Don’t despair at our World Cup loss, from cricket to croquet, the history of some of the world’s favourite sports and pastimes has been shaped and developed in Britain. And there’s still Wimbledon…
England’s last game in the World Cup this evening may be bittersweet, and our sporting prowess wounded, but we can take some solace in the fact that for a small island Britain holds a prominent place in sporting history.
Few sports are really ‘invented’ in one single, light-bulb moment. Sports evolve over time, often passed from one country to another, developed to suit different cultures and eras. The particular British contribution is to understand what makes each sport work, and to put it down on paper and here are six of the best that we put our stamp on.
1. Boxing: from rough house to rulebook
There’s no better example of Britain’s role in codifying sport than boxing. You may be thinking of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, but another boxing pioneer beat the Marquess to the punch by more than 100 years. Boxing (or prize-fighting) was popular in Britain through the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
These early British bouts had few – if any – rules, and were chaotic and dangerous. The noted fighter Jack Broughton sought to introduce some order in 1743 with seven rules, including offering protection to a boxer on the ground and outlawing seizing an opponent “by the ham, the breeches or any part below the waist”.
Broughton’s rules were expanded upon to form the London Prize Ring Rules in 1838, outlawing head-butting, biting and punching below the belt.
Some 29 years later the rules we still associate with boxing today were written down. Although known as the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, they were actually authored by John Chambers, with the Marquess as patron. These 1867 regulations, including the use of “fair-size” gloves, underpin the sport to this day.
2. Cricket: rather insalubrious beginnings
The first cricket test match was played in 1877, with Australia defeating England by 45 runs.
The origins of the game are uncertain, but it’s likely cricket started as a children’s game in southeast England. The earliest reference to ‘crecket’ is in a 1598 court case, in which 59-year-old coroner John Derrick refers to playing the game on common land some 50 years earlier. The first reference to adults playing cricket dates to 1611. Two parishioners from Sidlesham, West Sussex, chose to play cricket rather than go to church on Easter Sunday and were fined 12 pence each.
Falling foul of the local vicar seems to have been a hazard for early cricketers. In 1622 several cricketers from Boxgrove near Chichester were fined for playing in a churchyard and reportedly sending an errant cricket ball through the church’s windows.
The early history of cricket records more serious incidents, including a couple of deaths when fielders were struck on the head by batsmen as they attempted to hit the ball a second time. Hitting the ball twice was banned when the rules of the game were set down in 1744 by a group of noblemen and gentlemen who played at the Artillery Ground in London. However, widespread acceptance of a single set of rules didn’t happen until after the Marylebone Cricket Club published its Code of Laws in 1788.
During the 18th century gambling on the outcome of games was almost more popular than cricket itself, with the players often in on the wager. In one match in 1718 between London Cricket Club and the Rochester Punch Club, the Rochester players abandoned the game when they realised they were on the wrong end of the score. The opposition took the Rochester team to court and after months of legal wrangling they were ordered to play out the game. They duly lost the match – and the bet.
3. Tennis: anyone for sphairistike?
Lawn tennis originated in England the late 19th century. Between 1859 and 1865 Major Harry Gem and his friend Augusto Perera were developing a new pastime in Warwickshire that combined elements of rackets (an indoor sport similar to squash) and the Basque ball game pelota. The pair were among the founders of the Leamington Lawn Tennis Club in 1872 – the world’s first lawn tennis club.
It was another military man, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who really popularised the game. His version was known as sphairistike (from the Greek meaning ‘skill at playing ball’). He was canny enough to patent his sport and in 1874 started selling a box set, which contained everything the budding sphairistike enthusiast needed to get started in the game. The Greek name being something of a mouthful, he also advertised his new pursuit as ‘Lawn Tennis’, and unsurprisingly this was the name that stuck.
Within a year the All England Croquet Club had set aside a lawn for tennis and in 1877 held its first tennis championship at Wimbledon. Only 22 players entered and the final was played in front of a crowd of just 200 or so, but the world’s most famous tennis championship had begun.
Like lawn tennis, the genteel milieu of croquet seems to portray the epitome of Englishness, and is another sport that was refined, developed and defined in Britain.
Read about the history of Wimbledon Tennis
4. Croquet: the garden party craze
The origins of croquet are disputed. One theory is that croquet arrived in Britain from France through the court of King Charles II, played under the name paille-maille or pall-mall. Another is that croquet or ‘crookey’ was played in Ireland in the 19th century and didn’t arrive in Britain until the 1850s.
Whatever the truth, croquet became something of a craze during the 1860s – no fashionable garden party was complete without a game. It was on the lawns of Chastleton House in the Cotswolds that the rules were laid down by Walter Jones Whitmore in 1866 and published in a series of articles in The Field magazine. Just two years later, the All England Croquet Club was established in Wimbledon.
Although genteel on the surface, the early croquet pioneers soon split into rival factions, with Jones Whitmore on one side and his former collaborator John Henry Walsh on the other.
With the two sides arguing, and an easy-going outdoor party game becoming increasingly serious and competitive, it was inevitable that fashionable sporting types turned to tennis instead. Today croquet remains a game for decorous country lawns, the most competition being for the last glass of Pimm’s.
5. Golf: a very Scottish sport
Some sporting historians argue that golf originated in the Netherlands, or even China. However, Scotland has the strongest claim to being the birthplace of the modern game.
The first recorded mention of golf in Scotland dates to a 1457 Act of Parliament, in which King James II banned golf as a distraction from archery practice. Despite further attempts to ban the game its popularity grew, and not every monarch was against the sport. In fact the first officially documented golf match took place in 1504 between King James IV and the Earl of Bothwell.
The rules of the game were written down in 1744 by the Company of Gentlemen Golfers. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the sport really took off nationwide, with the railway making Scotland more accessible from the rest of Britain and Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm for all things Scottish helping to make golf a fashionable pursuit.
6. Football: the national game
Any round-up of British sport would be incomplete without mentioning football. The strict rules of the modern game would have seemed alien to medieval footballers. Matches were typically played between teams from neighbouring villages, with an animal’s bladder acting as the ball. Just about any tactic was considered legitimate – the spectacle must have been a riot.
From these violent beginnings, the modern game evolved on the public school playing fields of the 18th and 19th centuries. Different schools had their own rules, some allowing the ball to be handled, some not. William Webb Ellis, a pupil at Rugby School, is said to have started the sport that bears his school’s name by picking up the ball and running forward with it. The account is probably apocryphal, and it’s the running forward with the ball that would have been against the rules rather than carrying it – but why spoil a good story?
It was at Cambridge University in 1848 that former pupils of many of the most famous public schools drew up the first modern rules for football. Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury and Winchester men took eight hours to thrash out what became known as the Cambridge Rules. However, these laws weren’t widely adopted outside of public schools and universities.
It wasn’t until 1863 that the Football Association was formed. It took much argument before agreement could be reached – a ban on kicking an opponent in the shins was particularly unpopular with some. Only after the sixth meeting were the Laws of Football published.
In football as in so many other sports, when it comes to the rules, Britain wrote the book.
A history of Wimbledon Tennis
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