Well researched, crafted and presented, erudite and thought-provoking, eminently readable


Dave Day
Department of History, Politics and Philosophy
Manchester Metropolitan University


Robert Colls
This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760–1960
391 pages, hardcover, ill.
Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020
ISBN 978-0-19-820833-4

The historiography underpinning our understanding of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sport, leisure, and amusements is already extensive. However, while much of this work is well researched and extremely detailed, most of it has followed a traditional approach, tackling subjects from a distinctly social history perspective and predicating chronology over analysis. Despite several calls over the last thirty years from leading practitioners in the field for researchers to consider alternative methodologies and different modes of expression, and despite some encouraging signs that things have begun to change, sports historians have generally failed to match the momentum being generated within other history subject areas where the use of creativity in writing and the utilisation of a variety of research methods has become increasingly commonplace. The result has been that sport, notwithstanding the central role it plays in the social and cultural life of British citizens, continues to be regarded as something of a niche area by those who describe themselves as ‘mainstream’ historians.

To avoid remaining on the margins of history scholarship, sports historians need to seriously re-examine their priorities and engage much more assiduously with the cultural milieu within which sports and leisure activities are enacted. In This Sporting Life, Robert Colls has succeeded in transcending the traditional boundaries of sports history writing and there is much to be gleaned here for anyone wishing to re-examine their own thinking about the writing of sports history and willing to extend their own research practice. I particularly recommend a close reading of the introduction to the volume since it is here that Colls articulates both the rationale behind the approach he adopted and the ways in which his research was informed by his engagement with the sources. This is also where Colls sets out his agenda through his statement of two central aims, which are focused, firstly, on considering the ways that sports were experienced and, secondly, in reflecting on sports as cultural heritages. It is here, as well, that Colls acknowledges his emotional attachment to a topic, which, as he says on his concluding page to his book, ‘is a major subject not in itself perhaps, but in the way it is woven in to almost everything else we do’ (page 280).

‘Sports’ are understood here in their widest possible sense and the chapters are presented as ‘loosely related’ case studies that concentrate on highlighting the way in which custom and place were, and still are of course, important influences on the way individuals and communities frame their recreative activities. The first two chapters of the text, for example, present case studies of hunting and field sports that illustrate how activities like these transcended class barriers, although each strata of society engaged in different ways, according to the time and material resources that were available to them. The point is, and this is emphasised within all of the case studies, that people throughout society during these two centuries found ways of playing and amusing themselves that blended continuity and change almost imperceptibly across time and space.

Inevitably, readers of the text will be drawn to their own areas of interest or expertise and for me the chapter on ‘Bottom’, which uses the 1860 Sayers-Heenan fight as a case study through which to explore notions of Britishness and masculinity, and the chapters on ‘New Moral Worlds’ and ‘Bloods’, in which we are drawn into connecting with both the male and female student communities rather than the headmaster’s study or philosophies of muscular Christianity, were particularly engaging. These are excellent examples of how topics that have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention in the past can be revitalised by thinking creatively.

The brevity of the concluding chapter might come as a surprise to those readers anticipating a more extensive, synthesised reflection on the contributions that these case studies make to achieving the aims of the work. However, in my opinion, this is not really a significant problem given that the introduction has so clearly outlined the thinking behind the work and the direction that the author has taken. In signposting the work in detail at this early point the reader is being asked to take ownership and to reflect throughout the text on how the content contributes to our understanding of the individual’s experience of sport and leisure, the role that these activities played in British culture, and how they were characterised by both continuity and change.

This is an eminently readable work that takes a novel approach to the consideration of the history of sport, leisure, and amusements, and their importance to the daily lives of British citizens, between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. It is well researched, crafted and presented, and both the author and his publishers are to be commended for opting for the use of footnotes, which are much more accessible and intuitive reference points for the reader than endnotes. The bibliography is impressive and provides readers with several opportunities to engage further with the underlying research if they choose to do so. Overall, this erudite and thought-provoking text makes a valuable contribution to the historiography of the period and is an exemplar of how sports historians could look beyond their traditional methodologies and ways of presenting their research should they choose to do so.

Copyright © Dave Day 2021

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