Football was banned in Derby in 1846. The Derby game, traditionally played across Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday for more than a hundred years, was renowned as one of the most violent in the land.
‘Playing – as it is not very rationally called – at football in the public streets and thoroughfares is a great public nuisance,’ commented the Derby Mercury. The town council issued a resolution stating that they would use every means in their power to ‘put down football playing’. They printed posters and handbills warning residents not to participate, and swore-in special constables to keep the peace.
However, many of the townsfolk remained determined to play, and it became apparent that big trouble was brewing. The council sought advice from the Secretary of State, who called in the military. Nevertheless, the game still went ahead, with its instigator named as Henry Allen.
The Mercury reported: ‘In spite of all these endeavours, and of all these precautionary measures and remonstrations, Allen had thrown up the ball and caused a great and tumultuous assembly, when much riot and confusion ensued, which the civil power was insufficient to suppress.’
The Mayor literally read the Riot Act (allowing for anyone who failed to disperse within an hour to be removed by force), the military moved in, and peace was eventually restored. Allen and several other players were arrested.
In court, the judge said that the prisoners had shown remorse, and that ‘the length of time this custom has prevailed might be some extenuation’.
He let Allen and the others off with a suspended sentence and a fine, but reiterated that the ban must remain: ‘However innocent the play might anciently have been, from the increased size of the town and the present state of society, it is impossible to permit it to be continued any longer, and the laws and authorities must be supported.’
Football was banned in Derby, and was also suppressed in nearby Ashbourne. The Mercury rejoiced, calling the game ‘a vestige of a semi barbarous age’ and a ‘reproach upon civilisation’.
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany by Paul Brown.