Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1857, may be the most influential book about sports and games published in modern times. The author, Thomas Hughes, was a Christian socialist and missionary, as well as the author of several other works, including a little-known sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford. He set his story at Rugby School in the English Warwickshire countryside, where in the 1830s he himself had been very happy as a boy. In later life, together with his friend Charles Kingsley, Hughes would become known as one of the founders of the “Muscular Christianity” movement, which was obsessed with “manliness” and the horror of “effeminacy” and gave rise, amongst other things, to the both the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. At the end of his life, Hughes even traveled to the United States to found a utopian Christian community—at a place he christened “Rugby” in the state of Tennessee—for the further education of upper-class Englishmen.
In his famous novel—one of the all-time British best-sellers—Hughes set out to distil his boarding school experience and draw moral lessons about the development of boys. Rugby School was, and still is, an English “public school”—one of a dozen or so ancient, private, single-sex boarding establishments that had been founded in the Tudor era or earlier to inculcate the sons of the elite with the necessary knowledge to command both Sceptered Isle and Empire. Young Tom Brown—eleven when he first arrives at the school—is the first in a long line of British boarding school heroes that includes Kipling’s Stalky, Wodehouse’s Psmith and of course J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. In Hollywood-speak, Tom Brown is Harry Potter in knee britches and frock coats, minus the magic Bedknobs and Broomsticks business. In my pre-Harry Potter day, Tom Brown was every parent’s idea of what their pre-teenaged sons should read, alongside “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe”.
Hughes’ book is far from great literature. Moralistic, sentimental, and preachy it has been called by its detractors “a junior Pilgrim’s Progress.” However it is an enjoyable read and does contain a number of great characters. One, of course, is the unforgettable Flashman, the school bully, who at one point roasts poor Tom before a coal fire, and whose post-Rugby career of cowardice, duplicity, and vice was imagined with wonderful comic brio by George McDonald Fraser in a triumphant late-twentieth-century “spin-off” series.
Hughes was a cricket hero at Rugby and an all-round jock, and came to believe in the importance of sports for moral as well as physical growth. He also rated boldness, fighting spirit, and comradeship as key to the development of boys. Add to that a large dollop of Christian morality and high Anglican idealism, plus the occasional application of ice cold showers and six painful strokes of the cane, and you have the necessary ingredients to turn a young savage into a civilized human. “I don’t care a straw for Greek particles” says Tom’s father, Squire Brown. “If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman and a Christian, that’s all I want”.
Indeed. You could say, Tom Brown’s Schooldays served as a brilliant marketing tool in the long and hugely successful nineteenth-century campaign to burnish the “English Gentleman” brand. Rugby, wrote, Hughes, “is a little corner of the British Empire which is thoroughly, wisely and strongly ruled.” Its ruler at the time—the other great character in the book and the novel’s true hero, drawn with boundless admiration from life—was the formidable and frightening figure of Dr. Thomas Arnold, Rugby’s headmaster, and England’s most influential pedagogue.
When Arnold became headmaster in 1832, he found Rugby, like all public schools, to be in a state of “anarchy tempered by vice,” in the words of Lytton Strachey, who savagely lampooned Arnold in Eminent Victorians. Strachey describes the imposing Doctor as one who “battled the Wicked One on a daily basis.” Arnold tamed the school by sheer force of character, making it “a place of real Christian education.” “First,” he wrote, “we must look for religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly intellectual ability,” As Strachey describes him, Arnold was “the earnest enthusiast who strove to make his pupils Christian gentlemen, and who governed his school according to the principles of the Old Testament, has proved to be the founder of the worship of athletics.” In Arnold’s day, one might say, England became the games master of the world.
One impressionable youth who read Tom Brown’s Schooldays was twelve-year-old Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat. As a small boy from an ancient royalist family, he had lived through the humiliating defeat of France in the war with Prussia and the terrifying Paris Commune that followed. He always described his reading of Hughes’ book as an epiphany. Like a latter-day St Paul on the road to Damascus, Coubertin became Arnold’s apostle, and the insight he took away from Tom Brown’s Schooldays —that sport could regenerate a country and make it great—became his creed, and he would eventually expand that idea to include international sporting contests that could foster peace. The Gallic baron even made repeated pilgrimages deep into the English countryside to pray at the great disciplinarian’s tomb. “Thomas Arnold,” wrote Coubertin in L’Education en Angleterre “was the leader giving us the precise formula for the role of athletics in education Because of him playing fields sprang up all over England,” Scholars would now say that Coubertin—and Hughes for that matter—perhaps exaggerated Arnold’s interest in organized games. He was actually in the habit of leaving that to his many under masters. Arnold’s greatest obsession was saving small boys from sin and sending them forth to claim the subjected people’s of the Empire for Christ. Nevertheless, Baron Coubertin was inspired, rightly or not, by what he took to be Arnold’s athletic vision, and armed with it, sallied forth to found the modern Olympics in 1896.
One chapter of Tom Brown’s Schooldays describes in vivid detail a game of football between “School-House” and “Rest of School.” The type of football played at Rugby in Hughes’ time was what we now would describe as a “mixture” of soccer and rugby, of kicking and carrying, with no limit as to how many players on a team. (Presumably, for fairness’ sake, the number must have been the same per side). In the school football rules of the 1820s, handling the ball had been prohibited unless it was airborne—in which case it was okay to catch it. After a player caught a ball, he was to stand still, as were all other players. He was then given a choice—kick it wherever he wished, or place on the ground and kick it toward the opposing goal in an attempt to score. By the late 1830s, however, the Rugby school football rules had changed, and running with the ball was now allowed. There is stone plaque at Rugby commemorating a boy, William Webb Ellis, who in 1823, “with a fine disregard for the rules of football ..first took the ball in his arms and ran with it.” The fact that running with the ball was beginning to become the established practice at Rugby around that time is undisputed, though the particulars of this tale are now thought to have been apocryphal. The official “Rugby School Rules” were finally codified by a committee of boys in 1845. It was this version of the game that Tom Brown played. “This is worth living for,” Brown exclaims in the novel, “the whole sum of schoolboy existence gathered up into one straining, struggling half-hour, a half hour worth a year of common life”.
Why did these elite schools have football all to themselves? What about the rest of British society? The answer lies partly in the working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Football was a “Saturday sport.” (By common convention, no sporting fixtures were held on Sundays). Thus, it was not until the passage of the Factory Act by parliament in 1850—granting workers more time off, including, crucially, Saturday afternoons—that was there even the possibility of spectators, let alone players from other classes. Another barrier was the 1835 Highways Act which prohibited the playing of games on roads or common land—a reinvention of older statutes dating to medieval times attempting to ban “mob football,” the code-less village game that had been favored by peasants in the pre-industrial age. Only the offspring of the leisure class—and increasingly those from the upper reaches of the professions—had the time, energy and freedom to indulge in organized games.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, all the great public schools were playing variants of organized rule-bound football but each by different rules. The “carrying” game was favored by Rugby, Marlborough, and Cheltenham. A second group of schools, Eton and Harrow, had their own versions of a “kicking” and “dribbling” game, with some handling of the ball allowed. (Dribbling football, with a tight “off side” rule, is preserved in the so-called Eton Field Game, still played there, alongside soccer). A third group of schools, Westminster and Charterhouse, played a version where absolutely no handling was permitted, but with a new variant, a “forward passing” rule, excluded in other public school codes. (I attended Westminster School in the early 1960s. Being a London school, and lacking the open fields available at country schools, Westminster boys in the early nineteenth century were forced to play their version of a “kicking” football game in the medieval cloister of Westminster Abbey, the school’s chapel. Under such conditions, surrounded by stone sarcophagi and flag-stones, an intrinsically rougher “carrying” game would have resulted in a lot of brain damaged or dead schoolboys).
Another factor driving developments was the arrival of the railroad. In the 1850s, Britain had the most extensive rail network in the world, enabling school teams to travel. Natural rivalry led to a lust for inter-school games—but with so many variants of football’s rules, satisfactory competition proved elusive. In a letter to the London Times in 1863, a reader signing himself Etoniensis pointed out the problem. “The Etonians have now for two years played against the Westminsters [sic] The game is a kind of compromise between the two, more closely resembling the Westminster game than ours. The display is therefore below mediocrity.”
In the 1840s, some old Rugby boys at Cambridge University formed a club for their style of “carrying” football and challenged a group of old Etonians to a game on Parker’s Piece, the green in the center of town. Eton’s was a “kicking” game, and the ensuing muddle led, in 1848, to the formation of an undergraduate committee to thrash out common “Cambridge” rules. One eyewitness described what happened:
I remember how the Eton men howled at the Rugby men for handling the ball. So it was agreed that two men should be chosen to represent each of the public schools, and two who were not public school men, for the Varsity. G. Salt and myself were chosen for the Varsity. I wish I could remember the others. Burn of Rugby, was one; Whymper of Eton, I think, also. We were 14 in all I believe. Harrow, Winchester, Shrewsbury, Westminster, were also represented...
The idea had been to formulate a game that was acceptable to all. And at Cambridge, at any rate, it worked. Games could now be played harmoniously on Parker’s Piece between men formerly steeped in many different codes. The “Cambridge Rules” became the basis—with many revisions—of the rules of Association Football that became codified, enshrined, and published fifteen years later.
Acceptable to all, that is, except Rugby School. Why did it hold out against all the others in the “battle of the codes,” whether to carry or kick? It undoubtedly had much to do with the immense prestige of Dr. Arnold in mid-Victorian Britain, and the self-confidence that came with it. It also had something to with the enormous popularity of Tom Brown.
This muddle went on for a while, until an energetic London attorney and keen amateur footballer, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, known as “the father of modern football,” invited all the major public schools and alumni clubs to attend a meeting and hammer out a final agreement once and for all. The caucus was held in the upstairs rooms of a London pub, in 1863. Factions representing eleven public schools as well as their alumni football clubs were present, including one from Rugby. During long and acrimonious sessions over several days, the Rugby group stuck to their guns, while the “kickers,” led by a Westminster faction, stuck to theirs. For a while it seemed that the Rugby code would prevail. At one point, common rules, including elements of both codes, seemed agreed. However at the eleventh hour a number of schools and clubs, principally those connected to Westminster and Eton, recanted and ended up going back to the old the Cambridge rules for a “kicking” game.
Morley’s attempt at reconciliation had failed. Henceforth there would be two irreconcilable codes—the “soccer” world of the Football Association, founded in 1862, supporting the “kicking” code and policing its rules; and the “rugger” world of the Rugby Football Union, founded a few years later in 1871, supporting the “carrying” code, and guarding its rules. (The RFU suffered a further, and very acrimonious, class-based split in the 1890s, between its amateurs, who were “gentlemen,” and professionals, who were not). Today soccer is a major sport at only a handful of the most elite schools—Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster and Charterhouse. Most of the rest choose to play rugby.July 8, 2010
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