Emergence of Organised Sports in Britain

Having penned potted histories of several sports, I decided to write a shorter, general piece on the emergence of organised sports. It covers: the earliest references to games; various snippets of information that can be found up to the 17th century; more detailed information from the 18th and early 19th century; a brief background to economic and social changes in Victorian Britain, resulting from the Industrial Revolution; and finally, the formation of organisations that would govern individual sports and codify the laws.

Any feedback or questions are welcome. Feel free to contact me.

Bypass the introduction


It seems obvious to me that, from time immemorial, people in all parts of the world would have competed against each other by running, jumping, throwing objects, kicking them, hitting them with sticks, et cetera. The rules of each game would have been agreed by the participants (friends, neighbours et cetera) .. rules that would differ from village to village, and even from street to street.

Street cricket springs readily to my mind as a simple example. We had our own rules in an area which encompassed two streets. They differed from those employed by children in adjacent areas. The rules were influenced by the place where we played. There were two properties on either side of the street where the “pitch” was situated. They were end terraces whose front doors were on a street running at right angles. Each had a gable wall and a back entry at the rear. A cover drive that went down the back entry on the other side of the street was counted as 4, whereas if the shot was in the air then it might end up in the backyard of the property which was adjacent to the said back entry. This was counted as 6 and out, plus the outgoing batsman had to attempt to retrieve the ball from the possibly irate neighbour. You could be caught off the gable walls, but it had to be one-handed. I am afraid that my fading memory does not stretch to our other idiosyncratic rules, except that we played with a soft ball and a bat if one of the players owned one, otherwise it might be a stick of some sort.

Difficulties in travelling in the dim and distant past probably meant that you never played against anybody outside your immediate circle, except perhaps the parish next door. When you managed to do this, you no doubt found that their sport and their rules were slightly different from yours. So, a precursor to such a match would have to be a discussion and a subsequent agreement on the rules to be used..

Improvements in transport, including the creation of turnpikes and eventually the advent of the railway, only served to magnify the problems of arranging a sporting match with some “foreigners” from the next town or county which would be played to an agreed set of rules.

It was around the middle of the Victorian era before groups of individuals or clubs got together to form organisations that would attempt to standardise the rules of individual sports. Britain’s position as the pre-eminent global economy after the Industrial Revolution meant that it was generally in a better position than other countries to create national sporting institutions and to put in place the necessary sets of laws.

The movement of individuals, both into and out of the country, aided by Britain’s successful economy, provided a vehicle to spread these games and their codified rules around the world. For example, while variants of Britain’s game of soccer could no doubt be found in many places around the world, it was arguably easier to adopt an existing set of rules if you did not have already have your own.  In this particular case it was made infinitely easier by the fact that FIFA, the world-governing body, adopted the FA’s laws when it was formed in 1904.   

This essay briefly summarises the history of a number of sports, or at least as much as we know about them. It tracks the formation of organisations, the codification of the respective rules, and the eventual arrival of world-governing bodies.


From Pre-history up to the Late 17th Century
From the Late 17th to the Early 19th Century
Early to Mid-19th Century
Changes in Victorian Britain
Codification Mania in the Late Victorian Era
Creation of International Governing Bodies

Bibliography & Further Reading
Related Articles
Version History

From Pre-history up to the Late 17th Century

The earliest sporting references come to us from other parts of the known world, starting with the ancient Egyptians (3000 BCE onward) who mention running, jumping, wrestling, weightlifting, hockey and rowing.

Coming slightly further forward in time, the Tailteann Games in Ireland started around the middle of the second millennium BCE to mourn the death of the foster mother of Lugh, a mythological deity and king. Hurling, wrestling, boxing and foot races were included in their events, along with non-sporting competitions such as storytelling and singing.

Javelin Throwers in Ancient Greece – British Museum Ricky Bennison

However, the most detailed information from the ancient world comes to us from the Greeks. Their Olympiad, first held in 776 BCE, included foot races, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw and wrestling. They also had a ball game called episkyros, which could be loosely described as a form of rugby.

Following on from the Greeks, the Romans were keen on chariot racing, gladiator fights, wrestling and boxing. They too had a form of rugby with a game called harpastum, which formed part of their military training.

The first reference to ball games in England dates back to the 9th century CE, some 400 years after the Romans left these shores, when Historia Brittonum mentions “some boys playing at ball”.

William FitzStephen, a monk and cleric who worked for Thomas Beckett in the second half of the 12th century, wrote about London, describing young men who had space allotted to them outside the City, where they practised, among other exercises, “leaping, wrestling, casting of the stone (a form of bowls possibly?) and playing with the ball”. He painted a vivid general scene of Londoners at play. “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”.

There are only a modest number of references to sport in succeeding centuries, often limited to proclamations that banned them or to court proceedings.

Mob football

The playing of mob football and bowls seemed to have been particularly frowned upon. Mob football was a very violent game (more rugby than soccer) with little or no rules and potentially hundreds of players on each side. Often played on feast days, it was banned on a number of occasions due to concerns over public order.

Some sports had two variants: a refined form played by gentlemen; and a simpler, rougher version played the common man. Bowls was one such sport. A gentlemen’s game, played on lawns, is mentioned in 1299 in Southampton. Conversely, the common man threw round stones at a stake in the ground. This latter game could get out of hand, particularly if the participants had been consuming alcohol.  It was banned by Edward III in 1349, and 11 men were fined at Ampthill in Bedfordshire for playing bowls in 1502.

Apocryphal tale of Sir Francis Drake playing bowls in Plymouth, as the Spanish Armada approaches

Various sports were also periodically banned because monarchs, notably Edward III and Henry V, were concerned that they stopped the common man from practising archery, and proficient archers were always required for forthcoming battles.

Archery was primarily associated with warfare and hunting from the time of the ancient Egyptians, through the Roman occupation of Britain, and on to the Middle Ages where the English victories at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and subsequently Agincourt, were mainly attributed to the skill of their archers.  The Worshipful Company of Bowyers (bow makers) was recognised in 1363 during the reign of Edward III (the victor at Crecy and Poitiers) who insisted that all men, other than substantial landowners, must practise archery. There is only the occasional mention of indulging in archery for “amusement”.

Game of real tennis being played in Paris

Some say that tennis started in a French monastery in the 12th century when the game was played against a wall or over a rope that was hung across a courtyard, although others dispute these origins. The gentleman’s game developed into real tennis in the 16th century, a game which is played on indoor courts. Meanwhile, the rudimentary version of tennis played by the common man saw an object being hit with the hand over an obstacle such as a hedge or a ditch.

The first definite reference to cricket appears 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. The game eventually appeared in the capital where it was being played by the likes of Oliver Cromwell and the 1st Duke of Marlborough in their youth.

Athletic events (aka Track and Field) were usually to be found in country fairs that were held mainly on feast days. There are references in Lancashire (in the 16th century) and in the West Country. Mention can also be found in various books: Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named The Governour in 1531 where he recommends athletic events as part of the training for young statesmen; and in Ronald Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) where country sports such as leaping and running are cited.

The modern game of golf was a Scottish invention, dating from the 15th century, although a golf-like game had existed in Holland from 1297. It is claimed that Scottish soldiers picked up the game of La Soule 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 Darnley (her husband). 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.

Finally, Horse Racing is known as the sport of kings, not least because it has always enjoyed royal support. It was popular with the nobility from around the 12th century. Races were first held at Newmarket during the reign of James I.

From the Late 17th to the Early 19th Century

It was from around the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 that the playing of sport became more noticeable.

This growth was in part attributable to the nobility and landed gentry who took a great interest in sport from this point through to the 1830s/1840s. It has to be said that they were attracted principally by the gambling opportunities that were offered by various sports.

Press censorship from the Puritan era in the 1630s and 1640s through to the end of the century limited the exposure that could be given to sport, although this changed when it began to be relaxed in the 1690s. Subsequent press coverage obviously helped individual sports to grow.

Another factor in the growth of sport was the improvement in the roads with the advent of turnpikes in the 18th century which eased transport, principally for those who could afford to pay to use them. Bodies of local trustees, regulated by Acts of Parliament, were given powers to levy tolls on users of a turnpike, a stretch of road which was usually 15 to 20 miles in length. The income was used to maintain and improve the road.  For example, Berkshire ultimately had over 200 miles of turnpike. These trusts remained responsible for the majority of England’s trunk roads right through to the 1870s.

Cricket was a prime example of a sport which attracted the nobility from the early 18th century. Some had their own teams, employing retainers who de facto became the game’s first professionals. Some of the wagers for matches were for eye-watering sums of money. In 1785 a team led by the 9th Earl of Winchilsea played a team of gentlemen from Kent for 1,000 guineas (roughly £160,000 in today’s money).

Hambledon Cricket Club – The Cradle of Cricket

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 soon became responsible for the laws of the game.

Members of the nobility and gentry could also be attracted to the betting opportunities that were offered by pedestrianism (races involving walking or running). A popular wager was my footman versus your footman. The relatively poor state of the roads, excepting turnpikes, necessitated a person who walked / jogged behind your coach and could smooth the journey by removing obstacles such as stones and branches, and ensuring that rutted surfaces did not significantly impede your progress. Footmen, as they were called, obviously had to be physically fit to perform these tasks. As well as these match races, there were also bets on individual feats of endurance, Captain Barclay winning 1,000 guineas for walking 1,000 miles in a 1,000 hours in 1809.

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Richard Manks – Walking Champion (1851)

Charles II and Queen Anne were both keen on horse racing. Charles held races at Newmarket, while Anne was responsible for the creation of Ascot racecourse in 1711, and for the initiation of races involving more than two horses. Previously, there had just been match races, one horse against another. Royal Ascot, as it became known, developed into a very popular event, drawing large crowds, from around the middle of the 18th century. The Jockey Club was formed in 1750 with responsibility for the governance and regulation of the sport. Early meetings of the club were held at the Star and Garter Inn in Pall Mall, before they eventually moved to Newmarket. Celebrated annual races began to appear in the late 18th century, including the Oaks (1779) and the Derby (1780) which were both run at Epsom.

While mob football continued in villages and towns across the country, variations of the game (with some rules) started to appear in public schools around the middle of the 18th century. Each school had its own rules, with some favouring more of a handling game (e.g. Rugby and Winchester), while others preferred a predominantly kicking game (e.g. Eton and Charterhouse), although all schools allowed some mixture of both handling and kicking.

A Birmingham Prize Fight by W. Allen

Prize fighting was illegal, but at the same time it was very popular because of the gambling opportunities that it provided, not least to the nobility and gentry. There were initially no rules and no weight divisions. It was Jack Broughton, a one-time rower and subsequent trainer to the gentry, who attempted to bring some order, not to mention safety, to boxing around 1743. Recognised as the “Father of Boxing”, Broughton is credited with introducing mufflers, forerunners of modern boxing gloves.

The finish of Doggett’s Coat and Badge. Painting by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827).

Rowing. Watermen who plied their trade on the Thames in London raced against each other for money in the 18th century. These events became quite popular, some attracting large crowds. William Doggett, an actor manager at the Drury Lane Theatre, was so impressed by the skill of one waterman who ferried him home to Chelsea on a stormy night that he funded what became known as the Doggett Coat and Badge race. It was first run in 1715, and it still exists today, starting at London Bridge and finishing at Cadogen Pier in Chelsea. There are two pubs with that name in existence today: Doggett’s Coat and Badge on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge; and the Coat and Badge in Putney.

Bowls, which had been something of a rough rural sport where gamesmanship was rife, gradually became more genteel during this period. The first documented event was the Knighthood Competition which was held in Southampton in 1776.

Royal British Bowmen meeting (1822)
Bennett, engraver. Townshend, J., fl. 1822, artist

Archery. As guns began to be used in warfare, archery went into something of a decline. An attempt to arrest that decline came with the establishment of the Society of Finsbury Archers in 1651. A slow revival continued into the reign of Charles II, who was himself a keen archer. However, it took until around 1780 before it became a popular sport, primarily among the upper classes.

There was no real change in golf in England during this period. There was still just the one course at Blackheath, which officially became a club in 1766. However, it was during this period that the first written rules of the game were drafted by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744. There were only 13 rules in this initial version.

Similarly, there was little mention of hockey in the 18th century, except for the occasional reference that it was being played at some public schools.

Early to Mid-19th Century

It was around this time that the nobility and gentry gradually became somewhat more circumspect about throwing their money around on betting. There were various reasons for this change in habit: the Napoleonic Wars; a period of social unrest when there were fears that this country may follow France into revolution; and the Industrial Revolution which brought with it the rise of the middle classes. Arguably, the subsequent Gaming Act of 1845 had a sobering effect on the betting habits of the general population, including the nobility and gentry. The Act’s principal provision was to deem a wager unenforceable as a legal contract.

Public school reforms in the 1830s and 1840s led to a recognition that sport had a role to play in the character-building process for young men. Muscular Christianity became an “in phrase”. It is described in Wikipedia as “a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, manliness, the moral and physical beauty of athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice, and the expulsion of all that is effeminate, un-English, and excessively intellectual.”

This led to the introduction of the amateur ethos in sport in public schools, universities and beyond. The word “amateur” had appeared in the late 18th century. It has French and Italian origins, meaning “lover of”. Games were to be played purely for the love of it, and “fair play” was expected from participants who should not get over-excited in victory or downhearted in defeat. In addition, these amateurs tended to frown on training, and even on watching games (when you should be playing).

Early Rugby Scrum

This period saw an initial codification in 1845 of the rules of football, as played at Rugby School, what would become rugby football. It was quickly followed in 1848 by the Cambridge Rules for football, as played by those who preferred a kicking game, what would eventually become association football (aka soccer). The Cambridge Rules were an attempt to provide a common set of rules for students who came from different schools, each with their own rules.

Cricket saw the appearance of the first gentleman amateurs at this time, typically players who had been to public school and Oxbridge. County clubs began to be created, Sussex being the first in 1839, typically consisting of a mixture of professional and gentlemen amateur players. This period also saw significant changes to the laws pertaining to bowling which had previously only permitted underarm: roundarm was allowed in 1835, followed in 1864 by overarm.

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Henley Challenge Cup (1840)

Significant amateur rowing events appeared at this time with the first Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race taking place in 1829, and the first Henley Regatta in 1839.

Pedestrianism arguably peaked during this period, despite the gradual withdrawal of the nobility and gentry, although wagers were naturally somewhat smaller. Meanwhile, amateur athletics started to become established. Cross country running, previously called paper chase or hare and hounds, started to appear in public schools. Athletic sports days were subsequently held in a number of Oxbridge colleges in the 1850s, followed by the formation of University Athletic Clubs in 1857 (Cambridge) and 1860 (Oxford), with the first inter-varsity match taking place in 1864.

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Grand National 1839 – Engraving by J Harris

Arguably the most notable event in horse racing during this period was the first running of the Grand National at Aintree in 1839. There had in fact been similar races in the previous three years which are now known to us as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.

The Blackheath golf club followed some of the Scottish clubs by extending its course from five to seven holes in 1844. However, it is from around this time that there was a trend to move to eighteen hole courses.

Changes in Victorian Britain

The Victorian age saw significantly greater technological, economic and social change than any other period in history. These changes helped to lay a platform for the emergence of organised sports and other leisure pastimes in Britain. Let us briefly summarise some of these changes before going on to discuss the rash of sports whose rules were codified in the late Victorian era.

The first Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1820/1840) saw the introduction of mechanised processes, mainly by exploiting steam and water power. Britain led the way, becoming the most successful economy in the world. Improvements and inventions which impacted on sport followed in various areas:

Transport. Arguably the most important invention was the steam locomotive and the subsequent building of the railway network from around the middle of the 19th century. Horse-drawn omnibuses (circa. 1830) and horse-drawn trams (1860s / 1870s) also appeared in towns and cities.

Public initiatives. The success of the British economy led to various public initiatives, including the provision of public libraries, museums and parks in the late Victorian era. Parks obviously helped to provide facilities for playing various sports.

The lawn mower. From an outdoor sports perspective, the invention of the lawn mower by Edwin Budding in 1830 was a notable change. Before mowers, sheep or the scythe were necessary to keep the grass to a required length. Lord’s Cricket Ground only gave up on sheep in 1864 when they purchased a mower and appointed a groundsman.

Time available to play. The opportunities for the ordinary man in the street to indulge in any sport were extremely limited, not least because he had little time available, usually only feast days and possibly Sundays, although breaking the Sabbath was frowned upon. However, the appearance of a Saturday half-day holiday in the 1850s improved matters on this front for an increasing number of trades, although it took until 1920 for dock workers to get Saturday afternoon off.

Other pastimes also benefited from changes in the Victorian era. As I have previously scribbled potted histories on cultivation and allotments, I will just briefly mention them by way of providing a couple of examples. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was formed in 1804. Provincial societies that became affiliated to the RHS started to appear from the late 1850s onwards, followed by local societies that emerged in substantial numbers, starting in the 1880s. The provision of garden allotments in England began to increase significantly from the 1870s onward, growing rapidly from 243K plots in 1873 to 445K by 1890.   

Codification Mania in the Late Victorian Era

The 1860s onwards saw a rash of sports forming national associations in Britain that codified the laws which were to be employed when playing their games. Individuals who were involved in creating the laws were frequently Oxbridge alumni, and it therefore followed that they were gentlemen amateurs, and the organisations and laws of each sport were aimed at players who were themselves gentlemen amateurs.

Illustration from 1872 Scotland v. England match by William Ralston

Soccer, known initially as Association Football, was established in 1863 when the Football Association (FA) came into existence, producing an initial set of laws which were based on the previously mentioned Cambridge Rules after a series of meetings. It was not an instant success, as many players were used to a hybrid game which could loosely be described as part rugby and part soccer. It arguably took until the early 1880s before soccer established its own unique identity and with it, a growing popularity. During the first 20+ years of the FA’s existence it was perceived as a game for the gentleman amateur. However, the formation of the (professional) Football League in 1887 started a rapid transformation which led to it eventually becoming the common man’s game.

A desire to establish a totally separate identity for the handling version of football led to the formation of the RFU (Rugby Football Union) in 1871. It created an initial set of laws immediately, using the rules from Rugby School as a base. This was a game solely for amateurs. Initially, it was more socially inclusive than soccer, but this gradually changed as public schools tended to ditch soccer in favour of rugby around the time of World War I, and many northern working-class players became attracted by the breakaway rugby league game around the turn of the 20th century.

In rowing, the Metropolitan Rowing Association was formed in 1879, changing its name to the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) in 1882 when clubs from outside London were attracted. In 1886 the ARA issued general rules for regattas, including a provision that only gentlemen were allowed to compete. This contentious rule led to the creation of a breakaway organisation, the National Rowing Association (NRA), who had no socially divisive rules. The ARA did not change the “gentlemen only” rule until 1937 after an embarrassing incident in 1936 when the Australian eight who were preparing for the Berlin Olympics were not allowed to compete at Henley because they were all policemen (who were deemed to be manual workers). The ARA and NRA eventually joined forces in 1956.

Henry Cotton (right) with his brother at the 1921 Boys Championships Picture courtesy of Peter O’Kill

In golf, it was 1864 before a second course was built in England at Westward Ho!. This was followed by the London Scottish club on Wimbledon Common (1865) and Royal Liverpool (1869), while Oxford and Cambridge Universities both formed clubs in 1875. This all heralded a period of rapid growth: there were 12 courses by 1880, 50 by 1887 and over 1,000 by 1914. Meanwhile, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers in Fife codified the rules of the game in 1897. Subsequently known as the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, it was gradually invited to take control of the running of golf tournaments at other courses.

Hockey. It is claimed that the first hockey club was Blackheath, formed in 1861. 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.

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Royal Military Academy Hockey team (1897)

Athletics. Amateur clubs started to appear in the 1860s with the Amateur Athletic Club (AAC) leading the pack, and running the national championships from 1866. However, it did not prove to be a popular organisation, not least because it showed no great desire to rule the sport, and it was eventually replaced in 1880 by the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA). The AAA spent its early years trying to prevent professionals from competing in its events, an objective that had been largely achieved by the late 1890s.

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Inter-University Hurdle Race in 1875

Boxing. Changes, known as the Revised London Prize Ring Rules, were drawn up in 1853 and they controlled the sport until the end of the 19th Century, when the Queensberry Rules came into use. These rules had been drafted in 1857 by a boxer, John Graham Chambers, under the auspices of the 8th Marquis of Queensberry. Emphasising boxing skill rather than wrestling and agility over strength, the Queensberry Rules helped to undo the popular image of boxing as a savage, brutal brawl.

Amateur boxing emerged as a sport during the mid-to-late 19th century, partly as a result of the moral controversies surrounding professional prize-fighting. It was initially adopted by schools, universities and the Armed Forces. In England, the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) was formed in 1880 when twelve clubs were affiliated. It held its first championships in the following year.

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Bowls match at Thornborough – circa. 1920

Bowls. Following on from a meeting in Glasgow in 1848, W.W. Mitchell, drew up a “uniform code of laws”, and these were to form the basis of all subsequent laws. In 1892, the Scottish Bowling Association was formed, and in the following year it drew up rules or laws based on Mitchell’s Code along with a Code of Ethics (bowls had been a sport where gamesmanship was rife). In 1903, the English Bowling Association was formed, its first President being W. G. Grace, of cricketing fame.

Archery. The first Grand National Archery meeting took place at York in 1843. Over the next decade, the rules, known as the York Round, were gradually agreed at these annual meetings. However, it was not until 1861 that the Grand National Archery Society was officially formed.

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Herbert Lawford and William Renshaw – Wimbledon illustration circa. 1881

The modern game of 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 of lawn tennis, as it became known, 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.

Creation of International Governing Bodies

British sports (and their rules) spread to other countries. There were several ways that this happened: Brits working abroad took their games with them: and foreign students resident in Britain, took the games back to their own countries when they returned home. Naturally, national associations would subsequently be formed in each country, and fairly soon there was a need for an international governing body in each sport. They appeared fairly quickly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was not uncommon for Britain (or England) to be reticent to join these international organisations .. “it is our game!” seemed to be a popular and introverted cry.

  • In soccer, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was formed in 1904, adopting the FA’s laws of the game. England was persuaded to join one year later although it proved to be a somewhat uneasy relationship with England withdrawing on two occasions: in 1920-1922 (over Germany’s membership after World War I) and 1926-1945 (over the allowance of broken-time payments to amateurs). The latter withdrawal meant that England did not compete in the first three World Cup Competitions.
  • In rugby, The IRFB (International Rugby Football Board) which is now called World Rugby was formed in 1886 by Scotland, Ireland and Wales, following a row between England and Scotland over the interpretation of the knock-on rule. England reluctantly joined in 1890.
  • In rowing, FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron) was formed in 1892. Britain was not a founder member.
  • Baron de Coubertin was the main driving force behind the creation of the modern Olympics for amateurs. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) was formed in 1894, before the first games which were held in Athens in 1896. Britain was a founder member.
  • In bowls, the IBB (International Bowling Board) was formed in 1905, the founder members being Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales. It is now known as World Bowls.
  • In cricket, the ICC (Imperial Cricket Conference) was formed in 1909. The founder members were England, Australia and South Africa. It is now known as the International Cricket Council.
  • In athletics, the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) was formed in 1912 at the time of the Stockholm Olympics. Britain was a founder member.
  • In tennis, the ILTF (International Lawn Tennis Federation) was formed in 1913 with twelve founder members, including Britain.
  • In amateur boxing, Fédération Internationale de Boxe Amateur was formed in 1920, England, France, Belgium, Brazil and the Netherlands being the founder members. In professional boxing the WBA (World Boxing Association) was founded in 1921. There are currently three other “world” authorities in professional boxing, typically known as sanctioning bodies.
  • In hockey, the FIH (Fédération Internationale de Hockey) was formed in 1924. The BHB (British Hockey Board) was created in 1948, promptly becoming affiliated to FIH.
  • In golf, the governance of the sport has been the joint responsibility of USGA (for USA and Mexico) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (for the rest of the world) since 1952. The latter was replaced by the R&A in 2004. In addition, the IGF (International Golf Federation) came into existence in 1958, a body which is recognised by the International Olympic Committee as the world governing body for the sport.
  • Slightly surprisingly, in horse racing the IFHA (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) was not formed until 1961. The USA, France, Britain and Ireland were founder members.
Ascot Stands 1910 – picture courtesy of Christine Weightman

Bibliography & Further Reading

Wigglesworth, N., The Story of Sport in England, Routledge, 2007, also available as an ebook
Strutt, J., The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801, 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, also available as an ebook
Sheard, K., Dunning, E. Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (Ed. 2), Routledge, 2013, also available as an ebook

In addition, my potted histories on individual sports each contain their own Bibliography and Further Reading sections:

Related Articles

A Potted History of Ball Games


My thanks to those individuals who agreed to read and comment on the original draft.

The majority of the images that are used in this document are embedded Getty images and Wikimedia/Commons. Anybody who considers that I have infringed copyright should contact me.

All errors are mine.

Version History

Version 0.1 (March 19th, 2019) – drafty
Version 0.2 (March 26th, 2019) – slightly less drafty
Version 1.0 (March 31st, 2019).