Rugby Football during the Nineteenth Century: A Collection of Contemporary Essays about the Game by Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor)

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Rugby Football during the Nineteenth Century: A Collection of Contemporary Essays about the Game by Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor)

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Category: Sport
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A facsimile copy of an 1896 collection of contemporary essays on the relatively new sport (at the time) of rugby union, advocating amateurism and the values of playing the game for its own sake. A fascinating piece of history, but bad news for manufacturers of 'jam-puffs'!
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 432 Date: February 2010
Publisher: MX Publishing
ISBN: 978-1904312871

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The mid-nineteenth century represented the sporting equivalent of the 'big bang' in terms of winter sports in England, giving rise to the development of what today we call rugby union, football and rugby league, all from the same origin. Perhaps due to its popularity amongst the public schools of the day, rugby union for many years claimed the moral high ground, advocating amateurism and an emphasis on playing the game rather than providing a public spectacle. Indeed, the arguments over the dangers of professionalism, which initially led to the split into rugby league from the Northern clubs, continued in union for well over a hundred years right up to the former England captain Will Carling's description of the powers that be of the RFU as 'old farts'. In 1896 Bertram Fletcher Robinson, together with contributions from a few leading players of the day, wrote Rugby Football which was the first volume in a successful nine-part series on Sports and Pastimes that was written for the Isthmian Library. This edition is effectively a facsimile of that book, with the addition of an introduction, penned by Patrick Casey and Hugh Cooke and compiled by Paul Spring.

In his Foreword to the book Graeme Marrs (you could almost put together a rugby side from the people involved in this book) suggests that one does not have to be a rugby enthusiast to derive enjoyment from the read. I'm not so sure about that. It's a fairly specialist subject matter and of niche interest and if you have no interest in the game, I would suggest that you will find this less than enthralling.

Paul Spring notes that first editions of the Isthmian Library book are both rare and expensive and so he has taken it upon himself to provide a more accessible version, and this is clearly a good thing.

The emergence of rugby union was chaotic and often highly amusing, but I did not feel that this was particularly evident in the introduction which, while comprehensive, was on the dry side. I'm always a bit suspicious when an author uses the word 'interestingly' with a high level of frequency. It's usually better to let the reader be the judge of that.

There's absolutely no doubt that Fletcher Robinson was a fascinating individual. A keen rugby player in his youth, he was also a distinguished editor and writer and, for example worked with both Arthur Conan Doyle (another keen rugby player) and PG Woodhouse - although this is not the subject of this book. However, what I found remarkable was the 'modern' tone of his writing. Much of the style would fit very well into the newspapers of today, combining authority with frequent wit. Of course, given the period of writing, there are times when Fletcher Robinson, or more frequently some of the other contributors, lapse into the style so brilliantly lampooned by Harry Enfield's Mr Cholmondley-Warner, but it's more remarkable how un-dated much of the writing - and styles of rugby described - appear to the modern reader. However, he does view the passing craze as he describes it as having gone quite far enough.

Of course, it's more amusing to pick out the more dated issues. Today's players are unlikely to be bothered by the dangers of poisonous dies in their rugby jerseys seeping into their blood, and the chapter on 'Hints on Training' provides some priceless advice, noting that an energetic school captain should see that none of his 'men' indulge inordinate desires for jam-puffs and on the subject of tobacco Fletcher Robinson is adamant that the pipe, then, must remain a matter for the individual conscience. I'm not sure I'd like to be the one to argue that case with Martin Johnson!

Scottish readers too will rejoice in the claimed superiority of the Scotch schools in playing the game and Fletcher Robinson proves an accurate judge to note that the French, Australian and New Zealanders may one day master the game enough to challenge the home nations!

There's much in the book about the playing of the game in schools (by which of course he means public schools) which may now seem a bit nostalgic, but equally, perhaps it is today's educators that Marrs has in mind when he views this as having a wider readership. Organised sports in schools is as much of a good thing today as it was in the nineteenth century, although now less common. For some reason, he is also slightly obsessed with American footballers' apparent tendency to have long hair.

Finally, as a facsimile production, the size of the original book was (and please forgive a lack of technical terminology here) roughly the size of the Wisden cricket books and so, in a modern sized book there is a lot of blank paper. I'm sure there is a good (probably technical) reason for this, but in today's environmentally aware world, I wonder why the book couldn't have been of the original size to save on paper.

So, although specialist in nature, it is a useful and insightful addition to books on the history and development of the game, which is to be welcomed.

Many thanks to MX Publishing for inviting The Bookbag to review this publication.

If you want to learn more about Fletcher Robinson (who died tragically young) then the same editor's The World of Vanity Fair - Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor) is an obvious starting point. If your interest is more in the emergence of rugby union, For College, Club & Country - A History of Clifton Rugby Football Club by Patrick Casey and Richard I Hale provides an interesting development from the point of view of one of the first clubs, including an entertaining history of the development of the game in general.

Buy Rugby Football during the Nineteenth Century: A Collection of Contemporary Essays about the Game by Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Rugby Football during the Nineteenth Century: A Collection of Contemporary Essays about the Game by Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Rugby Football during the Nineteenth Century: A Collection of Contemporary Essays about the Game by Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Rugby Football during the Nineteenth Century: A Collection of Contemporary Essays about the Game by Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor) at Amazon.com.

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