. The money is ready at his house, where alone arrangements can be made‘    (Goulstone 2001.32).


Again we have an instance of the publican being involved, of gambling taking place and of teams playing with agreed numbers on each side. It also seems that someone like Hart would be presumed to know footballers in Bolton, a knowledge that depended upon the existence of football in this period. Again gambling and agreed numbers in teams seem to be in evidence when in January 1844 the village of Foolstone near Holmfirth declared that it was willing to meet Bolton (Lancashire)

            12-a-side for any sum between £25 and £50, or else, if not accepted, 6 of them will             match six men of Thurlstone for £5 a side, the needful will be ready at any time at Jesse Howarth’s Rose and Crown, Sudehill, Newmill’ (Goulstone 2001.32).                


End notes.

            The standard account of football in which only two forms of football,  ‘folk football’ and ‘public school football’ (expounded most forcefully by Dunning and Sheard 1979), were played before 1860 is increasingly challenged through extending empirical evidence. The development of ‘modern football’ in the North-West of England is generally agreed to have started with Turton Football Club at their first AGM held on 1 December 1871 and their decision to adopt the ‘dribbling game’ in 1874. Indeed even Harvey (2005) credits the establishment of this club to the return of two old Harrovians, the Kays, with the club being ‘an excellent example of the type of patronage that the socially significant could provide’ (Harvey 2005.173). It is now evident that differing forms of football were played on the surviving Turton pitch itself and on pitches in the surrounding towns of Darwen and Bolton and in local villages. This indicates that a rich working class sports culture continued through mid-century to the so-called modern era. Indeed the Darwen News Report of the 9th of March 1878 indicates that their teams had the advantage in the 1820s that ‘with the exception of two or three all were hand-loom weavers and it mattered not to them if they practised football three days a week, and then wove almost day and night the rest’. This existing working class football culture then readily explains why at the birth of modern football in the North-West of England with the establishment of the Turton Football Club in 1871 forty-eight working-class villagers from a small village signed up to join the club, each paying a shilling to join (Dixon 1909.5). In signing, they were simply following a localised cultural practice. Playing on agreed pitches, playing with agreed rules, playing for money, playing with imported players and playing in front of large crowds was, as evidenced above, all part of that culture and goes towards explaining why the Bolton-Blackburn and Darwen triangle was subsequently at the ‘centre of innovation of this remarkable new pastime’ of professional football (Lewis 1997.21). The ’pastime’ was not new.



Peter Swain Bsc (Hons). Msc (Distinc).

University of Bolton

June 2007.



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