Britain’s Sporting Tradition

Lecture 35—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Soccer, cricket, tennis, golf: These sports were invented in Britain and play a major role in the nation’s culture today. Whether you are a rabid Man United nut or occasionally enjoy a match at Wimbledon, Britain has something for every sports fan—and the timing of sporting events may be something to consider when planning your great tour.

Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.

Think about the world’s major sports for a minute and you’ll realize that many of them were invented in Britain. Number one in the world for popularity is soccer, not far behind, come cricket, tennis, and golf, all of which started out in Britain. Second-tier sports like badminton and rugby also originated there. In fact, Badminton and Rugby are both places in England where those two sports began, and which were named after their point of origin.

Sports in Britain – Cricket

First, cricket. Occasional references in court cases and medieval illustrations show us that it was being played in England well before 1500, with lots of local variations. In the mid-1700s it was popular among the aristocracy, who loved to bet on the outcome.

History of Sports in Britain
Craig Meschede batting for Somerset against Glamorgan, c. 2001

Cricket’s Ground Zero is a place called Lord’s, in St. John’s Wood, London. Thomas Lord built a cricket ground for a group of gentlemen in 1787, which became the home of the Marylebone Cricket Club or MCC. Its members wrote out a set of rules that gradually became standard for the rest of the world and are still observed today. The pavilion at Lords burned down in 1825, but its replacement, built the next year, still stands, and is very much worth a visit.

One of the many curious aspects of cricket is that, for more than a century, many of the best players wanted not to be paid.

British Soccer—“Football”

On the other hand, if you’re visiting Britain any time between late August and early May, go to a soccer match, and remember that in Britain the game is called football. There are about a hundred professional teams, in a hierarchy of leagues, at the top of which is the Premier League. Many of the best players in the world belong to Premier League clubs.

Manchester United has been the British champion a record 20 times, and has won all the other honors in British and European competitions at least once, and often much more than once. Nicknamed the “Red Devils,” Manchester United play in red shirts and white shorts.

British Sports
FC United celebrate becoming champions of the North West Counties Football league Division Two. C. 2006

Since 1910, Manchester United have occupied a ground named Old Trafford. In 1989, at an important match in Sheffield, between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, 96 people were crushed to death and more than 750 injured. A government report into this, the Hillsborough disaster, prompted a requirement that all fans should be seated. The stadium has been extended several times since then and now has a capacity of more than 75,000.

If you want to attend a game at Old Trafford, you’ll need to book in advance.

Rugby in England

Rugby branched off from football in the early 19th century. We have countless ancient and medieval accounts of games in which large mobs of men kicked and threw balls toward goals. Rugby School, in the English midlands county of Warwickshire, was innovated in the 1820s by permitting the player holding the ball to run with it.

Rugby in England
Boks vs. the Barbarians. c. 2007

Two distinct branches of rugby developed in the late 19th century: rugby league, most popular in the working-class north, and rugby union with strongholds further south and higher up the social ladder. Rugby Union was strictly “amateurs only” until as recently as 1995. Both versions have large loyal followings and boisterous crowds every winter weekend.

If you’d like to see a Rugby match, the iconic stadium is at Twickenham, in west London. Twickenham is to Rugby Union what Lords is to cricket.

Tennis in England

Different again, and much more well-mannered is the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, at Wimbledon, only about five miles from Twickenham.

Our modern game is officially called Lawn Tennis, but its inventor, Major Walter Wingfield, called it Sphairistike. That was in 1873, and it shows that the game was so good on its merits it could even overcome the burden of an almost unpronounceable name—Sphairistike is the Greek word for playing with a ball.

Tennis History in England
Center Court Wimbledon Championships 2010

Wimbledon, the club, had been founded in 1868, a few years before Major Wingfield’s invention, which sounds surprising, but at first, it was dedicated to croquet. Wimbledon was still a distinct village west of London, rather than the suburb it is today, when the club was first established. The first ladies’ tournament was held in 1884, though the ladies were offered no concessions in the matter of dress and were expected to wear high-necked, long-sleeved, and full-length dresses. For the first 30 years, the reigning champion in the men’s and the women’s tournaments played only once, in the final, against whoever had battled his or her way through the elimination rounds.

The club moved to its current site at the start of the 1920s, building the complex of courts that are familiar today, though on a much smaller scale at first. The King and Queen opened the new facility in 1922 and that year, for the first time, the reigning champion had to start again from the beginning of the tournament.

Even if you’re not able to attend the championship in July, there are year-round tours of the iconic facilities, including a visit to the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum—which holds an unparalleled collection of tennis memorabilia.

Britain Sports History – Golf

It’s difficult to pick a definite date for the beginning of golf, as it is for cricket. It developed in the medieval Netherlands out of a variety of earlier stick and ball games. The earliest set of rules we possess were written in 1744, in Edinburgh, by which time a handful of men were playing in England, too. This was also the date of the first recorded tournament.

Gold History in England
Xander Schaufelle c. 2017

St. Andrews, in eastern Scotland, which lays claim to being the ancestral home of the sport, gave rise to the tradition of playing 18 holes. In the 1700’s, there were 11 (or possibly 12). Rounds of golf consisted of playing all of them on the way out, and then all of them again on the way back to the clubhouse.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was formed in 1754 and became the ruling body of British golf. The Open tournament, oldest of the four majors in professional golf, was founded in 1860 at Prestwick and played for the first time at St. Andrews in 1873. It’s always on a “links” course with challenging areas of rough ground, much less manicured than the sites of major American tournaments.

St. Andrews is a beautiful, old medieval town, well worth a visit even if you’re not interested in golf. The clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient itself was built in 1854, with plenty of ceremony, and a prayer that God would look down from Heaven to bless it. Today, just across from the clubhouse, you’ll find the British Golf Museum—which, like the museum at Wimbledon, is a fascinating destination. It holds a collection of more than 17,000 items, some of which are hundreds of years old.

If you dream of playing the famed Old Course at St. Andrews, the great thing is … you can do it. And not just the Old Course but the other six public courses maintained by the St. Andrews Links Trust. You need to plan to get a tee-time, but it can be done. Playing the Old Course isn’t cheap, but it’s competitive with the best American courses, and to anyone who loves not just the game but its traditions and heritage, an irreplaceable and unforgettable experience.

Britain is as sports-mad as America, with football dominating men’s winter conversation, while tennis, cricket, and golf take over every summer.


Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture


Suggested Online Reading About Britain’s Sports

History of Football – The Origins
The History of Cricket
Rugby’s History


Images Courtesy of:
CAJ Meschede, By Harrias [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
FC United, By Matt Wilkinson [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Barbarians vs. Springboks, By Ian Wilson from London, England (Baa BaaUploaded by stemoc) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Wimbledon Center Court with Open Roof, By Albert Lee (Photo) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Xander Schauffele, By Callaway Golf company (made available to me for publishing) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons