Game of Codes

A single ball game played in 1863 between Barnes Club and Richmond was pivotal to the development of both International Football and Rugby. 

Ebenezer Cobb Morley
Ebenezer Cobb Morley

While involved in a project to help rebrand Barnes Rugby Football Club in London we followed our process of digging into a brand’s history to discover a story that resonates today. We knew Barnes had a long history but didn’t at first appreciate the significance of its formative years. We certainly didn’t expect to discover the founder of ‘Barnes Club’ turned out to be one of the most important figures in the history of The F.A.

While the actual date of formation is disputed, Barnes is reputed to be one of  the oldest clubs of any code of football. The first recorded result of the Barnes Club was in1862 versus Richmond but the club is rumoured to have been created even earlier. It is important to put this era into context. At this time there were no universally accepted rules to play ball games. The idea that Rugby was invented when one enterprising player – William Ellis – at Rugby school picked up the ball and ran with it can be dismissed as a myth. Yet it has persisted to the point where the Rugby World Cup was titled ‘the William Webb Ellis Trophy’.  Such was the power of a good story (even if it was largely fake news) way before the Internet.

Ball games were well known at schools like Eton, Rugby and Cambridge, but rarely played to the same laws outside. Schools themselves developed loose codes for their own games, but these were never unified.

But in the second half of the19th century The Victorian love of physical activity, competition and fair play meant that there was an interest in team games outside the school environment and beyond the school ‘classes’. Improved mobility from the railway network ensured that teams could travel to play each other more easily. These factors combined to create the need for an established code so that teams could meet each other on an agreed set of rules.

Barnes Club was established in 1858 by Ebenezer Cobb Morley a lawyer who had recently arrived in London from Hull to further his career. It was perhaps his interest in law as well as passion for football that inspired him to draft rules for the game.

In 1863, as captain of the Mortlake-based club, he wrote to Bell’s Life and Sporting Chronicle proposing a governing body for the sport, that led to the first meeting at the Freemasons Tavern in Covent garden that ultimately created the FA. Cobb Morley drafted a set of rules at his home that favoured the ‘kicking’ game and not the ‘handling game’.

An inaugural game using the new FA rules was initially scheduled for Battersea Park on 2 January 1864, but enthusiastic members of the FA couldn’t wait for the new year and an experimental game was played at Barnes on 19 December 1863 between Morley’s Barnes team and their neighbours Richmond (who were not members of the FA), ending in a goalless draw.The Richmond side were obviously unimpressed by the new rules in practice and favoured a game where the ball could be handled. Subsequently they helped form the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

Cobb Morley went on to be the secretary and later President of the FA. It was his vision for universal codified laws that inspired other games to follow suit. For the first time there was enthusiasm for established rules which enabled the game to spread not just in the UK but abroad as well.

The ‘GrandFather of Football’ can also be seen as a key figure in the development of rugby as these events were the catalyst for the codification of both games. The rules were also used as the basis for developing other versions such as Australian Rules football and American Gridiron.

It could be argued that Cobb Morley’s influence went even further by establishing an appetite for the codification of other games and sports and forever sealing the British reputation for ‘fair play’.

It was in recognition of this illustrious history that the line we proposed for Barnes Rugby Football Club was ‘Play in the original spirit’.

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