On Saturday 4 October 1902, a curious game was played at the Crystal Palace, south-east London, between a team representing nearby Anerley and a team representing the Crystal Palace (two years before the formation of Crystal Palace FC). The game was a version of association football, and was played on the pitch used for FA Cup Finals. But this was not football, it was "pushball", and it was played with a ball that was taller than many of the players.
"I have had experience in most games and pastimes," reported sports columnist Banshee of the Penny Illustrated (which published the above illustration), "but I must candidly confess that until last week I had no idea of the existence of such an entertaining games as the weird American travesty of Association football which was played at the Crystal Palace last Saturday."
"It is possessed of the very euphemistic name of 'Pushball', and the idea is to propel a huge ball of some 5ft. 6in. in diameter over the goal-line or to force it over the goal-line between two posts, as is done in Association football. In the first case two points are counted, and if the ball is engineered between the posts three points are credited to the side successfully maneuvering the ball."
This was not the first game of pushball (or push-ball) to be played in the UK. Developed at Harvard University in the 1890s, it had first been seen in the UK via cinematograph and electroscope "animated pictures", billed as "the great American game of pushball, the new rival of football". Then an actual pushball was displayed in an athletic outfitter's window at London's Cheapside - with a not-very cheap £22 10s price tag that seemed almost as big as its circumference.
The first game played in the UK was at Headingley, Yorkshire, on 23 August 1902 between teams representing The USA and England. The Illustrated London News published photographic evidence of the strange spectacle (above). The USA defeated England 11-4.
Ahead of another match at Middlesbrough in August 1902 it was reported that it took some two and a half hours to inflate the pushball using a special pump. The match highlighted the dangers of pushball, with one player breaking his collarbone, two receiving black eyes, and another having "his neck inconveniently screwed".
Another game, falsely billed as "the first game of pushball", was played on 11 April 1903 at Bristol Rovers' Eastville ground in front of 2,000 spectators. Two teams of eight men representing Bristol and London did battle over the 40lb ball during four periods of ten minutes each. Bristol won by 10 points to 4. "It demonstrated the possibilities of the game," said the Western Daily Press, "and seemed to show that there was an interest in it."
There certainly was some interest. The January 1903 edition of The Royal magazine included an interview with EV Hanegan (sometimes referred to as FV Hanegan), "the man who brought the game to England". Hanegan was also featured, and photographed (below), in the Penny Illustrated. The game was also featured in the Boy's Own Paper. Pushball was even listed among the latest new games in Treherene's 1903 Sporting Annual.
However, pushball's novelty status was confirmed when Lord John Sanger's circus (the circus that had championed elephant football) introduced a new attraction of "equestrian pushball". Pushball continued to be played, and still survives as a novelty sport today, but never truthfully rivalled football as the game of the people.
"I am not prepared to say that the exhibition will appeal to the British public," concluded Banshee in the Penny Illustrated. "Neither do I consider that the new game of 'Vigoro', which is a cross between cricket and lawn tennis, is likely to catch on. But meanwhile let us thank the Palace people for introducing a couple of novelties."