"Again we rush across the slush - / A pack of breathless faces - / And charge and fall, and see the ball / Fly whizzing through the bases." Stet Fortuna Domus (1891)
Harrow Football began as an informal kick-about in the School Yard. From 1803 to 1850, it was played on what is now the Sixth Form Cricket Ground. When the School acquired some land on Hill's eastern flank, a formal game began to evolve. Like most of northwest London, the Harrow grounds are solid clay - cracked with heat in the summer months but a slippery, miry marsh in winter. It was in these discouraging conditions that today's Harrow Football was born.
The rules of the games were codified in 1865. Whereas soccer is a game of kicking and passing, and rugby of handling and carrying, Harrow Football is essentially a dribbling game. The aim is to score a base, by kicking the ball between two vertical posts at each end of the ground. The teams are eleven-a-side. The offside rule is an important feature, whereby a player must be behind the ball before he can play it. Handling is allowed from a kick on the volley: if the ball is caught, a call of "yards" allows the catcher three running yards and a free kick from the hands.
The ball is constructed from three pieces of leather, two circular and one rectangular. A rubber bladder is inserted into this leather case and the opening closed with a lace. The inflated ball is larger than a soccer ball and broadly spherical, although it has also been affectionately likened in shape to a traditional pork pie. This size of ball, particularly when soaked in water and caked in mud, is only headed by the more foolhardy player - and then only once. A better and safer way of meeting the aerial ball is with the shoulder, known as 'fouling'.
It is difficult to imagine the state of the grounds in the nineteenth century. Contemporary reports suggest depths of mud ranging from six inches to up to a foot, before the drainage was put down in 1889. Conditions may have been dreadful but there was still huge pride in the game. This strength of feeling lingers today.
Although the Harrow game is ideally suited to Harrow clay, opponents are confined to Old Harrovians. At universities in the mid-nineteenth century, many Old Boys turned to football, but found many opponents playing to different rules. Rugbeians allowed handling and running, Harrovians could catch the ball but not run with it, and Etonians and Wykehamists who could do neither. Following strong pressure to agree a common set of rules, several Old Harrovians were involved in discussions that led to the formation of the Football Association in 1863. Of the fourteen rules agreed at the inaugural meeting, the first eight are clearly based on the Harrow game.
In 1999, a football was found in the rafters of Stirling Castle, supposedly above Mary Queen of Scots' bedroom. It was formally identified by the National Museum in Edinburgh as being 430 years old and therefore the oldest surviving specimen. Interestingly, its construction mirrors that of a Harrow football.
Today, Harrow Football is played as a minor sport in the Spring term. Click here to download the rules.
"You lie in corners dark and dull, / An empty lump of air you! / You sit and sulk, a frozen bulk, / With pads and bats above you, / Till winter comes again and then...?" Plump a Lump (1890)