Description of the Rules of Football as played at Westminster School (1849-1855)

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Description of the rules of football as played at Westminster School  (1903) 

Section titled "Rules of the Game" from memoirs by Francis Markham published in 1903, describing the period at Westminster School between 1849 and 1855. (The laws of football at Westminster School were not actually written down until about 1860).[1]

The real Westminster football was the game in 'green' — that is, in Great Dean’s Yard. It was indeed a general game, for every boy had to play. Attendance in 'green' was compulsory in the half before Christmas, Sixth Form perhaps excepted; but few, if any, stayed away. The goals were at top and bottom of 'green,' and were called respectively the Terrace Goal and the Abbey Goal. The goals were about 20 yards wide; the ball, to score a goal, had to pass at any height between two trees at either end, and had to hit the rails or pass over them. The small boys, the duffers, and the funk-sticks were the goal-keepers, twelve or fifteen at each end, and were spread out across this wide space; if any fellow who was playing out showed any sign of 'funk,' or failed to play up, he was packed off into goals at once, not only for that day, but as a lasting degradation. But, on the other hand, if any goal-keeper made a good save of a goal, or made a plucky attempt to tackle a fellow who was charging down upon the goal, he was called for immediately to play out, and thenceforth he played out always. The footballs were made by Old Martin in Great College Street, with bladders inside, which were constantly being replaced or reblown, round balls and not very large, first-rate for 'kick-about.' They bounded true, not like those lopsided Rugby balls. You could kick one high, full volley from the hand, watch the bound, and kick up again time after time. Martin had always two or three ready, fresh blown, for each day's play. Sides were chosen, two of the best hands tossing for first choice of men and of goals; each picked out alternately twelve or fifteen of the best, and the rest of the players-out were roughly divided. It was a proud moment when one first found one's self chosen by name, and not herded off among the ruck.

A bully was formed in the middle of 'green' opposite the pump, with an opening down the middle; all the heavy-weights went into the bully, the light-weights and quick runners dodging about outside, ready to dash off with the ball as soon as it worked out. The word 'Ready' was given, and the ball was thrown in between the lines; then there was a general shinning match till it worked out. No off-side play was allowed. If the ball was kicked over the rails, it was supposed to be thrown in straight; if kicked against the rails beyond the trees marking the flanks of the goals, there was a free kick-off, both sides standing back. When this took place the off-side rule did not hold good, and we generally arranged to which side the kicker-off was to send the ball, and had a pack there ready to rush the ball away to the enemy’s goal. The enemy, of course, watched for this manœuvre, and, if we packed together, sent men over to check us. Handling the ball was allowed, but only to this extent: You might not pick a ball up from the ground, or after first bound was over, but you might catch it either before or after first bound if fairly in the air; and you might then, if so be that you were not previously charged, and knocked head-over-heels, take two or three paces with it, sufficient for a half-volley kick off the hand. You might not 'punt' it from off the hand that is, kick it full volley or drive it with your fist. The ball was, of course, constantly against the side-rails, and there were perpetual rough-and-tumble bullies there, especially by the pump, where the rails projected in a semicircle into 'green.' Here the ball would often hang for five or ten minutes together. In these bullies shinning was allowed, and many a hack one got. Shin-guards were unknown in those days. The fellows next to the rails held on to them, and forced their way along, shinning their way through the press, the outsiders shoving with the shoulder, the Light Brigade on the watch on the skirts of the bully. The boys in goals had a cold time of it, poor little beggars! jackets on, but no caps, and hands deep in their pockets. There was no 'time' or changing of ends, and the only break in the game was at a goal or before a kick-out.

I think this is a fairly descriptive account of the game in 'green' as played for the last five years of my school-life; but when I first came running with the ball (Rugby fashion) was allowed, and 'fist punting,' when you had the ball in hand—hitting the ball with your doubled fist, the first joints of the thumb and forefinger being the driving weapon. One 'Phlob' Fellows, our fast bowler, was very fond of this running with the ball, and many a goal was got by the 'fist punting.' If you were near enough, and had the ball in hand, you could hardly fail in your shot. Of course, when running like this, the enemy tripped, shinned, charged with the shoulder, got you down and sat upon you—in fact, might do anything short of murder to get the ball from you. I think that this running and 'fist punting' was stopped in 1851 or 1852. At that time matches eleven a side began to be played, not in 'green,' but up at 'fields.'

The match game was entirely different from the school game. The ball was the same, but the goals were quite narrow, with high posts, between which at any height the goal had to be kicked, and one good man was told off to defend it, with liberty to stop at home or to charge out at his discretion, but not to follow the ball up. The rest of the eleven were not told off, but dropped each into the place he was best fitted for. The game played was much like the Association game, and, as Mr. Sargeaunt says in his excellent book, 'Annals of Westminster School,' 'The football of Westminster and Charterhouse was the mother of the present Association game.' The chief differences were: first, the catching and short run for the half-volley kick: second, the non-placing of the men; third, the non-use of the head.

Neither in this game in 'green,' after the running with the ball in hand was stopped, nor in the match game, were you allowed to handle a man. You were allowed to shoulder a man who was likely to get the ball, but you might not trip or shin a man unless he had the ball in his hand for a half-volley kick or was actually kicking the ball. Whilst in the army I often drew up rules for garrison football, to be played by both naval and military officers from all manner of schools, and my Westminster rules were adopted at Malta, Gibraltar, Fleetwood, etc., and seemed always to meet the wants of both ofiicers and men. This was before the Association rules were drawn up.


  1. Dunning, Eric; Sheard, Kenneth (1979). Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Systematic Study of the Development of Rugby Football. Canberra: Australian National University Press. p. 98. 

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1924, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 98 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.