Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 45 - Sport

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Leonidas to Tom Sayers - Mills's Field - Cricket - Football - Racing - Caractacus - Bribery Colt - Running - Deerfoot - Rowing - Boxing - Baden-Powell - Archery.

ALTHOUGH in the foregoing pages I have occasionally touched on rowing and other popular forms of emulative athleticism, I was never a devotee of sport, and followed its records but very perfunctorily. At school I played cricket and football, and was considered a fair runner for my age. I also learnt to row, not, I think, badly; to sail, to swim, and later to box and wrestle a little. But I never tackled anything really seriously.
    Nevertheless, I was always interested in deeds of prowess or endurance, whether in peace or war, and any specially successful sportsman or warrior commanded my sincere esteem.
    I deem it fortunate that I became acquainted at an early age with the leading facts relating to ancient Sparta and Athens. Leonidas and Miltiades, Thermopylae and Marathon, with the Olympic Games, inspired me with admiration and respect for courage, manliness, fortitude and determination. Leonidas was my special hero. In his daring and self-sacrifice I found qualities that neither Alexander the Great nor Julius Caesar had given evidence of, although no doubt they were intellectually his superiors.
    From Leonidas to Tom Sayers may seem a big jump, but to my boyish imagination they had a good deal in common; they both held the fort until, as the Spaniard says, más no poder.
After Leonidas it was Alfred the Great who captivated my fancy. His obstinate refusal to be beaten by the Danes, [-346-] together with the sense of fair play, justice and magnanimity he always displayed, even towards his bitterest opponents, marked him out as a hero and a sportsman of the first order. I failed to find his equal in all British history, and scarcely in any other. Warriors and law-givers combined in one skin are rare in the records of mankind, and, so far as England is concerned, he was our first and our last.
    Cricket I learnt at the age of nine or ten. There was a big paddock called Mills's Field near us at Camberwell. Now entirely cut up and built over, it was then merely fringed with houses, but fringed nearly all round. Many of these dwellings had doors in the walls or fences of their back gardens giving access to the grassland across little bridges spanning a ditch or drain that ran round the boundary. Some of these bridges were merely planks, but others had been perhaps unnecessarily elaborated, and one or two were actually draw-bridges that could be raised and secured upright against the garden gates. Not one of these suburban Englishmen's castles sported a portcullis, however.
    Mills, a butcher in the Old Kent Road, pastured cattle and sheep in the field, but these occupied but a corner of the big expanse and leave to play games was accorded on easy terms to neighbouring householders. Small cricket clubs were formed to take advantage of the concession, while respectable children sported as they listed. There I scored my first duck's egg, made my first runs, took my first wicket and acquired familiarity with cricket jargon.
    I have read that cricketers still sported tall hats in the fifties, but that was not my experience in 1858-9. I cannot be sure of details, but those I saw mostly wore cloth caps and dressed chiefly in white. Stay! I do recall top hats in a charity match-but they were assumed for purposes of fun and advertisement.
    Bats were flatter and lighter and usually cut out of a sold piece of willow, not spliced; gloves and pads less in evidence. But then the leg-before-wicket rules were very different, and pads were not used to stop balls cutting in from the sides. Bowling was mostly underhand and at the wicket, never being manipulated with intent to in-[-347-]timidate the batter. That emphatically was not cricket. Neither would "barrackiflg have been had it been known, which happily it was not.
    Round- and over-arm bowling was regarded as throwing and discountenanced. Its first practitioners got into trouble with the umpires. It is said that these innovations were due to a young lady, Miss Wallis. When one considers the anatomy of the female frame and the attitude naturally assumed by girls who try to throw balls this seems not unlikely. And when one reflects that W. G. Grace and his brothers were encouraged in their early cricket by their mother the feminine record in the great pastime must be acknowledged to be no mean one. It suggests that man is as mother makes him, even in cricket.
    Nevertheless, at this time the wicket pitch remained practically for women an unexplored Elysium. It was, not until the seventies, I think, that the comic papers began to set "Rosie Posie" teams in the field and make fun of them. Certainly a little girl offering to join in one of our games would have been regarded as a phenomenon, and not a very proper one at that. Feminine dress was not, of course, in the least suitable for the game; the nearly naked female children now so prominent as cricketers on the sands of various watering-places were no more dreamt of as a possible development than maidens with wings or antennae were.
    In those days the wicket-keeper was usually placed six feet from the stumps, and Long Stop several yards behind him, according to the speed of bowling.
    Single-wicket matches were often seen, and were not disdained even by experts. Two prominent players would sometimes meet in battle, bowling and batting in turns. In such contests the boundaries were short and the same fielders would serve both players. Single wicket constituted a searching man-against-man test. Why not revive it?
    I used to see cricket news in the papers and became familiar with the names of the principal clubs and players. The I Zingari club was much in evidence in the 1860s, wanderers then as they still are in 1924. Gentlemen v. Players, Eleven of England v. Twenty-two of Blank-[-348-]shire, Married v. Single, and One-armed v. One-legged were matches which came every year, and always created interest.
    As a youth I never saw a first-class match, my experiences being confined to Mills's Field, Peckham Rye, and, later, to Blackheath, where many good teams, including several schools-my own was one-had pitches and afforded instructive illustrations of the game.
    I am under the impression that cricket in the '50s and '60s was a livelier and more interesting game than it is at present. It may be the effect of age or of imperfect appreciation of modern points, but the last game I saw at Kennington Oval struck me as slow and devoid of the fire and activity characteristic of the old days. The breast of each player may have been flushed with almost irrepressible zeal, but, if so, the internal volcanoes were very successfully hidden. The game had a made-to-order look and the cricketers suggested trained animals going through trick dancing, not because they loved it, but because it had to be. No chances were taken, and what is sport devoid of chance? I wondered whether the spirit of James Lilywhite was looking on. I am afraid that modern cricket has become finciking and over-educated. And knocking off for a few drops of rain would have been accounted womanish sixty years ago, and a tea interval mawkishly incomprehensible.
    While watching this modern game I thought of a modification we sometimes played in my youth called "Touch and Run." Any player touching a ball, however slightly, except by way of a direct block, had to chance a run. A very lively and rapid game invariably resulted. Casualties often ensued, of course, but the risk was usually rewarded, since the score mounted rapidly and there was but scant time for yawning.
    Football was played a good deal by schools, as I had opportunity of observing on Blackheath, where ray own seminary performed a kind of Rugby game every Saturday afternoon in the season. "Association" was not yet. But as a popular sport football was non-existent, and in view of the attention it now receives in the Press it is curious [-349-] to look for football news in the sporting papers of the fifties and sixties, and, apart from school matches, find it not. But such football as did exist was sport; that of 1924 is, unfortunately, trade - a capitalised gambling counter. The exaggerated importance with which the game is regarded by a large section of the population of Great Britain is nothing less, in my opinion, than a national misfortune. If newspaper notices of English football were few they did not exist at all about Scottish.
    Were none but those able to play the game allowed to attend football matches the nation might gain something in physical development: and Sport would smile again.
    Cup ties were very modest affairs when "Association" was young. They were often played in public parks, without charge for admission. I have in mind one decided in West Ham Park in the early 1880s. It was between Upton Park and Preston North End, the second or third round in the English Association Cup. There was neither gate nor gate money; no stands, no seats, while the spectators numbered 300 at most. To-day such a match would attract 40,000; but would the sport be any cleaner or better?
    It is curious to note that Scotsmen began to disdain porridge about the time that football became an obsession with them, and that many who continued to "sup" the homely fare took sugar with "them." If this does not spell decadence, what does ?
    The sporting press neglected golf, treating principally of racing, rowing, pedestrianism, swimming, pugilism, wrestling, pigeon-shooting and archery. Chess likewise had a familiar corner. Billiards were not much in evidence.
    Racing I can say Little about. Apart from sweepstakes I never had one shilling on a horse in my life, and the race meetings I attended might be reckoned without much mental strain by a Zulu, whose limit of enumeration is said not to exceed ten. I was once at Ealing Races, about 1864, once at Croydon and once at Epsom.
    The first Derby winner I remember was Caractacus in 1859 - a name already made familiar by the history books - and him I heard and read a lot about. I recollect a picture [-350-] of the horses passing the winning-post in which Caractctcus was represented with his legs out straight fore-and-aft and his belly almost grazing the sod. Race-horses in those pre-Kodak days never assumed any other attitude. After that I kept touch with the Derby year by year. When Lord Lyon took the ribbon, in 1866 I think, I went through an unusual experience. I had drawn a horse known as the Bribery Colt in a small sweepstake, and when the result was known the second horse was variously described by this name and as Savernake, with the result that the stake- holder refused to pay out the second prize. It took several days to ascertain that they were really one and the same, the colt having been unnamed when entered and called Savernake later. So I ultimately got my prize, and considered it worth taking. This was the year before Hermit was popularly supposed to have won the Derby in a snowstorm. I believe, however, that the brief flurry of snow that gave rise to the legend had ceased just before the horses went to the post.
    Racing men in the 1860s could not all have been quite respectable-at all events not always above board-as the following incident caused me to think. In 1864 I once got into an up-train at New Cross to proceed to London Bridge, and found the compartment pretty full of racing men returning from Epsom. Tickets were taken at New Cross in those days. As soon as my fellow voyagers realised the fact from the shouting of the collectors on the platform two of them got under the seats and were hidden by the legs and overcoats of the others, one of whom turned to me and with an oath bade me look out of the window. The collector came and took our tickets, which he seemed to scrutinise very closely. As soon as the train had started the secluded ones came forth and amid much laughter were dusted down by their comrades.
    Running was a more popular sport than at present, the names of its prominent professors being known to the multitude, although not so widely as those of the rowing and boxing champions. In 1861 a runner arrived from America who was said to be a "Seneca" Indian named Deerfoot [-351-] and the best sprinter on the Western Continent. He came in the Great Eastern and secured a good advertisement in advance by running races in Indian costume round the vessel's vast decks and easily beating all and sundry. He contested matches up to ten miles, still in picturesque Indian dress, with Mills and our other best men, often defeating them, so that in a few weeks Deerfoot had his name well established in sporting circles, while the fleetness of 1mb ascribed to the Red Indian by Fennimore Cooper, Mayne Reid and other writers was held to be fully demonstrated. He stayed a year or two and made a good pile of dollars. Then furtive rumours, which grew into positive assertions, got about that the whole show was bunkum. Deerfoot was no Red Indian, but an Englishman who had never seen a wigwam in his life! He once attended a gathering of reporters to the sporting press attired as a Seneca Chief, and smoked the pipe of peace with them; they little guessed, poor innocents, how he was "smoking" them too! To what extent our own pedestrians were privy to the affair could not be said, but ugly assertions were not lacking. It had a disagreeable flavour and reacted against the popularity of running. But Deerfoot was certainly a good sprinter.
    Rowing, my favourite sport, I have dealt with elsewhere. It, too, degenerated after the death of Bob Chambers and the blue-ribboned sceptre of what was in the early 1860s regarded as a specially English exercise has since gone the round of many a distant clime. Of the older matches, the Oxford and Cambridge race and Doggett's Coat and Badge are the chief races surviving to this day. As in running and boxing, doubts as to the honesty of contests led to rapid degeneration and neglect.
    Of boxing I have spoken earlier in the book. So long as Ben Caunt, Tom Sayers and Tom King were its shining lights it maintained its popularity, for nobody ever suspected any of these of selling or prearranging a fight. But their successors commanded no such confidence, and the Ring deservedly shared the decrepitude bad practices had brought upon other sports.
    [-352-] It was a pity. Barbarism was alleged against the old pugilism, but were knock-out blows more drastic or more numerous than in these times of the gloved hand ? It is to be doubted. The prize-ring was also said to be a centre of rowdyism, ruffianism and blackguardism-and other isms as well, I've no doubt-but was it worse than were many race meetings of 1922 and 1923? No branch of sport, it is to be feared, cricket excepted, may claim immunity from such taints.
    On the other hand, as I have hinted before, pugilism inculcated a spirit of fair play, forbearance and chivalry; a recognition of an opponent's staunchness and his right to win if he could, that were not without their uses in the formation of youthful character. In fact, it did in some degree what Baden-Powell has tried to achieve in our times - with his Boy Scouts-to give a moral, manly lead to youthful inexperience. I do not find the same influences in the artificial rules and surroundings of modern boxing. With his book of manly precepts General Baden-Powell is a more eloquent preacher than a bench of Bishops, and a more effective schoolmaster than several Boards of Education rolled into one.
    The ladies had no lawn-tennis to develop their innate gracefulness, but they did possess archery; and bending the bow and aiming the shaft found favour with many of them-  as might indeed be expected, their close connection with Cupid being considered and given due weight to. There were several Archery Clubs in London - and archery manuals could be bought at the railway bookstalls - which held meetings at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere at which the fair members assumed many a beautiful pose, and no doubt scored many a hit. Their targets might appropriately have been marked with men's hearts instead of bull's-eyes. They were not, as a matter of fact, but probably the hearts didn't escape for all that.