“Oh no Tarquin, I can’t come shopping on the King’s Road today. Yah, cos I’m … I’m liiiterally in Burma…”
It is no secret that many people have a somewhat jaded opinion of English public schools. Whether this be down to YouTube phenomena, ideals of educational equality, anti-elitist tendencies, or for reasons based purely on a clichéd expectation; for many a foul taste is present at the mere thought, let alone the discussion, of these institutions. From visions of preppy teenagers adorned in Jack Wills body warmers, proudly strutting their stuff along the Fulham Road, to red faced old men, seemingly only ever seen donning brightly coloured corduroy trousers and old school ties, mumbling away about the 150 runs they heroically notched up back in 1856, the stereotype is a difficut one to shake loose. Quite probably because it has a terrible tendency to ring true.
All this aside, beyond the old buildings, the ‘huzzahs’ and the ‘yahs’, lie some truly great legacies. Possibly the least recognised of these are the schools’ sports, some of which date back as early as the 16th Century.
Many of today’s most popular sports’ roots can be found in those played by schoolboys attending public schools. Indeed football, sometimes known by its often misconcieved mantra as the “gentlemen’s sport played by thugs”, is a sport that all three of those investigated here heavily influenced in its development.
It is as a product of these old, obscure and often barbaric sports, developed over centuries, that we have seen some of our national sports arise.
The Eton Wall Game
Eton College employs arguably the best known of these games. The Eton Wall Game takes place on a pitch 110m long and 5m wide, with a tall brick wall, erected in 1717, running along one side of the pitch (see left).
First played in 1766, the complicated rules dictate that the basic ‘aim of the game’ is to manoeuvre a football to the opponent’s end of the pitch to an area known as the ‘calx’. It is here that the ball must be raised by an attacker’s foot, up against the wall. Upon achieving this, the attacker must touch the ball and shout, “got it”. This is called a ‘shy’ and is worth one point. The attacking team may then attempt a nine point ‘goal’ by throwing the ball at a target (a garden door at one end of the pitch and a tree at the other).
The biggest game of the year takes place on St. Andrew’s Day, and sees the two teams, the Collegers (10 of the 70 students with scholarships) and the Oppidans (10 of the 1250 strong remainder of the student population). This game tends to attract media attention and a great number of spectators, as it is entrenched in tradition and glory.
The game begins as the Oppidans throw their caps over the wall from the other side and proceed to climb over, whilst the Collegers approach arm in arm from thier own accommodation.
This game has further gained recent media attention, as it was played by both Prince William and Harry when they attended Eton. However, despite its media fame, the sport is rarely played even within the school grounds, only taking place in the autumn term.
“The Wall Game is only played seriously by around 30-50 boys each year; the popularity of the field game still far outstrips the more publicly ‘famous’ wall game,” says Eton’s ‘Master in charge of the Wall Game’, Angus Graham-Campbell.
The Eton Field Game
The much lesser known, yet much more internally popular and significant Field Game was codified in 1815. This was the first set of football rules ever to be written down.
The purpose of the game is more similar to what we see today in association football. At each end of an association football sized pitch are two goals, slightly smaller than those we see today. The game starts centrally, with a scrum of seven men called a ‘bully’.
Once the ball leaves the scrum, it is the job of the three ‘behinds’, similar to full backs in rugby, to kick the ball over the scrum towards the opponent’s goal. The members of the attacking scrum must then run onto the ball and attempt to score a goal, worth three points. Often this style of play results in some true ‘route one’ football, with a hoofing match between the two sides.
An attacker may also score through the event of a ‘rouge’, whereby the ball crosses an laterally extended and referee discretionary goal line, similar that of a try-line in rugby. If the attackers get to the ball first, once it has passed this line, they score five points and are awarded the chance to convert.
Graham-Campbell speaks of the importance of the game in the development of football today. “Between 1850 and 1930, football at Eton meant the field game. Soccer as a regular game was only introduced at Eton by my father in 1930. Even in recent history, until around ten years ago, the whole school played the field game.”
Indeed, even in the 1870s and 1880s, once the FA had been created and after association football was codified and played, teams of Old Etonians played to great success in the FA Cup, winning on two occasions.
Graham-Campbell notes that the success was mostly down to field game tactics, as “boys would have gone out with eight forwards, chasing down the ball after the backs kicked it over. This was a very successful method until professionals learned to pass with some accuracy.”
Winchester College Football
Possibly one of the most complicated of all public school footballs, Winchester College Football can be traced back to the ‘get the ball to the other end of the pitch’ games that took place along Kingsgate Street in Winchester as early as the 16th century.
This game eventually developed to its present day form: a pitch around 80m long and 15m wide, with 2.5m high netting on each side and two lengths of rope held about 1m above the ground by nine posts on each side. Each team attempts to get the ball over the opponent’s line: ‘worms’. Achieving this without the ball touching any obstruction grants the attacking team three points, whilst with an obstruction, it results in a one point and a ‘behind’: a chance to convert for an extra two.
Teams are, however, only limited to one kick of the ball before the other team has a turn. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when the ball goes backwards or when it is deemed to have been kicked ‘as hard as one can’. Offside rules are also employed meaning that each time a team member kicks the ball, the whole of his team in front of him must run back to an imaginary line from where he kicked it before being allowed back into play.
To complicate the game further, in its 15-a-side form, there is a scrum of eight men, called a ‘hot’, which can also take place on the ropes, four ‘hot-watches’, similar to scrum-halves, and three ‘kicks’, similar to full backs who normally score most of the points.
As Budge Firth noted in his 1936 book Winchester: “The Wykhemist does not require any explanation and it would take a Parliamentary Council to draft it intelligibly.”
Every February, the school is split in two by the biggest Winchester College Football match of the year: ‘Fifteens’, in which the best XV of the five ‘Commoner’ houses, with their red and white striped colours, take on the best XV of the five ‘Old Tutor Houses’. The match attracts a large audience and the day of, traditionally a Saturday, is marked as a great occasion. The school is adorned with all sorts of team colours and shirts hanging from buildings, along with huge banners and posters.
It is impossible to go through all of the sports created and understand them all. Even the more famous handful above are hazy and nonsensical. All of the games are rich in history and, despite their seemingly pointless and silly nature, have each given something to sport today.
Many may still think of private education as a bastion of ridiculousness, elitism and inequality; an unwelcome reminder of an outdated class system. However, some of them have helped to shape what we enjoy today. Just maybe, these schools have more to offer than spoilt teenagers who, regardless of the situation, just can’t help but “chunder everywhaaaaaah”.