Nottingham City Ladies football team

This Sporting Life

18th September 2015

For a nation so obsessed with sport, it’s surprising that we know so little and celebrate even less about our illustrious sporting history.

We have a proud sporting heritage in this country. Deborah Mulhearn looks at ways in which it’s being kept alive.

Back in 1414, Henry V didn’t take kindly to a seemingly innocuous gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin. “The event was even noted by Shakespeare, who… implied that the balls were sent to signify the King’s wild youth,” explains Sarah Kirkham, Cataloguing Assistant at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), better known as Wimbledon.

After this perceived (or concocted) insult, Henry sailed to France, where – in Shakespeare’s play, at least – he rallied his troops to victory with his famous ‘band of brothers’ speech before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. “Recent historians have questioned whether any balls were actually sent,” says Kirkham. “Nevertheless, the story certainly legitimised Henry’s decision to embark on the Agincourt campaign.”

From Wimbledon to Wembley, and Twickenham to Lords, people come from all over the world on pilgrimage to our sporting venues. Yet for a nation so obsessed with sport, it’s perhaps surprising that we know so little and celebrate even less about our illustrious sporting history. Britain is, after all, the birthplace of modern sport.

Take women’s football, for example. The game had a huge boost this summer when the England women’s team reached the Women’s World Cup semi-final in Canada. But how many people have heard of Lily Parr? Parr was one of the most successful football players of the 20th century, scoring over a thousand goals and outplaying many of her male counterparts. In 1920 Parr played for her team, Dick Kerr’s Ladies, at Everton’s Goodison Park ground in Liverpool to a capacity crowd of 53,000 spectators, with 14,000 turned away at the gate. But from 1921 she was banned, as a woman, from playing in Football Association league grounds. Despite the ban lasting for fifty years until 1971, women’s football remained hugely popular, though Lily Parr is the only woman player to have been inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

To redress this lack of awareness of our sporting heritage and heroes, 30 September is now designated National Sporting Heritage Day (NSHD). Any museum, club or organisation with sports-related collections is encouraged to hold events, exhibitions and displays to highlight their items and their historic links to different sports. The AELTC, for example, is marking the day in conjunction with the 600th anniversary of Agincourt with a series of talks and displays about the links between tennis and historical events such as Agincourt, on both 30 September and 3 October.

“Tennis has a long and rich history, and it’s a perfect opportunity to highlight our collection, and to get visitors involved,” says Kirkham. “Objects on display will include our oldest Championship poster, dating from 1893, and examples of real tennis balls, wooden rackets and items of clothing from Victorian petticoats to 1940s frilly knickers!”

Making the link between historic events and sport can inspire a new generation of fans and participants to appreciate our sporting heritage, says Justine Reilly, a museum consultant and director of Sporting Heritage CIC, the community interest company that organises NSHD. “Sports heritage is an integral part of our overall history and should be conserved on a national scale,” she says. “It’s not just museums and archives that hold important collections or items. There are hundreds of small clubs and other organisations such as sports centres and social clubs, theatres, schools, charities and hotels with photographs, ephemera, medals, trophies, kits and so on. These aren’t always on display and many owners don’t know what to do with them. We want to bring them out into the light and inspire people to make the link between their sport’s past and its active present.”

The idea is to celebrate the grassroots as much as the glamorous side of our sporting past. “National Sporting Heritage Day only began last year, so it’s a slow burn, but from last year’s events we learned that engagement in sporting heritage activity increases sports participation, tourism, and heritage participation. Everything from wheelchair basketball to the Wimbledon Twitter feed, which had a top ten of historic objects, inspired people to get involved in sport through raising awareness of their heritage sports collections.”

The National Hockey Museum in Woking, Surrey, is also taking part. “We plan to show some of the amazing material in our collection, which includes an enormous range of historic sticks, balls and equipment, items relating to the 1908 Olympics in London and many hockey-related paintings and drawings, including a print of hockey being played in 1805,” says curator Mike Smith.

“The day offers a perfect opportunity for us because we’ve grown from nothing to a flourishing and very active museum in just five years and want to share our heritage,” says Smith. “However, we are still in the process of building up our collection and though we have excellent premises and nearly fifty volunteers cataloguing our items, we are not quite ready to open as a visitor attraction.” The display will capitalise on the museum’s successful exhibition held in August at the European Hockey Championships at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London.

Events and information can be uploaded to the new NSHD website. “The website’s main purpose is to encourage people to get involved, create, share and advertise events to support NSHD,” says Reilly. “We’d like to see everyone from scouts groups and youth offending teams, to sports clubs and archives staging activities which raise awareness and celebrate the sporting past.”  

Nottinghamshire County Council is going one step further, and has decided it needs a full week to celebrate what is arguably the proudest sporting heritage in the UK. The county’s household sporting names include ‘Bodyline’ bowler Harold Larwood, mouthy football manager Brian Clough, ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, and more recently Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington and top boxer Carl Froch.
“Nottinghamshire is known throughout the country as the sporting county,” says Councillor John Knight, Chairman of Culture Committee at Nottinghamshire County Council, “which is hardly surprising when you consider the all-conquering teams and individuals the county has produced over the years, as well as our famous sporting venues, including Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, the National Water Sports Centre, the National Ice Centre, Meadow Lane (the home of Notts County, the oldest professional football team in the world), and Nottingham Forest’s City Ground.”

A host of free events, from behind the scenes tours at some of the county’s major sporting venues and activity taster sessions at leisure centres to a sports quiz and a free entry to a day at the races are setting the benchmark for NSHD. “Sport provides a major source of community cohesion and local identity, health and wellbeing and education – not to mention the huge economic benefits of hosting major events,” adds Knight. “By organising these events around our sporting past, our aim is to get more people involved in sport and heritage in the present and the future.”

“Rugby League is the only major sport without its own museum,” points out Brigid Bradley, Heritage Programme Manager at Rugby League Cares (RCL), the official charity of RFL the governing body of rugby league. “And as part of our remit is to preserve, celebrate and make accessible the rich history and heritage of the sport, we are hoping to move towards that goal.”

A series of events and workshops will ensure that people are able to see and learn about the collection, from schoolchildren to club historians and archivists. An existing touring exhibition, which has been around different venues including Wembley, has encouraged people to bring in their own artefacts and share their memories, says Bradley.

“This is a fantastic example of how much appetite there is for rugby league heritage – we want people who wouldn’t normally take part in heritage activities to have a go on an informal basis. NHSD is a great springboard to bring some of these collections together, and as our ultimate aim is a dedicated museum, it’s the perfect way to start that campaign!”

Who knows, had National Sporting Heritage Day been around six hundred years ago, Henry V might just have deflected his wounded ego from the battlefield to the tennis court.

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