Rugby, cricket and sports – oh my!

WG Grace, one of England’s ‘cricket greats’

Today marks the anniversary of the birth (1848) of WG Grace, one of the world’s great cricketers. It has been a good month (or two months!) for English sport. 1 July saw the anniversary of the 1812 death of WW Ellis, who is often credited with the invention (of sorts) of the game of rugby – and of course we’ve all been swept away by the World Cup, the Tour de France and the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

This photograph, taken by Eric Guy during the late 1930s, shows a cricket match in progress. A group of villagers follow the score from the edge of the pitch (MERL P DX289 PH1/4393)

There’s a wealth of sporting related material in our special collections (and in the MERL collections). From boy’s annuals to books on country life, sporting graces the covers and the pages of many of our best collections – there are even cricket books in our Beckett Collection! It is the Children’s Collection that really shines here, however, and a morning’s browse through the stacks turned up a few gems.

The history and uptake of rugby, cricket and many other sports in Britain is closely linked to children’s sports, and – like today – many of the children’s magazines and annuals were full of teams stats, match info and tips. Cricket featured early and often in children’s publications. Cricket’s origins date to the 16th century (at least!); in our collections, you first see cricket in books like the 1857 Book of Sports for Boys and Girls; the 1800s saw renewed excitement for cricket  following the establishment of county clubs, an international team (the All-England Elevens) and the debut of WG Grace, pictured above. Cricket doesn’t fade from fashion though, and we have modern children’s guides like the Ladybird Story of Cricket (1964).

The Boy’s Own Annual, v. 48 (1926)

Rugby is a less common feature in our collections; though Webb Ellis’s apocryphal run is attributed to 1823, the sport grew more slowly before the ‘great schism’ and the formation of the Football Association in 1863. It begins to appear in children’s publications more and more in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – quite probably as it featured more and more in public school sporting life. Images of ‘healthy and hale’ young lads playing rugby were a common feature on Boy’s Own covers and spines, and fictional stories dealt with sporting competition and friendships.

Cricket and rugby are by no means the only sports featured in the Children’s Collection; from golf to hopscotch, indoor games to football, the collection is a great way to explore the history of children’s games and sport – from what was considered appropriate for 19th-century little girls to play to which 1920s sporting figures caught the attention of Boy’s Own readers. For more info, see the collection webpages.

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