A Report on the 2015 BRA Annual Conference: ‘Archives and Sport’

THE BRA ANNUAL CONFERENCE: “‘In a League of their own’: Archives of the History of British Sport and Physical Recreation”

The BRA Annual Conference took place on 26th November 2015 at Swedenborg House, Bloomsbury Way, London WC1. Around 40 participants were treated to a fascinating selection of papers about different aspects of the history of British sport.

Before the proceedings began, Julia Sheppard, BRA Chair, gave a brief report about the EGM and AGM the previous week, and in particular the momentous vote at the EGM, by a substantial majority, for the BRA to maintain its independent existence.

The first speaker, Eleanor Hoare, Eton College Archivist, took as her title, “‘We will play with a ball full of wynde’: Sport at Eton since the 15th Century”.

The Eton College archives illustrate both the possibilities and the frustrations of researching the history of sport. Before the 19th century, they are essentially concerned with the estates and income, not with the College, and still less with sport. Nevertheless, there are glimpses. The College received its foundation charter in 1440, and the first extant statutes, of 1452, stipulate “No jumping, wrestling, or throwing of balls”, and “No hawks”. Another glimpse comes from the Vulgaria (1519) of William Horman, Headmaster and later Vice-Provost. These comprise English sentences with model Latin translations, some of which refer to real tennis, and chess. Also relevant here is an early C16 wall-painting recently discovered in the Headmaster’s Chamber. This includes a figure holding a whip and using a spinning top. From his mouth comes a scroll carrying a sentence from the Vulgaria. Could he be an Eton boy?

William Marlow wrote about daily life at the College in the 16th century. The daily routine was very full, and the only break was between 3 and 4pm. Not until the 17th century was physical exercise given dedicated time. Thomas Montagu (Headmaster 1660) refers to skittles. However the “Ram Hunt” down Eton High St and beyond was abolished in 1747 as too rowdy.

From the 18th century references to sport become more frequent. Fencing and Dancing were offered officially, because they were considered “useful” Nugae Etonenses (1765) includes an MS list of scholars’ “entertainments”.

In 1863 the first Fives Courts were organised (and funded) by the boys, who also decided the Rules for the game. The boys seem to have been in charge of sport – as at Harrow. The 1805 letter from Harrow, challenging Eton to the first Eton-Harrow cricket match, was sent by the boys, not the school.

There has always been a tension in schools between time spent usefully on physical exercise, and time wasted. Eton was no exception. In 1857 the Headmaster refused to let Eton participate any further in the Eton-Harrow Match: “Virtue must come before cricket.” The match was later reinstated.

From the 1860s, the Eton College Chronicle reports sporting events. Eton did not play Rugby until 1896, and it has never been popular. On the other hand, the Wall Game has been played since 1849 or earlier. The chief match takes place on St Andrew’s Day. The rules are complex, bordering on unintelligible, and no goal has been scored since 1909. (A goal in 1912 was disallowed.)

Eton is very keen on Rowing, done by “Wet Bobs”, as opposed to the landlubbers, who are “Dry Bobs”. No-one can row without passing a swimming test first. Only officially sanctioned since 1840, Rowing’s principal day each year, with a procession of boats, is 4 June, the birthday of George III, a great benefactor. The uniforms and boat names are all derived from Nelson’s Navy. The Monarch is the only such boat anywhere with ten oars, not eight!

The House Debating Books give insights into attitudes to sports. Today, a great many sports are practised at Eton, including a (new) Falconry Society. The College still has its Beagle Hunt!

Mark Blandford-Baker, Home Bursar and Senior Treasurer of the Boat Club, Magdalen College Oxford, and a Board Member of British Rowing, spoke about “‘Upon the Elysian Stream’: An Oxford College Boat Club’s Archives, and its Oarsmen”.

Rowing Clubs (for the public) and Boat Clubs (for universities and colleges) generally have good records. MCBC’s are unusual in being catalogued, too! He had written a 150th anniversary history of the MCBC.

A “Tom Harris of Magdalen” was in the Oxford Blue Boat in 1836, and an early 19th-century publication of “aquatic dress” shows a young man in the rowing kit of the time, together with MCBC’s red flag. Despite this, MCBC was not officially founded (entirely by undergraduates) until 1859. Nobody knows why it adopted a red flag as its banner; it is not related to the College heraldry. From the start there were both Eights and Fours. The Fours, for Foundationers and Commoners, rowed against each other.

For the early years there are President’s notes, especially those of Bulley, and the Norsworthy Cup, but there are no Captains’ or Secretaries’ log books until 1887. In reconstructing the lists of early officers, he has assumed that Stroke was the Captain of Boats.

There are also old photographs, including one of RA Talboys, first Boatman, holding the presentation prow for the Headship of the River in 1892. (They are only on their fourth Boatman today!) Other photos show uniforms – caps and blazers.

Other sources include programmes; dinner menus; and the oars, rudders and prows of winning boats (displayed in the Old Kitchen). An illuminated scroll records MCBC winning everything in sight at Henley in 1907!

In an amusing aside, the speaker described what happened when Oscar Wilde fell out with the Oxford University Boat Club and the MCBC. Various boaties attacked Wilde in his room, expecting an easy victory. To their surprise he fought back and won, and then proceeded to trash the ringleader’s room, watched by a crowd of onlookers. Wilde the aesthete came from tough Irish farming stock.

The speaker was worried about record-keeping today. Nobody wants to write things down any more, or print them off. It is very difficult to get Captains to compile log books. “We don’t capture web-based material as well as we should.”

Karen Davies, Archivist, Bedford Physical Education and Levick Boyd archives, University of Bedfordshire, spoke about “Bedford Physical Training College: The Female Tradition”.

The archives of Bedford Physical Training College extend from 1903 to 1976. They comprise syllabuses and exam papers; responses to Government consultations about Physical Education; photographs (lots of them – the girls were all middle-class, with Box Brownies!); oral history; and artefacts and uniforms.

The College was founded by Margaret Stansfeld (1860-1951). A shortage of facilities in 1870 Act schools had led to “Drill” for girls, for fitness and discipline. Unhappiness with drill led to the adoption of Ling’s Swedish System of Gymnastics (1895), involving precise movements and a gradual increase in difficulty and exertion. A 1909 Syllabus of Physical Exercises for Public Elementary Schools specifies suitable female dress.

The purpose of the College was to teach girls to teach PE. It was located at 37 Lansdowne Road, Bedford, a house purchased by Margaret Stansfeld. She had been trained by Martina Bergman-Osterberg. This was the third such college. The first two were “Hampstead” (founded 1885; moved to Dartford 1895), and Anstey. Margaret Stansfeld remained in charge until 1945.

The college was exclusive, with an emphasis on discipline and high standards. There were no concessions to pain or illness! Saturdays were included. Bedtime was at 9pm. The curriculum was a mix of PE and lectures (eg Anatomy, Hygiene, Physiology).

The curriculum remained consistent until the 1940s. The qualification awarded in the early years was the Ling Diploma, and from at least 1943 the London University Diploma in PE. “Remedial Gymnastics” (for injuries, club feet etc) were dropped in the 1940s.

From 1921 there were greater opportunities in schools for girls to play sport. A College Games Club had been founded in 1919 for hockey, lacrosse, tennis and cricket. The College went on to produce lots of Internationals, especially in lacrosse, but also in hockey. An early photograph shows the hockey match against the No.1 School of Officers at Elstow, in 1919. The College sometimes won!

There were also Dance (revived Greek Dance), influenced by Rudolf Laban’s Demon Machine (1924); and Gymnastics. The College participated in the 1937 Festival of Youth, with choreographed gymnastics, everyone acting in “unison”. This style was abandoned in 1954.

The dominance of ladies ended in the 1950s. More schools needed more people, and therefore men. The men didn’t like Laban, preferring outdoor pursuits and personal initiative. In 1952 the College transferred to Bedfordshire Education Authority. The qualification became BEd, University of London (1968), and BEd, University of Cambridge (1971). Finally, in 1976, the College merged with Bedford Training College.

Karl Magee, University Archivist, University of Stirling, spoke about “‘Hosts and Champions’: Celebrating Scotland’s Contribution to the Commonwealth Games”.

There is no central archive of the Commonwealth Games (except for Manchester 2002, held in Manchester). But Stirling University Archives holds the archives of Commonwealth Games Scotland, responsible for the Scottish team. This is for two reasons: the offices of CGS are on campus; and the University of Stirling is Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence. The archives run from 1930 onwards (the first Commonwealth Games), but the bulk of the material relates to the 1970 and 1986 Games, both held in Edinburgh.

The archives were “used” during the 2014 Glasgow Games. The University Archives supplied an exhibition of memorabilia, jointly with Glasgow Museum, in the Old Fruit Market, plus talks and tours. The archives of the 2014 Games are now starting to arrive too.

This exhibition had since been developed into a touring exhibition, to be displayed at eight different venues for six weeks each. At the time of speaking, this touring programme was half-way through. It had already led to new accessions, including the personal collections of Sir Tim Heatley, diver and three-time Gold Medal Winner, and of Willy Carmichael, Wrestling Manager in 1930, and later an administrator; as well as mascots and other memorabilia!

Alex Jackson, Collections Officer, National Football Museum, spoke about “From the Auto Windscreens Shield to the Zenith Data Systems Cup: The Collections and Archives of the National Football Museum”.

The Museum was established in 1997. Initially underneath Preston North End stadium, it reopened in 2012 in Manchester, funded largely by Manchester City Council, with 140,000 objects, and over a million visitors in its first two years. It is the only sporting collection with Designated status.

2.5k items are on display; the rest are still stored in Preston. The staff include part-timers, volunteers and people working on specific projects. Their work covers the usual range of duties, such as cataloguing, enquiries, donations and offers on loan, image requests, media enquiries and interviews, and escorting significant artefacts.

The chief collections are those of FIFA; Harry Langton (a private collector); the People’s Collection (ie from the general public); the Priory Collection and Neville Evans Collection – both high-end material; the Stanley Matthews Collection (bought at auction); and the collection of Chris Ungar on Women’s Football (bought with HLF funding).

The written archives include FA minute books from 1863 onwards; Football League player registrations and transfer lists (NB Lancashire RO has the minute books); Club collections – eg Preston North End – which other than Everton’s are the only ones publicly available; Littlewoods Pools; and the “Kicking and Screaming Collection” – 210 hours of filmed interviews for a BBC series. Only a fraction was used for the final broadcast. The problem here is access – there are no contents or indexes.

The museum also holds the UEFA printed reference library, 8.5k items discarded by UEFA.

Research by staff is led by circumstances/ enquiries. There is no “pure” research time.

There are some notable early photos. For example, some from the 1936 Olympics show English players posing with the German team. The Germans all have matching pullovers with eagles and swastikas!

Robert Clegg, Collections Access Officer, Heritage Quay, University of Huddersfield, spoke about “Bloody Shirts and Muddy Boots: Tackling the Rugby Football League Archives at Heritage Quay”.

Heritage Quay was established by the University of Huddersfield in 1992. In 2014 a new building opened with HLF funding, and £300k match funding from the university. It has eight “themes”, including Sport, Music, Politics, Education and Nonconformity. The largest component is the Rugby League material, both of local clubs and of the Rugby Football League (the game’s governing body). The RFL archives were fully catalogued between March 2013 and March 2014 with a grant from the National Cataloguing Grants programme. See <heritagequay.org>.

Why Huddersfield? Because the RFL was founded in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. Twenty-one clubs broke away from the RFU to form the “Northern Union”. Payment of players had been banned since Oct 1886. The 21 clubs felt that working men in the north needed the money, even if wealthier players in the south did not. The RFL has since evolved its own Rules and international teams, but has retained its links to the north of England. The Northern Union became the “Rugby Football League” in 1922.

The RFL archives include minute books; accounts; competition records; player registrations 1906-78 (with lots of family history interest, because it remains a local sport); year books, programmes and photos; and famous players’ shirts and boots.

Our users are enthusiastic, indeed passionate, and very knowledgeable about the game and its history. A team of volunteers help with events, provide feedback and act as ambassadors. Their enthusiasm energises the staff. They are especially good at identifying mystery photos. For example, at the 1966 match between St Helen’s and Dewsbury, Minnie Cotton, the landlady of one of the players, saw her lodger being thumped by Trevor “Tank” Walker of the opposing team, a foul missed by the referee. She ran onto the pitch and started beating Walker with her umbrella in the middle of the match. He grabbed her umbrella, broke it in half and threw it away; she was escorted off the pitch by the Police!

Nat Alcock, General Editor, BRA, spoke about “Bowling along for 200 Years. The Archives of the Halford Bowls Club”.

A travel diary of 1809 (BL Add MS 59867) refers to a bowling green at Halford, Warwickshire, near to the Bridge Inn. The Green is still there, and its archives (minutes) survive from the 1780s.

Nine such collections are known from the 18th century, according to A2A. See also Hugh Hornby, Bowled Over. The Bowling Greens of Britain (Historic England, 2015). They include Rugeley, whose Rules of c1730 are very like those of today, concerned with Play; and St Blazey, Cornwall, 1732, whose Rules are concerned with subscriptions, elections, and the limitation of the membership to 24!

The core of the Halford archive is three volumes, 1786-1877. What do these tell us?

Members: lots of clergy; a baronet; 4 sons of peers; 29 esquires including 2 MPs. In other words, a roll-call of the local gentry. Most of the clergy can be identified, despite Halford being inconveniently on the boundary of three dioceses. Many were very local; others came from up to 14 miles away. Almost one-third of the members were members for 20 years or more

Bowls: we are not told much! The Green was repaired in 1844; there was an iron roller in 1832. Matches were sometimes held for specific prizes, eg a piece of venison, or a snuff box.

Dining: there was lots of it! There was a Wine Fund from 1827 onwards, and 227 bottles in the cellar in 1845.

Kenth Sjöblom, Head of the Society of Finnish Archivists, spoke about “The ICA Section on Sports”.

He has been Chairman of the Section for 10 years. There are two Secretaries, one English (Laurence Ward of London Metropolitan Archives, 2012-16) and one French. The Section was inaugurated provisionally in 2004, and made permanent in 2008. It has 42 members. It is about, not of, Sports Archives. (There are few institutions specifically devoted to Sports Archives.) See the ICA website under “Professional Sections”.

He worked for 16 years in the Sports Archives of Finland, before moving to the National Archives of Finland.

The Section issues a brochure; holds seminars (Paris/Roubaix 2005; Turin 2007; Helsinki 2010); organises sessions at ICA Congresses; and has published a special issue of Comma, the ICA journal (2009:2).

The Directory of Sports Archives has never really got off the ground; and the Facebook page is not yet successful. There has however been successful cooperation between the Section, LMA, and the ICA Section on Social, Municipal and Territorial Archives, on “Sporting Cities”, to create a database about the Summer Olympics. There has also been a project in Catalunya to save sports archives.

He would like to widen the membership. For example, there is little participation from the Caribbean.

Like all BRA conferences, this one was excellent – informative, varied, amusing, and focused on the archives, and what they tell us. It was full of all kinds of unusual and unexpected details, and it was a pleasure to be there.

The Maurice Bond Memorial Lecture

After a most enjoyable conference, an equally entertaining Maurice Bond Lecture was given by Fiona Skillen of Glasgow Caledonian University, the Chair of the British Society for Sports History. Her title was, “Researching Women’s Sports History: The Challenges and the Rewards”.

The Society was founded in 1982, and publishes a journal, Sport in History, containing around 20 articles per year. Its c200 members are mostly academics. It is keen to recruit more archivists.

Women in Sport is still a peripheral topic to a fringe subject! There have only been 12 articles so far in Sport in History on Women in Sport. There are many gaps in our knowledge, and the relevant scholars are mostly male. There are only 40 women members of the Society (up from six when it started).

On the plus side, Women’s Football is starting to attract sponsorship and research.

Her own research has been on “How did Ordinary Women Fit Sport into their Lives in the period 1919-39?” For this she examined the following areas, all within Scotland: schools; organisations; workplaces; council provision; and media representation.

The first problem was finding specific sources. Participation by women in sport was hard to trace – eg in diaries and letters. Other challenges included unsorted papers; absence of research facilities; inconsistency in sources; poor labelling; the random nature of survivals; getting people to open up for oral history interviews; and last but not least, being taken seriously as having a serious research topic!

She used in particular minute books; membership lists (the use of “Mrs” and “Miss” was helpful); newspapers for local politics, eg disputes about sharing pitches; competition results; magazines; cartoons, for attitudes (eg the Daily Mail); and advertisements: how they used women’s sport to sell cars, cigarettes etc. It soon became clear that football, hockey and rugby were rarely used, being seen as too aggressive.

She also carried out personal interviews, to seek motives. Her interviewees ranged in age from 75 to 98! For one interviewee, hockey was only a small part of her social life. After the match, they all went for a meal, or to the pictures. Another played tennis to meet boys. But later, her husband would look after the children so that she could keep playing.

She summed up by saying that the immediate issue for research into Women in Sport is the chaotic nature of unsorted archives. (The pictures of the golf club store were particularly telling.) A longer-term problem is the need for people to recognise Sport, let alone Women in Sport, as a worthy subject for research.

Stephen Freeth