Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain experienced a period of dramatic societal change where everyday life was revolutionised by technological advancements, industrial innovation and the emergence of fresh attitudes. These societal developments had a direct impact on all aspects of Victorian life including the way in which people travelled, communicated, worked, prepared food, dealt with sickness and illness and spent their leisure time.
A sporting culture already existed prior to Queen Victoria ascending the throne but is was during the final three decades of the century that sport underwent what has been described as a ‘sporting revolution’. What had been largely recreation pastimes that were organised on an informal basis with few written rules was transformed into a hugely popular, mass spectator entertainment industry that was national, and at times international, in geographical scale. Sport became codified, commercialised and institutionalised with a significant increase in the number of sports clubs, competitions, governing bodies and spectators attending events.
A key component of this ‘sporting revolution’ was the role played by the written press. Sport and the press were mutually beneficial and the two became inextricably linked as the Victorian period progressed with both experiencing a significant expansion in their scale, scope and influence.
The emergence of the commercial press
The technological and societal developments of the Victorian era coincided to facilitate a remarkable expansion of the national, regional and local press in Britain. There was a significant increase in the number of publications available and the regularity on which they were issued, with only 400 weekly newspapers being produced across the country in 1856 compared to an estimated 2,072 in 1900. This growth is attributed to a variety of interlocking factors which culminated to create an environment where newspapers became easier and cheaper to produce whilst there was also a significant increase in literacy levels across the population.
First, the lifting of punitive taxes between 1853 and 1861, also referred to as the ‘taxes on knowledge’ which included stamp, paper and advertisement duties, eased the financial limitations and pressures that had previously undermined publications. Technological advancements in printing also made production easier, cheaper and more sophisticated than ever before which stimulated far greater outputs. Secondly, the Education Act of 1870 introduced compulsory inclusive school provision for all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales. This stimulated mass literacy across all elements of society and, with a larger portion of the population able to read and write, newspapers, journals and publications were presented with an extended audience that they could target.
The combined effect of mass literacy, the lifting of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ and the technological advancements in printing ensured that, by the final third of the nineteenth century, newspapers had become increasingly popular, influential and financially productive. However, the emergence of the commercial press resulted in distinct alterations in the content, format and language used by many publications as they sought to increase their readership. A form of ‘New Journalism’ developed with long unbroken columns being replaced by paragraphs whilst sentences became shorter and language more sensationalistic. The press began to embellish facts as it recognised that the public was interested in enthralling stories, drama and gossip alongside the amusing and the sensational, especially as profits replaced ideas as the driving force of publications.
Sport and the press
As the nineteenth century progressed there was a growing recognition that the drama, speculation, controversy and larger-than-life figures associated with sport suited the requirements of ‘New Journalism’ whilst there was also real appetite among the public for sporting news. Sport became an increasingly central theme within newspapers, due to its potential to enhance readership and circulation, whilst a specialised sporting press, including titles such as the Sporting Chronicle and Athletic News, also began to emerge in parallel.
Sport and the press were mutually beneficial; sport provided a continuous conveyor belt of content for journalists to report whilst newspapers provided enhanced publicity and exposure in return. Publications had been reporting on sport, leisure and recreational activities since the eighteenth century, but, in the new brand of Victorian newspaper it became an essential and specialised component.
However, the press were not merely commentators and observers of sport. Whilst publications did tend to focus their coverage on reporting matches, events and competitions they also took a more significant role in its development and dissemination. Newspapers advertised meetings, fixtures and events whilst also providing a forum for discussion and debate through printing letters sent in by promoters, athletes and members of the public. Some publications took a more central role in the development and dissemination of sport, as exemplified by Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Gazette which acting as a sporting-concierge in the mid-nineteenth century by using its pages to arrange events and acted as a stakeholder, holding prize-money and bets.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century some publications in Britain, and across the globe, took it upon themselves to establish sporting competitions and events. In 1892 the Staffordshire Sentinel, a regional newspaper located in Stoke-on-Trent, created the self-titled Sentinel Cup, a knock-out association football competition that was contested by junior players under the age of 21. In Europe, the first cycle road-race between Paris and Raven was organised by Le Vélocipède whilst Le Petit Journal facilitated multiple cycle, motorcar and long-distance running races in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the emergence of professional baseball in Japan was facilitated by almost by the press, with four out of the seven teams that founded the Japanese Baseball league in 1936 being owned by newspaper companies.
The benefits of newspapers and publications establishing sporting competitions or events were numerous, ranging from positive publicity and exposure to enhancing their integrity by taking a philanthropic stance or meeting the needs of the public. However, the ultimate underlying motivation was to always to enhance their readership, circulation and profitability.
Sport and the press during the Victorian era were mutually beneficial and became inextricably linked as the period progressed. The press played a key role in facilitating the ‘sporting revolution’ during the final third of the nineteenth century whilst sport provided publications with content that could enable them to enhance their readership.
Article © Martyn Cooke