From The Vaults

23 October 2023
Rugby and its Camp-ball Roots by Tom Langton

It's a surprise that an old term for Football in England was Camp-ball or Camping. At least across many of the Eastern counties and for 500 years or more. Words change both their spelling and meaning over time and the Roman word campus meant open ground: a flat place suitable for games and army drills. Camp-ball's association with contests and a physical contact game stems also from the Old English word for battle being 'Camp', of Anglo-Saxon derivation.

Reference to Camp-ball or Camping (previously 'Campynge') is within England's first English-to-Latin dictionary, Promptorium parvulorum written around 1440. Here, a 'Campan' was a 'playar at foott balle'. Later on, and from the 1500's, the word Camping took on its now familiar military and recreational meaning for outdoor huts and tents. However, in East Anglia, where Football games appear to have flourished from medieval times, Camp-ball and Camping were terms still in general use until the late 1700s.

Recent improvements in document word-scanning and computer recognition technology allow easier searching of historical material, including the numerous news journals of the 1700s. Slowly more is being learnt about past Football games, and how they were organized and played.

Studies by Suffolk local historian Dr David Dymond, based at Cambridge University included court, religious and tithe tax records back to the Norman Conquest as well as published journals. These show that, as today, there were Football games played in schools and by village and town teams and even between counties. There were commercially organized challenge matches with large crowds, sometimes with freelance players and money prizes. These were early 'pay to watch' games, with mass food and drink catering with overnight accommodation, travelling players and followers. The games had been monetised in similar ways to cricket, boxing and horse racing, no doubt with a fair bit of gambling on results.

The Legsun Arms

Pubs and Inns are strongly linked to Football through the ages as a part of British social history. This 19th century newsprint illustration shows a timeless scene of the last 800 years or longer.

As with 'Football' today, 'Camping' was used to describe the kicking and handling games, played in less regulated forms of those today, but nevertheless with many striking similarities.

Court records from 1320 reveal four men being fined for drawing blood during 'Campynge' in Hollesley on the Suffolk coast, although it is possible that it was an off the pitch fracas. This further implies medieval or earlier roots to such games, as do some rural place names. Examination of ancient maps reveals 'Camping closes, lands, grounds or pightles' i.e. Football pitches, often next to a church or close to the village centre. These too were also used for a range of local activities and were controlled by the church, a landowner or publican.

By the 1700s Football games with big crowds were better recorded, as newsprint developed. A fast and furious handling and kicking game was played in two halves of 30 minutes, with degrees of physicality, determined by prior agreement. It was played normally in teams of eleven using either a small hard ball, a ball stuffed with light material or by preference, an inflated animal bladder encased in stitched leather. A touchdown over the opposition goal line gave a chance to kick for goal but it had to go between the goal posts and past players who could stand between them. There is also mention of kicking games with no handling allowed, which would have required a bladder ball to have been worth playing or watching on most surfaces.

Evidence suggests that the main 'exhibition' handling game of challenge matches was not dissimilar to those played in the first half of the 19th century with, as populations grew, up to twice as many players or more, and then influencing different forms around the world, such as American and Australian rules.

The start of the industrial revolution in England during the second half of the 1700s and the Napoleonic war diverted rural labour forces to cities and to foreign lands, bringing an apparent lull in reported challenge games. The name 'Camp-ball' faded fully into 'Football'. Nationally, Football games had been perpetually legislated against alongside other popular games. Banned with gambling and drunkenness since the 1200s or before as a nuisance and threat to economic and military productivity. Just to the west of Cambridgeshire in the 1820s, Webb Ellis running with ball at Rugby School did not invent a game but was simply using a common element of long-established Football. This had been dropped in some school settings, probably to limit high speed impact injury from over-zealous tackling.

Camping games

Rough and tumble Camping games played by children with a small pig-bladder ball were a common sight in East Anglia and beyond. This 1820s painting suggests a typical Sunday scene with the church close by.

Rules are important. Some prefer a flowing game rather than the stop-start set play game or where players hold onto the ball and wrestle for too long. Football long ago also had heavy forwards and runners and kickers behind to move the ball quickly, with extended multiple passing and kick and chase. The large oval 'wind' or bladder ball added bounce making the game more exciting.

It is not clear, however, exactly when forward-passing was prohibited nor off-side rules for players entering a scrummage, that other Football games would continue to permit. The Shrove Tuesday and other mob games, with mostly a stuffed, less lively ball would continue to brawl across the open countryside or city streets. But by the 1700s Camping often had neatly roped off pitches with flag markers and supervising umpires, marked out crowd areas with planks on the ground to keep shoes dry. Even seated grandstands and a horn to start and end play.

As today, school games for children had lower contact, as no one wanted to go in from break time with a broken nose or worse. By agreement, however, adult camping games could hold greater risk although this should not be considered the norm. Games with more kicking emphasis and those with more handling had degrees of contact generally dictated by the age, setting and type of players, in codes of conduct and tolerance that we might recognise today. They were often played on soft, well grazed fields or marshy land outside the hard-ground summer conditions and often with a strong sense of camaraderie and excitement in the crowd. But they are set aside from brutal 'grudge' matches and free-for-all of mob games.


Victorian copper electroplate image of a handling game on a rough grass field with hedges.

Regulated brawling from the last century can be seen in old descriptions and reenactments of Calcio Fiorentino game in Italy. This allowed 'wrestling', that included the holding of a player without the ball, and use of forearm and fist in moderation. With the rougher forms of strikingly similar Camp-ball, there were lasting injuries and occasional deaths for unlucky Football players but for the same reasons seen now. In times when life expectancy was much lower and effective medical attention far more limited, it was, as the newspapers reported a 'manly game'. Controlled physical contact rules in Football have early roots and for the same reasons they that exist today: to limit personal injury.

All of this helps explain to a degree how the games of Rugby have deep roots going back to late medieval times and pre-history. Football, it seems, was played by all levels of society and its origins help explain why its world popularity has grown so huge. There is something in the human genome that craves controlled battles, or camp-ball and it comes from the mists of time.

Further reading - Dymond, D. (2021) The game of camping in eastern England. The local historian Vol 51, no.1, pp 2-14

About the author - Tom Langton lives in Suffolk and is a scientist with an interest in sustainability in the natural world. He curates the Langton Football Archives, researching the History, Art and Culture of Football's development.

This seeks to discover and illustrate how popular team games developed, mostly with a simple 'bladder' ball. It takes a journey back in time, including clues from the written records of local archive manuscripts and journals. Where young and old, rich and poor took part, and with play weaving between the enormous cultural and political shifts and upheavals in town and country over the last 1000 years.

LFA looks at how Football has been viewed and controlled since medieval times under the influence of commerce, church and government and how that has influenced who we are and how we play today. Through its unique Art collection and with cooperative partnerships, LFA seeks to foster interest and awareness in how Football can help us to learn more about both fair and foul competition.

Exhibitions and public awareness activities are promoted and assisted in the UK and worldwide. There are plans for a touring exhibition on Camp-ball in East Anglia and beyond, commencing at the Museum of Cambridge in 2024.