Shrovetide Football - the original Derby game?

A fanciful portrayal of Shrovetide Football in the 14th century - in reality rather more robust than this

A fanciful portrayal of Shrovetide Football in the 14th century - in reality rather more robust than this - Credit: Archant

With an affectionate nod to Ashbourne, Peter Seddon explores the once widely-renowned but now long-demised tradition of Derby Shrovetide Football

The fray begins - an artist's view of Shrovetide Football in the 1840s - very much like that at Derby

The fray begins - an artist's view of Shrovetide Football in the 1840s - very much like that at Derby - Credit: Archant

The ancient festival days Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday also mark the occasion of Derbyshire’s most remarkable annual custom – the boisterous and unique ‘hug-ball’ contest which is Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football.

Latterly the game has attracted worldwide media attention – considered almost a fashionable ‘event’ in some ‘artistic’ circles – but that is a veneer. At its core the ‘Grand Old Game’ remains a local contest deeply embedded in the community. Age old rituals, a yearning for lost generations, fierce but friendly rivalries – all these and more combine over two remarkable days to transform and transfix a Derbyshire market town.

By contrast in Derby tranquility reigns – but it wasn’t always so, for Derby was once synonymous with the very essence of Shrovetide Football, the town’s famous ‘Derby Game’ cherished by generations of Derbeians but so notorious for its roughness that one dismayed observer called it ‘a disgrace to civilisation and humanity.’

Documented ‘since time immemorial’, Derby ‘hug-ball’ is thought by folk football historians to pre-date its Ashbourne counterpart by several centuries, but was finally expunged in 1846 for reasons of ‘sound common sense’. Derby Museum and Art Gallery retain the last ever ball as a symbolic relic, but the city lacks any memorial to an ancient ritual well worth remembering which should arguably be marked for posterity. ‘Blue plaque’ anyone…?

Learning the hard way - cross-country with an imagined 'Boy's Day' contest in 1839

Learning the hard way - cross-country with an imagined 'Boy's Day' contest in 1839 - Credit: Archant

Its origins are lost in time. Academics suggest Shrovetide ‘foot-ball’ in both Britain and Europe – particularly France – was an organised vestige of prehistoric pagan ritual in which the ball symbolised the life-giving sun. Capturing, controlling and carrying ‘home’ the magical orb to cherished territory would herald a good harvest. That theory has sound credentials.

One long-dead antiquary asserted the Derby game was spawned precisely in AD217 ‘to celebrate the rout of a cohort of Roman soldiers which had marched through the town’, even conjecturing that the first improvised ‘ball’ was a severed enemy head – a gloriously romantic notion, but lacking evidence.

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More widely accepted is that Shrovetide ‘ball-play’ – and associated ‘Pancake Day’ frolics – was an established Derby tradition by at least the twelfth century, and certainly by the seventeenth had settled into a familiar routine entrenched in the calendar. Although the earliest-traced account was penned in 1791 by Derby-born historian William Hutton (1723-1815), he was recalling it from boyhood memory, when the ‘Derby Football’ was already an ancient pastime.

The adversaries were the large St Peter’s parish and the combined strength of the four smaller ones All Saints (formerly called All Hallows), St Michael’s, St Alkmund’s and St Werburgh’s – the contest informally-billed ‘Peter’s’ against ‘All Saints.’ Derbeians entered one camp or another from infancy, a contemporary rhyme stating that all children were born ‘either a little Peterite or else a little Hallowsite’.

Playing it safe - a bill prohibiting Derby Football dated 1848, even though the game was quashed two years earlier

Playing it safe - a bill prohibiting Derby Football dated 1848, even though the game was quashed two years earlier - Credit: Archant

Anyone living beyond the parish boundaries could join the fray, usually supporting the nearest camp. A posse of ‘strong Littleover men’ traditionally bolstered ‘Peter’s’, while Mickleover, Mackworth and Allestree backed ‘All Saints’. There were several hundred a side – at least at the game’s start – this including the hardier women said to ‘wade into the osier beds up to their knees, but seldom entering the water.’ Children were forbidden to play the Tuesday game, but learnt the ropes in the ‘Boys’ Game’ on Ash Wednesday.

The sole objective was to convey the ball – ‘some 14 inches in diameter stuffed hard with cork shavings’ – from the Market Place to home base in the side’s own parish. By the early-nineteenth century these ‘home goals’ were the water-wheel at Nun’s Street Corn Mill on Markeaton Brook for ‘All Saints’ (off Ashbourne Road close to our Derbyshire Life office) and for ‘Peter’s’ a nursery gate on Grove Street off Osmaston Road close to today’s Arboretum entrance. A single goal – achieved by knocking the ball three times on the ‘winning post’ – ended the game, celebrated by a long peal of bells from the victorious parish church.

Up to eight hours struggle was usual, numbers dwindling as play progressed, before hardened stalwarts enacted the denouement. Then the heroic ‘goaler’ was chaired aloft around town, ‘all parties seeking subscriptions’ to fuel ‘much drinking and raucous excess’.

By then Derby’s more refined folk were closeted away, but those from all classes followed the game’s progress. Celebrated townsman and philanthropist Joseph Strutt (1765-1844) – benefactor in 1840 of Derby Arboretum – was an ardent devotee, in his prime an active player. As a staunch ‘Peterite’ he would be well-familiar with the taunting ditty sung by the children of his parish to the tune of ‘Oranges and Lemons’:


‘Roast beef and potatoes,

For the bells of St Peter’s,

Pig muck and carrots,

For the bells of All Hallows.’


Of the occasion itself, early accounts paint a vivid picture:

‘All work ceased at mid-day with the sounding of the Pancake Bell, whence a number of roughs assembled in the Market Place to while away time before the appointed hour. They amused themselves by lashing sodden rags in the faces of any decently-dressed individuals, which generally elicited roars of laughter. Another jape was to ‘dust’ innocent bystanders with vivid dye-powder from the colour-works.

Meanwhile the contending parties had assembled at their respective hostelries, emerging suitably refreshed for battle. Punctually at two o’clock the ball was brought to the middle of the Market Place and thrown up into the swaying mass, above them the upper floor windows filled with well-dressed females and children who were supplied with oranges to drop into the steaming pack below.’

Many ‘what happened next’ accounts survive, revealing that the obvious direct route through the streets was rarely taken, those narrow arteries being too easily blocked by the opposition. Instead ‘All Saints’ sought to progress down the open Markeaton Brook to Nuns Mill, while ‘Peter’s’ first intent was to enter the freezing Derwent to swim the ball downstream past what is now the Pride Park area. This apparent perversity – taking the ball initially further from ‘home’ – was a tried and tested ‘Peter’s’ tactic, for at a suitable juncture the leather orb would be ‘banked’ and conveyed across open level ground towards London Road, thence uphill to Osmaston Road and their coveted goal.

That route suggests a pleasing serendipity – that centuries ago the original ‘Derby Game’ traversed the very site which is now home to Derby County at the iPro Stadium. Less romantically, the routes of both adversaries show why Derby Shrovetide Football simply couldn’t survive.

When the town had been small, most play was on ground free of property – but as Derby grew into a built-up environment, the ‘old game’ became wholly incompatible with the new townscape. Private properties and gardens were increasingly damaged during the struggle – and Derby garnered a reputation which many of its townsmen considered a hindrance to business, for ‘outsiders got the idea it was one of the lowest and wickedest places in the kingdom.’

For at least a century before it was quelled, regular calls came from ‘persons of authority’ to end the game, but without success. Then as the middle of the nineteenth-century approached, a pivotal event occurred – January 1844 saw the sad death of staunch ‘football’ supporter Joseph Strutt. This seemed to signal the closing of an era – with ‘Mr Shrovetide’ laid to rest, opposition to the 1845 game proved more vociferous, and in 1846 Mayor William Eaton Mousley finally banished a Derby institution.

A week ahead of the big day, sternly-worded prohibitive notices were posted around town. On Shrove Tuesday itself – 24th February 1846 – a force of specially sworn-in constables patrolled the key locations. More tellingly still, the troops had been called in – a mounted body of the 5th Dragoon Guards riding over from Nottingham. The small group of Derby faithful who attempted to set a game in motion were no match for the fearsome cavalry – and for good measure the Riot Act was read and prosecutions brought. Derby Shrovetide Football had breathed its last... no more would the big ball fly.

The next Mayor Henry Mozley adopted a ‘belt and braces’ approach – issuing prohibitive notices as late as 1848, he ensured the ancient pastime became but a memory... but what a memory. Given the circumstances of the demise of Derby Shrovetide Football – and today’s vagaries of health and safety – it is quite remarkable that such a similar game should still survive in Ashbourne.

That it does is partly due to tradition and sheer strength of feeling, but also because its devotees and participants have worked so closely with relevant agencies to ‘regulate’ the game while maintaining and developing its authenticity and deep sense of history.

So for yet another year Shrovetide will be tranquil in Derby and anything but in Ashbourne. Long may that endure – the impassioned shouts for ‘All Saints’ and ‘Peter’s’ may be ghostly echoes of another age, but the rallying cries of ‘Up’ards’ and ‘Down’ards’ resonate loud and clear in Ashbourne. As the town’s football song cajolingly reminds us – ‘Tis a good old game, deny it who can...’