The Oval World - rugby and 'globalisation' in the Nineteenth Century

The Oval World will be published in paperback this Friday. By way of an introduction to the book, below is the first part of an edited version of a talk I gave at the Institute of Historical Research on 5 October 2015 at the excellent Sport and Leisure History seminar series. I'll post the other two parts later this week.

Why would I want to write another book about rugby?

The most obvious answer is that being published by a major trade publisher allowed me to write for a wider audience than is usual for an academic historian, so it also gave me the opportunity to write in a different way to how I had written my previous books.

But the most important answer is that writing a global history of rugby gave me the opportunity to explore and develop themes and interconnections that are usually not possible in nationally-based histories of sport or other forms of cultural activity.

I wrote Sport in Capitalist Society partly to explore similar international themes at a much broader level across all sports, and it occurred to me that this would be an interesting thing to do with rugby. This is partly because I have obviously acquired a substantial degree of detailed knowledge of the game during the course of my previous research, but also because there is now a small but growing body of very interesting and original research on rugby around the world that is being published. 

I’m thinking of Huw Richards’ work, Gwyn Prescott’s fascinating research on rugby in nineteenth century Cardiff, Geoff Levett’s work on rugby, race and empire, Liam O’Callaghan’s work on Irish rugby, particularly his 2011 book Rugby in Munster, and of course Greg Ryan’s groundbreaking work on New Zealand rugby. And there is also the emergence of some very interesting research on women in rugby.

The other thing I wanted to do was to look at the intertwined history of the two rugby codes - and also the rugby roots of American football and Aussie Rules. For a long time I’ve felt that not only have histories of sport been written from the restrictions of nationally-limited perspectives, but also that they have been considered in isolation from other sports, especially those with whom they share a common origin. 

This tunnel vision is a serious weakness in the writing of the history of sport because it elevates the differences in rule books over broader social developments. This particularly applies to historians of soccer (and The Oval World does deal with the roots of both soccer and rugby), who - to give just one example - discuss the emergence of professionalism in soccer in the 1870s without making any reference to exactly the same phenomenon in rugby at exactly the same time. So the book is deliberately ecumenical in approach.

I would also add that it concerns me that there is a growing tendency for some of the most interesting history books to be published outside of academic history, which I feel is in danger of becoming overly technical and constrictively specialised. This is true for history as a whole, but especially for the history of sport. Two of the most important books on the history of soccer, David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round and Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, are examples of this trend.

So writing The Oval World  was an opportunity to explore new perspectives, develop existing material and respond to the latest research in the field in a popular, but hopefully no less scholarly, format.

I would note that this is a ‘Global History’ rather than a global game. One of the problems in the use of the term globalisation is its vagueness (or perhaps that is probably one of its appeals!). We can accept that soccer is a truly global game, but rugby is not. 

It is played professionally only in around a dozen countries; its global footprint has barely changed since the First World War (of the current world cup sides, only Samoa and Georgia did not play rugby before 1914), and it remains predominantly the sport of the former British and French formal and informal empires. Rugby as a global sport exists only at the level of media consumption, as a media product, rather than in its playing. And this is the case with so much sporting globalisation, an exemplar of this phenomenon being American football as played at Wembley yesterday.

So by using ‘global history’ I’ve tried to put rugby in its global political, social and cultural context - this primarily and rather obviously means looking at the game within the context of the rise and decline of the British Empire (and to a lesser extent the French Empire), two world wars, the Cold War, the international campaign against apartheid South Africa, and the rise of what is commonly called ‘neo-liberalism’ over the past thirty years. 

I’ve also sought to look at the themes that historians working within global history have commonly examined, such as connections, networks and interactions across national borders (albeit in rather less academic language given the nature of the book). Incidentally, as a good starting point I’d recommend Matt Taylor’s introduction to the 2013 special issue of the Journal of Global History, for an overview of relationship between the history of sport and global history.

Rugby and Empire

The first point to make is that the emergence of rugby around the world is essentially a product of the expansion of British imperialism from the mid-nineteenth century. In one sense this is fairly obvious when we compare the world map of rugby with that of the British Empire, but there are a number of different components to it and implications that flow from that.

It is easy to forget how young the English-speaking colonies were. In Australia, the ‘First Fleet’ arrived as recently as 1788, Sydney was only incorporated as a city in 1842 and Melbourne first settled in 1835. The Cape Colony in South Africa was only settled by the British following its 1814 acquisition. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi was only signed in 1840. In Canada, the Act of Union that essentially created it as a unified political entity was signed in the same year, 1840. 

Rugby’s arrival in these countries in the 1860s (although Melbourne quickly deviated from strict rugby rules) was co-terminous with the felt need to establish local cultural and political identities. For example, the Southern Rugby Union was formed in Australia in 1874. The Canadian Rugby Football Union was founded in 1882. Matches between Australia and New Zealand sides began in 1884 and tours to and from the British Isles started in 1888. The first British tour to South Africa took place in 1891.

This was also true in those countries with a longer national history in which the game or a version of it was imported. The end of the Civil War in the United States in 1865 led to a period of nation-building based on the victorious north (which saw the establishment of baseball as the national mass spectator sport, as well as the growth of rugby-derived American football as the national winter sport). In France the latter decades of the nineteenth century were a period in which the old regional divisions of rural France were being dismantled in favour of a unified national polity, which aimed, in Eugen Weber’s memorable phrase, to ‘turn Peasants into Frenchmen’. 

Thanks to the cultural importance of Muscular Christianity to the British Empire, rugby quickly become the dominant code of football in the ‘White Dominions’. Even the distinctive form of football played in the Australian colony of Victoria, which would become known as Australian rules football, was derived from Rugby School football rules.

Rugby therefore provided a unifying cultural practice to which its adherents added a sense of moral righteousness. The most obvious expression of this was the popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1857, across the English-speaking world (and in France, where it became the bible of Anglophone educationalists, such as Baron de Coubertin). Tom Brown became a handbook for private and grammar schools around the empire, and those schools that followed its lead invariably adopted rugby as their winter sport. 

And despite their deviation from rugby rules, Aussie Rules and American football also sought legitimacy from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the Muscular Christian traditions of Rugby School - for example the New York Times published the book’s description of Tom’s first football match as part of the preview of the 1872 Yale-Columbia gridiron game.

Tom Brown itself was an example of transnational print networks across the British Empire, something which can also be seen in the increasing newspaper coverage of sport around the world. This coverage, especially in the colonies, was transnational from the start - anyone who has used the fantastic ‘Past Papers’ digital archive of Nineteenth Century NZ newspapers can see that the column inches devoted by the NZ press to sport in Britain and the Empire were extraordinarily extensive. 

It is also the case that Rugby School itself had an extensive imperial network of old boys of Rugby School who actively proselytised for rugby wherever they found themselves - far more than any other public school, the disciples of Thomas Arnold saw themselves as moral and cultural missionaries for the values of Muscular Christianity. I gave a talk in Rugby last week at the town’s rugby union world cup festival with Rusty Maclean, Rugby School’s Archivist and Librarian, and as the audiences asked questions about the origins of rugby in this and that country, Rusty recounted the name of at least one old boy who had been instrumental in the establishment of the game in that country. This was the imperial network connection at its most personal.

As it became established across the Anglophone world, rugby also provided a direct link back to the imperial centre for the white British colonies, as demonstrated by tours to and from the colonies, beginning with the unofficial British tour organised in 1888 by Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw. But as well as such practical links, the game quickly became part of the cultural glue that connected the colonies to the Mother Country. This can be seen in South Africa, which had originally played a form of football based on the rules of Winchester College, but in 1879 switched to rugby and thus deepened its direct links to ‘Home’ and the rest of the empire.

It’s important to remember that there was a great deal of agency about rugby’s imperial role - this was not an unconscious process and individual proselytism contributed to enhancing this role. The sport’s advocates were enthusiastic promoters of its imperialmission. Rowland Hill, the RFU secretary from 1881-1904, declared that international tours were ‘of great Imperial importance in binding together the Mother Country with the Overseas Dominions’.

Welcoming the 1904 British rugby team to Australia, J.C. Davis, Sydney’s leading sports journalist of the time, echoed this when he wrote that sporting tours created ‘an extended feeling of appreciation and racial sympathy. They have incidentally shown to the muscular Britisher at home that the Britisher abroad and his sinewy colonial descendants are not aliens because thousands of miles of sea intervene.’

There is one other point that should be made about transnational networks. Player mobility between Britain and the white dominions was extensive from the 1880s. The imperial educational and professional business networks meant that considerable numbers of players from Australia, NZ and SA came to study or work in England and Scotland. In 1883 the Australian Charles Wade appeared on the wing for England against Scotland before returning to Sydney and playing for New South Wales against the visiting unofficial British side in 1888.

Wade, like many subsequent non-native internationals, was a student at Oxford. In 1903 Scots had a three-quarter line of two Australians, a Kiwi and a South African, and more famously the great Scots sides of the 1920s boasted Johnnie Wallace, who would return to Australia to captain the 1927 Waratahs, Ian Smith of Melbourne and former All Black George Aitkin. Blair Swannell played for the Lions in 1899 and 1904 and then for Australia against the All Blacks in 1905.

This transnational mobility was replicated in rugby league, although whereas as rugby union’s migratory pattern was based on middle-class occupational and educational links, rugby league’s comprised working-class professional players. Thus, after the foundation of the game in Australia and NZ in 1907, dozens of players moved from down under to play in England - a pattern that continued unabated up to the present. Australians like Albert Rosenfeld and New Zealanders like Lance Todd became household names in British rugby league, decades before soccer started importing players from outside of Britain.

So rugby of both codes in many ways represented a classic example of the process that global historians have identified in politics, business and many other cultural activities. Rugby’s development involved transnational links, connections and networks, none of which were independent of each other - and its development as an international sport was dependent on the emergence not only of a new stage in the development of British and French imperialism, but on the ease of communication, travel and media.

- - part two will look at how soccer came to eclipse rugby as the world sport