Discover more about your sporting ancestors

By Jon Bauckham, 18 August 2016 - 4:10pm

With the Rio Olympics drawing to a close, Jayne Shrimpton explains how photographs of our ancestors at leisure can give us an insight into their lives

1865: A Victorian family playing a friendly game of croquet at the Gisburne Croquet Ground, Lancashire. (Photo by Otto Herschan/Getty Images)
A Victorian family playing a friendly game of croquet at the Gisburn Croquet Ground, Lancashire, 1865 (Credit: Otto Herschan/Getty Images)

At the Rio Olympics this month, athletes have been competing in 42 different sports. Modern events like BMX cycling would probably have raised eyebrows among our ancestors, yet other sports, from equestrian events to boxing, date back centuries and may have been activities that they, too, enjoyed.

Evidence drawn from many family collections demonstrates a variety of surviving sports-related photographs. Discovering these evocative, sometimes surprising, images and investigating our forebears’ sporting interests highlights their personalities and achievements, providing a fascinating insight into their lives.

By the time photography became established in the mid-1800s, some of our Victorian predecessors were already enjoying active outdoor pursuits and by the 1860s photographers were recording the sporting activities of the day.

Initially, pursuing sport purely for pleasure was a luxury available mainly to a wealthy, leisured minority. Therefore, the earliest professional sporting photographs typically portray gentlemen’s sports teams or elite public school and university college football, rugby, cricket and rowing teams.

Amateur photography – an expensive and time-consuming pastime – was also practised among the Victorian upper classes, so our more privileged ancestors may appear in picturesque country house scenes featuring games of croquet on summer lawns, or at winter hunt or shoot meetings.

As the century marched on, organised sport progressed, with local clubs and match rules becoming firmly established, and more active pursuits beginning to be enjoyed by a broader cross-section of society. Outdoor photography in general advanced, following technological improvements that aided commercial photographers and encouraged a new wave of middle-class amateur ‘snap-shooters’.

Late-Victorian sporting images reflect these trends, popular scenes included official football team photographs, groups of tennis players and local bicycle club outings inspired by the new cycling craze of the 1880s and 1890s.

By then, it was also becoming fashionable for sports enthusiasts to pose in their local studio with the tennis racket, bicycle, crossbow or other equipment representing their sport – items that were usually their own possessions, not necessarily ‘props’ provided by the photographer, as is often supposed. Male clients, in particular, might also change at the studio into sportswear designed for their particular event – perhaps athletics, boxing or cricket.

The late-Victorian middle and upper classes enjoyed lawn tennis. This 1890s photograph shows ladies wearing regular clothes, the youth in white tennis shoes (Credit: John Humphreys)
The late-Victorian middle and upper classes enjoyed lawn tennis. This 1890s photograph shows ladies wearing regular clothes, the youth in white tennis shoes (Credit: John Humphreys)

The great outdoors

Open-air photography, and particularly amateur snapshot photography, advanced rapidly during the early 20th century, with many individuals and households acquiring cameras between the wars. Family photographers snapped away enthusiastically as their nearest and dearest participated in various leisure activities and competitive sports.

During the late-1920s and 1930s, a pronounced vogue emerged for healthy outdoor exercise and girls and women participated in more of the sports once closed to them as females. Photographs of early- to mid-century range from golf or bowls scenes to tandem outings or swimming at the public lido, while school photographs also portray the sports that were part of the modern curriculum, including team games such as hockey and lacrosse, gymnastics and drill classes.

Local sports clubs multiplied, too, from lawn bowls to cricket and tennis and many of our photograph collections contain sporting pictures taken on the green, court, pitch or outside the clubhouse, or showing ancestors posing in the studio after a sporting triumph, surrounded by their medals and trophies.

The armed services had long encouraged sports such as boxing, fencing, shooting and polo, to combat idleness and alcohol, inspire greater levels of physical fitness and to build unit cohesion. During the two world wars many of our more athletic relatives lined up proudly for formal photographs of regimental football teams, newly qualified PE instructors and other military group photographs, each member ordering a copy of the picture.

Sports teams were also often formed in the workplace and, famously, during the First World War, many munitions factories produced pioneering all-female football teams whose images have gone down in history.

A Second World War army photo, 1941, shows a group of Royal Engineers after the completion of their PE instructor training (Credit: Jayne Shrimpton)
A Second World War army photo, 1941, shows a group of Royal Engineers after the completion of their PE instructor training (Credit: Jayne Shrimpton)

A matter of gender 

Like other old family photographs, unidentified sporting pictures can be broadly dated from the type of photograph (indoor/outdoor, professional/amateur, single/group) and from the sport, as outlined above. Remember that relatively few working-class ancestors appeared in Victorian sporting photographs, but may well have been photographed after 1900.

Early male sporting images are more numerous than female, as Victorian and Edwardian women were discouraged from competing in active sports. To investigate mystery sporting scenes, try using local sources serving the relevant area such as school archives, local record offices, sports clubs, and so on.

The style of sporting dress can aid approximate dating of sporting photographs. It is also worth searching online for firmly dated examples with which to compare your sporting photos and visit museums that display historic sportswear.

Many Victorian sports were male-dominated, although both sexes historically enjoyed horse riding, for leisure or the hunt. Riding dress followed fashion, with certain modifications. By the 1860s, horsemen wore a tailored riding or morning coat with trousers in town, or knee breeches for country wear, teamed with gaiters and ankle boots. Later, the comfortable lounge jacket became fashionable, with long boots and riding breeches, wide jodhpurs adopted during the 1890s and remaining a ‘fossilised’ style throughout the early- to mid-20th century.

Ladies’ tailor-made riding habits echoed men’s dress and comprised a fitted jacket or jacket-bodice, matching skirt, and a masculine-style hat. Initially, habit skirts were dangerously voluminous, but became more slender during the 1860s and 1870s, with serious horsewomen favouring a plain, dark-coloured habit. In 1875, the ‘safety’ skirt was devised, having a back slit that was opened when mounted, to minimise the risk of an unseated rider becoming entangled in her skirt.

Tailoring grew more complex as the two sides of the skirt differed, following the addition of a third pommel to the side-saddle: this affected the ‘sit’ of the skirt, inspiring pouch-like shaping for the right knee. Well-hidden underneath, ladies wore cotton pantaloons and, later, more substantial breeches for decency. Only in the later 1910s and 1920s did they begin to ride astride, discarding skirts and wearing a jacket with riding jodhpurs.

This country house photograph c1870 depicts an affluent ancestor in formal 
riding or hunting dress: a mid-Victorian tailored riding habit and masculine top hat (Credit: Jayne Shrimpton)
This country house photograph c1870 depicts an affluent ancestor in formal 
riding or hunting dress: a mid-Victorian tailored riding habit and masculine top hat (Credit: Jayne Shrimpton)

Comfortable pursuits

The bicycle offered another mounted sporting experience as hazardous ‘penny-farthing’ contraptions gave way, during the 1880s, to sturdy tricycles and ‘safety’ bicycles for both sexes. Victorian and Edwardian male bicyclists usually wore knee-breeches or knickerbockers with a woollen or flannel shirt, jacket or comfortable sportsman’s jersey and purpose-designed heelless shoes. Between the wars, when more people acquired bicycles, more relaxed tailored shorts and short-sleeved sports shirts became popular.

Meanwhile, competitive male cycle racing required more streamlined clothing than that of the ordinary weekend cyclist and some of the earliest Olympic cyclists of the 1890s looked surprisingly modern in thigh-high shorts and even singlet-style vests. Body-hugging long-sleeved vests or jerseys became standard for cycle racing during the early-1900s, teamed with fitted mid-thigh-length shorts.

For Victorian ladies, a plain or sporty Norfolk-style jacket-bodice and bustle skirt was usual during the 1880s, then later, in the 1890s a masculine-style jacket, blouse and skirt or, for the bold, cycling ‘rationals’. Finally, between the wars, trousers and breeches became acceptable and female cyclists enjoyed the freedom of shorts from the 1930s.

Modern lawn tennis was played from the mid- to late-1870s, initially by the leisured classes. Prior to strict dress codes, male players wore a loose white shirt and trousers or knickerbockers, the lounge jacket worn removed during play. In the 1880s, striped sports shirts or jerseys and white flannel trousers became popular, teamed with rubber-soled canvas shoes, and by the 1890s a plain or striped flannel blazer was fashionable.

Edwardian players usually wore white or cream flannel suits: only from the late-1920s were open-necked sports shirts accepted and shorts appeared even later, from the 1930s. Tennis was a conservative game, as female players well knew, Victorian ladies having to play in fully fashioned costumes of thick serge, flannel or jersey material, complete with corsets and 1880s bustles, and even hats. Soon professionals were adopting pale or white garments and during the early-1900s a white blouse and ankle-length skirt became customary.

After the First World War, Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen popularised lightweight cotton frocks with short sleeves and by the late-1920s shorter hemlines were evolving, followed by divided skirts in the 1930s that ushered in female shorts.

This family photo shows a relative with his cycling team who won a race at Brooklands in 1939 wearing fitted jerseys in team colours and racing shorts (Credit: Kat Williams)
This family photo shows a relative with his cycling team who won a race at Brooklands in 1939 wearing fitted jerseys in team colours and racing shorts (Credit: Kat Williams)

Pioneers of modern sport

Sporting prowess has always relied on the ability to move freely when in action. Dress-related issues initially hampered men and women, but especially females, for as long as there remained public concern over respectability. It was deemed indecent to display even the clothed outline of the female form below the waist before the First World War and genteel ladies chose mainly sedate activities like croquet and archery, which required few clothing modifications.

Riding, tennis and cycling were possible, if awkward, and by the early-1900s gymslips and even divided skirts (culottes) were worn by schoolgirls for gymnastics and team games such as hockey.

However, competitive, energetic track and field events were largely male-dominated for many years. By the 1870s, a short-sleeved vest and fitted knickerbockers were already common for male hurdle-racing and cross-country running.

During the 1880s and 1890s, more recognisable athletics outfits developed for various events and often comprised a round-necked vest with short or elbow-length sleeves and cotton drawers (shorts) ending around knee-level. During the early-1900s, garments became briefer, liberating the limbs: shorts to the mid-thigh were worn with T-shirt-style vests during the 1910s and finally around the late-1930s, ‘singlet’ and shorts became usual.

Some women’s athletics events first appeared in the 1928 Olympics. Early female athletes usually wore a short-sleeved blouse with loose shorts. By the 1930s, a sleeveless vest and shorter, knickers-style shorts were acceptable.

The demands of swimming furthered sportswear perhaps more than any other event, as heavy, cumbersome Victorian costumes were modernised and streamlined, competitive swimwear attained a relatively minimalist look by the 1910s.

Our sporting ancestors were not only physically fit and accomplished: they were bold advocates of practical, modern dress, pioneering many of the comforts that we enjoy today as we play sports.

Jayne Shrimpton is the author of Victorian Fashion (Bloomsbury Shire Publications, 2016). A version of this article also appeared in the August 2016 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

 

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