Uppies and Downies – the extraordinary football games of Britain

  • By: Hugh Hornby
  • Format: 188pp softback 210mm x 210mm
  • ISBN: 978 1 9056246 45
  • Published by Historic England in February 2008
  • Special offer: £5.00 post-free to UK (original RRP 17.99) BUY NOW

Shrove Tuesday shenanigans and other wild games – how to play, where to watch, and what these hardy rituals tell us about modern football and its festive roots. Guaranteed: mud, sweat and plenty of beers…

Never the mind the millionaire mercenaries of the Premiership. Forget the hype, the hysteria and the hullabaloo of the so-called ‘beautiful game’. All over Britain, from Cornwall to Kirkwall, from Dorset to the Borders, in cobbled streets, muddy fields, icy brooks and moonlit harbours, the centuries-old traditions of mass participation, festival football are today alive and kicking.

Quite a sight these games are too. The balls come in all shapes and sizes. There is no limit on the number of players. Anyone can watch. In fact at any time spectators may become players, and players become spectators. Sounds anarchic? Not at all. There may be no rules written down, there may be no pitch markings and rarely any time limits, but there are rules all the same, handed down orally from generation to generation. Rituals too, plus many a tale of derring-do.

As is well known, Association football, aka ‘soccer’, is the world’s most popular sport. Its rules were drawn up in England between the 1840s and 1860s, largely at the behest of ex public school and university players. Rugby divided from the Association in the 1870s. But while all this was happening, Britain’s festival games played on – a close cousin of the modern codes, yet different in so many ways. Their origins may be traced back to at least the 12th century, when rival groups of apprentices would play an early form of mob football on holy days. In 1800, it is estimated, there were over 70 such games played in British towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday alone. Today, spread across various dates in the calendar – Shrove Tuesday, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Good Friday – 15 games survive, including some weird and wonderful versions in English public schools, such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester.

The late Hugh Hornby – a former curator at the National Football Museum in Preston – spent five years travelling around Britain, attending these games. Few historians became so steeped in football lore as Hornby. No football historian was as steeped in mud.

Combining in-depth history, explanations of the rituals, superb action and archive photography and detailed maps, Uppies and Downies is the first book to provide a guide to these wild and wonderful games, so that readers may know where and when to see them, and, best of all, how to work out what on earth is going on!

“Hornby has done a fantastic job to immerse himself in so many communities to untangle the threads that come together in festival football games.” Daily Telegraph

“Beautifully detailed, superbly illustrated… it’s an engaging, enthusiastic account of the nation’s most eccentric football variants.” The Observer

“For the modern descriptions, the recent history, the lively writing, and the brilliant photographs this is the best book on British calendar customs for a long time.” Steve Road, English Dance and Song Magazine

Hugh Hornby (1969-2021), author of both Uppies and Downies (2008) and Bowled Over  (2015) was a much loved member of the Played in Britain team before his untimely death in 2021 at the age of 51. A keen crown green bowler, Preston North End supporter and a regular participant in traditional football games, Hugh studied Modern History at Oxford University, spent six years as curator of the National Football Museum in Preston and was a regular contributor to the Lancashire Evening Post and Lancashire Life . He was also secretary, captain and greenkeeper at the St Michael’s Bowling Club, and secretary of the North Lancashire & Fylde Crown County Bowling Association. Hugh’s obituary can be read on The Guardian website.