Upper- and middle class sport in Victorian Britain and the concept of amateurism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Early modern British sport – an overview

3. Victorian society and its influence on sport
3.1 Modernization processes
3.2 Social factors

4. Upper- and middle class sport
4.1 Upper class sport
4.2 Middle class sport
4.3 Women’s participation in sport

5. Amateurism

6. Summary / Conclusion

Table of References

1. Introduction

The significance of sport as a means to explain dynamic processes in society has increasingly been acknowledged by scholars in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Vice versa it would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand the development of sport if contemplating it isolated and not on the broader background of society in general. This text concentrates rather on sport as a product of other areas such as the working world or politics, but also attempts to outline its initiating role for some changes in British culture. The time to be examined will be the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 until 1901 and in which Britain underwent remarkable processes of modernization in all areas. It was also the period when sport became subject to remarkable transformations, largely acquiring the features of its modern twentieth century appearance. However, the attempt to describe contexts as multi- facetted as possible will make it necessary to also take a look into the time after and especially before those sixty-four Victorian years.

Accordingly, the first chapter deals with sport in Early Modern Britain, emphasising especially the eighteenth century. It is concerned to present an overview, from which more or less universal features of the sports exercised in that time can be derived and which in the later course of the text shall be contrasted with the characteristics of Victorian sport. Those characteristics and its origins will be worked out in the second chapter, when sport is predominantly described as a product of technological modernization and shifting social attitudes. Here also the role of the rising middle classes as the new “Trägerschicht” (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 47) of sport will receive attention. The third chapter more technically deals with the most common and most popular sports exercised in Victorian Britain, whereat a distinction between upper- and middle class disciplines will be employed in order to present a more differentiated picture. The fourth and last chapter finally recapitulates the way of the middle classes, who managed to become the dominating influence in sport, while contrasting them to the higher and lower orders. With regard to the lower, focus lies on the amateur rule, which emerged in all sports, and which in Guttman’s (1979) words “war eine Waffe in der Auseinandersetzung zwischen sozialen Schichten” (p. 40).

2. Early modern British sport – an overview

Sport in 16th, 17th an 18th century Britain was already, as Eisenberg (1999) puts it, an activity for everyone (p. 35). For the aristocracy and gentry it served as a welcome opportunity to bring variety into their lives, for social contacts and for the demonstration of social superiority. They sought exclusiveness in their traditional sports such as hunting, cricket, water sports (rowing, yacht racing) and (partly) horse racing, but also were interested in blood sports (animal fights), pugilism (price boxing) and pedestrianism (running or walking) – sports that were highly popular among the lower classes as well (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 25).

In case of the latter, sport activities again served as a means for variety and contacts. Furthermore they helped to solve conflicts or to get rid of psychological pressure. One of the popular under class games, which often were referred to as pastimes and which the upper class did not show interest in, was an early variety of football, where a stone or another object had to be transported to a specified point in order to win the game. Often this constituted the only rule and it was, as Thomas Elyot in 1531 put it, “nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence” (cited after Birley, 1996, p. 62). Ninety years later Revd John Strype, again not a member of the lower class himself, somehow polemically counted cricket, football, wrestling, cudgels, nine-pins, shovelboard, throwing at cocks and lying at alehouses as “diversion of the more common sort of people” (Birley, 1996, p. 112).

Despite such class distinctions with regard to preferences, sport often was a social event, a happening where members of all social strata – and all sexes – came together. Huge events were horse-races, which allowed the well-off to present themselves not only at the races but also on balls and diners, and which attracted the lower classes for a day off and for entertainment (Brailsford, 1991, p. 70). Even Royals could not or did not want to evade the temptations of these races. James I founded Newmarket (though originally intended as hunting ground) and raced horses there, Charles II was a passionate fan and others at least supported the sport and showed up to watch races (p. 43-44). Not at least Royal presence secured and fostered a lot of acceptance. Brailsford (1991) reports of about 100000 spectators at the Derby in Epson Downs around the year 1800, whereas such horse-races usually lasted two or even three days and were mostly accompanied by prize-fights in boxing and blood sports (p. 69-71).

Brutal sports as the latter ones tended to disappear in the Victorian time. However, in Early Modern Britain they were very popular. One reason for its popularity does Eisenberg (1999) see in their outstanding qualification for betting (p. 33). They were comparably hard to manipulate und clearly distinguished between winner and loser, since, at least in the case of blood sports, the loser usually was dead when he left the arena.

Betting took a very essential part in sport and counted as sport itself. Especially in the eighteenth century, English society was affected by “gambling fever” (Munting, 1993, p. 297-298), the rich gambling “large sums on almost everything” (p. 298). But not exclusively the upper classes gambled. The poorer also took part by large numbers in the so called “side-bettings” (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 30). For all of them the purpose was, besides adding some excitement to a leisure time activity, to demonstrate economic – and therefore social – superiority within the own class. Furthermore, and not at last, betting promised economic gain, especially in cases, when the object to be gambled on belonged to the gambler himself, and the latter was well informed about its physical condition. An illustrating example in this regard is Dennis O’Kelly, who became rich through gambling. As Birley (1996) reports, O’Kellys fortune was decisively augmented by his horse Eclipse, “the greatest horse of the eighteenth century” (p. 137), which alone earned him much more than £25000.

If, as occasionally happening, amounts of several thousand pounds were involved in a single bet, it was essential to determine rules to guarantee equal opportunities. For this purpose, associations, generally more a matter of the nineteenth century, were founded in cricket and horse-racing, the sports where, besides pedestrianism, most heavy gambling was involved. Around 1750 the Jockey Club and in 1787 the Marylebone Cricket Club appeared as authoritative bodies. Furthermore pugilism, since 1743, had the Broughton Rules, named after the famous contemporary fighter Jack Broughton (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 34-35).

A major problem of sporting events before the railway age was travelling to them. Therefore few were of national character, most remained limited to local or regional appeal (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 25). These smaller ones did not attract patronage of influential upper class gentlemen or even members of the royal family. They were organized and promoted by former athletes or, more often, inn- and barkeepers, who provided the space for the event and – most important for them – the space for after the event, when the day was to be finished with blood sports and heavy drinking (Brailsford, 1991, p. 54-57).

3. Victorian society and its influence on sport

Not much demand for amateurism and not much of middle class ethic had yet occurred in sport before the Victorian era. This is not surprising, taking into consideration that the middle class had scarcely existed then. Eisenberg (1999), investigating several studies on the matter, sums up that by 1800 the middle classes in England and Wales made a share of three percent of the whole population. Until 1850 it increased to 16 percent and until 1900 further to 30 percent (p. 47). In the 1860s, the contemporary economist Dudley Baxter, who distinguished between eight social classes, saw the share of the middle classes at around 20 percent (presented by Birley, 1996, p. 264), which roughly complies with Eisenberg’s figures. Baxter furthermore provided the estimated annual income for each class as follows:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

tab. 1: Social classes and their annual incomes in the 1860’s

Thus, the rise of the middle class, even though somewhat delayed, falls together with the industrial revolution, which lasted approximately from 1754 until 1850 and whose effects fully unfolded in the Victorian era. The impacts of these two influences, that of the industrial revolution and of the middle class, shall be illuminated in detail in the next two chapters.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Upper- and middle class sport in Victorian Britain and the concept of amateurism
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Sport in the Making of Britain
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ISBN (eBook)
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706 KB
Upper-, Victorian, Britain, Sport, Making, Britain
Quote paper
Mathias Wick (Author), 2007, Upper- and middle class sport in Victorian Britain and the concept of amateurism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/85328


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