The Old Almondburians' Society
Rev Francis Marshall and the Rugby Split
Before the Industrial Revolution
Before the Industrial revolution men took part in sporting pastimes only when they had time off work. As they worked six full days a week this time was limited to Christian festivals or local fairs. As we know from our youth, Sunday was special and there was no sport and shops were closed. It was a ‘day of rest’.

Shrove Tuesday was a particularly popular time for sport, but other festival days such as Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day encouraged local youths to get involved in some form of football. There was not one popular form but village after village made their own rules. Large numbers took part over large areas of land. In Derby over 1000 men often took part in the game each year whilst in Sedgefield it was around 400.  In Ashbourne the goals were three miles apart. They were highly organised as the local squires had to be involved to allow the large groups to cross their land and to close roads.They were often violent occasions when one part of a village competed against the other. Old scores were settled and blood and injury resulted.
But from around 1800 the number of these events began to decline as farm workers moved to the industrial towns which had no history of such activity. In 1835 a Highways Act was passed which banned football from public roads. This was passed in an attempt to preserve public order and keep locals safe from the violence of these annual events. However, just as football was seen as something we should not encourage in urban areas, the advantages of sport in our Public Schools was now seen.
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Sport in schools
A Royal Commission into Public Schools was made in 1864. It was full of support for the idea of ‘Muscular Christianity’. Physical activity was being encouraged in schools as a form of ‘character building’. The principle of ‘healthy body healthy mind’. This was none more so than in Rugby School where in the 1830s the Headmaster, Thomas Arnold, saw the value of sport and in particular football and made it central to the school’s curriculum.
And, of course, it appealed to the boys’ muscular masculinity.  The boys loved it.
Almondbury Grammar School rugby team in 1878
The British  Empire was at its height and Public Schools were seen as important to produce the next generation of ‘ruling class’. The belief was that other great Empires had fallen because the ruling classes had ‘grown luxurious and effeminate’. This was not going to happen in Britain. So all the Public Schools developed their own style of football with their own rules. The Schools tended to develop in two different ways. One group encouraged ‘hacking’ whilst the other group encouraged ‘dribbling’. And so, as we shall see, the development of two sports took place, Association Football with the help of Eton and Harrow what became known as Rugby Union encouraged by Rugby School.

Public awareness of the Rugby game was further enhanced when ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ , a story about life at Rugby School, was published in 1857. 11,000 copies were sold in the first year. Public schools such as Blackheath, Durham, Marlborough, Cheltenham, Wellington and Clifton all took up the Rugby form of football in the 1850s. As the students returned home after their studies at boarding school and university they began to form football clubs in their towns.

All the new clubs were founded by members of the middle classes. In Huddersfield Harry Beardsell, a wool merchant, was instrumental in the formation of the Rugby section in the Huddersfield Athletics Club. In York it was a Solicitor, Robert Christism and in Hull the founders were shipping magnates.

There was always a membership fee which again restricted the clubs to members of the middle classes. In Manchester it was 10 shillings and 6 pence [52p] and in Rochdale 5 shillings [25p]. Even the 2 shillings and 6 pence [12p]  charged by Huddersfield, Bradford and Hull was too much for the labouring classes.

In the 1850s and 1860s the clubs were like social clubs where men met with old school friends to play Rugby.  They played against each other not other clubs. There was no uniform. In 1869 the Huddersfield club organized a game between Liberal and Conservative members of the club. It was well received with a large crowd of around 2,000 and it was a social event to be seen at. The Leeds Mercury recorded that the game was ‘attended by nearly all the well-known ladies and gentlemen of the town’. A year later 3,500 attended a game between Huddersfield and former students of Leeds Grammar School.

By the 1870s more teams wanted to have fixtures against teams in other towns. However, because of local rule variations, games were played using the rules of the home team.  So the demand for a common set of rules began and clubs eventually met to form the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

But the game still consisted of middle class members as did other sports included in Public School curriculums.  In the Rowing Almanack of 1861 the sport listed the social status of those it did not want to be part of their sport.  It said that ‘tradesmen, labourers, artisans or working mechanics’ were to be excluded from membership of clubs. The Amateur Athletic Club, forerunner of the AAA also explicitly excluded anyone who was a ‘mechanic, artisan or labourer.’ In effect the Middle Classes wanted to exclude the working classes from the sports and clubs they felt were their own.

The working classes still took part in their traditional pastimes of hare and rabbit coursing, pigeon shooting, foot racing, and knur and spell (sometimes called the poor man’s golf). There are accounts of crowds of over 400 men meeting regularly on the Knavesmire in York on Saturday afternoons for rabbit coursing. Once when they saw a group of men on their way to play rugby they are said to have yelled at them and mocked the idea of kicking a ball round in the wet.

But change was in the air. Click HERE to continue.
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