Was rugby more dangerous than soccer in Victorian times?

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins'  Victorians and Sport.

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins' Victorians and Sport.

It’s often thought that one of the reasons that soccer became more popular than rugby in the nineteenth century was that it was less dangerous than the oval ball game. Indeed, the sociologists Eric Dunning and Ken Sheard made much of this argument in Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (1979) their sociological investigation of the history of rugby (you can find my critique of the book here).

This may have been the belief of some people, but it wasn’t shared by the medical profession at the time. The Lancet - then as now the leading medical journal in Britain - argued that it was soccer which was the most dangerous of the football codes. Its 24 March 1894 issue it devoted a major article to the dangers of football, examining both soccer and rugby in detail, and came to the conclusion that: 

it is our opinion that Association, at first sight a tame game compared with the other, is possibly more perilous than Rugby Union; and that its modern developments, though in many ways so similar, are more certainly towards danger than are the developments in the tactics of the older branch.

It returned to the subject over a decade later on 16 November 1907, following the split in rugby and the massive expansion in the popularity of soccer across Britain. It saw no reason to change its opinion:

Everything seems to show that the degree of danger incurred by players is greater in the dribbling than in the carrying game.

Of course, this does not decisively prove that rugby was less dangerous than soccer - just that many doctors thought it was. But, perhaps more importantly, it does demonstrate how easy - and mistakenly - it is to assume that today's preconceptions about the modern football codes were also shared earlier generations.