The day that Samuel Pepys did not play football

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.

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