Friday, October 4, 2013

How Capitalism Killed The Old Ways Of Playing

This is the final post in a series looking at the theoretical and historical relationship between play, sports and capitalism. For those of you interested the earlier pieces can be found here: Towards a Marxist Definition of Play; The Relationship Between Play and Sport; The Birth of Modern Sport - The Ideological Context.

   “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.”[1]
                                                                                  – Bertrand Russell

The political and economic changes of the long eighteenth century had produced unprecedented prosperity for those who rode the wave of capitalist development. By 1726 Daniel Defoe was able to write that, “our merchants are princes, greater and richer, and more powerful than some sovereign Princes”.[2] The developments of industry and finance would massively impact on the way in which the mass of the population lived, even if they did not share in the newfound wealth of the nation.

At the start of the eighteenth century “[p]lebian experiences … were overwhelmingly provincial experiences”.[3] Rural life was the common experience for the majority of the population, so that “at least three-quarters of the English people in 1700 still got a major portion of their living directly from some form of agricultural work.”[4] Similarly there were no sizable towns in Wales, and Scotland was described, in a petition sent to Westminster in 1720, as “a country the most barren of any Nation in these parts of Europe”.[5]

With industry in its infancy “the social units in which work was done, were mostly small in scale.”[6] Employment, if it was available, was “done on a family farm, in a workshop, in the streets of a town, or in a household.”[7] Often these occupations were combined in an attempt to maintain a subsistence level of income. Inevitably seasonal variations would occur, with harvest time producing the most opportunities for gainful employment. This insecurity was, on occasion, romanticised by the wealthier sorts, who would suggest, “labouring people were spared anxieties, the pressing responsibilities and the moral temptations which were imposed on men of property.”[8]

Reality, of course, was far different. Prior to 1750 the infant mortality rate “rarely fell below 150 per 1000 at risk”[9] After this point it was unlikely that children would reach adulthood, “in London, for instance, nearly 45 per cent of all recorded deaths were of children under 6.”[10] In times of scarcity people relied heavily on common land rights in order to graze cattle and grow vegetables. Such customary practice helped to define the lives of the poor and, coupled with the hardship of existence, brought about a spirit of “insubordination, self-assertiveness and indiscipline that was the constant preoccupation of their ‘betters’”.[11]


Our knowledge of how the poorest played throughout history is sparse as “games of certain classes have been emphasised and others de-emphasised”.[12] The period prior to the industrial revolution suffers from the same problem, as Malcolmson has suggested.[13] The evidence that does exist suggests, “that in the mid eighteenth century traditional recreations in England were thriving, deeply rooted and widely practised”.[14] A cursory examination of Joseph Strutt’s The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England will testify to the wealth of games with which people filled their recreational time. [15] Taverns and public houses played a central role in the lives of the poor in town and country alike:
“The yards, greens and grounds of the drinking place provided the spaces in which sports as diverse as skittles, quoits, bowls, boxing, wrestling, tennis, foot-racing, cricket and any number of activities featuring animals could be staged.”[16]
In addition, fairs and festivals were an ideal opportunity for games and recreation. Vamplew has suggested that people “accepted the rules as laid down, either by custom, the landlord or the promoter. They had no influence on the formulation of the rules.”[17]. However it seems likely that at least some of these games appeared at such events because they were already popular with people in the area. And as Thompson suggests, “uncodified custom – and even codified – was in continual flux. So far from having the steady permanence suggested by the word ‘tradition’, custom was a field of change and contest, an arena in which opposing interests made conflicting claims.”[18]


Versions of folk football took place across England. Its earliest appearance was, arguably, in 1174 when the Canterbury monk William Fitzpatrick told of how “After the midday meal the entire youth of the city goes to the fields for the famous game of ball.”[19] The word ‘football’ in its entirety does not come until 1314 when the Mayor of London issues a proclamation for the Preservation of the Peace. In it he states :
“…whereas there is great uproar in the City, through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils may arise…we do command and do forbid, on the King’s behalf, upon pain of imprisonment, that such game be practised henceforth within the City.”[20]
In the same year Edward II issued a Decree berating the game for its “beastlie furie and extreme violence” [21] Such condemnation was common amongst the powerful and persisted through the centuries. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries football was repeatedly banned in Scotland,[22] and in London Elizabeth I ordered, “No foteball player be used or suffered within the City of London and the liberties thereof parts upon pain of punishment.”[23] Such prohibition was, no doubt, instituted for fear of the mobile vulgus, who would in the course of the game exhibited worrying levels of violence. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, James I, in a Royal Decree of 1603, stated, “I debarre all rough and violent exercises, as the foot-ball, meeter for mameing than making able users thereof”.[24]

It would seem likely that these games of folk football, although often markedly different from each other, were the forerunners of a number of today’s team ball games such as association football and both codes of rugby. What is interesting is not so much the similarities they share with contemporary sports, but the differences.

Folk football matches would often be a standing affair but they have come to be most commonly associated with being played at times of festival and holiday. The Times reported in 1840 how “it has been custom in most of the parishes and places in the western portions of the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, for the inhabitants on Shrove Tuesday in every year to devote the greater part of the day to the manly sport of foot-ball”.[25] Sometimes the match would take place between two nearby villages, or between adjoining parishes as in the case of the famous Derby contest between St Peters and All Saints. Often the married men of a village would play against the bachelors as still occurs in the games at Duns.[26]

The forms of the games also varied markedly and “were all distinctly shaped by the particular traditions of their own localities.”[27] The balls used would vary in size in each town or village, and this would inevitably affect the way in which people played. For instance, in some of the games on Scotland and Cornwall the ball is almost exclusively handled. Similarly the means by which a goal is scored or victory achieved are different – “no one case can be regarded as completely typical”.[28] As Hornby remarks, “This is a genus not a species.”[29]

Unsurprisingly the rules of the games also varied, although the mass of bodies often looked to the untrained eye as a sea of lawlessness. An editorial in the Whitehaven News on April 19 1926 said of the game in Workington that there were “no rules, but amazing good humour and fairness, and little of the violence of association football.”[30] It would, of course, be a mistake to say that there were no rules in the various football games. Richard Carew provides a vivid description of the Cornish game of hurling in Survey of Cornwall (1602) detailing the teams, pitch and goals, as well as the rules that govern the match itself:
“The Hurlers are bound to the observation of many lawes, as, that they must hurle man to man, and not two set upon one man at once; that the Hurler against the ball, must not but, nor hand-fast under girdle; that he who hath the ball, must but onely in the others brest; that he must deale no Foreball, viz. he may not throw it to any of his mates, standing neere the goale, than himselfe.”[31]
This account would suggest a game with a relatively sophisticated set of rules, but codification is absent. The rules though often customary were the products of the players. There were no lawmakers outside of the game itself and no governing bodies overseeing the games’ development. “Social outlooks were,” comments Malcolmson, “considerably more parochial, this sort of standardisation did not exist.”[32] Today fifteen folk football matches are still played in the British Isles of which only two have anything that resembles an organisational or administrative body:
“At Ashbourne and Kirkwall there are game committees, to organise pre-match events and to help raise funds for the balls for charities. But these committees do not run the games per se. The players do that themselves.”[33]
Similarly the matches themselves were devoid of officials, the players themselves dealing with any transgressions of accepted practice, with “minimal gestures in the direction of rules, a caution perhaps for hurting a man who had been knocked down”.[34] In an attempt to offset the violence that might accompany a match, some places “such as Kendal and Dorking, even had their set tariff of fines caused by the players.”[35]

Also in contradistinction to the modern games of football and rugby, folk football would invite mass participation. As Guttmann argues, “there was room for everyone and a sharply defined role for no one. The game was played by the entire village”.[36] Certain areas made provision for separate children’s games and it would seem that matches were not purely the preserve of the village men. The poet Sir Philip Sydney could write in the sixteenth century, “A tyme there is for all, / My mother often sayes, / When she, with skirt tuck’t very high, / With girls at football playes”[37]

The last of the ways in which folk football appears as different from contemporary sports is the area in which the games were played. Today sports have their physical limits set by the use of artificial boundaries whereas previously folk football was constrained by the limitations imposed by geography. For example, the “Corfe Castle game was played over land to which the Marblers laid claim, through custom and practice.”[38]


The attitude of the ruling class to the poor at play has often been one of distrust and hostility. As we have seen numerous edicts were issued in an attempt to prohibit football matches being played, often instigated on the grounds that the game was excessively violent. Philip Stubbes’ oft-quoted summation typifies this view: “Football causeth fighting, brawling, contention, quarrel-picking, murder, homicide, and a great effusion of blood as daily experience teaches”[39] More than this the recurring theme in bans imposed upon the games of the poor is the belief that they interfered with preparation for war, for example Edward III had outlawed football as it interfered with archery practice.[40] Henry VIII had forbidden “‘idle games’” for exactly the same reason.[41]

The moral well-being of the poor also taxed the rich. Not even the genteel game of bowls was beyond reproach, and in “1541 keeping alleys or greens for profit was forbidden.”[42] Writing in 1626, John Earle commented, “A bowling green is a place where three things are thrown away besides the bowls – time, money and curses”.[43] This trend reached its apotheosis with the Puritans whose impact was to “erode alternative recreational facilities; church and churchyard ceased to be the focus for festivities while clergy and magistrates condemned disorderly sports.”[44] These sporadic attempts to prohibit playful recreation should come as no surprise. Their documentation here is not to show that they occurred, but that they failed.


The development of capitalism remoulded society in its own image, and in so doing revolutionised the way in which people lived. Marx described the human cost of this change:
“Thus, were the agricultural people, firstly forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline of the wage system”[45]
Capitalism’s dynamic was driving changes that would leave no corner untouched and, unlike the previous attempts to curtail the leisure activities of the poor, its expansion would systematically erode and undermine the old customs irrevocably. As early as “around 1800 the undermining of popular recreations was already well underway, and the process was to continue for at least another half century.”[46]

Legal challenges to the newly urbanised working class at play persisted into the nineteenth century. Middle class reformers successfully petitioned to end animal sports although “even these may have survived to a rather greater extent than we realize.”[47] Nor did folk football escape the censure of the authorities:
“The concerted attack in the late 1840s on the Shrove Tuesday football match in Derby, and the rambunctious collections of beer money that went along with it, provide a classic instance of the business community making common cause with evangelical critics of the game.”[48]
The case of the match at Derby was certainly high profile because of its popularity, but similar attacks on football took place across the country.[49] Yet it remains the case that traditional sports did not decline as a result of legal challenges but structural changes taking place in wider society. In the case of folk football it has been argued that “[t]he greater threats to the game were coming not from the law, but from changes in land use and urbanisation.”[50]


The enclosure movement represented the most fundamental attack on the lives of the poor “whose economy of self-reliance was heavily dependent on the existence of common rights”.[51] The ability to use fields and land to graze cattle or cultivate crops “afforded an important dimension of self-sufficiency in the household economy; they offered a basis for self-employment.”[52] Without common rights people faced the stark choice of starvation or searching for either agricultural work or employment in the growing industrial urban economy.

The dynamic of capital led to the privatisation of ground that was formerly considered public space. The extent of the enclosures is witnessed by the fact that between “1700 and 1845, half the arable land in England was enclosed by parliamentary Acts”.[53] Speaking in 1804 a cottager in Maulden encapsulated the feelings of the poorest saying, ‘inclosing would ruin England; it was worse than ten wars… I kept four cows before the parish was inclosed, and now I do not keep so much as a goose.’”[54]

The quest for private ownership of land eroded the space available for games and pastimes. This is emphasised by the way in which, “[n]ationwide, of thirty-four Enclosure Bills passed between 1837 and 1841 covering 41,420 acres, only 22 acres had been set aside for recreation…The General Enclosure Act of 1845 made things worse.”[55] Already by 1824 Robert Slaney could say, ”owing to the inclosure of open lands and commons, the poor have no place in which they may amuse themselves in summer evenings, when the labour of the day is over, or when a holiday occurs.”[56] Similarly in “1833 a landowner lamented that workers were ‘expelled from field to field, and deprived of all play places.”[57]

Edward Thompson has cautioned against attempting to “explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values”.[58] Of course enclosure alone does not explain the death of the old ways of playing, not least because contemporary observers such as Strutt had claimed in 1800 that folk football “was formerly in vogue amongst the common people of England, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute and is but little practised”.[59] However city life made many of the old games improbable. None of the newly industrialised centres such as Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham, witnessed examples of folk football as ”incoming workers left their rural traditions behind”.[60]


Those driven from the land into the welcoming arms of the early industrialists were to undergo a profound change in the way the experienced time itself. The rhythms of life dictated by changing seasons were replaced by the demands of work-time discipline, “the contrast between ‘nature’s’ time and clock time”.[61] Work time became both a necessity and a weapon for the industrialists and businessmen and necessarily this “transition to mature industrial society entailed a severe restructuring of working habits - new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could bite effectively.”[62] As Griffiths notes: “If ever an age forged the chains linking time and power, if ever an age watched time and enslaved it, it was the Industrial Revolution”.[63]

The leisure of the working classes in contrast was an impediment to efficiency and productivity. The drive for accumulation ensured that “[p]opular culture was seen as an impediment to such a development. Frequent holidays held up work, heavy drinking interfered with the worker’s effectiveness, while sports and gambling distracted him”.[64] William Temple, an employer in the 1730s, was in no doubt as to the remedy for such licentiousness: “The only way to make them temperate and industrious is to lay them under a necessity of labouring all the time they can spare from means and sleep”[65]

The difficulty in forcing the inexperienced workforce to accept work-time discipline stemmed in no small part from their adherence to a number of holidays, part of a popular culture which was “clung to by the labouring poor as their right by custom, a heritage, even though much of the superstructure of rite and ritual was anachronistic”.[66] Workers would claim these days as of right, much to the chagrin of their employers:
“A writer on the Cornish miners in the early eighteenth century complained that because of their ‘numerous holidays, holiday eves, feasts, account days (once a month), Yeuwhiddens or one way or another they invent to loiter away their time, they do not work one half of their month for the owners and employers’.”[67]
It was through “the division of labour; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports – [that] new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed.”[68] Punitive measures were taken against the slothfulness of the workforce, such as when “the first recorded clocking-in system was introduced by Wedgewood at Etruria, backed by a stiff fine of 2s (10p)”.[69] Gradually the old feast days and festivals were eliminated. In 1761 there were 47 ‘bank’ holidays, by 1834 this figure had been reduced to four.[70] Robert Southey said, ”it is precisely the shortage of holidays at home which brutalizes and destroys the working classes”.[71]

The play of a potential proletariat was anathema to capitalist society. The distraction of the wage labourer, the diverting of their energies to recreational activities, and the resulting impact on profitability were an impediment to economic growth. Customary ways of playing inevitably declined “as the economy changed with industrialisation and as the country became more urbanised, popular culture gradually ceased to move to the rhythms of agriculture and responded instead to the mechanical beat of the factory.”[72]


Such changes did not go unchallenged. As Thompson argues, there was an inevitability about the clash between the old and new ways:
“capitalist logic and ‘non-economic’ customary behaviour are in active and conscious conflict … Hence we can read eighteenth-century social history as a succession of confrontations between an innovative market economy and the customary moral economy of the plebs.”[73]
On occasion resistance would take the form of “eloquent violence” with workers smashing the clocks attached to factory gates.[74] Nor was the resistance limited to the eighteenth century alone. The practice of Saint Monday lasted into the 1870s, only finally curtailed by the advent of half-day working on Saturdays.[75] Whilst the battle against enclosure had been lost there were still sporadic outbursts against the potential loss or gentrification of common land. In 1874 rioting broke out in Portsmouth after attempts were made to section off part of Southsea Common.[76] The adherents of folk football also fought to keep their tradition alive. As late as 1881, after authorities had attempted to suppress the game in Nuneaton “pitched battles broke out between footballers and the police”.[77]

Ultimately structural changes in society meant the social basis from which custom-ruled games originated was undermined. When compared with the professional sports of today, folk football perfectly illustrates the questions of alienation and control discussed in the previous chapter. Its demise is symptomatic of the wider decline in traditional games and recreations that occurred through the long eighteenth century. Rural life, with its particular history, its festival rhythms and abundance of space was eroded by a “[c]onstant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.[78] Economic development meant that “[f]resh ideas undermined traditional values, expectations and relationships. Sports and pastimes were inevitably affected. Old games were adapted and new ones created to satisfy appetites freshly whetted.”[79] Parochial life had helped create a plethora of games and sports across the country but regional variation gave way to national codified sports that people would experience as consumers. As Bourdieu concluded, “sport, born of truly popular games, i.e. games produced by the people, returns to the people, like ‘folk music’, in the form of spectacles produced for the people.”[80]


[1] Russell, B., “In Praise of Idleness” in In Praise of Idleness & Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935), p17
[2] Quoted in Rude, G., Revolutionary Europe, p21
[3] Malcomsen, R.W. (1981) Life and Labour in England: 1700 – 1780, Hutchinson: London, p20
[4] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p22
[5] Cited in Pawson, E. (1979) The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century, Batsford Academic: London p19
[6] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p23
[7] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p23
[8] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p16
[9] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p60
[10] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p60
[11] Barker, “In Praise of Custom”, p128
[12] Howell, M.L. & Howell, R., “Physical Activities and Sport in Early Societies” in Ziegler, E.F. (ed.) History of Physical Education and Sport (Illinois: Stipes Publishing Company, 1988), p43
[13] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p18
[14] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p98
[15] Strutt, J., The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, available at, accessed 7 August 2011
[16] Collins, T., & Vamplew, W., Mud, Sweat and Beers (Oxford: Berg, 2002), p5
[17] Vamplew, “Playing with the Rules”, p21
[18] Thompson, E.P., Customs in Common (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991), p6
[19] Quoted in Hornby, H., Uppies and Downies: The Extraordinary Football Games of Britain (Swindon: English Heritage, 2008), p20
[20] Quoted in Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p20
[21] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p32
[22] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p21
[23] Royal Decree of 1572, quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p32
[24] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p32
[25] Quoted in Malcolmson, R., Popular Recreations in English Society: 1700-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p36
[26] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p102
[27] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p34
[28] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p36
[29] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p12
[30] Quoted in Hornby, Uppies and Downies, pp164-165
[31] Richard Carew, Survey of Cornwall (1602) quoted in Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p139
[32] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p34
[33] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p15
[34] Brailsford, A Taste for Diversions, p40
[35] Brailsford, A Taste for Diversions, p40
[36] Quoted in Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p37
[37] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p381
[38] Birley, D., Sport and the Making of the British (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p61
[39] Phillip Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses in the Realme of England (1583) quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p368
[40] Hutchinson, Empire Games, p49            
[41] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p4
[42] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p4
[43] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p63
[44] Golby, J.M. & Purdue, A.W., The Civilisation of the Crowd: Popular Culture in England 1750-1900, (London: Batsford Academic, 1984) p35
[45] Marx, Capital, p29
[46] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p47
[47] Holt, Sport and the British, p64
[48] Holt, Sport and the British, p37
[49] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, pp138-157
[50] Brailsford, A Taste for Diversions, p41
[51] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p24
[52] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p34
[53] See for example, Huggins, M., Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914 (London: Frank Cass, 2000), pp.178-179
[54] Quoted in Thompson, Customs in Common, p177
[55] Rule, J., The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England: 1750-1850 (London: Longman, 1986), p217
[56] Rule, The Labouring Classes, p216
[57] Baker, W.J., Sports in the Western World (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p103
[58] Thompson, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), p445
[59] Quoted in Holt, Sport and the British, p39
[60] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, pp28-30
[61] Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, Past and Present, 38, p 56
[62] Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, p57
[63] Griffiths, J., Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, (London: Flamingo, 1999), p152
[64] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p53
[65] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p54
[66] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p28
[67] Rule, The Vital Century, p192
[68] Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, p90
[69] Rule, The Vital Century, p198
[70] Vamplew, W., Pay Up and Play the Game: Professional Sport in Britain, 1875-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p39
[71] Medick, M. “Plebian Culture in the Transition to Capitalism” in Samuel, R. & Steadman Jones, G. (eds) Culture, Ideology and Politics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), p107
[72] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p39
[73] E.P. Thompson, quoted in Malcomson, Life and Labour, pp134-135
[74] Griffiths, Pip Pip, p157
[75] Reid, D.A., “The Decline of Saint Monday 1766–1876”, Past and Present, 71, 1 1976), 76-101
[76] Field, J., “‘When the Riot Act was Read’: A Pub Mural of the Battle of Southsea, 1874”, History Workshop Journal, 10, 1 (1980), pp.152-163
[77] Dunning, E., & Sheard, K., Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football (London: Routledge, 2005), p37
[78] Marx, K. & Engels, F., The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p83
[79] Baker, Sports in the Western World, p57
[80] Bourdieu, “Sport and Social Class”, p828