- “This Rugby Spellbound People”: Rugby Football in Nineteenth-Century Cardiff and Wales by Gwyn Prescott
Enthusiasts of rugby culture and history are well aware of the number of scholarly and popular publications that have surfaced about the other “beautiful game” in the last three decades. The most notable in this cadre, Tony Collins’ A Social History of English Rugby Union (2009), Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain: A Social and Cultural History (2006), and Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture, and the Origins of Rugby League Football (1998) cemented the idea that rugby was and still is a sport that fascinates the imagination, symbolizes the ethos of nations, and imbues the individual spirit with the cultural values and ideals of Western society. When Fields of Praise: The Official History of Welsh Rugby Union, 1881–1981 was published in 1980 by David Smith and Gareth Williams, it became the hallmark for the history of Welsh rugby. Prescott’s “This Rugby Spellbound People” firmly grabs hold of that history and localizes it to Cardiff and South Wales during the time of Victorian Britain. Prescott’s interest in rugby football is far more than academic. He is a relative to the late Bleddyn Williams who played internationally for Wales and captained the British Lions in 1950. Moreover, Prescott, himself, captained the Welsh Secondary Schools team in the 1960s and recently served as a research assistant for the International Rugby Board.
Prescott carefully grounds his study of rugby football in Cardiff, Wales, during the Victorian era of Britain by structuring the book into five parts: the transition from hybrid football to rugby, the establishment of this new “running” game, the types of clubs that were founded including the premier club (also known as Cardiff), the organization of these football clubs and its participants, and finally the wider impact rugby football had on the city of Cardiff. He begins his analysis at the end of the Victorian era with a news report from the Irish Times in December of 1905 that chronicled a match played at Arms Park in central Cardiff between Wales and the up until that time undefeated New Zealand All Blacks. The Irish reporter, observing the enthusiastic crowd reaction in Wales’s victory over the All Blacks, writes “this rugby spellbound people,” hence the title of Prescott’s work. Prescott then takes on the complex and ostensibly daunting task of tracing the roots of rugby in Victorian Cardiff: how rugby football began as a marginal pursuit in the 1860s where hybrid forms of football were played because clubs rarely adhered to association football or Rugby School codes and how the sport captured the imaginations of Cardiffians because of its “predisposition” towards running with the ball. To accomplish this lofty goal he draws from morning daily newspapers, the South Wales Daily News and the Western Mail, published in Cardiff and circulated throughout Wales. Noting that newspaper reports are often biased and are usually written for a specific audience, Prescott supplements these newspaper articles with other primary sources including football handbooks, C.W. Alcock’s Football Annual, minutes from Welsh Football Union and the Rugby Football Union, and demographic data from census returns, directories, and biographical compilations. [End Page 188] Further noting that there is but a scant amount of academic research on rugby in nineteenth century Wales he depends on Fields of Praise as a chief secondary source in his research.
That rugby football, a sport typically played by public schools and the middle classes in most parts of Victorian Britain, was embraced and enjoyed by the working class and the middle class in Cardiff is the book’s central premise. Prescott uncovers several themes from his primary and secondary data sources that explain rugby’s progression towards social inclusion during the late nineteenth century: the astonishing growth of rugby clubs during the period of 1890 to 1897 due to the town’s (Cardiff became a city in 1905) commercial successes in coal-trading in the...