Thursday, 4 May 2017

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

The following article is 'reprinted' (with minor updates) from an original post by Dr David Turner on the website 'Turniprail' back in 2014. We thought it would be of interest to readers of Soccer Mad Boffins too:  



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 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. 


[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


Dr David Turner is a railway and brewing historian.  In July 2016 David was awarded funding by the  Business Archives Council’s bursary for research into business archives, which he is using to look at the relationship between the railways and the brewers of Whitbread of London and Bass of Burton-on-Trent.  You can follow David's work at his website: https://davidturnerrailway.wordpress.com

Dr David Turner, yesterday

Monday, 17 April 2017

Reviving a 3,000 year-old Ball Game in Mexico


Remains of a Mayan Ball Court

According to the BBC, the finals of a revived 3,000-year-old ball game have been played in the Mexican city of Teotihuacan.  The game known as ‘Ullamaliztli’ has ancient cultural and religious significance in Mexico.  Giant ball courts can still be seen in ruins across the region, for example in the famous Yukatan region.

Some researchers have suggested how in ancient times the losers of the game were often sacrificed to the Gods! 

Unlike soccer, players use their hips rather than their feet, and the ball is made of solid rubber (factoid: ancient Mesoamericans were the first to invent rubber balls).

Whilst we do not suggest a direct relation to association football ('soccer'), Ullamalitztli is interesting to us because it evidences how variants of ball games emerged around the world and how contemporary interest in reviving the sport shows that games and sport can have significance to culture and society.

Prof James A. Fox of Stanford University reveals how the indigenous people of the region, the Mayans, sometimes died from “bleeding bruises” from playing sports involving the hard rubber balls, which they sometimes headed as well as using their hips.  Perhaps because of the inherent danger, the actual playing of the sports was often delegated to teams of captives or prisoners!

For more information about Mayan ball sports and games here are a couple of interesting links including the BBC article:



Thursday, 9 March 2017

Just For Fun: The BBC Three's Football Logo Quiz



Proving the iconic and Gestalt qualities of a good football club crest, can you identify each club based on parts of its badge?

To accept the challenge click here!

Thanks to bbc.co.uk for this!


Friday, 20 January 2017

Soccer-mad-boffins help to launch BAM SIG!

BAM’s Management and Business History Track was restarted in 2011 by Kevin from with help from Dr Roy Edwards, of the University of Southampton, and John Wilson, now Pro-Vice Chancellor for Business and Law at Northumbria University. The track, which encourages scholars to engage with the historical study of management and business topics, has grown over the years and has also seen many successful PDW sessions associated with it. Now, the SIG is being launched with Dr Tennent and Dr Edwards acting as co-chairs, and joined by Alex as secretary and Joe Lane from LSE as treasurer. The SIG aims to continue the work of raising the profile of historical research within BAM and the wider Management Studies field, representing management historians working in UK business and management schools and working with other SIGs to help illustrate the potential of history as a research method. We also seek to encourage the use of history in teaching "mainstream" business and management disciplines and in particular the development of case studies based on archival material. Every field of management studies has a history and the potential to be researched from a historical perspective, and the SIG aims to bring scholars together from across BAM who have an interest in historical methods.
We presented a soccer-mad-boffins paper at BAM at Newcastle last year and will be submitting a paper this year.  The 2017 conference takes place at the University of Warwick between the 5th and 7th of September.  Both full (5-7,000 word) and developmental (1-2,000 word) papers as well as workshop submissions are welcome.  Find out more here https://www.bam.ac.uk/civicrm/event/info?id=3178 and the Management and Business History Track Call for Papers is reproduced below:
Reconnecting management research with the disciplines: shaping the research agenda for the social sciences (BAM 2017) 
This track aims to encourage management and business historians who work in business schools and social science departments to engage in constructive debate with a wide range of management scholars. The 2017 conference theme calls for management scholars to re-engage with social science disciplines. This provides an excellent opportunity for management historians to consider the role that history can play in influencing management knowledge and practice, as well as contributing to wider theory in the disciplines of economics, strategy, accounting, finance, law and sociology. In this track we specialise in chronologically or longitudinally motivated research. This year we particularly welcome papers relating to the economic or social history of business or management, or applying archival methodology to a new disciplinary context. We are also interested in context specific papers using more traditional historical methodology but which take innovative approaches to relate their findings to wider social science concerns.
In the spirit of pluralism we also encourage cross-disciplinary papers and workshop submissions that link different Tracks, while the main conference theme ought to feature prominently in all submissions. As a group we are inherently multi-disciplinary and believe in the application of theory to historical analysis, and there is no single epistemology for approaching this. We aim to encourage theoretically orientated social science history with a clear relationship to present day debates in the management discipline.