The third SpLeisH International Sport and Leisure History Colloquium, which took place at MMU Cheshire in Crewe on Friday March 3rd/Saturday March 4th, was attended by nearly 50 scholars from the UK, Europe and North America. The format of the colloquium followed that of previous years with no panels, enabling everyone to attend all the presentations, and a mix of deliveries ranging from 45-minute keynotes to 6min 40secs pecha kuchas. The gathering was treated to a range of topics relating to the history of sport and leisure over the two days.
Leisure historian Bob Snape used his presentation on Leisure in post-First World War Rural Reconstruction to explore the re-building of social communities through voluntary associations that were expected to provide the catalyst to energize community interest and social citizenship. In rural areas, this was to be achieved by building village halls to serve as a centre of social life but tensions between a modernization of the countryside and the preservation of an imagined past sent reconstruction along a different path. In contrast, Catherine Hindson considered leisure provision within the factory environment. In Theatre, Performance and Leisure at Bournville and Somerdale Catherine drew comparisons and contrasts between the two sites not only in terms of the provision of theatre and performance but also in terms of the involvement of the employees and the dialogue between the two factories, their managements and their workers.
The impact of the printed word on leisure and sport was highlighted by two European academics. Noemi Garcia-Arjona presented her research team’s work on French comic motorsports driver Michel Vaillant in The Adventures of a Comic Motorsports Hero and concluded from an analysis of the comic book iconography that Vaillant reflected a detailed knowledge of the automobile sports industry as well as modern myths like speed, youth and progress. Stijn Knuts used his presentation Claiming Legitimacy and Popularity in the Early Flemish Sports Press to look at the cultural dynamics of the sports press news production through an analysis of the Belgian sports paper Sportwereld. Conducting keyword searches of the digitized volumes of its first two years of publication (1912-1914) he provided important clues to how its staff gathered sporting information, why they did so, and how they presented their paper and themselves to readers.
Among the contributions from historians of sport were two papers that went well beyond the traditional narrative. In his The Origins of the Davis Cup Simon Eaves challenged the myth that Dwight Davis was the initiator of international tennis and provided convincing evidence to show that the standard story surrounding the origins of the Davis Cup eschews mention of other factors and, importantly, other individuals that may have contributed to the development of this international event. Wray Vamplew offered an economic history perspective on match fixing in Tanking, Shirking and Running Dead based on economic models that explain corruption as a rational decision-making process in which a potentially corrupt athlete weighs up various probabilities. Using examples from American college sports, NBA basketball, British horseracing, Australian Rules football and sumo wrestling, he showed how patterns of match fixing could be identified using probability theory.
A number of presenters tackled aspects of the history of association football. Martyn Cooke recalled how an FA Cup quarter-final between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City on March 9 1946 witnessed, what was at the time, the worst disaster in British sporting history with 33 people losing their lives and over 500 more suffering injuries. In The Burnden Park Stadium Disaster, he noted that this catastrophe failed to generate greater safety measures and that it was not until forty-three years later that the events of Hillsborough instigated significant changes in British football. Noting that researchers have suggested that high profile association footballers who enlisted in the Army Physical Training Corps (APTC) during World War Two had a ‘cushy’ role and that they contributed little, other than morale-boosting activities, to the war effort, Gary James suggested in The Army Physical Training Corps at War that this was not necessarily the case. He went on to argue that many of these men improved their coaching and man-management skills during their time with the APTC, leading to a greater focus on these skills in their own post-war footballing careers.
The international nature of football was highlighted by presentations from European scholars. In his Manchester versus Poland both on and off the Pitch, Paul Newsham showed how in some cases these international contacts could directly affect behaviour, whether on the pitch or in the stands. The sources consulted included Polish and English newspaper reports as well as first-hand accounts of players, fans and officials travelling in both directions. Dejan Zec also addressed British and European connections in Yugoslav Football Teams in the UK and Ireland in the Interwar Period when he focused on the experiences and impressions of Yugoslav footballers who had visited Britain. In looking at the development of sport in France in his English Influences on French Development in the 19th Century Jean-Francois Loudcher highlighted the English individuals who moved to the Bordeaux region and helped to create sports clubs, such as “Le Cercle des Anglais”, a football-rugby association founded in 1875.
Reflecting the growing awareness of, and appreciation for, women’s football, Carrie Dunn talked about Sylvia Gore and placed this important pioneer of women’s football into the context of the changing nature of the sport. Carrie presented a summary of Sylvia’s contribution from the first time she kicked a ball, at a time when women were still banned from playing the game, to her role as ambassador for Manchester City Women. Appropriately, given it was Women’s History month, there were a number of other contributions that looked at women’s place in the sporting landscape. Jean Williams used her presentation on Britain¹s Women Olympians to look at the life and careers of women such as Chattie Cooper, who won the tennis competitions in Paris in 1900, and equestrian Pat Smythe, who pioneered new career paths as a writer, journalist and conservationist. Lisa Taylor outlined her own research project in Competitive Women’s Rowing since 1945 and noted that the rising profile of the sport is a relatively new phenomena, although women’s rowing has a much longer history of participation, competition, and campaigning for organizational support and equality. She examined the organizational barriers to women’s competitive rowing and recorded the key milestones following the WARA’s amalgamation with the ARA in 1963. Samantha-Jayne Oldfield used The Origins and Formation of England Netball to flag up her research project into the early history of netball through an examination of its National Governing Body, a consideration of the individuals involved and their subsequent impact on the development of the sport’s national and international profile. This was nicely juxtaposed by a contribution from Keith Myerscough, who considered some of the difficulties involved in tracing the lineage From Basket-Ball to Net-Ball. Their divergent developmental pathways produced different sports and Keith examined how these two seemingly disparate, but culturally significant sports, had shared the same creator.
Aquatics featured prominently over the two days. Visiting American scholar, Vicki Valosik, explored the entertainment and educational roots of a modern Olympic sport in her presentation Synchronized Swimming: From Ancient Rome to Vaudeville. Vicki traced the development and history of the sport and analysed how performative swimming has been used over the years both for educating and for entertaining the masses. Dave Day used a combination of biographical methods and a variety of sources to examine the traditional narrative surrounding women’s place in the world during the long-Victorian period. In his Gender, Class and the ‘Separate Spheres’ Narrative Dave used examples from his ongoing research into female swimming professionals, swimming teachers and baths employees to argue that women played a much more active role in the public sphere than has sometimes been assumed. Sylvia Kölling also addressed the importance of the baths in Victorian life in her presentation Manchester’s Miller Street Public Baths and Washhouse, 1846-1850. After surveying newspaper and committee reports, among other sources, Sylvia argued that the short history of this private, experimental establishment showed how national public health legislation had little direct impact on the provision of baths and washhouses in Manchester because of local administrative and financial circumstances. The range of facilities available to the Victorians was emphasized by Malcolm Shifrin’s The Contrasting Provision of Turkish Baths by Two Railway Companies, which discussed the differences between Crewe and Swindon, both of which benefitted from the provision of facilities by the railway companies. Each town came to have its own slipper baths, swimming pool, and Turkish bath, although Malcolm highlighted that the process of setting up these facilities differed in each case, as did the type of body responsible for managing them, and probably also the companies’ motives for supporting them. Swimming and bathing had had a long history prior to the building of facilities and Geoff Swallow traced the evolution of sea bathing in a regional context during his presentation on The Emergence of Recreational Swimming in a Cornish Coastal Town. Geoff showed how activities at Porthminster beach in St Ives, Cornwall, evolved as the pilchard fishing that had been the mainstay of the local economy declined and how, between the construction of the railway in 1874 and the opening of the Porthminster hotel in 1894, the site was appropriated as the town’s bathing beach.
Coverage of athletics during the colloquium spanned two hundred years of the history of the sport. In Practising Pedestrianism, 1780-1820 Derek Martin presented convincing evidence that by the middle of the eighteenth century there were a significant number of ‘self-employed’ professional runners, particularly in the north of England. Liam Dyer presented his research into Amateurism in Athletics during the Late-Nineteenth Century and highlighted the conflict that occurred between the Northern Counties Association, organised by members of the industrial middle class, and the Southern Association, in which the professional middle class was dominant. Ian Stone used a biographical approach in his Philip Noel-Baker and Developments in British Inter-War Athletics to explore the variety of ways in which Noel-Baker used his knowledge, contacts and influence to affect real change in the structures and processes relating to British athletics. Noel-Baker was a prominent Olympian and in The Myth of British Public Support for the 1948 London Olympics Paul Goad examined the reporting in Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette in the final week of the Games to see how a North East regional paper reported the Games.
Differences in European perspectives on body cultures were highlighted in two presentations. Conor Heffernan’s presentation Tracing Ireland’s Early Physical Culture Movement outlined the transnational element of the physical culture movement in the nineteenth century as well as the utilization of sport and purposeful exercise for political means. In doing so, he shed light on the relatively nascent world of physical culture studies and complemented this with histories of Irish sport dedicated to GAA, rugby and football. Hans Appel neatly mapped out the main body cultural trends in Copenhagen every five years from 1895 to 1920 in his presentation Body Cultures in Copenhagen 1895-1920 through a focus on two individual cases. The first was a body activist, the army officer Captain K. V. Høyer, who among other initiatives created an open-air nudist gymnasium for men just outside Copenhagen in 1907. The second, a bourgeoise cultural consumer, civil servant, Erik With, recorded his cultural activities in scrapbooks from 1857 to 1929.
The colloquium emphasized the range and diversity of work being undertaken by historians in the fields of sports and leisure and there was something for everyone here (see full abstracts and the biographies at http://www.cheshire.mmu.ac.uk/sport-history/colloquium2017/programme.php). Over the course of the two days, the presentations engaged the audience not only in terms of presenting novel and groundbreaking research but also with different modes of presentation and reporting leaving attendees already eagerly anticipating next year’s event. Dates for the diary – 23rd and 24th February 2018.
Article © Margaret Roberts