this rugby spellbound people

Reviewed by Rob Owens, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

19 June 2012       archive

Enthusiasts of rugby culture and history are well aware of the number of scholarly and popular publications that have surfaced about the other "beautiful game" in the last three decades. The most notable in this cadre, Tony Collins' A Social History of English Rugby Union, Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain: A Social and Cultural History and Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture, and the Origins of Rugby League Football, cemented the idea that rugby was and still is a sport that fascinates the imagination, symbolizes the ethos of nations, and imbues the individual spirit with the cultural values and ideals of Western society. When Fields of Praise: The Official History of Welsh Rugby Union, 1881-1981 was published in 1980 by David Smith and Gareth Williams, it became the hallmark for the history of Welsh rugby. Prescott's 'this rugby spellbound people' firmly grabs hold of that history and localizes it to Cardiff and South Wales during the time of Victorian Britain. Prescott's interest in rugby football is far more than academic. He is a relative of the late Bleddyn Williams who played internationally for Wales and captained the British Lions in 1950. Moreover, Prescott, himself, captained the Welsh Secondary Schools team in the 1960s and recently served as a research assistant for the International Rugby Board.

Prescott carefully grounds his study of rugby football in Cardiff, Wales during the Victorian Era of Britain by structuring the book into five parts: the transition from hybrid football to rugby, the establishment of this new "running" game, the types of clubs that were founded, including the premier club (also known as Cardiff), the organization of these football clubs and their participants, and finally the wider impact rugby football had on the town of Cardiff. He begins his analysis at the end of the Victorian Era with a news report from the Irish Times in December 1905 that chronicled a match played at Arms Park in central Cardiff between Wales and the up-until-that-time undefeated New Zealand All Blacks. The Irish reporter, observing the enthusiastic crowd reaction to Wales' victory over the All Blacks, writes "this rugby spellbound people," hence the title of Prescott's work. Prescott then takes on the complex and ostensibly daunting task of tracing the roots of rugby in Victorian Cardiff: how rugby football began as a marginal pursuit in the 1860s where hybrid forms of football were played because clubs rarely adhered to association football or Rugby School codes and how the sport captured the imaginations of Cardiffians because of its 'predisposition' towards running with the ball. To accomplish this lofty goal, he draws from morning daily newspapers, the South Wales Daily News and the Western Mail, published in Cardiff and circulated throughout Wales. Noting that newspaper reports are often biased and are usually written for a specific audience, Prescott supplements these newspaper articles with other primary sources, including football handbooks, C.W. Alcock's Football Annual, minutes from Welsh Football Union and the Rugby Football Union, and demographic data from census returns, directories, and biographical compilations. Further noting that there is but a scant amount of academic research on rugby in nineteenth century Wales, he depends on Fields of Praise as a chief secondary source in his research.

That rugby football, a sport typically played by public schools and the middle-classes in most parts of Victorian Britain, was embraced and enjoyed by the working-class and the middle-class in Cardiff is the book's central premise. Prescott uncovers several themes from his primary and secondary data sources, which explain rugby's progression towards social inclusion during the late nineteenth century: the astonishing growth of rugby clubs during the period of 1890 to 1897 due to the town's (Cardiff became a city in 1905) commercial successes in coal-trading in the 1880s and its subsequent population explosion in the 1890s, the entry of working-class men into the sport in the mid-1880s, improvements in transportation, and the uncanny ability of the game to foster a Welsh national consciousness and a local pride amongst Cardiff's citizenry. He further expounds on why migrants from Scotland and England, who should have preferred association football (e.g. soccer), would have taken up rugby in Victorian Cardiff as playing rugby was a way for them to become part of the Cardiff community and develop a Welsh identity. Unlike in other parts of Britain, soccer clubs were not well-organized in South Wales. In 1889, only four soccer clubs existed: Cardiff Scottish, Cardiff Villa, White Star and St. Margaret's, which is in stark contrast to the 216 rugby football clubs reported in the South Wales Daily News and the Western Mail from 1895 to 1896. Rugby football clubs in Wales also differed from their soccer counterparts in as rugby clubs were mainly composed of street and neighborhood clubs, whereas churches, workplaces and pubs were the sustaining institutions of soccer clubs in most parts of Victorian Britain.

Readers of the book who are not aficionados of rugby culture and history will find Prescott's detailed descriptive analysis somewhat challenging. The author makes every effort to provide factual accounts of rugby football development in schools, streets, neighborhoods, the workplace, churches, and public houses (e.g., pubs). Some facts, such as the founding of the South Wales Football Union in 1875 and the inaugural South Wales Challenge Cup in 1879, should be of importance to historians and others who are interested in the history of rugby football. Other facts, like the costs to build stadiums, seem to detract from his main thesis. In part, this is due to the sources utilized for this study, but Prescott also makes the cogent point that historians have all but ignored the tremendous impact that rugby had on the economic and urban life of Victorian Cardiff. He points to historians who refer to Cardiff's rich cultural institutions like the Cardiff Athenaeum, the Classical Society, the Grand Theatre, and the Blue Ribbon Choir, but oftentimes leave out examples of how rugby infiltrated or integrated into the aforementioned institutions. For example, the casts of the Theatre Royal and the Grand Theatre staged rugby matches to promote their annual pantomime acts.

My only and minor reservation about the book is that it does not provide enough of an interpretative analysis of the inter-class and intra-class relations that seemed to define the participation and administration of the sport at the time. Although historical records of working-class players were less abundant, as the author suggests, I would like to have seen more written about Raoul Foa, the club captain of Cardiff in 1878-89, who came from a Jewish working-class background and was of mixed ancestry (half-Italian, half-French). Additionally, the author makes mention of the possible "antipathy and even occasional hostility" (p. 80) towards rugby playing Catholics of Irish descent. How was this connected to class relations and inclusion in rugby? Lastly, if records of the middle-class did exist in more detail, as the author claims, more attention could have paid to the inner-workings that allowed the middle-class to maintain administrative control and hegemony over rugby football in Cardiff, despite their decreasing numbers as players.

Despite this reservation, I believe the historians of sport who are members of the SLA will find this book useful for two reasons. One, it provides a detailed account of how rugby participation in Cardiff differed from other parts of Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. Most importantly, it contradicts the notion that Welsh rugby was not an amateur pursuit. Two, it is the first book of its kind to examine rugby football at the community level in South Wales and Cardiff.

Prescott, Gwyn. 'this rugby spellbound people': Rugby Football in Nineteenth-Century Cardiff and Wales. Cardiff: Ashley Drake Publishing Ltd, 2011. 178 pages. Hardcover. $84.50.

Copyright © 2012 by Rob Owens

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