Shrewsbury School part two: Douling, football’s slavery

Shrewsbury School Part Two Douling Football Slavery

In part one, we told the story of the very origins of football, from the Mayans’ bloodthirsty pursuits to how Shrewsbury School played a significant part in the creation of the oldest surviving laws of the game.

When Sepp Blatter agrees with your opinions on financial matters, it might be that you have become misguided. Over a decade ago, Cristiano Ronaldo was a newly-crowned European champion with Manchester United, but his heart lay in Madrid. His ₤100,000-a-week contract and glorious five years in the north-west of England were a torturous existence that he was desperate to be rid of, and of course, in the end, he got his way.

Blatter had claimed there was “too much slavery” in modern football a few weeks before the record-breaking Real Madrid legend hobbled into a potentially messy divorce on crutches by agreeing. It was the summer of 2008, and at the age of 23, the Portuguese phenomenon had the world at his feet. And yet, he still felt imprisoned.

If one were to take a dip back in time into the world of public schools 150 years ago, one might be more inclined at first glance to attach the assessment to that life than the strictures of a modern football contract. The concept of pastoral care took on a rather different hue than the role of career advisor, counsellor, teacher and confidante one would find today.

Beatings would still be common for decades to come. This was very much a world of stick and precious little carrot. At Eton College in 1825, two boys settled a disagreement by boxing each other under archaic conditions (Queensbury Rules were not established until over 40 years later). Sixty rounds and copious swigs of brandy later, the more slightly built of the two collapsed and died a few hours later.

Far from such horrific tales of mortality were the obligatory physical activities that schoolboys were subjected to. In the early 19th century there was a shift from demonising the brutality of early forms of football towards recognising its benefits. It wasn’t long before rules were set in stone, but old habits died hard.

Schools were at the core of the formation of the game. Although Association Football became accepted as the common form of the sport, each school maintained their own insular rules. Many elements bore a resemblance to Rugby Union. At Shrewsbury, for example, the game was played without a crossbar (or rope as was initially used), meaning goals could be scored at any height. No players could stand between the ball and the opposing goal, making forward passes impossible. Any kicks caught directly could the be drop-kicked unchallenged.

If one considers these nuances, it becomes clear what level of sophistication games involved. Teams often had uneven numbers, there was no referee or time limit, and matches were settled over a matter of days rather than hours sometimes.

One interesting aspect of the sport was the enforced focus on dribbling with the ball. Kicking was a large part of gaining a positional advantage, even if it left an uncertainty over a continued flow. Goalkeepers were far more passive players with the ability of teams to score at an unlimited height, meaning proximity to the goal was the key to scoring.

When the adult game took on a more formal existence in the latter stages of the 19th century, the dribbling, physical nature remained central to the English style, while passing became a key feature of the Scottish game.

The Revd. B.H. Kennedy had advocated the practice from the 1830s, and it quickly became not just an approved part of school life but a compulsory one; so much so, that it became known as Douling, deriving its name from the Greek word for slave. As Mark Dickson wrote in Shrewsbury School Football: An Illustrated History, those who tried to avoid it met with serious consequences.

“To miss doulings was unwise, the recognised punishment being a ‘kicking.’ In 1870 J. Craig brought an action for assault against his house captain, Henry Wace, after he had received a kicking for going skating when he should have been Douling. The case was dismissed.”

Serving a purpose to bind pupils to regulated physical exercise, it was next to impossible to offer much competition outside the school walls. The first school captain was an A.W. Potts who began the inaugural role in 1854, but the obvious missing element was against whom to play. A school team was formed in the early 1860s, around the time two Old Salopians helped form the Football Association, that played games against old boys’ teams.

It wasn’t until 1876 that they played under the Laws of Association Football against non-Salopian teams. The following season, all 1st XI matches adopted Association Football rules.

It is hard to contextualise the manner with which pupils conformed to their obligations. The opportunity to unleash aggression in a controlled but brutish way would surely have appealed to many, but could hardly have been universally popular. Forming character has long been a part of the concept of public school life that has often been misinterpreted by those outside the system.

There is no way the rigidity with which Douling was enforced upon pupils would be possible today, but at the time it was part of a system that, for better or worse, placed value of different nuances of development. Blurring the lines between obedience and respect was something that was not exclusive to school life.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp may have spent considerable time and effort complaining about the conditions of various pitches this season, so it is probably best he didn’t have to endure the pitches of 19th century Shropshire. It took the efforts of A.H.Gilkes to claim reasonable ground for Douling. A former captain of football in 1867, when he returned to the school as a master in 1873, he was instrumental in preparing the area which has been used for the best part of 150 years for football.

“He was to become a highly-regarded figure among the boys in an age when schoolmasters were known for their austerity or even severity. Until that point, football had been mainly a matter for the boys but Gilkes played a major part, not only in initiating the coaching of the game but also, when the School moved to Kingsland in 1882, in organising the levelling out of the Top Common into pitches.

“This involved not only the work itself, but also the funds to pay for it, and it was work that from which present generations of footballers continue to benefit.”

Before his influence, dayboys and boarders had played games separately, but Gilkes also moved to combine their activities. His personal touch along with his drive to promote the sport does suggest then that there was genuine interest in the sport as more than an obligation.

The stage was now set for football to flourish. Facilities, however rudimentary by today’s standards, had been secured, full backing from the school had developed, and the first tentative rules had been set to promote the sport’s future. Although there was a 12-year wait for the next match against another school after the first fixture played in 1877, the seed had been sown.

By the end of the following decade, football at Shrewsbury School exploded. Professional teams were springing up around the country, but while many struggled in their infancy, the school system provided a natural incubator that protected the game from financial pressures. Often it was roaming teams of old boys that provided the school with opposition, providing a neat link to the adult ranks themselves.

A look at the FA Cup winners from the 1870s and early 1880s highlights the influence public schools had in protecting football in its early years; Old Etonians and Old Carthusians were early victors, while six-time winners Wanderers Football Club was comprised largely of former public school pupils. In this light, the fact that these adult teams were often beaten speaks volumes for the capacity for football at Shrewsbury School

Without the popularity and drive of public schools, football may well have struggled to survive its early years. Douling may be an ugly, roughly-hewn early prototype that only lasted just into the new century – although it was revived as a one-off for a centenary game was revisited in 1977 –  but its role in ensuring the popularity and survival of its more beautiful modern cousin cannot be understated.