We cannot pretend to determine at what period the game of football originated. That of hand-ball, as we learn from the “Iliad,” was practised in Ionia and the Troad before the days of Homer. We also find it alluded to in many passages of the Latin classics. Thus Plautus says: “The gods have men for their balls to play with.” Seneca speaks of “skilfully and diligently catching the ball, and aptly and quickly sending it on. And, “the ball is mine” (Mea pila est) was proverbial among the Romans for “I’ve won !”. In this country football has been a favourite winter game from a very remote date how far back neither Strutt nor any other writer on sports and pastimes can tell us. King Edward III. prohibited it by public edict in 1349, because it was supposed to impede the progress of archery, then all-important as a branch of national defence; and King James I., in his “Basilicon Doron,” fulminated against the game, as he did against the use of tobacco, in the following strain : “From this court I debar all rough and violent exercises as the football, meeter for lameing than making able the users thereof.” But, notwithstanding this interdict, confirmed as it was under the Commonwealth, merrymakers continued to play at the heroic old game, even in the narrow and crooked streets of London, which, as Sir William Davenant wrote, was “not very conveniently civil.” One of Hone’s correspondents, writing in the “Every Day Book,” says that when he was a boy football was commonly played on the Sunday mornings before church time in a village in the West of England; and he adds that, at the time when he wrote, it was played during fine weather every Sunday afternoon by a number of Irishmen in some fields near Islington.
There is a short description of a country wake in the Spectator, wherein the writer, believed to be Addison, says that, after finding a ring of cudgel-players, “who were breaking one another’s heads in order to make some impression on their mistresses’ hearts,” he came to a football match, and afterwards to a ring of wrestlers, and also a group engaged in pitching the bar. And he concludes by saying that the squire of the parish always treated the company every year with a hogshead of ale. Football was very common on the Borders during the long wars between England and Scotland. Whenever a foray was contemplated, as it often was, in time of truce, a match would be got up, under cover of which great numbers would assemble without exciting suspicion, and concert a plan for making a raid over to the English or Scotch side, as the case might be. At other times, persons not friendly to the existing Government would meet at football, and there talk treason without being suspected. Each district had rules of its own; but in almost every parish, and in every town or village, some particular saint’s day was set apart for “playing a gole” at camp-ball, field-ball, or football, as the game was variously named. The usual time was at Shrovetide, when sports and feasting were in full vogue all over, previous to the commencement of Lent. The regular custom was to have a cockfight as well as a football match on Shrove or Pancake Tuesday. At some places every man in the parish, gentry not excepted, was obliged to turn out and support the side to which he belonged, and any person who neglected to do so was fined; but this custom, being attended with inconvenience, has long since been abolished.
At Inveresk, in Midlothian, there used to be a standing match at football en Shrove Tuesday, there called Fastern’s Een, between the married and unmarried women, and the former, it is said, were always victorious. This was a peculiar case, however.
In most places the contest was between the bachelors and the married men. In towns where there was a market cross, the parties drew themselves up on opposite sides at a certain hour, say two o’clock p.m., when the ball was thrown up and the play went on till sunset or later, fast and furious, the combatants kicking each others’ shins without the least ceremony, though it might be against the rules.
At Scone, the old residence of the Kings of Scotland, handball and not football was the favourite game preferred; and there, though no person was allowed by the conventional law to kick the ball, but only to run away with it, and throw it from him when stopped, there was generally some scene of violence before the game was won, which caused it to be proverbial in that part of the country “All was fair at the Ball of Scone.”
The conqueror at a handball match was entitled to keep the ball till the next year, when he had the much coveted honour of being the first to throw it up. A man belonging to Hawick, named, if we mistake not, Glendinning being a crack runner, who had often come off victor in his native town in the matches there, where the opposing players are the residents east and west of the Slitrig, locally known as the Eastla’ and Westla’ Water Men was in the habit of crossing the Border every year about Shrovetide, and taking a part in the ball quisition during the day, together, of course, with lashings of drink.
Such are some of the historic features of a pastime play, sometimes in Northumberland, and at other times in Cumberland; and he generally managed to bring home the ball with him in triumph. In some places the prize for the victor was a new beaver hat, and when Glendinning knew that to be the case, he always went away with as shabby an old head-covering as he could find, confident that he would come back with a much better one after a new victory.
Brand tell us that it was once customary among the colliers and others in the North of England for a party to watch at a wedding for the bridegroom’s coming out of church, after the ceremony, in order to demand money for a football a claim that admitted of no refusal, for, if it was not complied with, the newly-married couple were liable to be grossly insulted, with loud hootings at least, if not getting bespattered with mud.
In several places, it was the custom to carry the football from door to door, and beg money to be spent in refreshments; and here likewise it was dangerous to refuse, because the recusants’ windows were very likely to be broken by the lads as soon as it was dark. Where the game was played in the High Street, people generally took the precaution to shut their shops and barricade their front windows in the course of the forenoon. The scene, when the players got fully heated, would baffle description, old and young contending as keenly as if the prize had been a kingdom. Sometimes, where a river intervened, as it does, say, at Hawick, Jedburgh, Alnwick, Wooler, Chester-le-Street, and other places, the players considered it no obstacle whatever, but rather thought it the best of the fun to plunge in tumultuously, be the water deep or shallow, and rather risk being half-drowned than interrupt the game.
On Shrove Tuesday there was always a great game at football in many parishes in the North of England. Chester-le-Street, Rothbury, Alnwick, Wooler, and other towns, were particularly famous. The game is still played with great vigour in the former place between the up-towners and the down-towners. Brand describes the ceremonial as observed at Alnwick in the year 1762. The waits belonging to the town came playing to the castle at 2 p.m., when a football was thrown over the wall to the populace congregated before the gates. Then came forth the tall and stately porter dressed in the Percy livery, blue and yellow, plentifully decorated with silver lace, and gave the ball its first kick, sending it bounding out of the barbican of the castle into Bailiffgate ;and then the young and vigorous kicked it through the principal street of the town, and afterwards into the pasture, which had been used from time immemorial for such enjoyments. Here it was kicked about until the great struggle came for the honour of making capture of the ball itself. The more vigorous combatants kicked it away from the multitude, and at last some one, stronger and fleeter than the rest, seized upon it and fled away pursued by others. To escape with the ball, the river Aln was waded through or swam across, and walls were scaled and hedges broken down. The victor was the hero of the day, and proud of his trophy.
When Lord John Russell, in the year 1835, introduced the Municipal Reform Bill into the House of Commons, its provisions created much excitement throughout the country, and numerous meetings were held all over England, either in support of or in opposition to the measure. The Duke of Northumberland, jealous of any interference with his manorial rights, gave the most determined opposition to the bill, and left no stone unturned to prevent Alnwick from being included within its scope. As one cheap and ready means of effecting his object, he gave the sum of 10 that year to the ball players to be spent in seasonable refreshments. A man named Joe Ramsay was running down the street proclaiming the glad news, when an old woman cried aloud that it would have been wiser like if his Grace had given the money to the poor. “Damn the poor! they want everything,” was Joe’s sharp rejoinder. There were a good many Chartists at that time in Alnwick, and they managed to get up a petition in favour of the bill; but the bulk of the freemen, either of their own spontaneous accord, or seeking to curry favour with the duke and his agents, sent up petitions, much more numerously signed, for the withdrawal of the borough from the bill; and Alnwick was accordingly erased in the House of Lords, and remains to this day outside the area of reformed municipal corporations. With the money given by the duke, several barrels of strong ale were purchased, and a regular jollification took place in the Town Hall, after the ball play was over. There was “dancing and deray” to the heart’s content of the lads and lasses, and “guttling and guzzling” among the elders, till the small hours of the morning; and the solid and liquid stuffs left over were consumed next day by all who felt inclined to come. An unlucky Chartist, who had the temerity to intrude himself into the jovial company, thinking there was no reason why he should not have his share of the good things that were going, was detected as soon as he showed his face, laid violent hands upon, and would have been tossed over the outside stone stair of the hall, if some of the more sober guests had not interfered. The venturesome Chartist’s name was Will Hardy.
At Wooler, the game was played between the married and unmarried men; and after kicking the ball through the town, one party endeavoured to kick it into the hopper of Earl Mill, and the other over a tree which stood at the “crook of the Till.” In the days of yore, this contest sometimes continued for three days.
In many of the villages in North Northumberland, as well as in Yetholm, Morebattle, and other places on the Scottish Border, there was always a dance after the ball play, and a general feasting on currant dumplings, to cook which most of the kail pots were put in re-which has in our own day become more popular in all parts of the country than any other winter amusement.