Why did Winchester Play Rugby rather than Football in the 19th Century?

As many of you know, Winchester is famously known for having an influential college in the 19th century, with the boys school playing an integral part to the community. For the boys, sport and recreational events allowed for competitions, not only amongst the other houses within the school but against other boys schools. But for Winchester College, rugby was the sport of choice compared to football? Why was this I hear you say? Well read on, and you will find out 🙂 This blog post is in aid of my dissertation research question: ‘How Does Football Develop in Basingstoke: 1870-1890?’

Game of Winchester College Football

Winchester College was an important hub of the community, with the role of the college not one to be underestimated in modern-day society. For the colleges and the civilians around it, sport allowed for rules and mannerisms to be taught and aid development in everyday life. For Winchester, rugby allowed for the rules to be taught to their men, who would in turn play a massive part in the spread of the Empire. At the time, the British Empire was spreading across the globe, and it was these boys who were taught in schools like Winchester, who played such a massive part in helping spread the rules and the mannerisms of the respectable English gentleman across the Empire. This in turn led to the spread of sport throughout the Empire, with many high figure profiles within it performing the sports.

Image of an Indian Polo Team

Yet, for Winchester football was not the game in question. Though the boys in the school did take part in Winchester football, it was not the sport of choice, mainly due to the fact that the game at the time was very lower-class based, and the breweries helped to fund the teams. Winchester unlike Basingstoke was not home to many breweries, so football was not a sport in demand. For Winchester and the schools, rugby was a respectable sport with respectable mannerisms, and football provided an ugly side of civilisation. With neighbours Basingstoke having so many problems with football, rugby seemed to be the ideal sport for the people of Winchester. Basingstoke had many pub and church football teams, all teaching different constitutions and mannerisms. The pub sides were a lot more working class, with the local drinkers all pitching together to play against the other pub sides. The church teams as you can imagine liked football in the respect that it could teach good manners and lessons of the bible, and often thought of the pub teams as being similar to hooligans. In a time where drinking was frowned upon, football proved to be the centre point for one of the most famous riots at the time.

Interesting book on the Basingstoke Riots

With the Salvation Army marching into Basingstoke demanding that lessons of Christ be taught in all football, and that the pub teams should not have such a strong hold on the teams. What followed was the Basingstoke Riots of 1881, where the Breweries and pub teams went against the Salvation Army, leading to parliamentary action to solve the crisis. Whilst tarnishing the image of football, it illustrated that perhaps Winchester were not wrong to be focusing all their attention on playing rugby. Rugby allowed for rules to be taught, for respectability to be earned, life lessons to be taught overseas. Rugby was Winchester’s sport, and certainly benefitted the area, living on in their history into present day.

I hope you have enjoyed my little insight into why rugby was more popular than football in Winchester, hopefully as I do more dissertation research I can share more with you all.

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