More Than a Game: A History of How Sport Made Britain 
by David Horspool.
John Murray, 336 pp., £25, November 2023, 978 1 5293 6327 2
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Carefree:​ that must be the essence of the sporting idea, whether you are doing it with Amaryllis in the shade, or on the village green with your grandchild Wilhelmine. You are disported, carried off out of yourself. In botany, a ‘sport’ is the wayward offshoot of an otherwise predictable shrub. The definition of ‘a real sport’ is a girl like Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey: ‘And it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.’

How odd then that the sports pages should be obsessively consumed with restrictions and regulations, their breaches and observances, with the minutiae of VAR and whether or not it is fair to run out the batsman at the bowler’s end when he thinks the ball is dead. In David Horspool’s new study of sport in Britain, the great flashpoints and turning points mostly concern exclusions and discriminations, bans and bars, whether of race, gender or class, often showing human beings at their meanest and most paranoid. Stuffiness and rancour are the hallmarks of sporting clubs and authorities, and sometimes of individual sportsmen too. Sport seems to license people to behave badly in a way they could not hope to get away with in normal life.

Horspool takes us through the weird variety of sports practised by the British, from the medieval tournament and the Turf to golf and the Empire Games, scoring all round the wicket with the grace and economy of a Hammond or a Gower and constantly reminding us of the sheer oddity of the customs and taboos which these pursuits have generated over the years. He begins with what must be the ripest example of them all: the decision of the Football Association in 1921 to forbid women’s teams from playing on FA pitches or deploying FA officials. The ban was breathtaking in its pettiness and prejudice. Women aged over thirty had won the vote three years earlier and many had worked side by side with men in munitions factories and hospitals during the Great War. Besides, women’s football had taken off hugely. There had been a crowd of 53,000 for a women’s game at Goodison Park in December 1920, a figure not approached again until the arrival of the Lionesses a hundred years later. The ban lasted until 1971 and more or less extinguished women’s football in Britain for generations, while in Sweden, Germany and the US the women’s game continued to flourish.

In other sports, women sneaked through, or under, the sex barrier. In tennis, for example, the first ladies’ championships were held at Wimbledon in 1884, only seven years after the first men’s championships. The game had, after all, originated on vicarage lawns as a genteel pursuit for both sexes. In early days, the height of the net – four feet four inches, as opposed to the modern three feet – made it pretty much a game of patball. The great Lottie Dod, five times Wimbledon champion, reflected years later on the muddle in men’s minds: ‘By some it was considered as only a ladies’ game, by others as quite beyond their powers.’ The male gaze tended to concentrate on the length of the ladies’ skirts, an obsession which persisted right up to the lace knickers sported by ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ Moran in 1949, designed by Teddy Tinling, whose costumes often took up more column inches than the women’s performance on court. In the boardroom, men continued to call the shots. The first woman to sit on the executive committee of the All England Club was Virginia Wade in 1982.

Many professional sports were barred to women on the grounds that they lacked the required strength and stamina: boxing and rugby football not surprisingly, but also professional horse-racing until the 1970s. Even when they were finally tolerated (in National Hunt racing, only after the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975), women found it hard to get decent rides, which only perpetuated the myth that they weren’t really up to it. The myth was finally smashed at the start of this decade when Rachael Blackmore won the Champion Hurdle, the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the space of two years. By then, women trainers such as Venetia Williams and Henrietta Knight were as successful as the men; Jenny Pitman had two Gold Cup winners and two Grand National winners. In the early days, a woman had to train with her husband’s name on the licence, although there are records of widows being granted a licence in their own right as far back as the 1880s.

In golf, women were more or less in at the birth of the game. Mary, Queen of Scots was said to be as keen on it as her son, James, who played at Blackheath when he came south to inherit the crown. Private clubs remained sticky about women becoming members, but might permit them to play inconspicuously at off-peak hours. At Muirfield, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers allowed women to play only on condition that male members could ‘play through’ them as though they weren’t there. At least it was conceded that, once they had cast off their corsets and hobble skirts and played from forward tees, the weaker sex could be relied on to complete nine holes without fainting. The athletics authorities weren’t so sanguine. In the Olympics, women weren’t allowed to run any distance longer than 800 metres until 1972, and even then there was a gruelling struggle to establish the women’s marathon, which wasn’t run until 1984.

The treatment of women in sport might, I suppose, be characterised as merely a particular case of the misogyny reigning generally. It had been, after all, a world in which the celebrated constitutional theorist Albert Venn Dicey could dismiss as fatuous the idea of women becoming police officers, prison governors or coastguards, let alone MPs and cabinet ministers, on the grounds that not only were women ‘physically, and probably mentally, weaker than men, but … they are mentally, as a class, burdened with duties of the utmost national importance, and of an absorbing and exhausting nature, from which men are free’. But Horspool shows vividly how all such prejudices seem to be of a special intensity, not to say virulence, when applied to sport.

Class prejudice was, if possible, even more rife than gender prejudice, especially in cricket. Who can forget those old programmes with the names of the amateurs given in full – ‘Dr W.G. Grace’, ‘Mr P.B.H. May’ – while the professionals are listed curtly as ‘Hutton’ or, at best, ‘Hutton, L.’? This was, of course, an utterly bogus distinction, as the leading amateurs were always paid juicy retainers. When Grace led a tour to Australia in 1873, he was paid £1500, while the pros he recruited were paid £150 each, plus £20 spending money. Shamateurism was even worse in lawn tennis, and lasted far longer.

Nor was there any sense in which the amateur skippers carried on the Corinthian tradition, in a way that the horny-handed pros could not. Grace was notorious for his gamesmanship, verging on cheating. He may have been the first recorded bowler to resort to the dubious tactic of running out the batsman at the bowler’s end. It was Douglas Jardine who masterminded the notorious ‘bodyline’ tactics of Larwood and Voce; as captain, Peter May too was criticised for short-pitched bowling, time-wasting and nullifying the immortal Sonny Ramadhin’s fiendish spin by simply kicking the ball away down the leg side.

It was axiomatic that only the upper-class amateur possessed the leadership qualities to captain a county or Test side, even if he was an indifferent performer with bat or ball. Lord Hawke, who led Yorkshire to eight county championships and became England’s first official chairman of selectors, resisted the suggestion that Jack Hobbs should take over the team which was losing the Ashes with the words: ‘Pray God no professional will ever captain England.’ Len Hutton became England’s first pro captain in 1952 and was later knighted, like Hobbs. When his side won the Ashes at Adelaide in 1955, he said in classic Yorkshire style: ‘I wish that bugger Hawke were here.’

The Gentlemen v. Players match continued until 1963, and for many years professionals and amateurs had separate dressing rooms and went out onto the pitch by separate gates. Bev Lyon, the dashing captain of Gloucestershire, tried to break the custom by taking his team out on the field together at Lord’s, but as the pros came up into the Long Room, they were turned back. Similarly, when the Duke of Windsor, as prince of Wales, tried to take James Braid into lunch at the Berkshire Golf Club, he was turned back by the club secretary, who told HRH that professionals were never allowed into the dining room. Class prejudice trumped even deference to royalty.

Racial prejudice was of course widespread, and by no means restricted to those on the terraces who threw bananas at the first black players in the Football League. There had been a long history of black prizefighters in Britain. The second fight between Tom Cribb and Tom Molyneaux, thought to have been a freed slave from Virginia, took place before a crowd of fifteen thousand in 1811 and was immortalised in a print by George Cruikshank. This did not deter the National Sporting Club more than a hundred years later, in 1929, from instituting the first formal colour bar in Britain, stipulating that future contestants for the Lonsdale Belt ‘must be legally British subjects born of white parents’. This colour bar was eagerly promoted by Lord Lonsdale himself, with the connivance of the home secretary, Winston Churchill. Boxing was, nevertheless, to become a route to fame and fortune for many young black Britons, as it was for many Jewish boxers and promoters. But this was thanks to their bravery and brilliance, not to any help from the establishment figures who ran the sport. The men in blazers never blazed a trail for the underdog.

The first enthusiasts for the Empire Games were no less keen that these should be an all-white affair, what the historian J.A. Froude called a ‘Pan Anglo-Saxon festival’. The imperial historian Sir John Seeley is remembered for having floated the idea that the British Empire had been acquired in ‘a fit of absence of mind’. There was no absent-mindedness about his determination that any empire federation should exclude the Indians who were ‘of alien race and religion, and are bound to us only by the tie of conquest’.

The effort to conscript sport into the imperial story makes one of Horspool’s most interesting themes. As the British Empire recedes further into the memory of other people’s memories, what seems to become clearer is the ultimate failure of the imperial ideal to take root in the popular imagination – as several disappointed imperialists recorded at the time. Just as medieval monarchs had vainly sought to encourage archery practice and to discourage the casual pursuits of bat and ball, so Victorian educators sought to frogmarch sport into the service of empire. Charles Kingsley, an obsessive practitioner of all country sports, and Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and himself a boxing coach, had worked with all their formidable energies to cleanse Christianity of its tendencies to ‘fastidious, maundering, die-away effeminacy’ and create a manly nation which would never again suffer the humiliations of the Crimean War. A little later, the Baron de Coubertin was on a similar mission to remuscle France after the Franco-Prussian war, just as Friedrich Jahn, the Turnvater or Gym Father, taught the Prussians themselves to shape up after they had been walloped by Napoleon. Jahn’s harsh nationalism, unsoftened by any notion of fair play, lasted to become a potent influence on the Nazis. But in Britain the craze for physical fitness never really took off, until now.

The upper classes might make the rules and set up the MCC, the FA and the NSC to govern sport, but they could not control the fans. It is the triumph of fandom that shines through Horspool’s closing pages. The story of football is partly a story of growing tensions between the game’s originators and those who came to watch it:

Spectators also changed the way their sport was consumed to suit their tastes, not their ‘betters’. Competition, partisanship, scepticism or downright contempt for authority (as represented by the referee), but also unbridled enthusiasm, noise, exuberance, wit and enjoyment of sporting excellence: these were the creation of the football crowd, often in defiance of those who wished for more restraint.

And not just the football crowd. The exuberance spread to the genteel courts of Wimbledon and the fairways of St Andrews, and even to the world championships for such sedentary pastimes as snooker and darts.

The fans created an alternative narrative, one which bewildered and annoyed the upper class. Their loyalties seemed so detached from the national story, their adhesion to the national team indeed often querulous and qualified, unlike their undying loyalty to their clubs. How on earth, I have often heard un-fans ask, can they go on cheering themselves hoarse for their local club when its first eleven is mostly composed of Brazilians, Spaniards and Nigerians? Not because of where they come from, but because they are playing for Arsenal or Man U, is the simple answer.

To un-fans, the grief and joy outpoured on triumph and disaster seem crazed and disproportionate. For fans, Hillsborough and Heysel are tragedies that move them more than memories of legendary military disasters. To un-fans, they are the result of the fans’ own drunkenness and disorderly conduct (see the notorious leader on Hillsborough in the Spectator of 16 October 2004). In his essay ‘The Sporting Spirit’, it’s not the behaviour of the players George Orwell complains of but ‘the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests’. For Orwell, sport is ‘war minus the shooting’. Which is quite a big minus. Of course, dictators will do everything to conscript sport for their perverted crusades, as Hitler and Mussolini did, but sport is in its essence a diversion from national passion, not an intensification. There is about Orwell’s argument, as about the whinges of many un-fans, an unpleasant whiff of snobbery: ‘Organised games are more likely to flourish in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative labour.’ By contrast with these stunted proles, Orwell romanticises the healthy peasant: ‘In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a great deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses.’

Orwell also deplores the ‘heavy financing’ of these mass sporting events. But as often as not, the money follows the fans, and not the other way round. Snooker, and then darts, once seemed the least likely pursuits to attract popular passion. Who could have guessed that a 16-year-old boy nearly winning the World Darts Championship would capture the front pages and the public imagination for days on end? Watching a bunch of cyclists whizz past in a blur of Lycra doesn’t seem like much fun either. Indeed, road racing was forbidden in Britain for many years, and cycling generally was discouraged by many local authorities, mostly on grounds of road safety. Yet now British winners of the Tour de France are national heroes.

Contrariwise, who could have predicted that the dozens of greyhound racing tracks across the country, supporting a huge betting industry, should have withered to a handful today – not to mention the eclipse of hare coursing (long before the actual legal ban in 2004), in its day a sport that had attracted crowds of as many as 75,000 for the Waterloo Cup? In its modern incarnations, sport is a spontaneous thing, blowing wherever the fans fancy. Even the impulses that have transformed Britain into a nation of joggers and gym bunnies remain mysterious. They certainly do not spring from any Department of National Fitness.

In a misspent life of fandom, I have had the luck to witness many memorable moments: Sonny Ramadhin teasing out the English batsmen at Lord’s in 1950, the first West Indies victory in England, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead slaughtering Bobby Locke and Gary Player at Wentworth in 1956, Terry Downes getting the better of an ageing Sugar Ray Robinson in 1962 (after the fight, he sportingly remarked, ‘I didn’t beat Sugar Ray, I beat his ghost’), Slip Anchor winning the 1985 Derby by seven lengths, most of the Arsenal Invincibles season of 2003-4. But none of these came close to the glorious sight of the Lionesses winning the European Championship two years ago, their grace and sportsmanship rarely matched in the history of the game. Here, two centuries later and a hundred years after the ban, was the spirit of Catherine Morland, freed at last from the corset and the chaperone. Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, once wisecracked: ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it’s much, much more important than that.’ Not quite perhaps, but it can feel that way.

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Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

Ferdinand Mount remarks on the ‘triumph of fandom’ in modern sport (LRB, 22 February). It should be added that this is in the context of industrial capitalism, which has created a distinction between player and spectator, while also restricting the playing area to enhance the rights of property holders and the length of the game so as not to disrupt the working day. Even the use of officials has a parallel with the creation of the industrial overseer to train the industrial worker.

As a surviving example of what sport once was and could be again, Ashbourne in Derbyshire is the home of Shrovetide football, played annually over two eight-hour weekdays across a three-mile ‘pitch’ that takes in the town and local farms. Only churchyards and building sites are ‘out of bounds’. There is no distinction between players and spectators, so hundreds of people can be actively involved at any one time. The event is self-policing: there is a shared understanding of when to back off to prevent harm to a player or damage to vehicles, gates etc. When the land and business-owning magistrates tried to ban the game in the late 19th century, it took place nevertheless, the ball surreptitiously thrown from a bedroom window to the waiting crowd, many of whom had been arrested before for playing the game. A banner was at the same time unfurled proclaiming ‘Britons shall never be slaves.’

Bunny Hambleton-Relf
Grandes Roques, Guernsey

Vol. 46 No. 7 · 4 April 2024

Ferdinand Mount can make even a list read interestingly, the list in question being the aberrant decisions and restrictions visited on women and the ‘lower orders’ by the nobs who ran and (mostly) still run national and international sports bodies (LRB, 22 February). In mentioning that no women’s Olympic event longer than 800 metres was run until 1972, Mount misses a trick. There was a women’s 800 metres in the 1928 Olympic Games, but the Olympic committee dropped the event until 1960 on the grounds that it was too difficult for women, despite the pictorial and indeed film evidence to the contrary. One of the nine finalists, all of whom finished the race, had overbalanced and fallen as she was trying to outlean a competitor. She got up almost immediately.

There is a photo of an exhausted Daley Thompson at the conclusion of the final event in the 1984 Olympic decathlon, the 1500 metres. He is clearly knackered, but has stayed on his feet to survey the human wreckage around him. Every one of his competitors is flat out on the track. No one suggested that the decathlon be discontinued.

Pat Butcher
London NW2

Vol. 46 No. 9 · 9 May 2024

Shrovetide football, as described by Bunny Hambleton-Relf, sounds like a great game, more anarchic and high-spirited than the official ball sports (Letters, 21 March). Seemingly, it resembles lacrosse as played in past centuries by Indigenous Americans. There might be hundreds of players involved on each side, in teams from neighbouring villages. The object was to carry the ball from one’s own village to the opponents’ village, sometimes several miles away, across whatever terrain there may be. Players used sticks with little nets or baskets on the end, with which they carried the ball or passed it between themselves. The game wasn’t as brutal as, say, rugby or American football, but it was banned in some areas around 1900 because the Choctaw tied lead weights to their sticks to bash skulls.

Allen Schill
Torino, Italy

Vol. 46 No. 10 · 23 May 2024

Allen Schill compares Shrovetide football to lacrosse (Letters, 9 May). My Toronto-born grandfather played lacrosse for Canada in the early 20th century. He told us he learned the rough-tough game from Indigenous Americans, with whom, as a young adventurer, he was well acquainted. Having moved to London in 1919, he taught his two daughters the same version of the game, in preparation for their attendance at Francis Holland School, Regent’s Park. In her first game at the school, my mother let rip in the way she had been taught and was promptly sent off in disgrace, having whacked several classmates and tripped them up with her stick. She was allowed to play again once her game was sufficiently ladylike.

Frances Cole
Aldbury, Hertfordshire

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