Here is the second part of our series on the various sports spawned throughout history by British public schools, from the Wall Game to The Olympic Games.
Eton College: the Wall Game
In 1766, a group of boys at Eton gathered on a narrow strip of grass alongside a not-quite-straight brick wall and played the first recorded incidence of the Wall Game. The aim is for each side to get the ball down to the far end of the wall and then score. The game has remained essentially the same since its rules were first published in 1849.
It is arguably the most elite sport in the world – and possibly among the dullest to watch (though those who play it insist that it’s fun). There is no Wall Game ground anywhere in the world but at Eton. The most important match of the year is played to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day, during which Eton’s “Collegers” (scholars) take on a team selected from the rest of the school. Notable players of the Wall Game include George Orwell, Harold Macmillan, Boris Johnson and Princes William and Harry.
Westminster School and Charterhouse: Association Football
Though the beautiful game was enjoyed by ancient civilisations, Football as we know it is directly descended from the game established at British public schools in the 19th century. Pupils at both Westminster and Charterhouse initially had to play Football within the confines of their schools’ cloisters – rather than on large pitches – and developed a particular set of rules accordingly.
In 1867, the Football Association chose in favour of the version of the “passing-on” game played at Westminster and Charterhouse (rather than the iteration at Eton and Harrow, for instance, which involved more dribbling and a tight offside rule). The modern forward-passing game is a consequence of this ruling. Several former pupils of Westminster and Charterhouse have played Football for England.
Public schools in general: The Olympic Games
Of course, the credit for The Olympic Games goes chiefly to the Ancient Greeks. But Pierre de Coubertin – the aristocratic French academic who helped establish the modern Olympic Games – found inspiration in the values embodied at several British public schools when he visited them in the 1880s.
Looking on at the playing fields from the sidelines, he observed the enduring truth that: “organised sport can create moral and social strength.” He was so impressed by the beliefs and legacy of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828 to 1841, that, when visiting the school, de Coubertin spent a night in the chapel, sleeping beside Arnold’s grave.