How Social and Cultural Factors Shaped Sports and Pastimes in Pre-Industrial Britain



Socio-cultural factors consist of influences that are relevant in our communityHistorically, Sport has had a major influence on our society. It helped prepare the country for war, to hunt for food or to improve their fitness to work. 

In medieval times, the peasants had little time or energy to be involved in activities that were nothing to do with working on the land. However, there were some opportunities, on holy days and festivals, for activities such as mob football which brought the whole village together.


  • Social: our community, in this context.
  • Cultural: the set of beliefs and customs that leads us to behave in a particular way within our community.
  • Social Class: a group defined by their status within a community/population. The class that a person may belong to is defined by economic success, as well as family background, who your friends are and educational level. Social class, in Britain, is typically made up of an upper class, middle class and lower class.
  • Pedestrianism: a form of nineteenth-century competitive walking.
  • Amateur: a person who competes in sports activities but does not receive a monetary reward for participating.
  • Professional: a person who competes in sports activities and earns an income by participating.
1 of 10

Mob Football

Mob football was a mass game with very few rules which was played only occasionally in, or between, villages. They were football/rugby-types games. It was so violent that people living nearby would barricade their homes during games.

Both groups of villagers tried to force a ball into the centre of the 'enemy' village or alternatively they would play across different parts of town, centred at a marketplace or town square.

Theories of the Development:

  • Shrovetide football had vague rules restricting only murder and manslaughter
  • Some think the game originated in Britain around the third century as a celebration over the defeated Romans
  • Others claim that the game was originally played with the severed head of a vanquished Danish prince
  • The game may also have been a pagan ritual in which the ball, representing the sun, had to be conquered and driven around the field, ensuring a good harvest
  • There's also evidence of this early rugby being played in teams between married men and bachelors
2 of 10

**** Fighting

Cockfighting was an activity with medieval links. There was often a 14-foot square pit with an eight-inch high fence. It was generally an upper-class sport - probably the reason it lasted so long. There was a great deal of gambling involved in these cruel spectacles. It was made illegal by an Act of Parliament in 1849.

The lower class often participated in 'throwing at cockerels', which was traditionally a Shrove Tuesday activity. The cockerel was tied to a stake and you would have to pay to throw sticks or stones at it, from about 20 feet. If you knocked the bird over and picked up the stick before the bird picked itself up, you could claim the bird as your own and charge others to throw at it.

3 of 10

Social Class

In pre-industrial Britain, social class was divided into two:

  • Upper class - aristocracy or gentry who were hereditary landowners
  • Lower/peasant class - peasants who worked manually, mainly on the land

The social class you belonged to depended on your birth. Being a peasant meant you would work on the land, and being in the upper class meant you had more power and wealth.

The social class you were in influenced the types of sports or activities you were involved in. These activities had mainly very different characteristics:

  • Lower class: mob football, dog fighting and prize fighting (simple, often quite violent and had few rules)
  • Upper class: real tennis and fox hunting (more sophisticated and had complex set of rules or required money with which to participate)
  • Pedestrianism: the lower classes would compete in running or walking races and the upper class would be the patrons, kind of sponsors for the lower-class participants (thought to have arisen from footmen who attended the horse-drawn carriages of the aristocracy)
  • Cricket: often associated with public houses (e.g. Hambledon Cricket Club, based at the Bat and Ball Inn in Hampshire), and the different roles reflected the status of the participants, with the terms 'gentlemen' (gentry amateurs) and 'players' (lower class professionals)
4 of 10


In pre-industrial Britain, women participated in very different activities to men, that were shaped by the expected behaviour of women.

Women were seen as the 'weaker' sex and therefore activities had to suit this view and not be too strenuous or dangerous.

Those women in peasant classes had few rights in society and all had few choices in the activities that they could acceptably be involved in. During country fairs or wakes, they might get involved in a 'smock race'. This was a race that attracted the prize of a smock (basic dress).

Upper-class women might be involved in activities such as archery.

5 of 10

Law and Order

Pre-industrial Britain had little in the way of formal law and order and this shaped the types of activities that were undertaken. 

The peasant classes would be more involved in violent activities (e.g. bare-knuckled fighting or animal baiting) reflecting the lack of order in activities and cruelty to animals in blood sports. Mob football had few rules, which again reflected the lack of law and order in society at this time.

The 1829 Metropolitan Police Act created a modern police force through the actions of the Home Secretary at the time - Sir Robert Peel.

6 of 10

Education and Literacy

The upper classes were educated and literate in pre-industrial Britain. This contrasted the peasant classes, who were mostly uneducated and illiterate. This characterised the types of activities that both classes were involved in.

The upper classes who could read and write could read and understand the rules of more sophisticated activities like real tennis.

Whereas the peasant class were involved with activities that were simple and unsophisticated with few rules, such as mob football.

7 of 10

Availability of Time

Pre-industrial Britain involved the lower-class peasants working very long hours labouring on the land. There was little appetite for physical activities because of exhaustion from work. Therefore, many activities were often confined to festivals or holy day fairs or those that were based in or around local public houses (e.g. drinking contests or bare-knuckled fighting).

The shortage of transport and opportunities influenced the activities of peasants as they had to be short-lasting, immediately entertaining and localised or based on the land or work activities (e.g. catching pigs or throwing contests).

The upper classes had more time on their hands and could be involved in activities that were longer lasting (e.g. fox hunting).

8 of 10

Availability of Money

The upper class had much more time and money available so had more opportunties for invlovement. They could afford horses, equipment and appropriate clothing for sports such as hunting. 

Activites like real or royal tennis were played by the aristocracy, using expensive equipment and facilities.

The upper class participated in activites that were very popular with those who owned the land and the aristocracy - exclusive for them as they had the land and the money. They also had more time on thier hands than the peasants.

9 of 10

Type and Availability of Transport

The type of transport available in pre-industrial Britain was mainly horse and cart, with most of the population having to walk. 

The roads at the time were appalling so this prevented people from leaving their immediate villages. This had the influence of activities developing locally - often with simple rules that only local people were aware of (e.g. simple unwritten rules related to some mob games).

The upper classes had more opportunities to travel further by horse or carriage but again was limited because of the state of the roads. The gentry could get to facilities such as real tennis courts, often some distance away from their homes.

The aristocracy would often build themselves the facility within their stately homes (e.g. at Hampton Court Palace, a court was built for King Henry VIII).

10 of 10


No comments have yet been made

Similar Physical Education resources:

See all Physical Education resources »See all Socio-cultural studies resources »