We start with a sweeping view of the late 18th century and the first half or so of the 19th century.
Communications at the outset of this period were slow, the railway network had not developed and the major changes that urbanisation would bring in the late Victorian era were very much in the future. Sport in Britain was still very local. Running races and jumping competitions were many, as were forms of fighting or animal sports, but all differed from town to village. A few festive fairs or ‘games’, such as the Cotswold Olimpick Games originally promoted a century or so earlier by Robert Dover, were organised on a regular basis. Games and contests at this early time were enjoyed mainly for amusement and revelry.
Balls were certainly being kicked or thrown in towns and villages around the country, and increasingly in the leading public schools as team games grew in favour and popularity, but customs were all locally based. Football and rugby would not develop separate identities or any uniform rules until the 1860s and 1870s.
Of our modern sports, cricket was perhaps the earliest to take a recognisable form. The game had established early roots amongst the parishes and the villages. Matches were led with enthusiasm by members of the landed gentry keen to partake in local rivalry (and wagers). In Hambledon, in Hampshire, the village team – well-organised with many players paid in money or kind – became the acknowledged leaders of the sport for many decades until the formation of the Marylebone Cricket Club.
The principal spectator sports were those fuelled, essentially, by gambling. The aristocrats and the wealthy enjoyed opportunities to take part in, or promote, challenges and wagers. In addition to cricket, four sports in particular led to events when substantial crowds would gather to enjoy the contests and to gamble on the outcome: horse-racing, prize-fighting, pedestrianism (foot-racing) and rowing. These were the sports which gave rise to our first sporting immortals.