Victorian Football: Real and Imagined

Dr. Matthew L. McDowell (University of Glasgow)

A faded placard on the River Leven near Renton, Dunbartonshire celebrating Renton FC’s achievements. Renton were Scottish Cup champions in 1885 and 1888. Most of their team was employed in the local calico works of Alexander Wylie. Photo by author, 11 July 2007.

2013 marks two major anniversaries in British and world football: the 150th of the Football Association’s (FA) foundation, and the 140th of the formation of the Scottish Football Association (SFA). While the celebration of these seemingly great milestones is muted throughout the British commentariat, taking stock continues well outside the boundaries of official commemoration, and mostly through rose-tinted goggles. Observer columnist Nick Cohen recently lamented the ‘cynical’ and ‘selfish’ nature of modern football. It was obvious, he stated, that as phrases like ‘fair play’, ‘good sport’, and ‘natural gentleman’ had fallen by the wayside in modern sport, so too has the morality of the British body politic. Long after the Victorians have perished, their ‘invention’ of modern sport lives on in the twenty-first-century imagination. So, what was Victorian football actually like, and how well did it really embody Victorians’ visions of themselves? The answers are problematic for those employing a false sense of nostalgia: Victorian football was a different entity than the globalised game of today, but its loftier cultural trappings reality did not always match the earthier reality. Instead, the game – as now – was a queasy, uncomfortable reflection of society as it was.

The origin myths of football state that the game was started by middle- to upper-class men. By the 1840s, ‘football’, in a variety of forms existed in England’s and Scotland’s private schools, and was part of a new ‘muscular Christian’ ethic which taught values through the medium of team sport. The FA was founded by such London-based former pupils. In Scotland, ‘no-hands’ football, such as it existed, remained confined to a small group of educated elites in the 1850s and 1860s. Queen’s Park Football Club, founded in Glasgow in 1867, was almost certainly not the first to play this variation on the game. Nevertheless, it was the members of Queen’s Park who would play the part of ‘Scotland’ against the English national team in the first representative international football match, held at Hamilton Crescent, Partick, Glasgow, on 30 November 1872. In a few months, several teams would meet to discuss the formation of the SFA, and would initiate a knockout competition known as the Scottish Cup, mirroring the development of England’s own FA Cup.

But the seeming middle-class origins of these institutions are not the full story with regard to football’s ‘birth’ as a spectator sport. Football had long existed outside of this ‘organised’ arena. Towns and villages had their own mass-participant traditions, ones usually associated with either the New Year or Shrove Tuesday (known as Fastern’s E’en in Scotland). Versions of these games still exist in Kirkwall, Jedburgh, and Workington, amongst other places. Despite the bourgeois trappings of football’s founding institutions, folk football existed alongside such recreations as cock-fighting: together they were both features of Fastern’s E’en celebrations in Kilmarnock up to mid-nineteenth century. Those who played association football by the thousands in the 1870s brought this popular sporting culture into a more structured field of play. Eliasian sociologists believe that the codification of football and rugby was part of the ‘civilising process’ which invariably tamed folk sport.[1] Codification, however, took place several decades earlier in horse racing to ensure a fair set of ground rules: not just for participants, but more importantly for gamblers. Horse-racing and cock-fighting were professional long before the FA even existed, regardless of the strident middle-class drive to dampen animal bloodsports. Codification and a clean set of rules sharpened competitiveness, rather than dulling it.

Competition to succeed in football became fierce. In Lancashire especially, football battled rugby for the hearts and minds of the industrial working class. Clubs from neighbouring textile towns produced passionate rivalries, and spectatorship and its accompanying gate-money receipts drove increasing demand for a better product. Under-the-table professionalism was common long before its legalisation in 1885 and 1893 in England and Scotland respectively. By the mid-1870s, clubs like Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, and later Preston North End and Burnley, were transparent in their attempts to lure Scottish men to play for them. There was tension, however, in trying to satisfy the contradictory demands of partisan supporters – on one hand to win, and the other to represent their locality. In 1887, Bootle FC, a founding member of the Football League (created in 1888), was criticised by its own local newspaper for what it saw as importing too many  Scottish and Welsh ‘foreigners’.[2] The irony was that Bootle itself had a high migrant population at the time, comprised primarily of Scottish and Irish labourers who had come to work on newly-opened docklands on Merseyside. The game often provided migrants to

The birth of a stereotype? (The Bailie, 1 April 1896)

cities with some semblance of civic identity. Sectarian conflict in Merseyside was common, but otherwise did not affect the mercenary nature of Liverpool’s major clubs and their recruitment policies. However, the associational nature of Presbyterian work culture of the west of Scotland would come to define – rightly or wrongly – the rivalry between Glasgow’s two major clubs, Rangers and Celtic, in the post-1900 period. Irish Catholic migrants and their children were frozen out of skilled employment; and football, a game intrinsically linked with the British industrial workplace, was taken up by Catholic churches to offer their youth a chance to compete on the pitch. Celtic, founded in 1887, and Edinburgh’s Hibernian (1875) are the two most obvious, though by no means the only, examples of Scottish clubs with Catholic origins.

Football was not only discriminatory in its racism, however. Women faced far more obstacles in their quest to participate on the pitch. As

: Women’s football, in the mind of satirical Glasgow magazine The Bailie (13 May 1896)

much as reporting on men’s matches can be considered reliable, newspapers hardly reported on women. (At the February 1890 Scottish Cup final, between Queen’s Park and Vale of Leven at Ibrox Park, Scottish Sport mocked the novelty of a ‘lady reporter’ taking notes on the game.[3]) An unofficial meeting of Scotland and England ‘tens’ took place in Edinburgh in May 1881, but the FA and SFA together barred women from playing on their grounds entirely in 1902. Attitudes from male football players, as well as a significant proportion of the press, were hostile towards women’s participation in the game. The 1896 Scottish tour of the British Ladies Football Club attracted considerable spectator violence, particularly in Glasgow and Irvine. This had been after a well-patronised 1895 tour which included a significant amount of women in the stands. Newspapers always commented amusingly on female spectators – not an uncommon sight in more working-class localities in England and Scotland – but were hostile towards women who played the game. One 1895 diatribe in Scottish Referee warned of the desire of the ‘New Woman’, who went in search of international caps and gate money that ostensibly belonged to men.[4]

Historians’ grasp on the attitudes of Victorian sportsmen is only as good as the period’s primary sources, biased as they are. The development of sport-only newspapers, certainly, was one of the most tangible innovations of the era. Daily and weekly newspapers began to cover sport, along with other gossip and community news, after the repeal of the advertisement tax and the stamp duty in the 1850s. Local newspapers would eventually do better in reporting sport, particularly populist late editions like Glasgow’s Evening Times. Nevertheless, the journals’ attentions weren’t just turned towards the action on the pitch. Footballers’ social gatherings were well-covered by papers in the north of England and Scotland, and their ‘smoking concerts’ show a culture of popular performance off the pitch that relied heavily on singing and music-hall repertoire. This included, if not exclusively, comic material on football. Many clubs had singing choirs of their own: the Queen’s Park Musical and Dramatic Society’s engagements once forced several footballers to miss one game for a scheduled concert in Dundee. One football association in Largs, Ayrshire, instead of properly funding the local game, splurged on attracting a superstar to their town for a Hogmanay 1897 concert: Durward Lely was a well-known tenor famous for starring in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals in London, and his little-patronised concert necessitated another one, at extra expense. (Lely waved his part of his fee for the more successful second concert, and treated the association committee to a lovely dinner.)[5]

Sociability was de rigueur in a popular sporting culture that centred around the Victorian public house. Many club changing rooms were based in local pubs. The uncomfortable arrangement between Everton FC, initially a club formed by Nonconformists, and the owner of its Sandon Hotel ‘changing rooms’, brewer John Houlding, led to the formation of Liverpool FC in 1892. Many of the first footballing migrants to the north of England were, in fact, set up with work in local pubs as an indirect professional payment. Celtic paid their players in a similar fashion before Scottish football acknowledged professionalism. Pubs were heavily male environments that reflected the separate spheres of work and domestic culture in industrial communities. But newspapers hinted that women were very much a part of this social universe, though in many cases as sex objects. Cup finals and holiday tours always allowed footballers opportunities for bad behaviour. One Queen’s Park reserve team, celebrating the Hogmanay 1885-86 with a footballing tour of Oban, were seen ‘hovering about the bars of certain hotels doing a quiet mash with the unsuspecting Highland barmaids’.[6] Back in Glasgow, one South Side club were investigated for giving keys to women to enter their grounds at night. In one case, double entendres were used to advertise one footballer’s business. Sunderland AFC goalkeeper John Auld, a native of Lugar, Ayrshire, upon arrival in Wearside in 1890, was set up by the club with a boot-making business. The Athletic Journal noted that: ‘Auld has the largest boot and shoe trade in Sunderland. The ladies like him to fit them on.’[7] So much for rational recreation…

Many of these scenes can easily be recreated on the back pages of twenty-first-century tabloids, yet they were ones intimately familiar to the Victorian footballers of England and Scotland. In an era where football abounds with racism, sexism, financial crisis, and overindulgence, it is perhaps too easy to reminisce about an imagined golden era of the game. Even in 1900, N.L. ‘Pa’ Jackson, former Corinthians FC man and football administrator, pined nostalgically for amateurism, and a game managed by the ‘better classes’ – not by ‘publicans’ and others who brought the game into disrepute.[8] Much to the chagrin of Jackson, however, football was destined to become the game of the people.

Matthew L. McDowell is a researcher in the history of Scottish, British, and ‘North Atlantic’ sport and leisure, as well as Scottish parliamentary and municipal politics. He teaches on a variety of history and sports studies courses at Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Kingston Universities. His new book, A Cultural History of Association Football in Scotland, 1865-1902, is out now from the Edwin Mellen Press. Dr. McDowell can be reached at, on Twitter @MLMGU (using the hashtags #twitterstorians, #SportsHistory and #ScottishHistory), and at

[1] E. Dunning, ‘Sport in the Civilising Process: Aspects of the Development of Modern Sport’, in E. Dunning, J. Maguire and R. Pearson (eds), The Sports Process: A Comparative and Developmental Approach (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 1993), 39-70.

[2] Bootle Times, 8 October 1887.

[3] Scottish Sport, 18 February 1890

[4] Scottish Referee, 25 January 1895.

[5] Largs and Millport Weekly News, 2 January 1897, 16 January 1898

[6] Scottish Athletic Journal, 5 January 1886

[7] J. Hutchinson, The Football Industry: The Early Years of the Professional Game (Glasgow: Richard Drew Publishing, 1982), p. 42.

[8] N.L. Jackson, Association Football (London: George Newnes, 1900), 240-42.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *