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Response to Review no. 438

I would like to thank Dr McWilliam for his interesting and kindly review, it was much appreciated. He is quite correct in noting my lack of interest in abstract theorising, typified by my ignoring such concepts as ‘social control’, which I tend to regard as being of limited use. Indeed, on occasion it seems to me that abstract theories are quite harmful and have a tendency to obscure our awareness of what is really going on. This is not to say that such concepts are useless, for they can occasionally help to sharpen our focus. The important thing, so far as I am concerned, is to ensure that our focus is primarily on source material, with the key questions usually being ‘Who is telling me this?’ and ‘why are they telling me this?’ History is essentially a matter of evaluating sources and I am particularly conscious of the limitations of much of the material that was utilised in my book.

As an example of this, let us take the issues relating to the question of the standard of living debate. So far as I can see, and, as I said, I am fully aware of the limitations of the source material upon which my study is based, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century there was a prevailing increase in both the amount of organised sporting activity and the expenditure devoted to it. This, in my opinion, represents an overall increase in the recreational hours available to the general population and an increase in their disposable income. In essence, the general standard of living for the population was improving. Naturally, I appreciate that many scholars might be reluctant to accept these conclusions, believing the material to be limited and unrepresentative. Having said this, many other more official looking sources are afflicted with substantial weaknesses which make their interpretation problematic. An excellent example of this relates to the revenue extracted from income tax during the French Wars. Scholars are aware that the amount of tax evasion meant that it is very hard to compare the wealth of particular regions, it being much harder to conceal revenue derived from agriculture as compared to other, essentially mercantile, pursuits. Consequently, it can appear that agricultural regions are much wealthier in relation to urban areas than was really the case and this inevitably affects the accuracy of any attempt to assess the relative amount of expenditure on sport in a region as compared to the taxation that was paid.

With regard to the contentions found in my brief epilogue, that the years between 1850 and 1870 were predominantly ones in which commercial sport was in decline, my study shows that this process gradually emerged in the years up to 1850, with the socially elite abandoning many roles within sporting culture. Predominantly, my knowledge of the years after 1850 is based upon secondary sources. However, what I can certainly say is that in the one field where I have undertaken extensive research based upon primary sources after 1850, that of football, the evidence certainly supports my contentions. It is noticeable, for instance, that in the years up until 1850 football was predominantly played for stakes and was very much a commercial sport, albeit on a small scale. Throughout the 1850s, and for most of the 1860s, football was a game divorced from finance, but this rapidly changed and by the 1870s the revenue generated by admission charges had become very important, as had the use of professional players. It is very much the contention of the author that the real history of sport in Britain up until 1900 has still to be written, though academics such as Holt, Mason, Brailsford and Cunningham (to name but four) have made a very good start.