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Saturday, 18 January 2014

Railways and 'the beautiful game' before 1914: football, fans and formalisation

Recently I have been doing some work on how the railways of Britain influence the development of organised sport  before 1914 and most of my investigations have focussed on the ‘beautiful game’: football. Early forms of football, which used rules that may have borne only a passing similarity to those in the current game, was being played in public schools from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.[1] However, by the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries going to a football match was on the nation’s favourite pastimes. The question I have therefore been asking is to what extent to were the railways a factor in transforming football (and while we are thinking about it rugby) from a ramshackle game into the popular spectator sport it is today? Were the railways a key factor because of the improved transportation they provided, or did other, non-railway factors play a role, for example urbanisation or increasing incomes and leisure time amongst working class individuals? This issue can be split into two parts. Firstly, to what degree did the railways augment the number of spectators going to matches? And, secondly, how did it change participation in the game? 

I’ll start by talking about how attendance at football matches was augmented by the railways. The traditional view was that the railways played a big role, and some have argued that the improved transport communications they brought widened the population’s access to sporting events generally. L. H. Curzon was a proponent of this idea. In 1892 he wrote ‘today the railways convey the masses in large numbers to the different seats of sport’.[2] Years later this view was echoed by scholars. Vamplew argued that that ‘railways revolutionised sport by widening the catchment area for spectators,’[3] while Simmons concurred, stating that they ‘contributed to the growth of spectator sports.’[4] While not directly mentioning football, these statements heavily imply that these academics believed that that the railways were a major factor in its development as a popular spectator sport after the 1870s.

Recently, however, this view fallen out of favour. Huggins and Tilson argue that the role of the railways in the growth of football spectatorship from the 1870s onwards has been overstated. Most supporters rarely ventured to away matches, except in the case of a local derby or an important cup tie. Indeed, the vast majority of fans travelled to local matches by foot and, from the 1890s, by electric tram.[5] David Goldblatt, a noted football historian, agreed, arguing that ‘apart from local derbies away fans were almost absent [from matches] during the’ whole of the period between 1880 and 1914.[6]  Exemplifying this, even when a special train accommodation was put on for away fans by the railway companies it was not well used. In 1886 Middlesbrough F.C. was to play Lincoln in an early round of the F.A. Cup. The railway provided a special saloon carriage for away fans, but only 200 excursionists travelled by it, which included the team and officials.[7] 

So why did football fans not travel to away matches that often? Primarily, it was because of economic and time constraints. Most did not have the money to travel to away matches, while in an era when many employed individuals worked on Saturday morning, they also lacked the time to traverse the hundreds of miles to an away fixture.[8] As such, there is a good case for saying that growth of football spectatorship after the 1870s, particularly amongst the working classes, was not because of the improved transportation the railways provided. Rather, other factors played a role, for example working individuals' increased disposable income. 

But what about participation in football? Here academics are broadly in agreement that the railways played a much bigger role in its development, mainly through allowing teams to play games outside their locality, as Mason has argued.[9] McDowell has suggested the growth of Cumnock in Scotland as a football centre has ‘as much to do with access to railways as to mere corporate acumen.’[10] Lastly, Golblatt similarly argued that by the 1880s trains allowed the bigger teams to conduct Easter and Christmas tours.[11] For example, in December 1902 Dundee United conducted its Christmas tour, visiting Derby and Newcastle. A journalist reported that ‘Whilst I write we are en route for Newcastle where the United are met on St James’ Park. It is a seven hours’ journey from Derby to Newcastle – 19 hours in a railway train out of 36 hours is not at all pleasant.’[12] 

Alongside this, the railways were also important in the growth of formal football associations and leagues. The Football League, for example, recruited teams to it on the basis of their distance from a station. The result was that Sunderland was not elected to it initially because the Midland clubs felt that transportation costs to play games in the city were excessive.[13] But it is important, as Huggins and Tolson suggest, not to see the railways as a ‘panacea’ for team sports, as many football clubs had to shorten postpone and cancel games in the 1880s and 1890s because of the railway network’s failures.[14] In 1874 (when presumably players could still handle the ball) a football match between Durham School and Stockton was shortened from four twenty-minute quarters to fifty minutes owing to the ‘usual unpunctuality of the North Eastern Railway, the train reaching Durham fully half an hour late.’[15]  

Overall, there is good evidence that the railways played a mixed role in the development of football as the nation’s most popular sport. On the one hand it was instrumental in establishing the organisational structures within the game. However, the growth in the popularity of the sport and the number of spectators that saw matches was down to other influences.



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[1] Richard William Cox, Dave Russell and Wray Vamplew, Encyclopaedia of British Football, (London, 2002), p.234 
[2] L. H. Curzon, A Mirror of the Turf, (London 1892), p. 32 cited in Mike Huggins and John Tolson, ‘The Railways and Sport in Victorian Britain: A critical reassessment’, Journal of Transport History, 22 (2001), p.100 
[3] W. Vamplew, Pay up and Play the Game, (Cambridge 1988), p.47  
[4] Jack Simmons, The Victorian Railway, (London, 1991), p.300  
[5] Huggins and Tolson, ‘The Railways and Sport’, p.108-109
[6] David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, (London, 2007), p.53
[7] Huggins and Tolson, ‘The Railways and Sport’, p.108
[8] Huggins and Tolson, ‘The Railways and Sport’, p.108-109 
[9] T. Mason, Association Football and English Society, 1863–1915, (Brighton, 1980), p. 146–7 
[10] Matthew Lynn McDowell, ‘,Football, Migration and Industrial Patronage in the West of Scotland, c.1870–1900’, Sport In History, 32 (2012), p.408 
[11] Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, p.53  
[12] Evening Telegraph, Friday 26 December 1902  
[13] Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, p.53  
[14] Huggins and Tolson, ‘The Railways and Sport’, p.109-110  
[15] York Herald, Saturday 21 November 1874

3 comments:

  1. Great post. York City actually moved closer to the city centre because the tram service to their old ground wasn't sufficient to cope with the crowds and they were losing supporters.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not only football, our cricket club's original ground was founded by Brocklesby station and considered accessible to all parts of Lincolnshire! -

    "A piece of ground was selected for convenience near the Brocklesby station, and which was considered central for the parties living at Grimsby, Louth, Alford and Boston, on the one hand - also for Caistor, Brigg, Barton, Gainsborough, Market Rasen, and Lincoln, on the other" Lincolnshire Chronicle 09 September, 1853

    ReplyDelete
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