Shrewsbury School part one: The birth of football

Shrewsbury School Part One The Birth of Football

At the end of a drab, square building in Shrewsbury is a slightly sunken square of concrete slabs. The area measures no more than five metres wide and eight metres long, and but for a scruffy wisp of chalk across the middle would bear little resemblance to anything of note. Between the cracks, occasional weeds thrust their unwelcome way through, spawned by murky puddles left over as afterthoughts of dreary drizzle. The line, however, transforms the box into a rough replica of one of the most brutally blood-curdling rituals known to man.

The Ancient Mayans were famous for the angular architecture that sloped down to ground level at an angle, and would use the space in between as a test. While some temples soared above the canopy of the surrounding rainforest, other lower structures, no more than about three metres high, were constructed parallel to each other a few metres apart.

At the southernmost reach of their empire in Copán, in what is now northern Honduras, these narrow corridors between were used in a chilling manner. When a tribal matter was under dispute, one poor soul was decapitated, and their head was volleyed back and forth between the inwardly sloping buildings until one side failed to keep it off the ground. The losing side would see one of their number’s head lopped off too, until there were no more left.

Replace human heads for footballs and life for bragging rights, and that concrete pitch in Shrewsbury served a similar purpose. Pupils at the school form teams of about four or five, and aim to keep the ball in the air using any surface. Rules have changed over time of course, but the principle of using skill, balance, ingenuity, spontaneity and judgement remain.

There have been countless variations of ball sports created and developed on the campus of Shrewsbury School just like this one. S Bends, for example, takes its name from the snaking road slicing through the fields on a steep slope. Never mind the ridiculously inconvenient shape, size and contour of the ground; football is played using all manner of cunning and guile given the circumstances.

Although created at Eton College, fives is common public school sport played at Shrewsbury School in which players strike a small cork sphere at a wall resembling a squash court. There is one major difference, however; a buttress juts out in the middle. Before it became a codified sport, fives had been created by schoolboys playing against the walls of a church.

The evolution of games could be said to mirror the evolution of the mind. The very Theory of Evolution itself can be traced back to Shrewsbury School, in fact. An average student by the name of Charles Darwin struggled to grasp the relevance of Latin and Greek, gazing out of the school buildings across the Severn valley wishing his curiosity into science could somehow flourish. A decade later, his visit to the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador to study wildlife led him to formulate his defining magnum opus.

This culture of exploration and ingenuity is a common thread that weaves its way through Shrewsbury School. In the very same building against which the concrete keepie-uppie games took place lived a pupil by the name of Sandy Irvine. In 1924, he took part on an expedition to scale Mount Everest, a feat that at that time had not been achieved on record. With horrifyingly rudimentary equipment, and in an age when heroic British adventure was still celebrated over common sense, he and his companion George Mallory were seen from the highest camp within a few hundred metres of the summit.

Cloud cover means we will never know if Irvine was, in fact, the first man to reach the summit. Mallory’s body was found 70 years later, but almost a century later Irvine’s remains are yet to be discovered.

When images of today’s pristine multi-millionaires strutting around immaculately manicured lawns to Champions League music are beamed to every corner of the globe, it is partly thanks to Shrewsbury School that they do at all. It was inevitable that over time a sport like football would have become popular of course, although the very early days were far from a foregone conclusion.

Claims over the birthplace of the sport range from Ming Dynasty China to Medieval Italian piazzas, and many places in between. In England, its earliest visages were incomprehensibly chaotic fights between entire villages that were so barbaric that kings in the middle ages would outlaw the practice for fear of soldiers injuring themselves.

At that time, the only connection that could be truly drawn to the working class ballet are that feet were used to kick balls. Shrove Tuesday was traditionally marked by the pursuit in the Elizabethan era, but given the violence that ensued, punishments were regularly meted out. As Mark Dickson described one example in Shrewsbury School Football and the Old Salopian FC: An Illustrated History.

“A certain John Gyttings was imprisoned in Shrewsbury ‘for playing at the foot balle upon Shroftusdaie, and for throwinge the balle from him when the serigent Hardinge demanded the same.’ A day boy called John Gyttings is known to have studied at Shrewsbury School in 1601 and, although it is not know for certain that this is the same person, it could well be that he was not only the School’s first recorded footballer but also its first jail bird.”

Very little recorded evidence, for fairly obvious reasons, exists for the various interpretations of football much before the early stages of the 19th century. Before then it is known only that bloodthirsty aggression featured very highly – or at least it did in the opinion of those in positions of authority. The Reverend Samuel Butler was headmaster at the turn of the 18th century, and he loathed the pursuit – the word sport was barely fit for purpose at that stage – claiming it was “only fit for butcher’s boys.”

The windows from his study overlooked the only playing field near the school. Boys were known to indulge in the time’s rudimentary form of football, but given this fact, they were unable to practice it with any great freedom. Its existence was seen as a moral scourge, and it was branded as such. It wasn’t long before the tide began to slowly turn though.

“In the early nineteenth century, football became increasingly popular in the public schools as masters began to recognise its value, at least as a means of keeping boys out of trouble and later for its character-building attributes. The Revd. B.H. Kennedy, who became Headmaster in 1836, is credited with restoring football as an acceptable pursuit at Shrewsbury.”

Kennedy bought another playing field to be used, while other schools also grew towards the game. Thuggery and bloodlust was crawling its way through the evolutionary gene pool towards some semblance of sport. However, much like the Mayan-esque games created by boys on modern concrete, each school played its own version with unique rules. Some allowed handling the ball, some banned running with the ball, and for a while, each germinated in their own enclosed Petri dishes.

It was at universities that arguments began. Upon leaving the confines of schools, pupils who had practiced their own versions were then thrown together, and the obvious debate began over how exactly they could all play when their interpretations were so wildly different. Two Old Salopians, J.C. Thring and H. de Winton, played a handful of games with some Etonians in 1846, but the club failed to get off the ground.

Two years later though, and representatives from Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby, Shrewsbury and Cambridge itself agreed on what were football’s first ever set of laws. No copy exists of those original rules used by the University Foot Ball Club, but a copy of the 1856 revised edition is still kept at Shrewsbury School today.

Shrewsbury School Laws of the Game
The earliest known surviving copy of the laws of football, written in 1856, which Shrewsbury School were a key part of formulating.

In it were the first versions of goal-kicks, kick-offs, the offside rule and throw-ins, but with nuances from today’s versions. For example, a goal-kick was to be taken “from where it left the ground, not more than ten paces”. Physical contact was still allowed, but holding, tripping and pushing with hands were outlawed. By proxy, shoulder barging was perfectly acceptable. It still would be the best part of a century later, something the great Nat Lofthouse became famous for.

The offside law was far stricter than it is today; a forward pass could only be touched if more than three opposition players were between the intended recipient and the goal. Other than that though, for what would become the founding cornerstone of the world’s most popular sport, it was a very simplistic set of laws that barely covered half a page.

One major difference was the permitted catching of the ball. Essentially how a mark is caught by a full-back in rugby union today, a player could catch the ball and kick it, but without moving from the point he claimed the ball. This in itself had been a major compromise from the Rugby School representatives, who had advocated a sport akin to the one that bears their name today.

The important thing was there now existed a set of rules set in stone for the first time, and competition could now spread. Before, despite the growing popularity of football in a general sense, the division between different versions meant it could only realistically be played in any meaningful sense within a closed group of people.

In the 1860s various sets of laws were drawn up by adult sports clubs outside the university and school setting. In 1863, the Football Association was formed in London upon an updated version of the Cambridge University rules that had been formed under the chairmanship of an Old Salopian, the Revd. R. Burn. Meetings were held to determine whether hacking below the knee was acceptable, and by 1866 handling was thrown out altogether.

Football had come a long way from the Mayan temples of Latin America and inter-village battles. Finally, after centuries of bloodshed and bruises, it could legitimately call itself a sport rather than a glorified fight, and right at the heart had been Shrewsbury School.