The day that Samuel Pepys did not play football

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In the whirl of 17th-century London life, diarist and clerk Samuel Pepys (pronounced PEEPS) had too many appointments to indulge in the craze of street football. “Up betimes” provides a familiar start to one of his entries, prefacing a frenzied pre-Twitter routine of hobnobbing about town as well as absorption in correspondence and accounts.

Pepys, whose diaries already have been annotated to exhaustion, has come to still greater notoriety through Pepys’ Diary, the project of Phil Gyford of London, the 21st-century techno-Pepys. Since 2003 Gyford has made Pepys’s chronicles, written between 1660 and 1669, available in blog format.

A liability in the dark days before
the Alice Band, Pepys’s coiffure keeps him
sidelined. He does earn tidy royalties, though,
hawking his diaries among supporters.

London street football was established by Pepys’s day. The evidence is the sport’s long-standing literary provenance, including references from Shakespeare and earlier allusions within eclogues and government proclamations. Balls—actually retrofitted pigs’ bladders—flying through the air come to the purpose-driven Pepys’s attention the morning of 3 Jan 1665. The incident makes enough of an impression that Pepys gives it primacy of place in that day’s jotting: “Up, and by coach to Sir Ph. Warwickes, the street being full of footballs, it being a great frost” (quoted from the Latham and Matthews edition). That is the sum total of Pepys’s exposition, yet the aside has driven a ream of annotations on the diary website.

Editors of the reference edition, Robert Latham and William Matthews, comment that “play would be possible since the streets would be empty of horse-traffic”—all except for Pepys’s coach, presumably. They allude to a Jan 1669 order banning street football but believe that the sport was permitted during this earlier interval, when Pepys served as a Royal Navy administrator during war with the Dutch.

Burgeoning textual critics at Pepys’ Diary, however, dig deeper. “What are these ‘footballs’?” Patricia seemingly asks of Pepys himself—referred to casually by regular posters as “Sam” or SP—343 years after the fact. “And what do they have to do with the great frost last night?” In fact, football by Pepys’s day existed as a familiar reference point. The first mention of “football,” according to Hugh Hornby in Uppies and Downies (see 12 Mar 08), occurs in a London mayoral proclamation in 1314—further in the past to Pepys than Pepys is to us. Association football’s prehistory consists of Shrove Tuesday and other festival games, weekly matches (documented in East Anglia) and “the informal daily kickabout,” Hornby writes, “which might take place on a street, in a playground or park.”

From around the time of Pepys’s chronicles, Hornby cites a description of football in Francis Willughby‘s Book of Games:

They blow a strong bladder and tie the neck of it as fast as they can, and then put it into the skin of a buls cod and sow it fast in.

They play in a longe streete, or a close that has a gate at either end. The gates are called Gaols. … The ball is thrown up in the middle between the gaols … the plaiers beeing aequally divided according to their strength and nimblenesse. … [T]hey that can strike the ball thorough their enemies gaol first win. They usually leave some of their best plaiers to gard the gaol while the rest follow the ball.

They often breake one anothers shins when two meete and strike both togather against the ball, & therefore there is a law that they must not strike higher than the ball. …

The harder the ball is blowne, the better it flys. They use to put quicksilver into it sometimes to keep it from lying still.

The plaiers must at first stand all at their gaols, the ball lying just in the middle betweene them, & they that can run best get the first kick.

London street football, ca. 1820, etching by H. Heath. (© 1996 FIFA Museum Collection™)

Matches took place countrywide, although London was a hub of activity. An edict in Manchester in 1608 cites “a company of lewde and disordered persons usinge that unlawfull exercise of playinge with the ffotebale in ye streets of the said towne, breakinge many mens windowes and glasse at theire plesures, and other greate inormyties.” From Chichester a correspondent in the early 1700s describes “footballing in the streets day after day in frosty weather.”

John Gay, in Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London, characterizes football in 1716 as a game suited for treacherous conditions:

I spy the furies of the foot-ball war:
The ’prentice quits his shop to join the crew,
Encreasing crouds the flying game pursue.
Thus, as you roll the ball o’er snowy ground,
The gath’ring globe augments with ev’ry round.
But whither shall I run? the throng draws nigh,
The ball now skims the street, now soars on high;
The dext’rous glazier strong returns the bound,
And jingling sashes on the pent-house found.

In the city, as Gay makes clear, the physical matches would have been an inconvenience for pedestrians and proprietors. By Pepys’s time, London already had a population of 500,000: perhaps foul weather did offer an opportunity to play with more abandon.

Religious objections appeared to have little effect on football, according to Adrian Harvey. The game prospered under Puritan authority in the 17th century, despite Puritan restrictions on sport and gaiety. Pepys himself, an Anglican, distrusted Puritan mores. At least once he tries a fruitless Sunday night pub crawl and peppers his journals with recreations that he observes or in which he participates. These are not limited to archery, billiards, bowls, assorted card games, cock throwing, fishing, foot and horse races, hunting, shooting, shuffleboard, skating, tennis and wrestling. “He devoted himself almost as systematically to music and the theatre as to work,” write Latham and Matthews, “and … he snatched all possible (and some impossible) chances that came his way of brief debauches with the complaisant shopgirls and servant-girls who in such numbers found him irresistible.”

Alongside these leisure options, football formed “part of mainstream life,” says Hornby, former curator of the national football museum, and perhaps Pepys mentions the game just once due to its mundane existence on the London streetscape. Those parsing Pepys’s usage on Gyford’s site suggest textual emendations to explain football‘s single diary appearance. Jesse, referencing Samuel Johnson, offers “foot[f]all”—meaning “a stumble; a trip of the foot”—as substitute. Martin Beagles suggests “sootball”: “It’s cold, fires have been kept burning for days, and the streets are filling up with pieces of coal grit and suchlike.” Sharon queries, “How about the possibility that heavy frost or light snow tends to whiten and round out the contours of ordinary objects. Hence, small shrubs, horse turds, chamber pots etc. would look rather like footballs until the ice melts a bit.”

Yet the preponderance of contemporaneous literary evidence—and as another Pepys’ Diary contributor, Mary, points out, that the description occurs during “the season of Christmas/New Year jollification”—argues for retaining Pepys’s shorthand recollection of a festive football morning.


Dennis Brailsford, Sport, Time, and Society: The British at Play (London: Routledge, 1991); Emma Griffin, England’s Revelry: A History of Popular Sports and Pastimes, 1660–1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Adrian Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years. The Untold Story, Sport in the Global Society (London: Routledge, 2005); Hugh Hornby, Uppies and Downies: The Extraordinary Football Games of Britain, Played in Britain (Swindon, England: English Heritage, 2008); Robert W. Malcolmson and Malcolm Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Archive, 1979); Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970–83); Eli Saslow, “Tradition: The Old Ba’ Game,” Washington Post, 30 Dec 07.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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