With the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup upon us, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look at our county’s relationship with football over the years. How long have people being playing football in the area? Was there always such enthusiasm for the sport as we see in more recent times? Our research has revealed that Chester especially has a longstanding connection to the game, but we do see other references being made to it across the county over the years.
Football in Cheshire, and indeed the whole of the UK, is clearly very popular and a sport enjoyed and engaged in by many. In Chester today, the sport is thriving and even though the name of the club may have changed over the years, ‘The Blues’ or ‘Chester FC’ continue to draw in the crowds on match days. Interest and involvement in the sport is not a modern occurrence, although as we shall see, the purpose for playing the game may have altered somewhat over time.
The earliest mention of football being played in the city is in 1540, with sure suggestions that it was being played much earlier than this as part of the Shrovetide celebrations. The Chester shoemakers guild are recorded as delivering to the drapers guild ‘one bale of Lether caulyd a fout baule’ at the cross of the Roodee. A game of ‘football’ was then played between the Roodee and the Commonhall in the city. The mayor Henry Gee is recorded as suggesting more appropriate forms of recreation to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, such as foot races and shooting in long bows. Why would football need to be replaced you might ask? Did the mayor have a personal preference towards these alternative forms of recreation? Or had the game taken on a level of disruption or violence which made it an unsatisfactory way to celebrate Shrovetide in the city? We cannot answer this here with any certainty, but we can get more of a feel of how football was played by looking at later documents.
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, ZAB 1
It is later in 1608 that we start to find football mentioned in other contexts and it’s fair to say the circumstances in which it is mentioned are not always good! For example, we see a particular problem in Dodleston where two cases are being read before the consistory courts of football being played in the churchyard. Perhaps the activity of playing football itself was not the root of the problem, but rather the ‘brawling and chiding in an unchristianlike manner’ of the people playing it! Clearly, the church disagreed with such activities, especially within the church grounds!
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, EDC 5/1608/69 and 70
We encounter another displeasing situation, this time in Crosthwaite churchyard in 1640 and again heard before the consistory courts. This time, the vicar of the church, Richard Routh, is being accused of ‘...drawing blood, pulling...hair, sitting drinking all night and playing at football abusing the players and laying violent hands on them’! Violence and improper behaviour seem to be a recurring theme so far when football is mentioned, but we can’t help but feel as though the game is getting a bad press. The evidence is not clear that violence and poor behaviour are a result of playing the game, but rather that these behaviours are occurring at the same time as it is being played. Certainly in this case, there is only one person being abusive and violent, not all of those taking part!
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies EDC 5/1640/71
In 1617, we find an examination in the Quarter Sessions files of a Richard Rodes who is witness to a game of football being played in Tattenhall. Here, he saw a ‘...John Calley breake Tho. Bruse his head...’. The text then goes on to state ‘...but what the occation of there quarrell was he knoweth not...’. Hoorah! Football is redeemed! We can rest assured that in this instance, playing the game wasn’t necessarily the cause of such poor behaviour and resulting injuries.
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 46/2/43
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 46/2/45
This feeling of redemption is shortlived however, since in around 1671 we get a detailed account of the rules of the game of football played to honour the Shrovetide celebrations and behaviours displayed during it. This is a retrospective account originally captured in approximately 1595. The account unfortunately gives another negative slant on the playing of football when it describes how ‘...some haueinge theire bodies brused & crushed, some theire, armes, heades and legges broken and some otherwise mayemed or in perrill of theire liffe’. And there we were thinking that the evidence that football was a violent activity was circumstantial!
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, DCC 19
Further references for the playing of football in Cheshire continue up until the modern day. Indeed, we hold collections with references to various football clubs and associations and numerous articles written on the subject. Although direct references to the game provide us with a somewhat negative outlook, it is difficult to see that this was the only context in which it was played. Did the game itself promote violent behaviour? Or was it subject to violent behaviour because of the context in which it was played? Everyone will draw their own conclusions. What is clear however is that Cheshire, and specifically the city of Chester, has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the game and no doubt will continue to do so for many years to come.