Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access – Sport and Leisure on the Eve of World War One, [ISBN 978-1-910029-15-2]  – This eclectic collection of papers has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Sport and Leisure History research team on the Crewe campus between 27 and 28 June 2014. Contributors came from many different backgrounds and included European as well as UK academics with the topics addressed covering leisure as well as sport.


Please cite this article as:

Newsham, Paul. ‘The Butter-Cup that Blooms in Spring’: Crowd Singing on the Eve of the First World War, In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Leisure on the Eve of World War One (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2016), 138-156.





‘The Butter-Cup that Blooms in Spring’: Crowd Singing on the Eve of the First World War.

Paul Newsham




The title of the paper refers to a line in a verse penned by a Burnley FC supporter and sent to a local newspaper, predicting Burnley’s victory over Manchester United in the fourth round of the 1909 FA Cup. The author taunts United fans by reminding them that the ‘butter-cup’ is the only one they have a chance of winning that season. The match reports in this newspaper are punctuated by descriptions of crowd behaviour, including the singing of popular songs. The aim of this paper is to give a flavour of football and rugby crowd singing in Britain’s sports stadiums in the years leading up to the First World War, and also, partly by explaining the processes of cultural transfer by which fans copied each other, to support with more substantial evidence the claim that this was a common activity by this time. The paper will also illustrate that crowds were often affirming their sense of place and both regional and national identities in their songs and chants.

Keywords: Football; Rugby; Crowd Singing; Identity.



When Desmond Morris’ The Soccer Tribe was published in 1981, it was intended as a unique and illuminating way of studying the beautiful game.[1] Morris’ zoologist background and socio-biological approach ensured that this was a novel and entertaining account of the tribal behaviour of those involved in the sport. In the chapter The Tribal Tongue, Morris provides a useful analysis of the amount of singing happening on the terraces at this time as well as a neat categorization of club chants. When he attempts to chart the history of football crowd singing, however, the contemporary paucity of research into this area becomes clear.[2]

He begins by acknowledging that crowd chanting happens everywhere, but that in Britain ‘where the ritual singing of the tightly packed supporters has reached the level of something approaching a local art form’ it is both more complex and intense. He pinpoints the beginnings of this phenomenon in Britain to the ‘Victorian tradition of community hymn-singing before sporting events’. He explains that: ‘It was rather formal, occasionally backed by music and usually fronted by a conductor on a small rostrum’.[3] Morris then claims that the cultural memory of community singing, with Abide with me as its most well-known hymn, was somehow transferred to the mid-twentieth century, ‘when the fans on the terraces took matters into their own hands’. The influences of cheap post-war air travel and increasing amounts of international competition in the 1950’s and 1960’s, along with the emergence of televised sport, are then identified as further stages in a linear process, so that by the early 1960’s:

They all came together on the sloping terraces of Liverpool’s famous Spion Kop, and there a new tribal ritual was born, and one which spread like wild fire from club to club, across the land…Liverpool fans adopted songs to the mood of the moment. They invented new words for the tunes, relating their comments to the local players, their rivals, and special incidents in the game.[4]

While not denying the innovativeness of the fans on the Kop, and their influence on British terrace culture, more recent research has shown Morris’ linear narrative to be flawed. The orchestrated community hymn-singing he refers to was initiated in the mid 1920’s, heavily financed and promoted by the press, particularly The Daily Express, in an attempt to get the upper hand in the intense circulation wars of the time. Garnering a spirit of remembrance, through the singing of hymns like Abide with me, was an important element in this community singing ‘movement’.[5] This was far from a Victorian phenomenon and this paper will demonstrate that Victorian fans had earlier been developing their own singing culture and had ‘specific songs that grew to be affiliated with certain clubs’.[6] Though it has been relatively recently argued that ‘there is little evidence of concentrated singing in unison on the terraces during football’s formative years,’[7] the latest research suggests that this is not the case.[8]

In his 2014 article on sport and music in the period from 1880 to 1939, Dave Russell argues that fans both before and after the First World War ‘maintained vigorous music-making traditions of their own, a logical extension of the habits of singing and playing in the street, the public house and other locations that were such a common feature of social life in the period.’[9] Russell called for more research into this area, and this paper hopes to add more depth and colour to the assertion that there was a vigorous fan culture in both the late Victorian and Edwardian eras and that by the eve of the First World War, concentrated singing, not just on the terraces but also in other places where fans gathered, was already well-established. Russell, along with other sports historians, also notes the connection of crowd singing to expressions of both national and regional identity,[10] and this is something that will also be elaborated upon. Finally, Morris’s book, despite the criticisms of its history of crowd singing, does include some perceptive discussion of how this phenomenon ‘spread like wildfire’ around the country in the 1960’s.[11] This paper will also look at evidence that such cultural transfer was taking place on the eve of the First World War.

When discussing the practice of fans collectively singing songs at sports events we are, of course, largely talking about football, though the phenomenon was also evident in both rugby classifications in the period under discussion. It seems intuitive, and sports historians have indeed argued, that team sports like football were particularly conducive to the expression of local identity: ‘Sport generally, and football specifically, played a leading role in providing a sense of place and belonging in the urban environment as well as constructing and promoting broader town and city identities’.[12] Studies of working-class leisure in selected towns corroborate this, with the example of Coventry showing that the local football club could prove more effective in promoting a sense of identification with the city than any municipal campaigns.[13] It was Eric Hobsbawm who saw how the sport of football could just as easily foster national identity, explaining that, ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’.[14]

It could be argued, however, that the opposite was the case, with supporters feeling nothing like the same kind of identity with footballers and rugby players as they did with the individual rowers, wrestlers and boxers who were the subject of earlier nineteenth-century music hall songs and broadside ballads. These songs were devoted to extolling the virtues of local sporting heroes who represented the perceived qualities of the places that they came from. Because spectators of the newly popular mass sports had to pay to get into the arenas and cheer on players who often came from completely different parts of the country, it could have meant that there was a disconnect between the team and its fans.[15] This disconnect does not, however, appear to have occurred. As one historian explains, ‘the birthplace of the players was of little significance to the crowds that blew horns, threw confetti and chanted snatches of popular songs changing the words to celebrate the team’.[16] Crowds at football and rugby matches felt part of an ‘imagined community’, despite being total strangers to one another and by following ‘their’ team, as opposed to teams from other towns, they were developing their own pride of place. In the same way that the sporting heroes of the songs and ballads of earlier decades represented values that their followers could identify with: ‘The team symbolised the men who supported it, its characteristics were their characteristics’.[17]

The relationship between community and identity has been explored outside the confines of sports history and cultural theorist Zygmunt Bauman, in a critique of the age of globalisation, likens the modern search for community to the Agony of Tantalus, arguing that just as we think we have attained it, it disappears.[18] Pushing the point further, it is argued that ‘just as community collapses, identity appears’.[19] It is conceivable that sports fans in the nineteenth century, long dislocated from the familiar rural communities of previous generations, were expressing this desire for community through the identities they were articulating in sporting contexts. As Baumann expresses it, identity becomes a surrogate of community and it is in the reports of crowd singing by local journalists in regional newspapers, where much more detail about crowd behaviour is given than in the national press, that we perhaps best see this search for community.

In an 1889 article in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, the correspondent explains how these feelings of identity could be expressed:

A football match simply seems to be a sort of popular safety valve for the pent-up energies and passions of an energetic and high-spirited people. The roar of the football crowd is raised in one long continued roar of request, command, entreaty and reproach and the most phlegmatic of men finds himself carried away by the exhilarating influences of the mimic war.[20]

The writer goes on to point out that the intense local rivalry and passion of supporters was specific to North Country football, where the crowd possessed characteristics such as ‘intense enthusiasm, unbridled license of tongue and temper and perfect familiarity with every player and his points’. He also writes that ‘in the South they hardly know what a football crowd is’ and that crowds there were made up of friends of players and connoisseurs, whereas in the North there were intense local rivalries between town and town, and even between districts of a town. According to this evidence, there was indeed familiarity with the players, though not in a personal sense, and by this early stage in the development of the football crowd, town and district identities were being expressed.

The Middlesbrough correspondent’s dismissal of football crowds in the South may simply have been a result of his prejudices towards that part of the country. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the type of crowd behaviour he describes was taken up simultaneously at a certain point in the past by fans all around Britain. Yet the evidence is that the practice of crowds singing and chanting in unison was a genuinely national phenomenon by the eve of the First World War, and the cultural processes by which this came about are worth examining. The very act of singing in unison with thousands of others while following a sports team was in itself an expression of cultural identity though the songs themselves were often simply a reworking of popular songs of the day or rhythmic repetitions of stock phrases from the sports arena. It is context here rather than the content of the songs that is key. It has become fashionable in recent years for scholars of cultural theory to stress the importance of cultural mobility,[21] and how this should be an important focus for historical research. Stephen Greenblatt argues that the writing of convincing and accurate cultural analyses of centuries past should not require the description of inevitable progress from traceable origins. In his ‘manifesto’ for cultural mobility, he stresses that: ‘Literary and historical research has tended to ignore the extent to which, with very few exceptions, in matters of culture the local has always been irradiated, as it were, by the larger world’.[22] When we come to look at the processes by which groups of sports fans in localized contexts expressed their identity through communal singing, and how this soon became a national phenomenon, we see this theory of cultural mobility in action. Greenblatt further stresses that mobility must be taken in a highly literal sense, as it is only when physical conditions are grasped that metaphorical movements, such as those between centre and periphery, will be understood. Mobility studies should also identify and analyze the ‘contact’ zones where cultural goods are exchanged,[23] a concept which is particularly prescient when looking at the cultural processes involved in crowd singing. This idea is further developed in a proposal to study portals of globalization, ‘sites of transcultural encounter and mutual influence, where a whole range of social forms and symbolic cultural constructions (of the ‘own’ and the ‘other’ of home and locality)’[24] take place. The sports stadium, with its clash of fans following opposing teams from different geographical locations, looks to be an exemplary context for such encounter and influence.

It is impossible for us to ever be really sure when the first group of fans took to song in unison at a sporting event. There are many anecdotal examples, however, of the phenomenon taking place well before the end of the nineteenth century, not just when fans were in the stadium but also when they were travelling to and from games and attending civic receptions for victorious cup-winning teams. The evolution of crowd music and singing in this kind of intense environment was ‘a logical extension of the habits of singing and playing in the street, the pub and elsewhere’.[25] This idea of the prevalence of community singing is supported by oral history from the period, in the form of the reminiscences of George Dunn, known as the ‘Minstrel of Quarry Bank’. George Dunn was born in 1887 in the South Staffordshire village of Quarry Bank and worked as a chain maker. He was interviewed at length in the 1970’s about his early life[26] before he finally passed away in 1975. The author explains that:

George Dunn’s reminiscences provide a vivid picture, starting almost a century ago. Indeed, they illuminate his small Black Country community, both at work and at play. He describes the cruel sports of cockfighting and also the gentler pastimes of fishing, dog-racing and pigeon-flying, together with poor people’s substitute for a holiday: a spell of hop-picking in Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Again and again he mentions singing, in the fields, at home, in the pubs: and above all the songs he learned from his father.

In the words of Dunn himself:

…there was a vigorous popular culture of which songs were an important part. These were complemented with/by sport, stories, riddles, sayings, speech itself. [27]

While researching newspaper reports of the period, in this case looking for evidence of crowds singing in a sporting context, one accidentally comes across many examples of crowds singing at events like political rallies, religious meetings, New Year celebrations etc., appearing to confirm Palmer’s assertion that group singing was indeed omnipresent.

It comes as no surprise then that from the late nineteenth century, when football and rugby had started to attract large attendances, both to the stadium and at civic receptions for winning teams, crowds had started to express themselves in music and song, often with a distinctly religious flavour. The Chorus of Handel’s Judas MaccabeusSee the conquering hero comes!’, is, for example, noted as often being played and sung at civic receptions.[28] There is also newspaper evidence that the practice of crowd singing was already well established in the 1890’s. In an article in the Belfast News Letter from December 1898, titled Amusements Football Crowds Invent, we can read an extremely vivid account of ‘ingenious and startling’ ways that crowds amused themselves while waiting for a match:

Every big club has its own particular song and by singing this the spectators can keep themselves in good humour. Northern fans are the most enthusiastic – the top part of the crowd asks a question, the bottom answers. This can comprise up to 50 verses, lasting up to 1 hour, for example:

Will the bounding boys of B______ ever fail?

Answer: No they won’t!

Will our noble captain ever turn and quail?

Answer: No he won’t!

The result is far from unmusical.[29]

The description of ‘our noble captain’ supports the idea that the fans identified with the virtues of the players on the pitch who were a source of local pride. Interestingly, the journalist talks about every club having their own song by this stage. It is not clear from this passage whether the article is talking about football in England or Ireland, though considering the relative stages of football development in the two countries in the late nineteenth century, one can be quite confident that it is the former. There is much debate amongst modern day fans over who had the first specific club song or chant. As early as 1888, an article in the Huddersfield Chronicle describes a meeting of the local rugby club where an ex-player, C.C. Sykes, read The Huddersfield Rugby Song.[30] Norwich City Football Club is often credited with having one of the oldest club songs On the ball, City!, which was sung from the club’s formation in 1902. Sheffield Wednesday fans are believed to have sung The Good Old Wednesday Boys from the 1890’s[31] and even Sir Edward Elgar got in on the act, penning the song He Banged the Leather Goal in praise of his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers in around 1899, though it is not clear whether the song was ever sung by fans.[32] During the 1899 FA Cup Final, Sheffield United fans are reported to have hummed The Dead March from Handel’s Saul. In riposte, Derby County fans sang the popular music hall song The Rowdy Dowdy Boys[33] and later, this music hall song became associated with Sheffield United fans.[34] Perhaps this was an early example of how the sporting arena was a location for cultural contact and the transmission of a cultural practice from one set of fans to another.

When it comes to football chants, contrary to the claims of the aforementioned Middlesbrough correspondent, it seems that fans from the south coast of England led the way. Newspaper reports of the 1890’s describe Southampton F.C.’s Yi! Yi! Yi! whisper being sung both in the stadium and in places where fans gathered before and after matches.[35] This rhythmic whisper, which started quietly and gradually increased in volume, was, according to the editor’s note at the end of an article about the song, also chanted by Glasgow’s Third Lanark in the 1890’s. Glasgow is a long way from Southampton and the editor of Soccer History suggests that the two sets of fans may have had identical chants as both were port towns. Men from Glasgow would certainly have been working in Southampton and vice versa at this time, providing a clear illustration of Greenblatt’s concept of cultural mobility. It is Southampton’s local rivals Portsmouth, however, who claim to have the oldest football chant, The Pompey Chime, allegedly sung from the 1880’s. The chant went in time with the clock at the port docks and, according to the official Portsmouth Football Club Handbook for the season 1900 – 1901,[36] these were the words accompanying the chant:

Play up Pompey,

Just one more goal;

Make tracks! What o!

Hallo! Hallo!


This particular chant has, of course, been remarkably resilient with versions still sung at Portsmouth FC matches today.

By the period described as the eve of the First World War, which for the purposes of this text we shall take as the ten years preceding the outbreak of hostilities, the practice of football crowds singing and coming up with their own club songs and chants was already well established. When we examine contemporary local newspaper reports, it appears that this had spread up and down the country, and was evident at all levels of both football and rugby. Fans sang in stadia during matches, at victory parades, while travelling to and from matches, and were also encouraged by both the clubs and local press to come up with their own ideas for songs and verse.

The establishment of stadium singing as a common activity by this time is backed up by a report from Manchester’s 1906 New Year celebrations in the city’s Albert Square.[37] While describing the large crowds indulging in the usual revelry, the reporter interestingly comments that, ‘the assembly assumed the proportions – and behaviour – of a crowd at a football match. There was a continual shouting and singing of up-to-date songs’. In addition, there are many anecdotal examples of the practice interspersed with match reports in the regional press.

In a wonderfully humorous example of stadium singing from 1911, the correspondent describes Bradford City supporters’ behaviour at an away match at Nottingham Forest:

One of the young sparks of Nottingham had brought the girl of his youthful fancy to see the match. His officious attentions to the lady were soon noticed and the crowd gave vent to a prolonged ‘oh’ followed by an equally long drawn out ‘ah’. Someone squeaked in a falsetto voice, and shouts of laughter nearly brought the stand down. Then the crowd broke mightily in the chorus ‘My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl’ varying one of the lines as follows: ‘though she’s a factory lass and doesn’t wear Nottingham lace’. By this time the young couple thought it time to decamp. A piccolo player came along and struck up with a lively air. Immediately the ‘boys’ began a rhythmic accompaniment on hand bells, bugles and tommy-talkers. The resulting effects have never been equalled by Strauss. Not far away another Yorkshire chorus was singing a hymn tune to the strain of concertinas.[38]

This clearly was not an isolated incident as the same reporter describes the Bradford crowd a week later, this time during a home game with Burnley, singing Harry Lauder music hall songs along with a brass band and a chorus of I Love a Lancashire Lassie, placing ‘a serious strain on the permanence of the stands’.[39] What is interesting here is the spontaneity of the crowd’s reaction to the Nottingham couple, along with a viciousness of humour which we would more readily associate with Liverpool’s Kop in the 1960’s than an Edwardian football crowd. It is also clear that these fans identified with the town of Bradford and the wider county of Yorkshire, and wished to disassociate themselves from Nottingham and its lace industry. Though the singing of I love a Lancashire Lassie at the following week’s game suggests that these localized loyalties were perhaps more flexible and attached to a feeling of Northernness rather than a particular town or county.

A more conventional scene is described in a report of an eventful 1908 match between Aberdeen and Queen’s Park. The reporter describes a player ‘giving Aberdeen a lead, amid a scene of extraordinary enthusiasm, the spectators literally singing themselves hoarse and dancing with delights’.[40] There seem to be less detailed references to crowd singing in Scotland in this period, though the author has noticed a distinctness of style in the Scottish regional newspapers, with much longer and more formalized match reports and very little description of the behaviour of fans in and around the stadia. The above reference may lead us to believe, however, that the Scots were just as vocal and musical in their support as their English counterparts. A report from a 1913 cup-tie at Burnley describes the spectacle of the visiting fans from Middlesbrough: ‘They came in singing and cheering, a rowdy, good-humoured crowd. They went away at 10.15 pm singing and cheering, facing defeat, and a cold journey on another train’. The reporter later describes their behaviour around the town: ‘But both in the streets and in the town they were good sports. Manchester Road was black with them when they arrived blowing their horns, ringing their bells and singing popular songs, and the town was busy with them all day afterwards’.[41]

There is also evidence that stadium singing was not just confined to the football stadium. A 1904 report describes how five thousand travelling rugby union fans, including a Mr E. Carter, President of the Devon Rugby Union, made the journey to Cardiff for a match between Glamorgan and Devon. The report picks up on the second half action ‘resuming before an increasing and singing crowd’. Later, ‘Heywood converted, thus reducing the home lead to three points, and causing the crowd to sing with renewed vigour’.[42] Although there is no specific reference to the songs being sung, it seems probable that the Devon supporters were asserting their regional identity in this battle with the Welsh.

The Northern code of rugby was also witnessing similar scenes of crowd fervour, with singing at its heart. A description of a rugby league derby between Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers also makes it clear that fans were sometimes in need of some prompting to break out into song. Half an hour before the match starts, the scene is described as such:

The rival trumpeters on either side kept up an incessant call to arms frequently interrupted with the ‘Reville’ and the ‘Cookhouse Call’. Strange to say, there was little inclination to song to-day, the band being conspicuously absent.[43]

As the match approaches, however, the crowd loses its inhibitions: ‘Five minutes from the start the crowd woke up in earnest, singing ‘Yip I addy’ as if their very lives depended on it’. Sometimes fans and players needed more unusual methods to rouse them into song. A report from a friendly football match between Llanrwst United and Bangor Normal College tells the mysterious tale of a face appearing out of the nearby Conway River, blowing kisses at the players and then bursting into song: ‘The normals joined in the chorus with their wild war cry, whilst the crowd yelled with delight’.[44]

As suggested in the Burnley report above, the practice of groups of football and rugby fans singing and chanting in unison was also evident in other places where fans gathered. There are numerous reports of similar behaviour at victory parades and homecomings for successful teams. A 1904 report describes a reception after Manchester City’s FA Cup win over Bolton, at which the M.P. for City’s local constituency of Manchester East and the then Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, gives a speech. Tens of thousands of fans gathered in the streets to welcome ‘the conquering heroes’ home: ‘Cries of “Good old City” were kept up and the winning team were greeted with shouts of “Play up City!”‘[45] Similarly, a reporter describing a match between Lyme Rovers and Yeovil YMCA writes that: ‘At the conclusion of the game he (the goalkeeper of Lyme) was carried through the main streets of the town, a large crowd following singing some of the most popular songs of the day’.[46] Rugby fans were seemingly just as enthusiastic in their reception of returning heroes. The 1908 article Up Barumi! To the Victors over Newton, describes a reception for the Barnstaple rugby team (Barum being the old Roman name for the town), at the local station after an away victory at Newton:

A large crowd assembled, many carrying torches, and others making their presence felt with more or less musical instruments. Full-lunged youths vied with instrumentalists in producing an indescribable din as the train entered the station….the team followed by a large crowd of cheering and singing supporters.[47]

Along with victory parades and receptions, it is also clear that fans were regularly in the habit of singing while travelling to and from games, warming up with their favourite songs for the matches to follow. The descriptions of the sheer numbers involved, special travel arrangements and carnival atmosphere is impressive, and again we see this phenomenon at both the elite and grass roots levels of football and rugby. A Dover reporter spends many lines describing the brutality of the visiting South Lancashire Regiment in a match of ‘disgraceful character’ with Dover. He complains about ‘the Association, who object to comic songs and select and favour referees who conduct matches in such a way that a riot is their usual ending.’ What is more interesting though is his later comment that: ‘It is not a few young fellows singing a comic song in an empty station that is going to debase football so much as an occurrence like that on Saturday’.[48] This referred to an earlier reported incident where the Dover players and supporters, returning from a match at Sittingbourne, had been singing a parody of the song I do believe at Sittingbourne Station and were accused by a Reverend E. Tozer of responding to the song with ‘blasphemous laughter’, leading to the hostility of the Sittingbourne Divisional Committee of the Kent Football Association. It seems that the spectacle of fans singing in public was not appreciated by everyone.[49]

At the elite end of sport, this time rugby league, we read in a 1913 report about 15,000 ‘colourful and noisy’ fans travelling from Leeds for the Northern Union Football Cup Final at Headingly between Huddersfield and Warrington. The journalists describe how ‘some varied their progress with occasional exhibitions of ragtime dancing and the singing of comic songs’.[50] In Burnley, a 1909 article recounts the excitement and thorough preparations for the football team’s upcoming cup tie at Crystal Palace. Excursions are planned by a number of local travel agents and the Great Northern Railway Company is to provide an express service promising to leave Burnley at 6am and arrive at King’s Cross at 11am, giving the travelling fans ‘ample time to look round, obtain refreshments, and get to the Palace early enough to-secure a good seat or stand, as the case may be’.[51] We then read about a Burnley fan’s suggestion for a song and are left in no doubt that the practice of singing en route to away matches was taking place:

A Burnley Lane enthusiast has gone into verse, the song being to the tune of Maggie Murphy’s Home. On a former occasion, when the song was new and popular, a parody was sung en route to Everton, where Burnley prevailed. The Burnley enthusiasts who make the journey to the Palace will have the opportunity of giving vent to their feelings. If the prediction comes off they will doubtless be in good voice on the return journey.

The mighty now are fallen, The verdict has been read

And through the City of London, The startling news has spread

Of how their football champions, Burnley came to meet

And to the tune of 2-1, They gave them a defeat.


The Burnley lads they are the lads, For giving great surprise

They’re going to play to win the game, They’re playing for the prize

Playing for the English cup, The cup they love so dear

And now for Burnley’s plucky lads, Let’s give a ringing cheer


They Dawson ‘tween the goal posts, Barron at full back.

And with McLean his partner, They have three hard nuts to crack

There’s Dick Smith in the centre, Morley and Smethams on the wings

 And with Ogden and Abbott, They’ll do some pretty things.


Our three half-backs work splendidly, Their grand defence is strong

 And for their stout resistance, Let them be remembered long

 Let good luck attend you lads, And fortune on you smile.

Let’s hope see you champions, Of England’s noble isle.[52]

Identification with the local team and familiarity with its players saturate these lines and one can imagine the rowdy scenes as those fans, full of anticipation for the metropolis that awaits them, belt out the chorus on the King’s Cross express. A report from 1909 in the same Burnley newspaper supports the idea that local media positively encouraged supporters to write in with their suggestions for song and verse about their sporting heroes. The football section of the paper describes in much detail an FA Cup quarter-final with Ernest Mangnall’s Manchester United, the reigning first division champions. The match was called off in the second half due to bad weather with Burnley leading 1-0 and apparently outplaying their more illustrious opponents, much to the consternation of their fans. The newspaper then publishes three verses sent in by supporters, the most amusing of which, Prophecy in Poetry penned by an E.H. Burnley, makes a prediction about the replay which is included in the title of this article:

Play up, United, and be content

For you the cup was never meant

The only cup that you can win

Is the butter-“cup” that blooms in spring.[53]

There is evidence that the practice of local newspapers encouraging supporters to send in songs and verse to the local press was not confined to Burnley, with Manchester’s Athletic News also requesting similar submissions in the period. A Hull newspaper goes even further in 1906 by organizing a limerick competition for fans of the local rugby team. An example of such was sent in by a fan named Airlie Bird (the club played at the Boulevard on Airlie Street at this time, the Airlie Birds being the club’s nickname):

Harry Taylor of Hull is a full back of renown

And oft on the Boulevard his prowess was shown

So remember remember

The 3rd of November

And give him a good benefit – he is one of our own.[54]

There is also evidence that the clubs themselves encouraged similar submissions in their match programmes. In 1911, for example, a competition in Chelsea’s programme requested the re-working of popular songs into chants of the ‘Play up Chelsea’ type.[55]

It is discernible in the reports that in the first decade of the twentieth century the practice of crowds singing in support of their local team and expressing identification with their hometown was happening all around the country, and at all levels of football and rugby. With the mobility of the supporters and the very public nature of the singing it is perhaps unsurprising that it spread very quickly. This identity with locality and region was mirrored in international sport, with fans expressing national allegiance. The singing of the national anthem as well as the patriotic song Heart of Oak was popular at England’s home football internationals by this time,[56] but it is in the game of rugby that we see national identity being expressed through song most intensely. In an issue of The Cornishman newspaper, the article Defeat of the Colonials describes a rugby international between Wales and New Zealand:

The streets of Cardiff thronged with people – when the gates were opened at midday there was a rush of spectators to secure the best positions. The colonials gave their customary war cry, and the Welsh responded by singing Land of my Fathers, the chorus being taken up by the crowd in a very impressive fashion.[57]

The Welsh have, of course, always been noted for their fervent support of the national rugby team, and rousing choruses of national songs such as Land of my Fathers are still a feature of international matches in Cardiff today. In the same way that football had in England and Scotland, ‘rugby in Wales became the one great pastime of the people,’[58]capturing the national imagination and somehow representing the perceived ethnic qualities of the Celts.

The West Country of England was another area where rugby had gripped the public more intensely than football. This was particularly true in Cornwall, which, like Wales, had a Celtic ethnicity, and, for some, a separate national rather than regional identity. In a letter to The Cornishman almost exactly a year after the article mentioned above, referring to an upcoming rugby match between Cornwall and the Springboks, we read the following suggestion:

Further, we hear of the Welsh, All Blacks, and the Springboks singing their war song at the commencement of their matches, and we ask: why can’t Cornwall do likewise, by singing the grand old Trelawny? It would certainly put heart into and inspire the Cornish footballers.[59]

Despite Cornwall then, as now, being a region of England, Trelawny is a national song along the same lines as Land of my Fathers and both songs are still sung by the respective rugby teams’ fans. Although there are far fewer anecdotal examples of expressions of national identity through crowd singing than there are of local identity, (one reason could be quite simply that there were fewer fixtures), it also seems to be a practice that was well established. We can also see, via the letter to the Cornishman, how this practice was spread through cultural mobility.

The final example of crowd singing in a national context is quite distinct, and does not involve a ‘nation’ in the commonly understood sense. In a description of an away win by Hull Kingston Rovers rugby league team over Leeds at Headingly from 1908, the reporter timetables the following crowd behaviour:

2.50 pm: The Jewish fraternity laying odds of 3 to 1. 3.00 pm: These Jewish supporters of the Leeds club sing a Yiddish war-song. I’ll match them against the All Blacks for frightful harmony.[60]

Many Jews had emigrated to Leeds after the Russian pogroms of 1881 and had seemingly found in the local rugby club a place where they could express this distinct identity, probably to the surprise of the club’s more traditional patrons:

And the Jewish community took the team to their hearts. One can imagine the feelings of the vicar and the church wardens as they looked out on to the terraces only to realise that not only did few supporters seem to embody the gentlemanly Christian virtues, but every other person was a Jew.[61]

This refers to the fact that the club had been originally set up in March 1874 by the vicar and churchwardens of Leeds Parish Church in order to instil the virtues of muscular Christianity. More interestingly, the journalist’s reference to the Yiddish ‘war song’ and its aesthetic comparison with that of the All Blacks again shows how this idea of expressing identity through terrace singing had been incorporated by different national, or more specifically in this case, ethnic groups.

Any attempt to analyze sporting crowds’ behaviour is problematic due to the nature of the source material. We can only really catch glimpses of the crowd singing phenomenon through the eyes of local correspondents, who may well have been fans themselves of the teams they were describing and liable to exaggerate the fervour of their comrades. Sporting songs and chants are by their very nature ‘transient and therefore elusive phenomena when studied historically’.[62] Though the digitization of historical newspaper archives has made research into this area far easier, ‘with valuable needles now more easily discovered in previously often impenetrable haystacks,’[63] it also makes it difficult to try and compare the intensity and frequency of crowd singing between sports, clubs and regions of the country. This digitization is a work in progress with some regions and publications covered more extensively than others, and thus this paper makes no claims as to the relative regularity of such practises. What is clear, however, is that crowd singing was happening in both football and rugby contexts all over Britain, and that this was irrespective of whether this was at the elite or amateur levels of those sports. Desmond Morris was right in saying that terrace culture was intense and complex in Britain, a local art form indeed, though it seems that this culture was born many decades before the 1960’s.


[1] See the inside front cover of the hard back version: Desmond Morris, The Soccer Tribe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981).

[2] Ibid., 304-7.

[3] Ibid., 304.

[4] Ibid., 305.

[5] See: Dave Russell, ‘Abiding Memories: The Community Singing Movement and English Social Life in the 1920s’, Popular Music 27 no. 1 (2008); Jeffrey Hill, ‘War, Remembrance and Sport: ‘Abide With Me’ and the FA Cup Final in the 1920s’, in Sporting Sounds: Relationships between Sport and Music, ed. Anthony Bateman and Jeffrey Hill (London: Routledge, 2009), 164-78.

[6] Adrian Thrills, You’re Not Singing Anymore (London: Random House, 1998), 27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This chapter develops ideas first explored by the author in: Paul Newsham, ‘Singing Identities: Expressing British Identities in Sporting Song from the Late Victorian Era to the Eve of the First World War’, Journal of Language and Cultural Education 2 no. 2 (2014): 218-232.

[9] Dave Russell, ‘”See, the Conquering Hero Comes! Sound the Trumpets, Beat the Drums”: Music and Sport in England, 1880-1939’, Sport in Society 17 no. 3 (2014): 312.

[10] See: Richard Holt, Sport and the British: A Modern History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Matthew Taylor, The Association Game: A History of British Football, (London: Pearson, 2008).

[11] Morris, The Soccer Tribe, 305.

[12] Taylor, The Association Game, 96.

[13] Brad Beaven, Leisure, Citizenship and Working-Class Men in Britain, 1850-1945, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 79, as cited in Taylor, The Association Game, 97-8.

[14] Eric J Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1990), 143, as cited in Taylor, The Association Game, 97.

[15] Keith Gregson and Mike Huggins, ‘Northern Songs, Sporting Heroes and Regional Consciousness, c.1800 – c.1880: ‘Wor Stars that Shine’, Northern History, 44 no. 2, 141-158.

[16] Holt, Sport and the British, 171.

[17] Ibid., 173.

[18] Zygmunt Baumann, Community, Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, (London: Blackwell, 2001), 7-8

[19] Jock Young, The Exclusive Society, (London: Sage, 1999), 164, as cited in Baumann, Community, 8.

[20] Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, December 7, 1889.

[21] For variations and developments on the themes of cultural exchange and mobility see: Peter Burke, Cultural Hybridity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Stephen Greenblatt et al., Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Matthias Middell and Katja Naumann, ‘Global History and the Spatial Turn: from the Impact of Area Studies to the Study of Critical Junctures of Globalisation’, Journal of Global History 5, 149-70; Michael Werner and Benédicté Zimmerman, ‘Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croiséé and the Challenge of Reflexivity, History and Theory 45, no. 1, 30-50.

[22] Stephen Greenblatt et al, Cultural Mobility, 2-4.

[23] Ibid., 250.

[24] Middell and Naumann, ‘Global History and the Spatial Turn’, 162.

[25] Russell, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’, 310.

[26] Roy Palmer (ed.), ‘The Minstrel of Quarry Bank, Reminiscences of George Dunn’, Oral History 11 (1983), 63-6.

[27] Ibid., 63.

[28] Russell, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’, 310.

[29] ‘Amusements Football Crowds Invent’, Belfast News Letter, December 27, 1898.

[30] Huddersfield Chronicle, April 28, 1888.

[31] Russell, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’, 311.

[32] R. Alleyne, ‘Sir Edward Elgar wrote football chant along with his classical music’, The Telegraph, September 26, 2010.

[33] Russell, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’, 315.

[34] Taylor, The Association Game, 96.

[35] Dave Jason, ‘Yi Yi Yi’: The First Football Chant?’, Soccer History 29.

[36] B Fellows and W Fellows, ‘Sing Your Hearts out for the Lads: Football Songs and Chants of the Early 1980’s’, Retrieved from (accessed March 3, 2014).

[37] Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, January 1, 1906.

[38] Yorkshire Observer Budget, March 11, 1911, as cited in Dave Russell, Popular Music in England 1840-1914, 2nd edition, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 182.

[39] Yorkshire Observer Budget, March 18, 1911, as cited in Dave Russell, Popular Music, 182.

[40] Aberdeen Journal, February 24, 1908.

[41] Burnley News, February 26, 1913.

[42] Western Times, November 3, 1904.

[43] Hull Daily Mail, September 28, 1912.

[44] Dundee Evening Telegraph, October 7, 1912.

[45] ‘City’s Homecoming’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, April 26, 1904.

[46] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, April 25, 1905.

[47] ‘Up Barumi! To the Victors over Newton’, Western Times, February 3, 1908.

[48] Dover Express, April 7, 1905.

[49] Ibid., March 3, 1905.

[50] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, April 28, 1913.

[51] Burnley Express, February 3, 1909.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., March 10, 1909.

[54] Hull Daily Mail, October 30, 1906.

[55] Russell, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’, 317.

[56] Ibid., 318.

[57] The Cornishman, ‘Defeat of the Colonials’, December 21, 1905.

[58] Holt, Sport and the British, 250.

[59] The Cornishman, December 20, 1906.

[60] Hull Daily Mail, February 17, 1908.

[61] Jim Parry et al., Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2007), 186.

[62] Jeffrey Hill, ‘War, Remembrance and Sport’, 167.

[63] See endnotes: Russell, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’, 319.