The day that Samuel Pepys did not play football

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.

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