Leo McKinstry

How sport helped shape the British character

David Horspool connects different sports to our historical experience: cricket with class, golf with property rights, tennis with female emancipation and boxing with ethnicity

A 19th-century print of golfers on Blackheath. [Sarah Fabian-Baddiel/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

Faith in state planning was central to Harold Wilson’s pledge to modernise Britain. It was his rhetorical vision of a country guided by strategic foresight and ‘forged in the white heat of technology’ that helped him win the 1964 election. But Wilson also displayed the same attachment to planning in his personal life. Back in 1934 he joined the Port Sunlight tennis club, not because he was interested in the sport but because he felt it would provide the right environment to approach one of its young female members, a shorthand-typist called Gladys Baldwin. Unlike his ‘white heat’ agenda, the policy worked. After a lengthy courtship, during which Gladys dropped her first name in favour of her second, Mary, they married.

Rugby served as a catalyst for the revival of Welsh nationhood after a victory against the All Blacks in 1905

Wilson’s pursuit of Miss Baldwin is just one of the gems in David Horspool’s highly original history of British sport. Some traditionalists might sniff at the idea of attaching too much importance to this subject, but such a dismissive attitude ignores the reality that sport has long been a phenomenal cultural and commercial force across the world. It would be impossible, for instance, to write a history of Nazism before the second world war without a reference to the 1936 Olympics. In the context of Britain’s heritage, a stance of aloof superiority is particularly inappropriate, given that most leading sports were invented here. It was John Major who wrote that ‘19th-century Britain was the cradle of a leisure revolution every bit as significant as the industrial and agricultural revolutions we launched in the century before’.

Horspool shares that view. ‘Sport has infiltrated every part of British life,’ he claims, adding that ‘different sports seem to reflect particular aspects of our historical experience’.

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