A Potted History of Ball Games

I have penned potted histories on a number of individual sports, as well as a short, more general piece on the Emergence of Organised Sports in Britain. This relatively brief, potted history of ball games follows on from that article.

The objective of all my potted histories is to provide a useful, readable background to the subject in hand. I provide a Bibliography and Further Reading section, should you wish to investigate any area in more detail, although I am sure that you can find your own sources if you are interested. I would appreciate it if you can let me know of any broken links that you come across.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or feedback.


Origins of Sport
Evidence of Sport

Ball Games

Use of Most Parts of the Body
No Hands
Use of Hands Only
Rolled, Tossed, Thrown and Lifted
Use of Sticks and Bats
Use of Rackets
Use of Cues
Social Games

Codifying The Rules

Odds and Sods

Some Thoughts on Debates Surrounding the Origins of Modern Sports
Some Early Balls

Bibliography and Further Reading
Related Articles
Version History


This brief potted history works on the basic assumption that peoples in all parts of the world will have created their own ball games independently, games that would inevitably be quite similar in nature. After all, there are a limited number of things that you can do with a ball. Having said that, the actual rules for a given category of games, say where only the hands can be used, could obviously vary widely.

To begin with, thoughts are given as to some of the reasons why games were played, along with some of the evidence that is available for the presence of particular games.

With respect to specific ball games, I have split them into the following categories:

  • where most parts of the body can be used to propel the ball
  • where the hands cannot be used
  • where only the hands can be used
  • where the ball is rolled, tossed or thrown either at a target or as far as possible
  • where a stick or bat is utilised
  • where a racket is used
  • where a cue is employed
  • and finally, social games.

The presentation may appear to be reference-like, an unfortunate result of covering a significant number of sports in a relatively brief article.

Some brief words are offered on codifying the rules of games. Until the second half of the 19th century, the majority of games were played according to local rules, be they within the confines of a Roman legion, a royal court, a parish or possibly neighbouring villages. Improvements in transport and greater leisure time from the 19th century onwards were among the motivating factors behind the drive to produce national and subsequently international rules.

Finally, with regard to the content in this article, some of the material can also be found in my Emergence of Organised Sports in Britain.

Origins of Sport

Events such as running and wrestling, which required no equipment, seem natural candidates for early forms of sport.

Hunter-gatherers, with their tough hand-to-mouth existence, must have found it difficult to find much time for play. However, as the move to farming got underway, it seems reasonable to speculate that physical competitions would have been held to identify those individuals who were faster, fitter and more skilful, as they could continue to hunt, while others could concentrate on cultivation.

Religion came to play a part. The Mayan civilisation in Central America occasionally indulged in human sacrifice where some of the victims could be the losers in sporting competitions. More typically, games were played during religious festivals as a means of honouring the gods. For example, the ancient Olympics were introduced as a means of honouring Zeus, the father of all the gods.

Games could also be used as a part of military training, examples being Cuju, a form of football in China, and Harpastum, a rugby-like game played by the Romans, both of which date back over two thousand years.

Coming forward in time to the Middle Ages, children and adolescents were to be found playing games for fun. In England, they included the likes of Stool-ball (Cricket-like) and Balloon-ball (Volleyball-like).

Evidence of Sport

Some historians question whether very early art works provide evidence that the sports pictured were actually played. So, perhaps it would be wise to treat the following with a grain or two of scepticism? According to some historians, cave paintings provide the earliest evidence. Some of the images at Lascaux in France appear to show sprinting and wrestling around 15,000 years ago, while those found in the Bayankhongor province of Mongolia from around 7,000BCE also show wrestling.

The first sign of a ball being shown, in what appears to be a hockey-like game, can be found in the Egyptian tomb murals at Beni Hasan which date from around 2,000BCE.

Relief sculptures and vases from Ancient Greece show youths practising with balls, while Roman frescos illustrate games such as Harpastum.

Coming forward in time, written records provide support for the presence of sport, with an early example being the mention of “boys playing at ball” in Historia Brittonum, a work which is attributed to Nennius, a Welsh monk in the 9th century CE.

In the 12th century, William FitzStephen was a cleric and administrator in the service of Thomas Beckett, of whom he wrote a biography which was prefaced by a description of life in London, Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae. a place that he was obviously very fond of. The following is a much-quoted section on sport.

“After lunch, all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents”.

See this translation of Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae

Edicts and court proceedings came to provide further evidence. For example, Nicholas de Farndone, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, banned football in 1314 on behalf of Edward II, being concerned about maintaining law and order. This decree seems to have been the first occasion that the word football appeared in print, while creckett (cricket) was first mentioned in a land dispute case in Guildford in 1597.

Newspapers, which appeared around the beginning of the 18th century, provided some limited coverage of sporting events. Although it gradually increased, until the late 19th century it would tend to be limited to elite events involving noblemen and gentlemen, with very little, if any, mention of competitions involving the ordinary man.

Ball Games

One caveat before we get to the “meat”. Until written rules eventually appeared, thoughts on how individual games were played have almost inevitably included varying degrees of speculation.

Use of Most Parts of the Body

This section covers contact team sports where principally the hands and feet were used. They can all be classed as violent games, albeit varying in degree.

Episkyros was played by the Ancient Greeks. There were 12 to 14 players in each team and the ball was made of linen, packed with hair. The objective was to get the ball over the opponents’ back line, similar to modern Rugby or American Football. It was quite a physical game.

Harpastum was the Roman equivalent of Episkyros although it was more violent and the objective seemed to be to bring the ball, which was stuffed with feathers, back to your own line, a sort of inverted form of Rugby? It was used as part of military training. Galen, a personal physician to several Roman emperors, as well as a philosopher, described it thus:

“Better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing.”; it was “profitable training in strategy”, and could be “played with varying degrees of strenuousness.” Adding “When, for example, people face each other, vigorously attempting to prevent each other from taking the space between, this exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one, involving much use of the hold by the neck, and many wrestling holds”.

References to Mob Football, as it is generally known, began to appear around the 13th century. Games between parishes took place across England at the time of religious festivals, notably Shrovetide and Easter. There were typically no limits on the number of players in each side (there could quite literally be hundreds), no rules to speak of, and no concept of a pitch. The objective was typically to get the ball, usually a pig’s bladder filled with shavings, to an agreed spot in the other parish. It was an extremely violent game with the occasional death being reported, so much so that the Lord Mayor of the City of London banned it in 1314, being concerned about maintaining law and order.  

Similar mob-style games were to be found elsewhere, including: Hurling to Country in Cornwall; Cnapan in West Wales; Caid in Ireland; La Soule in Brittany and Normandy; and Lelo Burti in Georgia.

Finally in the Mob Football category, Calcio Fiorentino appeared in Italy in the 16th century, It was an extremely violent game – part football, part rugby and part martial arts – which was initially the preserve of rich aristocrats, including several popes. In 1580, Giovanni di Bardi published his Discorso Sopra Il Giuoco Del Calcio, considered to be the world’s oldest book on football, although rather than the laws of the game, Bardi concentrated more on etiquette and other aspects of the Florentine tradition.

Slightly (only very slightly) more genteel versions of Football began to appear from the 17th century. They were played on a defined area or pitch with stricter rules and some sort of goal. Early examples included Hurling to Goals in Cornwall and Gaelic Football in Ireland. Such games on pitches with defined rules eventually began to appear in English public schools from around the middle of the 18th century. Each school had its own rules with two main types of game evolving: those that favoured handling; and those that favoured kicking, although varying mixtures of handling and kicking were allowed in all versions.

Rugby School produced written rules for its predominantly handling version in 1845. Alumni of the school were behind the later move to create the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in 1871 which codified the rules of Rugby, initially basing them on those that were used at Rugby School.

Meanwhile, the demand for a common set of rules that would allow students at Cambridge University to play a mainly kicking game led to the production of the Cambridge Rules in 1848. They were subsequently used as a basis for the laws of Association Football, sometimes called Soccer, which were agreed by the Football Association when it was founded in London in 1863, allowing former students from schools and universities to play football to a common set of rules. Limited forms of handling were allowed in Association Football until 1870, after which the position of goalkeeper was recognised.

Over in America, colleges and universities played a variety of football-style games from the mid-19th century, ranging from mob-style, through rugby-like to soccer-like. Walter Camp of Yale University is credited with introducing rules which produced the game of American Football, starting in 1880. This handling game saw the introduction of: the line of scrimmage, down-and-distance rules, forward passes and blocking.

Finally in this section, Water Polo began to be played in the rivers and lakes of England and Scotland around the middle of the 19th century. It was played with a rubber ball, and initially physical contact was allowed, making it a sort of water-rugby game.

No Hands

FIFA, football’s world governing body, recognises the Chinese team game of Cuju  as the earliest form of the game. The literal translation is “kick the ball with the foot”. It dates back to the 3rd / 4th century BCE, around the beginning of the Han dynasty. There was a single narrow goal in the middle of the field, and the objective was to kick the ball, initially filled with feathers, through a hole in the net. The first form of the game was called Zhuqui, which was used as part of military training. Another version, played by both men and women, Baida became popular from the Tang dynasty onwards (618-907CE). It was an individual competition rather than a team game, where each player took turns to attempt to score a goal, points also being awarded for skill.

The Mesoamerican Ball Game is thought to have appeared around 1,650BCE, and it was subsequently played by various Central American civilisations. Its modern descendant is Ulama. It was played on a court with slanting side walls, using a rubber ball, the Mesoamericans being the first to discover and use that substance. The objective was to keep the ball off the ground, akin to modern Volleyball, using head, elbow, hip and leg. Points were scored by getting the ball past the opposition or when they failed to get the ball back. It has been claimed that points could also be scored by hitting objects which were placed at the side of the court. The Mayans introduced a stone ring which was set up high on the side wall, 20 feet or more. Getting the ball through this ring, an extremely difficult if not impossible task to my untutored eye, constituted a winning score. Apart from simple sport, which seemingly attracted much gambling, the game could be used as a proxy for warfare, that is resolving conflicts through a game rather than by actually indulging in battle.

Kemari was first played in Japan around 644CE. Once again, the objective was to keep the ball, made of deerskin, in the air without using the hands or arms. Comparisons have been made with the likes of Keepie Uppie and Head Tennis. It was initially a game for noblemen, and subsequently for samurai warriors. Today, it is played by Shinto priests at a number of events in the Japanese calendar.

Woggabaliri, devised by the Australian Aboriginal Wiradjuri people of modern New South Wales, is similar to Kemari. The objective is for a team of players to keep the ball, made of bulrush roots wrapped in possum, off the ground by using the feet and legs.  It has not been possible to establish just how old this game might be.

Use of Hands Only

Expulsim Ludere was played by Roman men and women. It may be a precursor of Balloon-ball, or possibly it was played against a wall, similar to American Handball, both of which are mentioned later. Once again, the general objective was to keep the ball in play and off the ground.

Jeu de Paume was popularised in France in the 11th and 12th centuries by monks, who played it in cloisters, and subsequently by villagers. The ball was hit with the bare hand, later with a glove. It was hand-tennis, for want of a better term, which eventually led to Real Tennis.

There are several variants of Fives, including Eton and Rugby. This game is played with a bare hand or glove on a court where a small ball is propelled against the walls of a 3 or 4-sided court. Way back, it had been played between the buttresses of church buildings in England. Eton Fives, arguably the best known version, was invented by the boys at the school in 1877.

Fives has links with American handball, which is also called wallball. Appearing in the 19th century, a small rubber ball is hit against a wall. It is allowed to bounce once. There are 4, 3 and 1 wall courts.

Hand-pelota, a similar game to Fives, dates back to the 13th century, when it was played in the Basque regions of Spain and France. The bare hand or a gloved hand can be used to hit a small linen or leather ball stuffed with fur or hair against a wall (jeux indirects) or over a net (jeux directs).

Not to be confused with American Handball, the Olympic sport of Handball is a team sport with goals. There are 6 outfield players and a goalkeeper. The game became popular in the 19th century where it was played across mainland Europe. The rules were codified in Denmark at the end of the 19th century.

Balloon-ball (called that by Joseph Strutt?) is similar to Volleyball, but without a net, where the objective is to keep the ball in the air. It possibly dates back to the 14th century, although the Romans had played a similar game called Follis.

Basketball and Volleyball were both North American inventions of the late 19th century. Basketball was created by Doctor James Naismith in 1891 to condition young athletes during the cold months of the year. He was a physical education instructor at the YMCA International Training School, Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1895, William G. Morgan, the physical director of the YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts, created Volleyball for individuals who found Basketball too vigorous.

A version of Basketball for women appeared in America in 1892, and subsequently in London in the following year. The London variant saw a number of changes over the following years, including the appearance of rings rather than baskets and the lack of physical contact. It was eventually called Netball, a game whose rules were first codified in 1901.

Rolled, Tossed, Thrown and Lifted

Round nuts, polished to provide a smooth surface, were probably the precursors to Marbles, which came to be made of stone or clay and have been found in various places: Egyptian tombs, Native American burial grounds and Aztec pyramids.

Boules is the generic term given to games where balls are rolled or tossed towards a target. The Romans who played this type of game with a stone ball, brought it to Provence. In the Middle Ages, the game of Boules itself, where the ball was rolled, was played across mainland Europe with a wooden ball. Back in Provence, Jeu Provencal was a variant where a three-step run-up was taken before releasing the ball, while in Petanque, codified in 1907 or 1910, there is no run-up.

The British equivalent of Boules is known as Bowls. It is first mentioned in 1299, being played on lawns in Southampton by gentlemen. It was quite a rough sport where gamesmanship was commonplace. It was to be the mid-19th century before W.W. Mitchell drew up an initial “uniform code of laws”, which were to form the basis of all future rules.

Curling (bowls on ice?) dates back to Scotland in the early 16th century. Early stones, known as loofies, might have come from river beds, have been irregular in shape and had no handles. Scottish emigrants took Curling to Canada where it became extremely popular in the 19th century.

Skittles is a precursor to modern ten-pin bowling. It may date back as far as 3300BCE in Egypt. German monks played a game using a kegel (a club carried for self-defence) in the 3rd / 4th century CE. Coming forward in time, Henry VIII was keen on Skittles, and had his own Skittle alley built. Alleys were often to be found behind British pubs. The game was also popular in France, where it was called Quilles, and in Germany.

Evidence of stone throwing in ancient Egypt dates back to 5000BCE, while the Discus (made of stone, bronze or iron) was thrown in ancient Greece. Stone throwing appeared in the Scottish Highland Games in the 11th century, the original aim being military – part of the process to find the fittest, fastest and strongest men. Nowadays, the competition is known as the Stone Put. It weighs between 16lb and 26lb in the men’s competition. Finally, it is claimed that soldiers threw cannonballs back in the Middle Ages, possibly a precursor to the modern Shot Put, which first appeared in the British Athletic Championships of 1866.

One claim for the earliest precursor of Hammer Throwing is to be found at the Tailteann Games which were held at Tara in Ireland around 1,829BCE, while a drawing of Henry VIII throwing a blacksmith’s sledgehammer in the 16th century is also considered noteworthy. A Hammer Throwing competition first appeared in the Scottish Highland Games in the late 18th century, but it was to be the English who came to standardise the event in 1875.

Finally, not strictly a ball, I have included the Lifting of Stones, sometimes called manhood rocks. Examples can be found in many parts of the world, including Greece, Scotland, Germany and the Basque country. These events precede the sport of weightlifting.

Use of Sticks and Bats

There have been many instances of hockey-like games around the world where curved sticks were used to strike the ball, including:

  • Art works showing such scenes include the Beni Hasan tomb in Egypt (c. 2000 BCE) and various European illuminated manuscripts and other works from the 14th through to the 17th century
  • The Daur people, an ethnic group from Inner Mongolia, have been playing Beikou for a thousand years, originally using a ball-like knob of an apricot root and wooden branches
  • A variant of La Soule was played with sticks in Normandy from the 12th century
  • Khido Khundi (literally meaning ball and stick) was played in the 17th century in the state of Punjab in India 
  • In South America, most specifically in Chile, where the local natives were observed by the Spanish Conquistadors playing a game called Chueca in the 16th century
  • And finally, early European settlers observed indigenous Australians playing Dumbung in the 19th century. One claim states that the sticks were made from a mangart tree, while the ball was made out of dried sap from an apricot tree.

The modern game of Field Hockey emerged from English public schools in the early 19th century. The first club was formed in 1861 at Blackheath in south-east London, followed some years later by Teddington Hockey Club who helped to form the modern game by introducing the striking circle and changing the ball to a sphere from a rubber cube. The first Hockey Association dates from 1875, although it was short-lived, folding in 1882. A second (and permanent) Hockey Association was subsequently formed in 1886. 

Precursors to Ice Hockey included: Bandy, played by Russians in the early 1700s; IJscolf, played in the Low Countries in the Middle Ages; and Knattleikr, mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas and therefore played by Scandinavians over 1,000 years ago.

In the 1820s / 30s, British soldiers and immigrants brought their various stick and ball games to Canada and played them on ice. Also, there was a hockey-like game played in Nova Scotia by the Mi’kmaq Indians. Ice Hockey grew out of these various games, the first indoor game taking place in Montreal in 1875. It is claimed that the rules were first codified in 1877.

French Jesuit missionaries working in the St. Lawrence Valley in the 1630s were the first Europeans to see Lacrosse being played by various Native American Indians. One of them, Jean de Brébeuf, wrote about the game being played by the Huron Indians in 1636 and it was he who the named the game “Lacrosse”, now popularly shortened to Lax. Games were played between villages: the “pitch” could be anything from 500 yards to several miles long; the “goals” might be trees or other natural features; and there could be hundreds of players taking part. As the image above indicates, there was a net at the end of the stick, which was used to catch, carry and propel the (probably) wooden ball.

A game similar to Rounders, where scoring was achieved by hitting the ball with a stick and running around four bases, dates back to Tudor England. Baseball, a similar game, was developed in the USA. Its first references date from the second half of the 18th century, with the first organised games taking place around 1825. Alexander Cartwright produced a code of baseball rules in 1845, known as the Knickerbocker Rules, after the club in New York where he was a member.

Stool-Ball was a unisex game where one team tried to hit the wicket, possibly a stool or a tree, while the other team tried to stop it by using a stick. Club-Ball (pila baculorea), which Edward III banned in 1369, may have been an early form of cricket, but there appears to be no information on the rules of this game which might add weight to the theory. It may just have been a generic form of a game where a stick was used to hit a ball. 

The first definite reference to Cricket appeared in a court case concerning disputed land in Guildford in 1597, when it was said that “creckett” was being played on this land around 1550. Other references appear in the early and mid-1600s when it was being played in villages to the south of London. In the early days, the bats were curved sticks, resembling hockey sticks; the wicket consisted of two stumps; while the ball, cork with string wound around it and covered with leather, was bowled underarm.

The game appeared in London in the 17th century where it was being played by the likes of Oliver Cromwell and the 1st Duke of Marlborough in their youth. Cricket was a prime example of a sport which attracted the nobility from the early 18th century, not least for the gambling opportunities which it offered. The first codification of the laws of Cricket was drawn up in 1744 by members of the London Cricket Club and several other clubs at The Star and Garter Inn in Pall Mall, a popular meeting place for noblemen and gentlemen. The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) was formed in 1787, and it quickly became responsible for the laws of the game.

Various team stick games have Celtic origins. In Ireland, Hurling is thought to be at least 3,000 years old. In the 18th century there were two forms: Camán which was played in the north in winter with a wooden ball which could not be handled and a narrow wooden stick; and Iomán which was played in the south in summer with a ball made of animal hair which could be handled and carried and a wider wooden stick. The games then began to die out until the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 to revive traditional Irish sports, and they introduced modern rules which were largely based on Iomán.

In Scotland, Shinty was played mainly in the Highlands. It dates back to at least the 17th century, and it is quite similar to Camán. Meanwhile in Wales, Bando, a game played with a curved stick, and related to Field Hockey, Hurling and Shinty, was first observed in the late 18th century.

Polo probably started as a simple equestrian game which was played by Iranian and Turkic nomads. It became very popular during the Persian Parthian empire (247 BCE to 224CE), spreading to India where the British eventually picked it up in the early 19th century during their empire days. They brought it back to the UK and then, it is claimed, they were responsible for spreading the game around the world, notably to Argentina in the 1870s. It is a team sport which is played on a pitch measuring 300 yards by 160 yards, where the objective is to hit the ball, originally made of willow root, into the goal of the opposition with a stick (mallet).

Finally, to club and ball games where the objective is typically to hit the ball a long distance. The Roman game of Paganica was played with a curved stick and a feather-filled leather ball, the objective being to hit it as far as possible, while Kolf existed in the Netherlands from the 13th century, its objective being to reach a target in the fewest number of strokes. Cambuca in England from the 12th century may be similar although the rules are unclear.

Chuiwan, where the target was a hole in the ground, was played in China from the 8th to the 15th century. The modern game of Golf, where the target is also a hole in the ground, was a Scottish invention, dating from the 15th century. One claim has it that Scottish soldiers picked up the game of La Soule (the stick version) which was played in Normandy and Brittany, and adapted it. Golf was banned by several Scottish kings in the late 15th century, as they feared that it would stop archery practice. However, the monarchs themselves were attracted to the game in the following century, Mary Queen of Scots reputedly being seen playing within days of the murder of her husband, Charles Darnley. The Scottish game was brought to England by Henry, the son of James VI of Scotland and I of England. A five-hole course was constructed at Blackheath where he played with other courtiers in the early 17th century.

Use of Rackets

As mentioned above, Jeu de Paume had been played in France from the 12th century, using the bare hand and subsequently a gloved hand. The gentlemen’s version of the game developed into what became known as Courte-Paume or Real Tennis in the 16th century. It is played with racquets on an indoor court with sloping walls and a high ceiling. It was particularly popular in Britain and France.

Rackets (or Racquets) is claimed to have started in the 18th century in the King’s Bench and Fleet, both debtor prisons in London. It was played by inmates against a prison wall, sometimes in a corner to allow a side wall to come into play. The game spread, being played in alleys behind pubs and then in schools. The first proper 4-wall court was constructed at Harrow School.

Squash was invented in 1830 at Harrow School when they found that a punctured ball that “squashed” on impact with the wall brought more variety to the game of Rackets. Squash balls are hollow. The game is played with 4 walls. Racquetball was subsequently invented in 1950. It is similar to Squash but the racket is different in size and the ball is bouncier.

In addition to playing with the hand or a glove, as described previously, Basque Pelota can also be played with a wooden racket (palas and paletas) or a curved basket (zesta punta).

The modern game of Lawn Tennis had its beginnings in the early 1860s when Major Harry Gem and Augurio Perera experimented with a game which combined elements of rackets and pelota, which they played on a croquet lawn. In the following decade, Major Wingfield started experimenting with rules and a court layout. However, the first rules were codified by the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) in 1875. The game became instantly popular, and the rules were adopted by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for its initial lawn tennis championships which were held at Wimbledon in 1877.

Finally, although not using a ball, Battledore and Shuttlecock dates back at least 2,000 years. It was very popular in India, China, Japan and Siam, and it was subsequently found in Europe, often played by children. Games with shuttlecocks were also found being played by North American indigenous peoples such as the Kwakiuti, Pima, Salish and Zuni. British soldiers, based in the Indian city of Poona, developed a version of Battledore and Shuttlecock with a net strung across the court in the 1860s. The game, known at the time as Poona, was brought back to England and played at Badminton House, the residence of the Duke of Beaufort in Gloucestershire. At some point, around the 1870s, Poona became known as Badminton.

Use of Cues

Ground Billiards dates back to at least the 14th century in Europe, notably in France. Equipment for the game, which was played outdoors on a lawn, comprised a wooden ball. mace (long-handled mallet), hoop and a pin. It was a precursor to the similar games of Jeu de Mail (15th century), Pall-Mall (16th century), Trucco (17th century) and eventually Croquet (in the 19th century).

Louis XI of France (1461-1483) had the first known indoor billiard table. Billiards was initially played with a mace, the modern cue not appearing until around 1800. Other notable early players of Billiards were Mary, Queen of Scots and Louis XIV.

Pool, in its various forms, subsequently appeared in the 19th century, as did Snooker which was started by British Army officers in India during the second half of the same century.

The image on the right shows a form of Obstacle Billiards where the idea is to get the ball(s) into holes that are embedded in the table without hitting obstacles such as skittles or pins. Several variations have appeared. Billiard Russe dates from France in the 16th century. It became very popular across Northern France and Belgium, and eventually came to Britain around 1930 where it is known as Bar Billiards. Bagatelle was a game played by French aristocrats on an inclined surface, which appeared in the late 18th century.

Social Games

This section contains a brief selection of games that are played for fun, games that I do not consider to be sports.

Catch, where a ball or similar object is thrown between players, is a simple ubiquitous game, often played by children, which, unsurprisingly, has no known history.

Jacks can be found all over the world. It also goes under various other names such as Knucklebones. The basic idea is to toss a small ball or stone into the air, pick up various small object(s), and then catch the ball or stone before it drops to the floor. Games which sound like Jacks are mentioned in both The Iliad and Odyssey, works that were written around the 7th or 8th century BCE.

Aunt Sally is a game which dates back to the 17th century where a ball (or similar) is perched on top of a stick and the object is to throw battens or sticks at it in an attempt to dislodge the ball, which traditionally appeared as a model of an old woman. This is a forerunner of the Coconut Shy in fairgrounds.

In French Cricket, a game played by both sexes, the batter holds a racket or bat in front of her legs, and the bowlers toss the ball at her. The batter is dismissed if the ball hits her legs (because she missed it) or if she is caught. The origins of this game are unclear, as are the reasons why it is so named.

Codifying the Rules

There were few games that had codified rules before the 19th century, cricket being a notable exception.

However, the economic benefits brought by the Industrial Revolution, coupled with improvements in transport for those who could afford it, especially the arrival of the railway, encouraged the production of common rules which would allow games to be played between teams and individuals from disparate parts of a county or country.

A rash of sports codified their rules at a national level during the second half of the 19th century. Inevitably, this subsequently led to the need for global rules which would allow international competition, and they began to appear in the early 20th century.

My Emergence of Organised Sports in Britain includes mention of some national rules and world-wide organisations.

Odds and Sods

Some Thoughts on Debates Surrounding the Origins of Modern Sports

I have tried in the main section of this article not to get embroiled in the often heated debates that can often surround the subject of a sport’s origins. However, I will succumb here and briefly discuss four of them, albeit I may be accused of sitting on the fence.

The provenance of Baseball is one such argument. Some say that Rounders was a precursor, while others are adamant that it was not. There were games in England from Tudor times involving a bat, a ball and running between bases. A children’s book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, published by John Newbery in 1744, calls one such game, “base-ball”. These types of game were brought to America by English soldiers and immigrants in the 18th century. The English and American versions of these games then took their own independent paths. It was actually to be around the middle of the 19th century before formal rules appeared for both Rounders in Europe and for Baseball in America.

The origin of Golf is another hot topic. There have been various similar games where a ball is hit with a club: Paganica (the Romans); Chuiwan (China) between the 8th and 15th centuries; Cambuca (England) from around the 12th century; Kolf (the Low Countries) from the 13th century; and Golf (Scotland) from the 15th century. Chuiwan is similar to Golf, in that the objective was to get the ball into a hole. It started as a form of mini-golf, but some claim that it subsequently developed into a longer game, more akin to modern golf. Although there are theories that Chuiwan, and possibly Kolf, were precursors to Golf, there is no clear evidence that any of these games were influenced by any of the others.

It is generally agreed that Cricket dates back at least as far as the second half of the 16th century. However, speculation surrounds the possible precursors to the game. Candidates include Stool-Ball and Club-Ball, while the Middle Dutch word “kricke”, meaning stick, may indicate that a similar game came from Flanders, with which England did much trade. However, the bottom line is that it is all just speculation.

Finally, although FIFA recognises the Chinese game of Cuju as the earliest form of Football, there is no evidence that the modern game descends from it. If you must have a precursor to the modern game then it has to be Mob Football. Following on from the mob-style game, each English public school developed its own rules for playing football in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Cambridge Rules of 1848 were created to allow students at that university to play the game according to a common set of laws. Subsequently, the desire of young men to continue to play football after school or university led to the formation of the Football Association (FA) in England in 1863. The initial rules of Association Football, as the FA called the game, were based on a recently revised version of the Cambridge Rules.

Association Football gradually spread to other countries. In Scotland, where rough forms of football had existed for centuries, several clubs soon began playing to the English FA’s rules. By the 1880s, there was a Home Countries Championship, involving England, Ireland Scotland and Wales. They subsequently formed the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to agree any future changes to the laws of the game.

Meanwhile, the game was becoming popular elsewhere, either taken back to their own country by students who had been studying in Britain, or exported by Brits who were working abroad at the height of Britain’s Economic Empire. It is important to state that Association Football was principally the preserve of the upper and middle classes at this time, wherever it was being played. Individual national football associations began to appear from the late 1880s onwards.

Eventually recognising the need for a global organisation, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was formed in Paris in 1904. One of its initial rules was that matches were to be played according to “The Laws of the Game of the Football Association Ltd”. Interestingly, British arrogance led to them refusing to become founder-members of FIFA. However, they were persuaded to join one year later. FIFA was admitted to IFAB in 1913. Nowadays, FIFA has 50% of the voting rights on IFAB (four votes) while each of the British FAs has one each.

Some Early Balls

Various balls dating from prehistory have been found, including:

  • Linen rags, wrapped in string, located in the tomb of an Egyptian child, dating from around 2,500BCE. It constitutes the first-known ball
  • As indicated in the main body of the article, the Mesoamericans were well ahead of their time, discovering latex which they used to make rubber balls from around 1,650BCE
  • Three small balls, made of leather and stuffed with hair, have also been found in graves in North West China, dating from around 1,000BCE.

Wooden balls featured in a number of games, notably those where the ball was rolled or tossed at a target or hit with a stick, although cricket seems to have adopted a cork ball, wrapped in string and covered in leather quite early in its history. Golf balls made from gutta-percha gum appeared in 1848.

Early balls used in Jeu de Paume were typically made of leather stuffed with wool, while those used in early games of Real Tennis consisted of strips of wool, wound in string and covered with a white cloth. Lawn Tennis, which appeared in the 1870s, used rubber balls that were initially made in Germany.

Animal skins filled with feathers or other soft materials were suitable for those games where larger balls were hit with the hand or foot. Pig’s bladders came to be used for football. They could be filled with cork shavings or similar materials. These balls tended to be plum-shaped, not round. The bladders eventually came to be covered with leather for better shape retention.

Charles Goodyear patented vulcanised rubber in 1836. This process gave the rubber strength, elasticity plus resistance to solvents and moderate amounts of heat and cold. He designed and made the first rubber based soccer ball in 1855. In England, Richard Lindon introduced the first inflatable rubber bladder in 1862.

The 1863 Association Football rules made no mention of the ball. It was 1872 before the rules were revised, dictating that the ball must be spherical and be 27 to 28 inches in circumference.

Rugby was played with the same ball as Association Football until 1870 when the introduction of rubber inner-tubes and the pliability of rubber produced a ball that was more egg-shaped. The RFU officially decided that “ovalness” was the compulsory shape for a rugby ball in 1892.

The first ball used in Basketball was a football, but it was soon followed by a leather ball with laces. Volleyball required a lighter ball. In 1900, a ball was made that consisted of a latex bladder, covered with a cheesecloth material and a leather outer layer.

Finally, early Billiard balls were made from a variety of materials: wood, clay and ox-bone, while elephant ivory came into use in 1627.

Bibliography and Further Reading

It is normal practice to list books in alphabetic order of author’s name. However, I have listed them according to how much I have used the individual works, with my primary source at the top.

Strutt, J., The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801, available as an ebook

Vamplew, W., Games People Played: A Global History of Sport, Reaktion Books, London, 2021, available as an ebook

Roberts, M., The Same Old Game Volumes 1 and 2, RobertsBCN Publications, Kindle edition 2011 available as an ebook

The Oxford Handbook of Sports History, edited by Robert Edelman and Wayne Wilson, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Wigglesworth, N., The Story of Sport in England, Routledge, 2007, available as an ebook

Sport in Britain: A Social History, Edited by Tony Mason, Cambridge University Press, 1989

Porter, D., Amateurism in British Sport, Routledge, 2007, available as an ebook

Sheard, K., Dunning, E. Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (Ed. 2), Routledge, 2013, available as an ebook.


One of the problems with providing links is that you never know how long it will be before a topic disappears, or the website name / URL changes. Where there is a choice, I tend to go with links that are unlikely to change (famous last words?!). It follows that there a lot of links to Wikipedia articles.

I have simply specified the URL where the topic is obvious. Only where the URL is a bit of gobbledygook have I displayed a meaningful name.









My Potted History of Association Football in England includes information and links on the various precursors to Association Football




Mesoamerican Ball Game
















My Potted History of Cricket in England includes information and links on the early forms of the game.





























https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knucklebones also known as Jacks




Related Articles

The Emergence of Organised Sports in Britain

A Potted History of Association Football in England

Brief History of Rugby Football in the 19th Century

A Potted History of Cricket in England


I thank Peter Jackson and Janet King for reading and commenting on my first draft. All errors in this document are mine.

I have located the various images in this article on the Internet. Captions typically contain links to information on the source / attribution of each image. Please contact me if you consider that I have infringed any copyright.

Please note that this website is not a commercial venture. There are no adverts, and all the content is freely available for readers to access.

Version History

Version 0.1 – December 2nd, 2021 – Very drafty
Version 0.2 – December 4th, 2021 – Incorporated comments from PJ and JK
Version 0.3 – December 8th, 2021 – Added Odds and Sods section on the debates surrounding the origins of some modern sports
Version 0.4 – December 13th, 2021 – Added Odd and Sods section on early balls
Version 1.0 – December 14th, 2021.