The origins of football: the Northern working class 1870-1914

The Lancashire ‘cotton district’ is a strong candidate for the world’s first working-class commercial sporting culture
The Northby John K. Walton

This article examines the development of a pioneer professional and commercial sporting culture in an English industrial region. It argues that the cotton spinning and manufacturing district of the north-western county of Lancashire provided the necessary conditions of resources, competition and collaboration, of shared cultures and local loyalties, to become the crucible in which a novel culture of commercial spectator sport, for overwhelmingly working-class audiences, could be forged.

The argument applies particularly, but certainly not exclusively, to the rise of professional, commercial Association football, a sport which allowed professionalism in 1885, and established the Football League in 1888. Each innovation was strongly driven from the Lancashire ‘cotton towns’. This is not to suggest that similar processes were not occurring elsewhere in Britain, as in (for example) the distinctive industrial environment of Sheffield. Nor should we dismiss the importance of commercial sporting provision at an earlier stage, including the employment of professional players, in other sports and settings in Britain, most obviously cricket in London and the south-east of England, and horse-racing, which attracted large working-class crowds in industrial areas from at least the dawn of the railway age.

Indeed, historian Adrian Harvey has argued that a ‘unified’ commercial sporting culture was already being created across England in the first half of the nineteenth century, with strong manifestations around Manchester; but this was based above all on horse-racing, pugilism and betting, and despite the increasing regularity of contests, it represents an older, more irregular, less disciplined sporting culture than the one under discussion here.

The argument advanced here, is that it was the Lancashire ‘cotton district’, and particularly a small area at its core on an axis between the towns of Bolton and Blackburn, that blazed the trail for the systematic commercialisation of sport through the development of leagues and the attachment of local people to ‘their’ clubs and teams, and that this was founded in the distinctive nature of regional society and popular culture.

Lucifer over Lancashire
Before developing this argument, which will have to take account of various cross-currents and nuances, we must provide some background and context on the area under consideration. The English county of Lancashire, which historically (until the local government reorganisation of 1974) included both Manchester and Liverpool, was at the core of a remarkable array of key developments in the making of the modern world.

It was here, and particularly in the eastern and south-eastern part of the county, the triangle bounded by Preston, Colne, and the Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockport district to the south of Manchester, that the rise of the cotton textile industry, together with an interlinked array of mining and manufacturing activities including engineering, papermaking, chemicals, construction, and the provision of transport, lighting and heating, generated an early form of globalisation and transformed economies and societies far beyond its parochial confines.

An important and distinctive (though often neglected) aspect of the region’s precocious development was the rise of the first working-class consumer society towards the end of the nineteenth century. At this time relatively high, stable and predictable family incomes enabled working people to combine a commitment to thrift (through savings banks and Co-operatives) and mutual insurance against ill-health and unemployment (through Friendly Societies and trade unions) with the ability to direct discretional spending towards commercial enjoyment, in ways which increasingly extended beyond the old staple of the public house.

Rising first in the north
The rise of commercial sport as entertainment formed part of a wider pattern of provision, already developing from the 1820s onwards, which included music-hall (which was probably invented in Bolton in the early 1830s, rather than the London of the 1850s); travelling shows and fairgrounds; commercial pleasure gardens such as Manchester’s Pomona and Belle Vue, or the ‘weaver’s seaport’ at the reservoir of Hollingworth Lake; and popular seaside holidays, which expanded spectacularly from the 1870s, based on holiday savings clubs which funded the unpaid sojourns of several days or a week at the coast.

The rise of this pioneer working-class consumer society followed on from the early traumas of industrialisation in the Manchester region. In this hitherto remote and little-regarded part of England the first industrial society was forged between the late eighteenth century and the First World War; but the breakthrough came in the early nineteenth century. Lewis Mumford’s ‘carboniferous capitalism’, a smoky combination of coal-powered factories, sophisticated transport systems and specialised industrial towns, which were almost indistinguishable to the external observer but which expressed and sustained strong local identities, rivalries and civic pride, coalesced here at an earlier stage and on a more spectacular scale than anywhere else in Europe or the United States.

By the 1830s and 1840s Manchester, that ‘great human exploit’, and its satellite towns had become the object of social investigation and revolutionary speculation, not least on the part of Friedrich Engels himself, who lived in the city and whose family firm was part of the process he was analysing. Poverty, public health, pollution, illiteracy, and the exploitation of female and child labour were at the core of contemporary concerns, even as commentators marvelled at the spread of technological innovation and the growth of productive forces.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, and especially during the last quarter of that century, living standards improved, first gradually, with fluctuations due to inflation and the depression associated with the ‘Cotton Famine’ of the early 1860s, then steadily, impressively and cumulatively, as prices fell while wages held steady and work was rarely interrupted by industrial conflict, even in periods of depressed trade.

When saturday came
The development of the Saturday half-day holiday, in Manchester from 1845 and more generally in the aftermath of the Factory Act of 1850 which closed the cotton factories at 2pm on Saturdays, thereby setting a transferable precedent, provided a vitally important space in the weekly calendar.

The masculine, working-class crowd, presenting a sea of peaked cloth caps and a haze of tobacco smoke to the contemporary observer, was a constant feature of professional football from the 1880s to the First World War, and indeed beyond. It had its counterparts in other sports. This is not to say that women or middle-class men were absent from these enclosures and arenas (organisation and management were middle-class preserves at the highest levels of commercial competitive performance), but to emphasise the overriding importance of the threepences and sixpences of working men, far more so than at the music-hall or on the pier.

Popular spectator sport was a distinctive aspect of the emergent working-class consumer society, and this article investigates and seeks to explain its origins as an organised, commercial, regular experience, and the timing and location of the transition.

Elites vs backstreets
It is important to remember that organised football was also expanding rapidly at levels which presented a lower profile, through amateur leagues, works football, schoolboy football, and informal encounters in back streets and on waste land. The emergent professional game was the tip of an extensive participatory iceberg, in Lancashire as elsewhere.

In the first place, there is the question of whether Association football, in its eventual commercial form, should be seen as having been introduced to the ‘cotton towns’ from the elite, fee-paying so-called ‘public schools’, by the sons of landed gentry, professional men (especially clergy of the Church of England) and industrialists who sought to spread an ideal of respectable, strong but restrained masculinity through the new ideology of ‘muscular Christianity’, aided by the foundation of the Football Association in 1863 and the evolution of a standard set of rules.

An alternative perspective is that it evolved from the grassroots by the adaptation of popular local sporting traditions, in an environment associated with beer and betting, to adjust for limitations of space and time in the industrial setting. These lines of descent need not be mutually exclusive, not least because sporting clubs founded under church or chapel auspices tended to go their own way very quickly, as in the case of Bolton’s Christ Church football club, which migrated across the road to the Gladstone Arms public house and became Bolton Wanderers.

But ‘cotton Lancashire’ examples of the dissemination of football from the public schools, almost by the ‘laying on of hands’, are not absent from the picture. At Turton, near Bolton, in the area that was at the heart of the transition to the professional and popular, a successful village team was established in 1871 by the son of the local landowner, who had returned from a ‘public school’ education at Harrow, in conjunction with the village schoolmaster.

Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence suggests that the popular genealogy, traced through matches for stakes organised through public houses, was more influential than the imported strain of ‘muscular Christianity’. The public house connection is particularly important here: landlords had long been entrepreneurs of popular competitive sport, for stakes and with abundant betting, including bowling, quoits and the ‘eccentric and undisciplined’ athletic spectacles associated with ‘pedestrianism’, whether running or walking.

Bolton, Darwen, Blackburn
The clearest support for the argument that the Lancashire ‘cotton district’ was not only the cradle of the world’s first Industrial Revolution, but also the origin of a revolution in the organisation, commercialisation and popularisation of spectator sport, comes from the development of Association football in the region during the late nineteenth century. The work of academic RW Lewis, especially, has pinpointed the years between the late 1870s and mid 1880s, and the small triangle (which is really almost a straight line, and better imagined as an axis) between Bolton, Darwen and Blackburn, as the crucible of change. The total distance is just over 20 kilometres, although the importance of early football clubs in industrial villages around Bolton (such as Turton and Halliwell) would increase it a little.

The development of an intensive network of football teams, increasingly employing professionals (often from Scotland) during the 1870s and 1880s, marked this area out as distinctive even within Lancashire. Darwen, a small town south of Blackburn which became firmly attached to the Association game in 1875, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup as early as 1879, playing two professionals and bearing the expenses of three trips to London before losing to Old Etonians in a second replay.

In 1881 they reached the semi-finals. But it was the larger weaving centre of Blackburn that made the breakthrough for northern industrial sides against the London ‘public school’ amateurs. In 1882 Blackburn Rovers lost in the FA Cup final to Old Etonians; but in the following year Blackburn Olympic, fielding several unequivocally working-class players, beat the same opponents to win the Cup Rovers had more financial clout, and this was Olympic’s one moment of glory; but Rovers then proceeded to win the Cup in the next three seasons, and again in 1890 and 1891. Meanwhile Bolton Wanderers were on the losing side in the 1894 final.

Impressive though its record was, the Bolton-Blackburn axis did not have a monopoly on either playing success or striking innovations. The Blackburn successes straddled the transition to the Football Association’s acceptance of professionalism in 1885, but that was precipitated by a complaint against Preston North End, who also had a reputation for importing ‘Scotch professors’.

Lancashire lads
The five ‘cotton Lancashire’ teams that made up the original twelve-club Football League in 1888 included Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, who were later to be joined in the First Division, briefly, by Darwen; but Accrington and Burnley lay a few kilometres to the east of Blackburn, and Preston North End, the ‘Invincibles’ who won the first league championship undefeated, were based a similar distance to the west.

Even so, this was a remarkable concentration of football power; and Halliwell, on the outskirts of Bolton, were strong enough in 1888 to be considered as serious alternatives to Bolton Wanderers for inaugural membership. Accrington, like Darwen, was less able to compete at the increasingly exacting highest level, despite extensive recourse to imported Scotsmen; and they left the League in 1893 after relegation from the top flight. Neither side could match the growth in average attendances of a large town club like Bolton, whose weekly ‘gates’ increased fivefold to 25.000 over the first quarter-century of the Football League.

But the football strength in depth of the county as a whole was demonstrated by the formation of the Lancashire League in 1889 and the Lancashire Combination in 1891. Compelling reasons for these path-breaking developments can be found in a combination of high family incomes, strong sporting traditions, clusters of settlements with strong identities and well-developed civic pride in close proximity to each other, resident capitalists with an interest in supporting local endeavours, and the development of a close network of cheap and convenient public transport systems, to an extent that could not be found elsewhere.

The Lancashire ‘cotton district’ is a strong candidate for consideration as the location of the world’s first working-class commercial sporting culture. There are curiosities and limitations about the ways in which professional sport, with its restrictions on dividends to shareholders, payments to directors, players’ wages and the free movement of labour. This was something both more and less than the full-blown application of industrial capitalism to sport, not least because its values embraced the furtherance of local pride, competitive status and success on the field, which were more than just financial goals. Indeed, the relentless pursuit of profit by ruthless owners might well have hampered the game’s development. But these themes were common across the sports in question, and not peculiar to Lancashire.

An important dimension of the transformation of popular sport in ‘cotton Lancashire’, over and above the growth of the leagues and the impressive investment in grounds, players´ wages, administration and infrastructure, was the rise of a regional sporting press to challenge the established hegemony of London, with Manchester’s Athletic News at its head, Bolton’s Football Field not far behind, and rapidly expanding coverage in all the local newspapers. The Athletic News, founded in 1875, apparently doubled its circulation from 50,000 to 100,000 between 1891 and 1893, apparently stimulated by the rapid rise of the League system in Association football and, to a ,lesser extent, cricket.

The headquarters of the Football League took root in Preston, on the western edge of the ‘cotton district’, in a leafy inner suburb of this early centre of the professional game, whose team (Preston North End) had passed triumphantly undefeated through the first season of the Football League to win the inaugural championship.

All this gives added weight to the arguments advanced by various historians, and supported convincingly by the meticulous research of Lewis in local newspapers and archives, that the ‘cotton towns’ were the original heartland of professional football as a working-class spectator sport, and provided the necessary social, economic and cultural conditions to nurture and impel a transformation which was to have global repercussions.

The previous history was long and complicated, but the tipping point is clear. Here, as in the case of the Rochdale-style Co-operative movement or the working-class seaside holiday, this part of the county of Lancashire was identified with innovations in popular culture and consumerism which were every bit as important globally as the inventions and innovations in industry and trade which enabled the rise of the factory system.

With few exceptions, these developments arose spontaneously from the grass-roots rather than being imposed from above or promoted from without: they are a tribute to the power of the region’s social networks, based in and beyond the manufacturing communities, factories, churches, chapels and neighbourhoods, and to the combination of local rivalries and networks of social solidarity, which characterised the ‘cotton towns’ to a remarkable and perhaps a unique extent.

The development of professional spectator sport, put on as a spectacle, becoming a vehicle for the competitive expression of local identities, and developing into a fortnightly ritual for its devotees, grew out of a flourishing earlier commercial culture of sport as entertainment (including the regular popular horse-race meetinfs), but disciplined and industrialised it, as befitted its new surroundings. The first industrial society had created the first industrial sporting culture.

John K Walton



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