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The History of Rugby - Part 1

A  Bloody And Murthering Practice

Football has been played in the British Isles in some form or other for hundreds of years, although by today's standards, these 'games' would appear to have little in common with their modern counterparts.


The Development of Football and Rugby Type Games

These matches were often contested by entire villages and the first rule was 'There are no rules!'. There was no pitch as such and no goal; the aim of the game was to get a ball or some similar object to the opposition's marker and the course taken to achieve this often crossed streets, fields, rivers and streams. The number of players on each team was uncontrolled and injuries and fatalities were all too common!

The first of a series of royal decrees from Edward II and III attempted to stop these games taking place and later, James 1st placed a total ban on 'fute ball' in 1424.

There are many claims to the origin of the sport including the Vikings, who played a game called knappen and even the Romans who, as early as the 6th century, took part in the game of harpastum.

The earliest mention of a football type game being played was in London , recorded in 1175. A monk by the name of William Fitzstephen wrote of young men 'playing with the ball in wide open spaces'. He also documented a game contested by a large number of people that took place on Shrove Tuesday.

One of the bloodiest of these Shrovetide games pitted the men-folk of Chester against those from Derby - hence the term 'local derby' that we still use today. One commentator from 1583 described football as 'a bloody and murthering practice'!

In one incident during a game, the story goes that a player was taken to the wrong house to have his injuries treated only to be turned away by the butler saying. 'Let them bury their own dead'.

Some of these traditional games still take place today. In Derbyshire a game of traditional 'shrove-tide football' takes place every year.

The Ashbourne Shrovetide Royal Football match is played each year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, unsurprisingly. Each team can run into the hundreds of participants; the field of play is three miles by two miles, and at the centre, the picturesque market town on Ashbourne with 'goals' three miles apart in the villages of Sturston and Clifton .

Originally, mill-wheels were used as goals but these have long since gone and now purpose built stone plinths serve. To score, a designated player must tap a board on the plinth three times with the specially constructed ball. The match pits the Up'ards; those born north of the Henmore River against the Down'ards, those born south of the river. The kick-off, or 'Turning-up' starts the game in the town centre and the match continues from 2:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 in the evening on both days.

Meanwhile, in Lincolnshire , there is the Haxey Hood, an event that takes place every year on 6th January. In the 'Sway' (the name given to the mass of bodies), the villages of Westwoodside and Haxey convene to circle a person carrying the 'hood', a leather cylinder. The first object of the 'Sway' is to move the hood, still concealed in the seething mass of bodies, to one of the villages and then to touch the hood on part of the local pub, but there is a subplot; to work your way to the centre of the revolving Sway to try to touch the 'hood' itself.

The odd broken arm or leg is taken for granted but the most common injuries are caused when the spiral of bodies collapses, the unfortunate person or people at the bottom having bodies piled on top of bodies; asphyxiation is just one of the hazards of the pass-time and often serious injury is avoided by the intervention of stewards, the Boggins, who attend the Sway in hunting jackets and decorated hats, whose job it is to rescue the unfortunate victims. This event dates back some 700 years and is reckoned to be Britain 's oldest competition of it type.

As far as rugby is concerned, everyone has heard the story of William Webb Ellis; this was the young man who broke all of the rules during a football match at Rugby School by picking up the ball and running with it, thereby creating the Great Game of Rugby!

What actually happened, if it happened, on that day may never truly be known, but it does make for a good story. What is known is that there was a student at Rugby School by the name of William Webb Ellis who was a 16 year-old first-year back in 1823. He may well have picked up the ball, but this was allowed in some variants of football at that time, but you were not allowed to run with it; this was the innovation. He may have mistakenly done this after watching another version of the game while living with his parents in Ireland as a child; the game of caid was the forerunner of modern day Gaelic football. If this momentous event did herald the arrival of Rugby , it was to take some 60 years before the sport was formalised and any sort of governing body was formed.

In the years that followed, the former students of Rugby school started to spread their version of football i.e the 'Rugby Rules' version through schools, universities, the military and through working the working classes in the north of England .

It was during this period that the first caps were awarded; Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, was invited to watch a game of football at Rugby School in 1839. The players in this game had been given tasselled caps to commemorate the visit, some even wore them during the game! That particular fashion accessory never caught on, but the practice of presenting a cap in recognition for representing your country did!

Apart from Rugby , other schools also had their own set or football rules. The first clash of the codes took place when the Old Rugbeians threw down the gauntlet to the Old Etonians, challenging them to a game of football. The trouble that followed when the Rugbeians' used their hands rather than their feet, as favoured by the Old Etonians, resulted in representatives of the leading public schools of the day: Eton, Marlborough, Westminster, Harrow, and Shrewsbury, to meet and to draw up the 'Cambridge Rules' in 1848.

The first of the formal governing body to be formed was the Football Association which was founded on 26 October 1863 and was the first organisation to create a coherent set of rules for the sport to football. The original FA consisted of twelve leading football clubs and their first meeting took place at the Freemason's Tavern in Great Queen Street in London .

The sport's first set of regulations took several meetings over a six week period to thrash out the detail but these new laws were broadly based on the Cambridge Rules.

The main differences in these laws were based on the FA's view that football should be played mainly with the feet and that the practice of 'hacking', kicking your opponents' shins, should not be allowed. It was not uncommon for people to add steel toe-caps to their boots before a game for maximum effect!

{The 'sport' of shin kicking was common across Britain and America during this period; this set two men against each other in a bizarre version of Thai boxing where the object was to kick your opponent into submission by attacking their shins. Incredibly, deaths were common, caused by infection in wounds that often exposed shin bone over several inches.}

Unanimous agreement about the first football rules was never achieved; there was one dissenting voice, that of Blackheath. Blackheath wanted to retain more of the elements from the Rugby School rules; essentially, to run with the ball in-hand.

Unable to reconcile their differences, Blackheath Rugby Club resigned from the newly formed FA to continue playing and promoting the Rugby-rules version of the sport.

In the next article the story moves on to of the formation and subsequent division of the RFU: 'And Now We Are Six!'


Ian Birks, 2005
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