Please cite this article as:

Liam, D. Athletics in the Late Nineteenth Century and the Conflict between the North and the South, In Piercey, N. and Oldfield, S.J. (ed), Sporting Cultures: Global Perspectives (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2019), 128-148.

ISBN paperback 978-1-910029-49-7

Chapter 7


Athletics in the Late Nineteenth Century and the Conflict between the North and the South

Liam Dyer



Sport historians have often credited southern-based public school alumni for being the facilitators of amateur sport during the Victorian period, having taken their school games to the universities, where the rules for many popular sports became standardised. These public-schooled individuals then entered the professions or business, at which point, they also became the administrators of sport at both the regional and national level.[1] However, the northern middle classes also made a significant contribution to the growth of local, regional and national organised sport. Therefore, the research presented here challenges the orthodox notion that the southern professional middle class were the sole architects of nationally organised Victorian sport, especially in athletics, where, it is argued here, The North were actually its legislative leaders. Towards the end of the century, sport became a site of conflict with philosophical differences arising from not only class, but from geographical divergences, with the North and South having distinct attitudes on how sport should be managed and played.[2] The general perception in the sports history field is that the North of England was inundated with professionalism and that the South consisted of those who believed in the amateur philosophy of playing for enjoyment.[3] However, this generalisation does not appreciate the complexities of the amateur-professional debate during the nineteenth century, and does not take into account the presence of northern amateur athletes and officials or, southern professional sportsman.[4]

As shown by Porter, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, association football professionalism had reached the South. Several clubs, such as Clapton Orient, Woolwich Arsenal, and Chelsea all turning professional, and with all but the London, Middlesex, and Surrey county associations accepting professional sides into their ranks by 1906.[5] Likewise, there were northern football teams, such as Middlesbrough, competing in amateur competitions, although it is noted that the amateur side took their competition seriously, training like professionals rather than seeking to emulate the approach of the Corinthians.[6] As this chapter shows, in athletics, northern amateur values were strong with the Northern Counties Athletics Association (NCAA) championing amateur values and resisting attempts to allow professionalism into the sport. This process highlights that the generalisations used by sport historians to discuss nineteenth-century regional sporting culture are not definitive and that the social class and amateur-professional underpinned north-south divide is more complicated than previously thought.

Whilst football, rugby, cricket, and tennis have been studied through the lens of the north-south divide, there has been limited research into athletics.[7] Using the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) records located in the Cadbury Research Library in Birmingham, together with sources such as the Athletic News and Sporting Life, which represented both association minutes and contemporary opinion, this chapter explores the history of the NCAA and its relationship with the southern-based AAA. As with lawn tennis, many aspects of the sport’s history have been underrepresented and underplayed, with reference to the NCAA’s involvement towards the codification and development of nationally organised athletics. For example, historians have failed to appreciate that it was northern officials who first initiated a governing body to tackle the sport’s contemporary malpractices and that this would later serve as the framework for the AAA. In addition, many of the sport’s defining rules during the nineteenth century came at the suggestion of northern representatives. Furthermore, whilst the NCAA has been covered briefly by Lovesey and Illingworth, both authors have understated the sometimes-troubled relationship between the North and the South. Lovesey has chosen to focus on the southern university alumni and their service to the AAA, whilst Illingworth has underplayed the serious possibility that there could have been a disbanding of the national association due to conflict.[8] By exploring several important contemporary issues, such as the allocation of votes and the rotation of the national championships, this chapter highlights how the relationship between the North and South influenced the development of the AAA policy, as well as dispelling the notion that only the southern administrators had a significant hand in the development of the sport

Sport through the lens of the north-south divide

The amateur ethos was a response to the fear of the commercialisation of sport as well as to the perceived detrimental features of contemporary sports like pedestrianism and pugilism. These sports tolerated a culture of excessive violence and gambling, as well as other corrupting vices, which were considered socially disruptive and economically dangerous.[9] For those governing bodies forming during the second half of the nineteenth century, the application of amateur ideals to their rules and regulations, were aimed at creating a less threatening, more constructive and efficient leisure environment as well as providing a stabilising influence on wider society.[10] With the establishment of standard regulations, sport ‘became less like gladiatorial contests and more like scientific exercises in improvement’,[11] with the consequent attack on disordered sporting behaviours being class selective as the activities of the working class were targeted by middle-class administrators.[12] In this respect, sport reflected wider social tensions with Baron Pierre de Coubertin noting that amateurism was nothing more than a preoccupation with class.[13] The threat that the organised working classes posed to the ruling classes, who had been accustomed to certain hereditary privileges, as well as to an increasingly capitalist society, in which one’s own social position could be controlled by one’s own efforts, could not be ignored.[14] As a result, the rules of certain sports, which stated that individuals who participated as a professional, coached professionally, or met the criteria regarding restrictive artisan or labourers clauses. These restrictive regulations were a middle-class response to rising working-class participation and restricted access to what the middle classes saw as their sporting space.[15]

However, whilst sport became a site of class conflict, sport also represented conflict between geographical regions, with the North and South having distinct attitudes on how sport should be played and managed.[16] In football, Sheffield-based players such as Charles Clegg and Billy Mosforth found their national playing experience difficult and unpleasant experience and, whilst Clegg was privately educated much like his fellow England players, he was often overlooked by southern officials due to his northern roots.[17] In the case of Mosforth, he was provoked into voicing his frustration to Old Etonian Alfred Lyttleton for not passing the ball to him to which Lyttleton replied, ‘I am playing purely for my own pleasure, Sir!’.[18] This diverse style of play and attitude to winning was representative of the different attitudes of how sport should be played held by northern and southern players.[19] Whilst like many governing bodies of the period, the Football Association (FA) were based in London, there is evidence to suggest that the North of England, with 9,000 of the 12,000 active players in the 1876-1877 season, were in command of the game’s most successful teams.

Whilst Mason acknowledges that the discussion regarding professionalism in football is not solely a north-south narrative, it is appropriate to use such terminology in the context of this research due to the large group of northern clubs that threatened to leave the southern-focused FA if professional players were banned. This conflict came to a head in the 1884 season, with Preston North End playing against southern-based amateur side Upton Park in the fourth round of the FA Cup, after which the southerners objected to Preston’s use of professional players.[20] Meeting in the autumn of 1884 in Manchester, forty northern clubs sought to form an association away from the influence of the FA, thereby allowing professional players to be included whilst not having to hide their presence on the team and, it was argued, that northern people were quite able to manage their own affairs.[21] Obviously, the FA wished to maintain control of all football and therefore, a compromise would have to be reached and a schism within football was averted by the legalisation of professionalism.[22]

Whilst football has been subject to a considerable amount of scholarly attention with respect to the north-south divide, other sports are only just beginning to be viewed through the lens of regional division with lawn tennis providing another example that offers a more complete picture of the north-south divide. Lake and Lusis have shown that the sport’s divisions revolved around regional club, tournament and player stereotypes, and a focus on differing sporting values, rather than on the importance of the northern sporting hero as seen in rugby and football.[23] The general consensus is that the key values, ideals and practices that characterised the way lawn tennis was played were imposed upon the sport’s social structure and structural organisation by the game’s elite southern amateurs.[24] Also, some historians such as Holt, believe that those outside of the South of England were excluded, stating that ‘tennis was a suburban, southern sport not much followed in the North outside of the leafy suburbs in the big cities’.[25] However, tennis historians have shown that the sport transcended the South, with at least 2,500 tennis clubs existing in Lancashire and Yorkshire during the inter-war period, information that is often overlooked. This emerging northern history has the potential to provide a greater understanding of the north-south divide during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and should be used in unison with already established lawn tennis histories to provide a differing interpretation of the sport’s development.[26]

Ultimately, a north-south divide existed within the sport in the pre-war and inter-war periods, based around the organisational structure of the sport such as the clubs, associations, and tournaments, unlike in rugby and football, where personal dogma personified the divide. With the acknowledgement of a geographical divide within the sport’s early history, there is also a shift in the narrative that has evolved around the sport’s formative history. Whilst sport historians have typically focused on the South, new research suggests that northern administrators led the way in certain aspects of lawn tennis’s development, notably in generating spectatorship, county associations and league competitions. However, whilst English identity continues to be used in the marketing of Wimbledon (and other events like it), a distinctive emphasis is still placed upon a southern form of Englishness that overlooks the historically-rooted nuances of northern English culture, marginalising the region in the process.[27] Consequently, in constructing the sport’s official history, the narrative focuses upon the South and uses a southern perceptive of amateur values to interpret that history. The same can be said for the administration of national athletics in the late-nineteenth century, where the North, despite being prominent members of the national association, have been written out of a southern-focused narrative for similar reasons

Athletics and the north-south divide

Despite being one of the keystones of the modern Olympic Games, athletics is underrepresented in historical research when compared to other British sports such as football, rugby, and tennis. The few texts, most notably the ones produced by Illingworth and Lovesey, that are available regarding the history of athletics, even those histories produced at the time, do not fully comprehend the significance of the North of England in the creation of the modern iteration of athletics, do not articulate the sometimes-troubled relationship between the North and the South of England, and continue to provide a southern and public school-focused narrative. According to J.W. Turner, the secretary of the Northern Counties Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1930, the association was formed in 1879 to establish control over amateur athletics in the North and to provide the genuine amateur athlete with the ability to participate in fair and clean competition.[28] Whilst this argument is supported by contemporary articles in the Athletic News, what also inspired the thirteen founding clubs to meet in Southport on June 14, 1879, were their shared feelings of exclusion from the national athletics scene by their metropolitan counterparts.[29] Athletics in London during the 1860s and 1870s was dominated by the rivalry of the London Athletic Club (LAC) and the Amateur Athletic Club (AAC).[30] Whilst the AAC was responsible for introducing accurate timing and measurement, the club was also responsible for embedding elitism into amateur athletics.[31] The beginnings of the amateur-professional dichotomy can be observed in the rules of the AAC and, more specifically, in the organisation’s definition of an amateur, which excluded anyone who had ever competed in open competition for financial gain, or had participated or assisted in athletics as a means of livelihood.[32] Further restrictions included a membership clause that barred any mechanic, artisan or labourer from competing, regardless of their being complicit or not with respect to the club’s amateur rules.[33]

In the columns of the Athletic News, the timing of the AAC’s meetings were repeatedly remarked upon by the northern paper, paying particular emphasis to the point that northern athletes faced difficulty in competing, and the newspaper petitioned for the creation of a Northern Championship. The newspaper argued that whilst the LAC’s meetings were of better quality than the AAC’s, taking place during the summer at the height of the athletic season, without consideration for their northern contemporaries, their meets could not be deemed a competitive success. In the writer’s view, ‘London is not England, and the provinces ought to be as well represented as the capital’.[34] These concerns over a lack of northern representation were justified with the championship virtually being contested only by athletes of metropolitan origin.[35] Whilst the LAC wished to be more inclusive, holding their championship event at a more reasonable time in the season, the club failed to convert their metropolitan athletic dominance into national supremacy of the sport, making the creation of a northern championship, free from the problems associated with holding the event in London, a guaranteed conclusion.

Representatives from several northern clubs attended a meeting at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport on June 14, 1879, the same day as the Stamford Bridge meeting, possibly in protest at the London bias in athletics. The meeting, chaired by J.D. Weaver, was originally advertised as an attempt to create an annual Northern Counties Amateur Athletic festival, but quickly became a meeting of greater importance to codified athletics.[36] In his opening remarks, Weaver called for the meeting to discuss firstly, better governance of athletics via the creation of a committee that would exercise censorship over the sport, secondly, the establishment of a Northern Championship Athletic Society (later to be styled the Northern Counties Athletics Association)[37] with the view of holding a meeting of championship standard, and thirdly, to decide on a definition of an amateur in relation to athletics.[38] Many of the delegates, including Crewe Alexandra Athletic Club’s Thomas Abraham, agreed, calling for immediate action to address the sport’s various malpractices and seeing the formation of a controlling body as their only option to regain control of athletics. After further discussion, the following resolution was passed:

That in the opinion of this meeting it is imperatively necessary that the various Athletic Societies in the North should form themselves into a “Northern Counties Championship Athletic Society”.[39]

In the following year, the NCAA, along with other leading amateur athletic clubs, received a circular issued jointly by the athletic clubs of Oxford and Cambridge universities calling for a meeting of representatives of athletic clubs and societies to establish a bona fide championship.[40] Upon deciding to consider the proposal for an Amateur Athletic Association (AAA), the NCAA empowered Faram, Barlow, famed northern amateur athlete George Duxfield from Southport, Sharpe, Chorley of Leeds, and Abraham, to act on the NCAA’s behalf with full discretionary powers.[41] The only instruction the delegation received was that they should not allow any decision made at the meeting to interfere with the northerner’s autonomy and their plans for their own championship. Meeting at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford on April 24, 1880, the NCAA delegates were received amicably, and the meeting voted to form a national association, with meetings being hosted alternately between London and Birmingham.[42]

The AAA and the NCU dispute 1884-1886

During the AAA’s infancy, relations between the NCAA and their southern peers were relatively harmonious. However, 1884 saw the beginning of a protracted dispute between the AAA and the NCU, which threatened to unravel the progress made by both the AAA and the NCAA over the previous four years. At the first meeting of the AAA in the North, at the Grand Hotel in Manchester, the question was raised by the newly-appointed Honorary Secretary, Charles Herbert (of the Civil Service Athletic Club), regarding athletes riding bicycles at professional events and then subsequently taking part in amateur athletic events.[43] Montague Shearman dismissed Herbert’s concerns, stating that he did not desire to clash unnecessarily with the NCU and that bicycle racing had nothing to do with the AAA. However, Wheelwright, of Birchfield, mentioned that Birchfield Bicycle Club intended to hold an athletic meeting in Birmingham the following month and that it would feature both a professional bicycle handicap and a one-mile flat handicap race under AAA rules. Attendees argued that the meeting could not possibly be held under AAA rules due to the presence of a professional handicap on the programme, and, according to its own laws, any competing athlete would be disqualified from the association. Herbert then informed the committee of a ruling made by the AAA’s southern committee the previous season, that had allowed athletes to compete in competitions held under NCU rules, even if professional races were included in the same programme.[44] The outcome was a proposal that a conference between the AAA and the NCU should take place to discuss the rules of their organisations and debate how best to proceed.

The NCU, represented by Messers Shipton, Coe, Chapman and Todd, met with C.H. Mason of LAC, A.J. Fowden of South London Harriers and Herbert in an attempt to co-ordinate the laws of the AAA and the NCU on November 26, 1884 at the Anderton’s Hotel.[45] After some discussion, the two delegations agreed that, in future, each body would deal with competitors from their respective sports, meaning that no athlete would be liable for disqualification by the NCU and vice-versa. In March the following year, the NCAA assessed the decisions made by the all-southern delegation on their behalf and disagreed with the resolutions that they had made.[46] The NCAA believed that all athletes and cyclists competing at meetings under AAA rules were competing under those laws and the NCAA’s representatives to the AAA were instructed to vote against any other proposal. Unlike their southern counterparts, the northerners were not prepared to relinquish any kind of power over their athletic events and they were determined to preserve and develop amateur athletics. Following their instructions, the northern representatives contested the proposals made by the joint committee of the AAA and the NCU at the AAA general meeting on March 21, 1885, and insisted on their right to deal with all competitors at meetings held under AAA laws.[47] After much discussion, their determination paid off with the meeting agreeing that the AAA would deal with all offences occurring at meetings held under their laws.

The fallout from the AAA’s decision was swift with correspondence from the two sport’s representatives appearing in the contemporary press, attacking or defending the position of the AAA. Todd of the NCU highlighted that the executive had the power to suspend any cyclist who rode in competitions not held under the rules of the NCU and that cyclists could encounter problems if they entered AAA-managed races.[48] Defending the NCAA’s position, a letter from Walter Platt appeared alongside Todd’s, stating that the NCAA could not allow cyclists to break the laws of the AAA with ‘impunity and practice roping, falsification of entries, foul riding and the many other peccadilloes identical to racing, with but little risk of being brought to account for the same’.[49] Furthermore, Platt brought attention to the fact that no one from the NCAA had been consulted regarding the decision made at the conference or had been invited to offer an opinion. Regarded as the ‘great question of the day’, “Brum” remarked in the Athletic News that the dispute between the two bodies, and the division in AAA caused by the dispute, could eventually lead to the organisation’s downfall unless collective action was taken.[50]

As the dispute between the two governing bodies continued, key members of both sides of the conflict double downed on their positions, whilst others grew increasingly tired of the hostility. At a NCAA meeting on August 27, 1885, the northerners were determined not to abandon their position of unwavering opposition to the NCU and the secretary of the NCAA was instructed to write to the AAA. The NCAA stated that unless the AAA was prepared to take definite action, they would be forced to consider a completely separate and independent policy regarding the northern district.[51] Whilst Illingworth argues that there was not enough evidence in the minutes of the NCAA to suggest that the North were seriously considering leaving the AAA, one contemporary pundit saw the possibility of a separate policy applying to the North as the beginning of a possible end to the AAA, stating that the NCAA’s secession would cause chaos for amateur sport.[52] Another commentator reported that some members of the NCAA felt that secession was the only option left for the northern association, therefore highlighting that the northerner’s threat of departure from the national association was a realistic fear for contemporary athletes and pundits.[53] The following day, the southern AAA committee resolved that if the NCU agreed to render their rules relating to professional races and the value of prizes to comply with AAA laws, the AAA should allow all cycling races of affiliated clubs to be held using NCU rules.[54] This proposal was rejected by the NCAA, who argued that what the southern committee was offering was too vague and proposed that a general committee meeting of the AAA to be called to thoroughly discuss the issue.[55] Meeting in Manchester on November 14, eleven NCAA, nine MCAA and five southern representatives met to discuss the dispute between the AAA and the NCU.[56] Delegates from the Midlands stated that the majority of sports committees throughout the country were holding their meetings under combined NCU and AAA rules and strongly recommended that the AAA should concede to the NCU, seeing this as the only way to achieve peace.[57] The northerners, however, continued to vigorously oppose making any kind of concession to the NCU and were unanimous in rejecting both the MCAA and the southern committee’s resolutions. After the meeting, the AAA secretary was asked to write to all affiliated clubs, instructing them to include cycling events in their programme for the next season and stating that if that dispute had not been resolved, the AAA championships would feature cycling events.[58]

The relationship between the AAA and the NCU had now reached crisis point and many of those involved were concerned about the future health of athletics if the dispute between the two governing bodies was not resolved quickly. Whilst the Northern position was strong, the weakness of the Midlands and the incompetence of the South had neutralised the progress made by the NCAA, and it continued to be a possibility that if the conflict was drawn out any longer, the NCAA would have considered separating from the AAA.[59] In the end, the uncertainty over the future of amateur athletics was resolved on January 16, 1886.[60]

Robert Todd, the secretary of the NCU who attended the meeting, stated that he was in no doubt that the NCU would accept the AAA’s terms of peace which compartmentalised the events at both athletic and cycling meeting and festivals, whilst prohibiting professional cycling events at athletic meetings. Whilst the AAA had finished its business with the NCU, many northerners felt betrayed by the southern committee for what they regarded as the underhand tactics used to achieve peace, which had included having a meeting in secret with the NCU to discuss terms on January 4.[61] The sporting press were concerned that this revelation would derail the whole peace process with the northern and Midland representatives feeling as if they had been excluded and objecting to the idea that the South had the right to represent them.[62] It was felt that the NCAA should have objected to the proposals, regardless of their merit, and disassociated themselves from the AAA by forming their own independent organisation. Nevertheless, relations between the AAA and the NCU did remain stable into the twentieth century, although the 1886 agreement had not fully resolved the issues that the two governing bodies had with one another, with the relationship between the AAA and the NCU deteriorating once again in 1906 due to the resurgence of professional footracing at NCU-controlled events.[63]

Throughout the dispute with the NCU, the NCAA were the ones who were in control of the AAA’s position, not wanting to relinquish control over northern sport meetings, especially when faced with the prospect that amateur footraces could have been ran alongside professional events. This clearly contradicts the general consensus amongst sport historians that the North of England was inculcated with professionalism, and that the south of the country consisted mainly of those who believed in the amateur philosophy of playing for one’s own enjoyment rather than for financial purposes.[64] However, the research presented here has shown that the northern middle class had a profound impact on the development of amateur athletics during the nineteenth century, thereby contradicting the notion that amateur sport was developed and championed solely by the alumni of public schools and Oxbridge. Amateurism as an ethos was always strong in northern athletics and the NCAA consistently championed amateur values at a national level and resisted any attempts to allow professionalism back into the sport after the demise of pedestrianism, and this formed a primary motivation for its formation in 1879.[65] Therefore, this shows that sport history, and history in general, is multi-faceted and it is imperative that historians consider different perspectives, such as a during their research so that a more complete picture and understanding can be constructed.

The voting structure of the AAA 1880-1890

Despite the difficulties experienced over the issues with the NCU, the formation of the NCAA enabled northerners to wield a considerable amount of bargaining power on a national level, enabling them to point the sport in a direction that was influenced by their interpretation of amateur values. At first, contemporary opinion was that the North were underrepresented at the national administration. As decided upon at the formation of the AAA in 1880, rule V., which dealt with the representation of associated members, read as follows:

V- That the Committee be composed of one representative from each of the following clubs: – Amateur Athletic Club, Cambridge U.A.C., Civil Service A.C., Edinburgh U.A.C., German Gymnastic Society, London A.C., Oxford U.A.C., the Cross-Country Clubs, a West of England Club, An East of England Club, The Midland Counties A.A., the Northern Counties A.A., and of ten members to be elected at the Annual General Meeting of the Association.[66]

Abraham proposed to alter the latter part of the law so that it read, ‘and nine other members equally apportioned to the North, South and Midlands, such members to be chosen by their respective associations’.[67] Under the original system, it was difficult for the North’s administrators to assert any control over athletics when compared to those from the South. The NCAA’s lack of representation was considered a matter of importance in the North where the local press argued that if the NCAA were to occupy their legitimate place, more NCAA members were needed at the AAA.[68] Whilst there were disagreements about the approach taken by the NCAA to gain more representation, the motion was popular within the AAA and passed with a large majority.[69]

The issue regarding voting power arose again in 1883 with a proposal from Charles Herbert to award votes on a sliding scale between one to twelve based upon the strength and importance of the club.[70] After some discussion, Herbert’s proposal was carried with an amendment which gave all clubs at least one vote and a committee was tasked with awarding votes to each club and association, as shown in Table 1. In 1887, a report was presented to the general committee of the association by the southern section of the sub-committee responsible for the revision of voting powers which was formed out of a meeting taking place ten months previously, recommending that South London Harriers, Finchley Harriers, Blackheath Harriers, Spartan Harriers, Ranelagh Harriers and Northampton Amateur Athletic Club, all southern clubs, should be awarded an additional vote.[71] The motion was seconded by Herbert, Griffin, Shearman, E.H. Godbold of LAC and M.Neck of Finchley Harriers, but was opposed by Abraham, Furniss, Clulee and Wheelwright, who objected to the increase in voting powers for the South.[72] Despite Godbold highlighting that the southern members had not objected when an increased number of votes were awarded to the Midlands and the North two years previously, to 15 and 20 votes respectively, the motion was defeated by 21 votes to 18.[73]

Two years later, in 1890, the South became more aggressive in their drive to gain more voting power. At a meeting that lasted for almost five hours, A.F. Gardiner of the AAA’s Southern Committee, proposed that all of the AAA’s current voting rules and regulations be erased and replaced with the following:

All athletic clubs affiliated to the Association shall have at the general meeting of the association, one vote for every fifty members but no club shall have more than six votes. Football, Cricket and other clubs to have one vote each. The Subscription for each vote to be 10s.[74]

Gardiner argued that the AAA should revise the present voting power balance and consider which clubs should have an increase (or decrease) in votes, decided upon by the club’s age, as well as subscriptions that they had paid to the association. The whole scheme, however, was a ploy for the southerners to wrest control from the northerners and the Midlands, with Gardiner stating that the Southern Committee believed that they should be entitled to two votes instead of one.

Although disagreeing with some of his remarks regarding who should and who should not have a particular number of votes, fellow southern committee member, renowned sports writer and swimming aficionado, Archibald Sinclair, agreed that the southern committee needed to have a voice in any decision that affected their district. They deserved fair representation and he added that the AAA risked rival associations forming due to the lack of balanced representation. S.K. Holman of LAC, although disagreeing with Gardiner, in particular over his comments regarding the German Gymnastic Society, successfully proposed an amendment suggesting that three representatives from each regional association, along with the AAA’s secretary, should convene to consider the balance between northern, midland and southern voting powers, and report back at a later time. Not wanting to go unheard, Abraham made his feelings known, in stating that ‘[Gardiner’s proposal] is simply an attack upon the Northern and Midland Associations, and I sincerely regret to see this feeling displayed against us. I do not think Gardiner has made out a good case’.[75] Expressing a similar opinion, L. Levy of the MCAA wished that the southerner’s concerns had been expressed in a more constructive fashion.


Table 1: List of allocated votes for the Amateur Athletic Association, April 14, 1883.[76]

After the conclusion of the meeting’s other business, J. Courtney-Clarke of Tufnell Park Athletic Club proposed that the AAA be reorganised due to their being ‘ample evidence of the insufficient workings of the association’.[77] This proposal suggested that the association be reconstituted. Seconded by Sinclair, Courtney-Clarke felt that it was only fair that those who pay subscriptions should be able to manage their own affairs and from his perspective, the South was stronger than the North and the midlands despite the sport being more popular in those areas. After some discussion, it was proposed that the matter of reorganisation be referred to a special committee, but this suggestion was defeated, 59 votes to 28, with the NCAA, MCAA and the larger southern clubs voting with the majority. Dissatisfied with the outcome, Sinclair withdrew his proposal for the southern committee to hold their own regional championship in the same way as the North and the Midlands, stating that he did not see the point of proposing it as he believed that the majority of southern clubs did not have a voice in the management of the AAA. Sinclair was, however, asked to withdraw this comment at the request of the chair, Shearman.[78] Whilst this proposal had been defeated, many observers saw what transpired at the April meeting as a risk to the cohesiveness of the AAA, with rumours circulating in the contemporary press that a considerable number of southern clubs were considering splitting away from the national association.[79] However, whilst acknowledging that the vote had caused some ‘bitterness’, some athletic writers did not see it as serious and noted that the South should be patient. Ultimately, the South got what they wanted via a restructuring of the voting system in 1891, which saw the North having thirty votes, the Midlands fifteen votes and the South having 130 votes to divide between its clubs.[80]

Throughout the 1880s, the North directly influenced the organisation of national athletics by having a strong presence at the AAA through its significant voting power. As shown in the AAA’s dispute with the NCU, the North was able to direct the association’s position so that it represented their philosophical agenda, using their substantial number of votes, whilst working in conjunction with the MCAA and southern representatives that supported northern ideas. However, whilst Illingworth acknowledged the existence of a potential north-south split in 1885 because of the dispute with the NCU, it has not really been recognised previously by sport historians, or indeed by contemporary writers, that the South could have easily separated with the North over the distribution of voting power as demonstrated here. Instead, a narrative has been fashioned that creates the appearance that the relationship between the various regional factions was harmonious, when in fact, as this chapter shows, their relationship was fractious and sometimes, combative.


By exploring several important contemporary issues, such as the allocation of votes, the dispute between the AAA and the NCU, and the rotation of the national championship, this chapter draws attention to the philosophical divide that existed between the North and the South, how that conflict intersected with the development of the national association’s policy, and how the NCAA were influential in the administration of athletics. In that respect, the traditional narrative surrounding the history of athletics, which has focused around the public schools and the South, is clearly incomplete since it is evident that the North was heavily involved in the administration of the sport during the 1880s. In lawn tennis, the South of England was the administrative focal point of the sport and it was southern administrators who represented the sport’s values. In athletics, the North had significant influence in this respect. Whilst historians such as Lovesey and Gesta de Melo have claimed that the AAA is the world’s oldest administration for the sport of athletics, the NCAA should be credited with forming the world’s first governing body for the administration for athletics, as it was the NCAA that laid the groundwork during the first few months of its existence that provided the framework for the AAA that formed a few months later with the help of the NCAA.[81]

By analysing the distribution of voting powers during the decade, it is easy to show the significant influence that the North had within the AAA, with the NCAA consistently having a high number of votes, which were then used to control the sport and guide it in a direction that matched their adherence to amateur principles. These findings contradict the orthodox position that the architects of organised sport in Victorian England were the southern middle class, especially those based in London.[82] Despite resistance from the South in 1883, 1887 and 1890, the North was able to hold onto their premier position within the national association. The dominance of the NCAA however caused friction between the North and South, the tension between the North and the South almost led to the reconstitution of the AAA in 1890.

The influence of the NCAA is most evident in the dispute between the AAA and the NCU and contradicts in many respects, the traditional narrative regarding the north-south divide and the amateur-professional dichotomy. In this instance, the North was more stringent in maintaining the key values of the amateur movement, as shown by not giving any ground to the NCU during the mid-1880s, whilst the South was willing to allow concessions, either out of support for a less rigid interpretation of amateur ideals or to merely avoid conflict with another governing body. The defence of amateur values by the NCAA was conducted by resisting any kind of agreement that allowed professional races in conjunction with amateur footraces, and they used their significant voting powers and inter-personal skills to dominate the debate. Clearly, the northern administrators were representing, in contrast to their southern counterparts, a much more rigid interpretation of amateurism, contradicting the orthodox understanding of the amateur-professional dichotomy and regional sporting practices.[83]

All of the sources accessed here challenge the orthodox viewpoint held by sport historians regarding the role and values of regional athletic administrators within the administration of national athletics and this contradictory narrative has started to gain traction within academic research, with similar conclusions regarding this reserved ideology being drawn in other aspects of sport and leisure.[84] However, whilst the findings presented here clearly have an impact on how sport historians understand the development of athletics during the late nineteenth century, highlighting to the field a previously unconsidered perspective on the sport’s history, this research also makes a significant case for historians to make more substantial use of regionalised studies. By considering the northern perspective in the history of early modern athletics, this chapter contributes to a much wider debate regarding regionalisation and English identity, as reflected in discussions about north-south divides in sport. Also, whilst a biographical approach has not been taken in this chapter, the researcher stresses the importance of biographical studies and would say future research into the individuals involved in the administration of athletics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is critical to generating a fuller understanding of the relationship between class, regional location, and long-term influence.



[1] Richard Holt, Sport and the British: A Modern History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 84.

[2] Mike Huggins, The Victorians and Sport (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2004), 51; Dilwyn Porter, ‘Revenge of the Crouch End Vampires: The AFA, the FA and English Football’s “Great Split”, 1907-14,’ Sport in History 16, no. 3 (2006): 407.

[3] Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, 221; Garry Whannel, Culture, Politics and Sport: Blowing the Whistle, Revisited (London: Routledge, 2008), 59.

[4] Richard Holt, ‘The Historical Meaning of Amateurism,’ in Sport: Sport and Power Relations, Volume 3, ed. Eric Dunning (London: Taylor and Francis, 2003), 270-273.

[5] Porter, ‘Revenge of the Crouch End Vampires’: 413; Terry Morris, Vain Games of No Value?: A Social History of Association Football in Britain during its First Long Century (Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2016).

[6] Porter, ‘Revenge of the Crouch End Vampires,’ 412-413.

[7] Tony Collins, ‘Myth and Reality in the 1895 Rugby Split,’ Sports Historian 16, no.1 (1996): 19-27; Tony Mason, ‘Football, Sport of the North?’ in Sport and Identity in the North of England, ed. Jeff Hill and Jack Williams (Keele: Keele University Press, 1996), 41-52; Robert J. Lake and Andy Lusis, ‘“Sandwich-Men Parade the Streets”: Conceptualizing Regionalism and the North-South Divide in British Lawn Tennis’, The International Journal of the History of Sport 34, no. 7-8 (2017): 578-598; Rob Light, ‘“In a Yorkshire Like Way”: Cricket and the Construction of Regional Identity in Nineteenth-century Yorkshire’, Sport in History 29, no. 3 (2009): 500-518.

[8] Peter Lovesey, The Official Centenary History of the Amateur Athletic Association (Enfield: Guinness Superlatives Ltd., 1979); Edgar Illingworth, A Short History of the Northern Counties Athletic Association, 1879-1979 (Leeds: Northern Counties Athletic Association, 1979).

[9] Norman Baker, ‘Whose Hegemony? The Origins of the Amateur Ethos in Nineteenth Century English Society’, Sport in History 24, no. 1 (2004): 1-16; Samantha-Jayne Oldfield, ‘Running Pedestrianism in Victorian Manchester’, Sport in History 34, no. 2 (2014): 237-240.

[10] Baker, ‘Whose Hegemony?’: 2.

[11] Tony Schirato, Sport Discourse (Edinburgh: A&C Black, 2013), 52.

[12] John Hargreaves, Sport, Power, Culture: A Social and Historical Analysis of Popular Sports in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 45; Lincoln Allison, Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and Defence (London: Routledge, 2001), 14.

[13] John Hoberman, The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order (Athens: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1986), 87.

[14] Stephen Wagg, ‘“Base Mechanic Arms”? British Rowing, Some Ducks and the Shifting Politics of Amateurism’, Sport in History 26, no. 3 (2006): 524.

[15] Wray Vamplew, Pay Up and Play the Game: Professional Sport in Britain, 1875-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 186; Richard Burnell, Henley Royal Regatta: A Celebration of 150 Years (Brisbane: Kingswood Press, 1989), 25; Wagg, ‘“Base Mechanic Arms”?’: 525.

[16] Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, 51; Porter, ‘Revenge of the Crouch End Vampires,’ 407.

[17] Frederick Wall, Fifty Years of Football 1895-1934 (London: Cassell, 1935), 31; Mason, ‘Football, Sport of the North?’, 41-52.

[18] Tony Mason, Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915 (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), 213.

[19] Mason, ‘Football, Sport of the North?’, 41-52.

[20] ‘Preston North End v. Upton Park’, Sporting Life, January 21, 1884, 4.

[21] Dave Russell ‘From Evil to Expedient: The Legalization of Professionalism in English Football, 1884-85’, in Myths and Milestones in the History of Sport, ed. Stephen Wagg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 32-56; ‘The New Football Association’, Preston Herald, November 1, 1884, 6.

[22] Mason, ‘Football, Sport of the North?’, 45; ‘The Football Association and Professionalism’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, January 20, 1885, 8.

[23] Lake and Lusis, ‘“Sandwich-Men Parade the Streets”’: 578-598.

[24] Robert J. Lake, ‘Social Class, Etiquette and Behavioural Restraint in British Lawn Tennis: 1870-1939’, The International Journal of the History of Sport 28, no. 6 (2011): 876-894.

[25] Richard Holt, ‘Heroes of the North: Sport and the Shaping of Regional Identity’, in Sport and Identity in the North of England, ed. Jeff Hill and Jack Williams (Keele: Keele University Press, 1996), 160.

[26] Lake and Lusis, ‘“Sandwich-Men Parade the Streets”’ 579-580.

[27] Robert J. Lake, ‘“Tennis in an English Garden”: Wimbledon, Englishness and British Sporting Culture’, in Sport and English National Identity in a ‘Disunited Kingdom’, ed. Tom Gibbons and Dominic Malcolm (London: Routledge, 2017), 49-65.

[28] J.W. Turner, ‘Athletics in the North’, in Fifty Years of Progress 1880-1930: Amateur Athletic Association Jubilee Souvenir, ed. H.F. Pash (London: Amateur Athletic Association, 1930), 62-66.

[29] Ibid; ‘The Championship Meeting’, Athletic News, April 4, 1879, 4; ‘Amateur Championship Meetings’, Athletic News, May 14, 1879, 5.

[30] ‘The Championship Meeting’, Athletic News, April 4, 1879, 4; Lovesey, The Official Centenary History of the Amateur Athletic Association, 19.

[31] Harvey Taylor, ‘Play Up, but don’t Play the Game: English Amateur Elitism, 1863-1910’, Sports Historian 22, no. 2 (2002): 75-97.

[32] ‘Amateur Athletic Club’, Sporting Life, March 25, 1868, 4.

[33] ‘Amateur Athletic Club’, The Sportsman, May 23, 1868, 3.

[34] ‘Amateur Championship Meetings’, Athletic News, May 14, 1879, 5; ‘The Championship Meeting’, Athletic News, April 4, 1879, 4.

[35] ‘Northern Athletic Championship Meeting’, Athletic News, June 11, 1879, 4.

[36] ‘Proposed Northern Championship Athletic Meeting’, Athletic News, June 18, 1879, 6.

[37] ‘Stoke Victoria Athletic Club’, Staffordshire Sentinel, August 6, 1879, 4.

[38] ‘Proposed Northern Championship Athletic Meeting’, 6; Turner, ‘Athletics in the North’, 62; Illingworth, A Short History of the Northern Counties Athletic Association, 1.

[39] ‘Proposed Northern Championship Athletic Meeting’, 6.

[40] ‘Northern Counties Athletic Association’, Athletic News, April 21, 1880, 1.

[41] ‘Eminent Athletics’, Athletic News, October 2, 1875, 1; Turner, ‘Athletics in the North’, 64.

[42] ‘The Athletic Championship’, Athletic News, April 28, 1880, 6.

[43] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Birmingham Daily Post, April 28, 1884, 7.

[44] Amateur Athletic Association General Committee Minutes Vol. 2, April 26, 1884, AAA/1/2/2/2, Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham, 30.

[45] Amateur Athletic Association General Committee Minutes Vol. 2, November 26, 1884, AAA/1/2/2/2, Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham, 39.

[46] ‘Northern Counties Athletic Association’, Athletic News, March 17, 1885, 6.

[47] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Athletic News, March 24, 1885, 6.

[48] ‘The National Cyclist Union and Amateur Athletic Association Laws’, Athletic News, March 31, 1885, 7.

[49] ‘The Northern Counties Athletic Association and the National Cyclist Union’, Athletic News, March 31, 1885, 7.

[50] ‘Midland Notes’, Athletic News, July 21, 1885, 4.

[51] ‘Northern Counties Athletic Association’, Athletic News, September 1, 1885, 2; Illingworth, A Short History of the Northern Counties Athletic Association, 12.

[52] Ibid; ‘Confusion Worse Confounded’, Athletic News, September 1, 1885, 4.

[53] ‘Northern Athletic Notes’, Athletic News, September 1, 1885, 5.

[54] ‘Midland Notes’, Athletic News, September 1, 1885, 7.

[55] ‘Northern Counties Athletic Association’, Sporting Life, October 3, 1885, 4.

[56] ‘Amateur Athletic Association Conference’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, November 16, 1885, 8.

[57] Illingworth, A Short History of the Northern Counties Athletic Association, 13.

[58] ‘Terms for Peace’, Athletic News, November 24, 1885, 4.

[59] Ibid; ‘The Stupid Quarrel’, Athletic News, December 8, 1885, 4; ‘Cycling Jottings’, Athletic News, January 12, 1886, 6.

[60] Amateur Athletic Association General Committee Minutes Vol. 2, January 16, 1886, AAA/1/2/2/2, Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham, 59; The list presented here is abbreviated.

[61] ‘Given Away’, Athletic News, January 12, 1886, 4; ‘En Passant’, Athletic News, January 12, 1886, 1; ‘The ‘Stupid Quarrel’ Finished’, Athletic News, January 19, 1886, 5.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Illingworth, A Short History of the Northern Counties Athletic Association, 16.

[64] Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, 221; Whannel, Culture, Politics and Sport, 59.

[65] ‘Proposed Northern Championship Athletic Meeting,’ Athletic News, June 18, 1879, 6.

[66] Amateur Athletic Association General Committee Minutes Vol. 1, August 7, 1880, AAA/1/2/2/1, Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham, 26.

[67] ‘Northern Counties Athletic Association’, Athletic News, January 26, 1881, 5.

[68] Turner, ‘Athletics in the North’, 4.

[69] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Athletic News, February 23, 1881, 8.

[70] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Sporting Life, April 16, 1883, 3.

[71] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Sporting Life, February 13, 1888, 4.

[72] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Sporting Life, March 28, 1888, 3.

[73] H.F. Pash, ed., ‘Fifty Years of Progress: Review of Important Events and Decisions 1880-1930’, in Fifty Years of Progress 1880-1930: Amateur Athletic Association Jubilee Souvenir (London: Amateur Athletic Association, 1930), 40-41.

[74] ‘The Amateur Athletic Association,’ Sporting Life, April 28, 1890, 1.

[75] Ibid.

[76] ‘Amateur Athletic Association’, Sporting Life, April 16, 1883, 3.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Amateur Athletic Association General Committee Minutes Vol. 4, April 26, 1890, AAA/1/2/2/4, Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham, 9-10.

[79] ‘Athletic Notes and Gossip’, Athletic News, May 5, 1890, 6.

[80] Pash, ‘Fifty Years of Progress’, 42.

[81] ‘The Championship Meeting’, Athletic News, April 4, 1879, 4; ‘Amateur Championship Meetings’, Athletic News, May 14, 1879, 5; Lovesey, The Official Centenary History of the Amateur Athletic Association, 29; Robert Gesta de Melo, Athletics from Ancient Times to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Manaus: Editora Reggo, 2018), 35.

[82] Holt, Sport and the British, 84.

[83] Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, 221; Holt, Sport and the British, 84; ‘The Historical Meaning of Amateurism’, 270-273.

[84] Harrison, ‘The English School of Chess’, 83.