It is impossible to say exactly when the history of sport began. Sports and physical games have been embedded in cultures around the world for thousands of years and have continued to play vital roles in societies.
The 15th and 16th centuries saw a rise in popularity of ball games and equestrian sports in particular, seen in England in the establishment of Shrovetide football and Ascot Racecourse. However, it was the Victorian era that saw a boom in the evolution of sports, driven by industrialisation, mass production and the Victorian obsession with leisure.
In its earliest days, sports were closely connected with warfare. Sporting competitions demonstrated individual strength and physical prowess. Wrestling is considered to be the oldest sport in the world. Wrestlers are depicted in the famous cave paintings estimated at over 15,300 years old in Lascaux, France.
The Ancient Greeks are credited with the introduction of organised sports, holding the first Olympic Games in 776 BCE. These Games included sports like running and hockey, and grew quickly to include boxing, javelin and discus.
Lawn sports became hugely popular in England from about the reign of Charles II in the 17th century. Croquet is thought to have been imported from France around this time, derived from the French game ‘paille-maille’ that used wooden mallets to hit balls.
The National Trust has a special role in the story of croquet. The rules were codified at Chastleton House and Gardens, Oxfordshire, by the rather unlikely Walter Whitmore Jones in 1866. Jones was born and lived at Chastleton, and turned to croquet as part of a lifelong passion for inventing games.
Modern lawn tennis evolved later in the 19th century, although had deep roots in the medieval version ‘real tennis’, which was favoured by many royals, especially the Tudors. Allegedly, Henry VIII was playing real tennis on his personal court at Hampton Court when his second wife Anne Boleyn was arrested.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, sea-bathing was promoted for its health benefits. King George III visited Weymouth in 1789 for his health, popularising sea ‘dipping’. Bathing machines on wheels became a common sight on Britain’s beaches. They could be pulled out to sea so those inside could change and then take their dip whilst maintaining their modesty.
Early bathing costumes were often made of wool flannel for warmth, constructed with skirts for modesty. Swimming demanded a lighter form of dress. By the 1920s, swimsuits were sleeker, briefer, tighter fitting and more stylish, with an emphasis on the practical.
The use of swimming pools stretches back to the third millennium BCE, when the earliest known manmade bathing space, the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro, was erected. In Britain, taking a dip in a nearby river was a common pastime for all. However, swimming pools only really began to come into favour in the mid-19th century and burgeoned after 1896, when swimming was incorporated into the modern Olympic Games.
Swimming was not the only sport for which specialist attire was needed. Clothing designed specifically for sport became an industry in the Victorian period, when the widespread popularisation of sport created a market economy for activewear. In the 1870s, John Redfern was one of the first couturiers to make garments especially for sports. Sporting fashions evolved rapidly from the 1920s, became increasingly practical and comfortable, overlapping with daywear as women’s fashions became less formal.
Croquet outfit, Killerton
The croquet craze took fashionable circles in England by storm in the 1860s. The glass buttons on this three-piece silk taffeta dress are engraved with croquet mallets, hoops and balls.
The term ‘capped’, meaning to play for one’s country or club, originated from the fact that players were given caps to wear. This cricket cap at Killerton, Devon, dates from the 1930s.
Dressing for the races
Racing fixtures, particularly Ascot, have become synonymous with flamboyant fashion. Designer David Shilling (b. 1956) started to design hats for his mother to wear at Ascot. This 1970s hat at Killerton is one of his designs.
This late 19th-century navy blue lady's swimming costume is in the collection at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Victorian bathing costumes were often made of wool flannel for warmth, but this one is made of cotton.
This dress of around 1937 is made of cool linen. Its buttons were a later addition, stitched on by hand in 1985. It's part of the costume collection of Killerton, Devon.
The legacy of cricket at Sheffield Park
The first cricket match was played at Sheffield Park, East Sussex in August 1845 between two local villages, Fletching and Chailey. The original ground was built just prior to this match by the 2nd Earl of Sheffield for his 13-year-old son Viscount Pevensey (later to become the 3rd Earl).
The 3rd Earl had a passion for cricket and hosted all types of matches, from junior village standard to internationals. The Australians were frequent visitors and would open their tour with a game at the ground against Lord Sheffield’s XI.
Perhaps the best-known player of his day, W.G. Grace was good friends with Lord Sheffield and consequently played for Lord Sheffield's XI on a number of occasions. These days, the ground is used by a local team, the Armadillos and matches are normally played here throughout the summer.
Picture caption: W.G. Grace playing cricket at Sheffield Park, c.1893
The advent of photography in 1839 changed the way people experienced life and leisure. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, photography became more accessible and photographic technology simpler to use. Handheld cameras meant that people could make candid images of their lives with ease, including of formal and informal sports.
Edward Chambré Hardman’s striking photograph shows Margaret Mills, his future wife, poised to dive off a rock. It was published during the 1920s, when the representation of women in sport rose dramatically.
Messing about in boats
Author Rudyard Kipling’s children Elsie and John loved to play in their boat on the garden pond at Bateman's, East Sussex, and on the River Dudwell.
The future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth played golf on their honeymoon in 1923 at Polesden Lacey, Surrey.
Archery as a recreational sport became popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Here a group of three ladies pose with their bows before an archery target.
The Pennyman family of Ormesby Hall, North Yorkshire, relax in the summer house after playing tennis.
The original tenets of sport, built around physicality, play and social experience, endure in modern sports as we know them today. But the formats, fashions and modes of sporting have changed, evolving with society and culture over millennia. With the Trust’s fundamental connection to nature and the outdoors, many of our places remain synonymous with sport. As home to informal children’s games and organised sports events alike, our places continue the sporting legacies woven into the people, collections and stories that we care for.
Due to the current situation around coronavirus and social distancing restrictions, our usual sporting events won't be happening this year. However, we are working to reopen our places as safely and quickly as possible.