Apocalypse Then and Now

Football and Epidemics: A Matter of Life and Death

This piece is the first in a new HWO feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’. The feature brings together radical reflections and historic perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?

Coronavirus has brought chaos to global sport with major football matches played behind closed doors and postponements widespread across elite football, despite Government insistence that the show would go on.

Here Dr Tosh Warwick reveals how the threat of COVID-19 has echoes of a Victorian epidemic that brought controversial postponements, matches played in secret and conflict between clubs and sport’s governing bodies…

Over the weekend, England’s record goalscorer Wayne Rooney hit out at the government and football authorities over their delay in putting a hold on the professional game. Further down the football pyramid, lower league clubs enjoyed notable increases in attendances, with seventh tier South Shields FC’s 5-3 win over FC United of Manchester attracting a record 3,274 gate.

Remarkably, the conflict and controversy surrounding football and the Coronavirus has striking similarities to dilemmas faced by ‘The People’s Game’ in Spring 1898. Middlesbrough FC were on a fairly unfamiliar road to glory as the club progressed to the semi-final of the FA Amateur Cup and with it were only two wins away from bringing silverware back to Teesside. Yet, it was not the challenge posed by upcoming semi-final opponents Thornaby that proved the biggest threat to Boro’s path to a Crystal Palace final but rather a smallpox epidemic that was ravaging the town. Following an outbreak in late 1897, the smallpox escalated in February 1898 and brought death and disarray to the town.  As with today’s talk of cancelling tournaments and voiding the domestic season, the outbreak cast uncertainty for football in Teesside.

The Story of the Small Pox Epidemic in Middlesbrough. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Libraries

A cough from the corner

In Middlesbrough FC: The Unseen History, Richard Piers Rayner recreates the tension smallpox caused via a fictionalised conversation in The Masham Hotel between former Middlesbrough star and Masham Hotel owner Tom Bach and club chairman Robert Forrester. Discussing the club’s prospects of cup glory, the conversation is interrupted by a man having a coughing fit in the corner of the room:

Forrester nodded and turned back to his drink exchanging a hard look with Tom Bach. The later shrugged. There was nothing he could do about it if someone wanted to have a coughing fit. People were on edge, that was all. Ever since the first smallpox victim was diagnosed and the epidemic had taken a grip on the area, everyone was on their guard, watching for the first signs of any kind of illness.[1]

Concern about the smallpox outbreak was very real and spread to the Darlington authorities who began to make plans to prevent hordes of Teessiders congregating for the tie scheduled to take place in the railway town.

A prominent medical gentleman

At a meeting of the Darlington Corporation’s Health Committee on 7th March, two days after Boro’s Northern League tie at Tow Law was called off due to the epidemic, a letter was read from a ‘prominent medical gentleman’ and quickly ‘much indignation was expressed’ at the proposed tie taking place in the town. It was decided a letter be sent to the Darlington directors expressing concern at the possibility the ground would be used for the tie the following week.

The following day news of Darlington’s objections appeared in newspapers across the country. On the same day Middlesbrough’s new Medical Officer of Health Dr Charles Dingle, appointed following the death of Dr John Malcolmson after ‘the increased smallpox in the town had produced overwork and worry, which quite undermined his health’, informed Middlesbrough’s Special Sanitary and Sanatorium Committee of his grave concerns that patients in the town’s Sanatorium might be spreading the disease:

Patients were observed climbing on the boundary walls talking to their friends, and even shaking hands. At one period during the afternoon the Grounds of the Hospital were invaded by the outside public. It has also occurred that convalescent Patients have left the Grounds of the Hospital before being officially discharged.[2]

This behaviour reflected the widespread distrust of isolation policies among the public. With the death toll at 85, Medical Officer of Health Dr Charles V. Dingle’s indignation at the flaunting of isolation rules was evident:

I would suggest, in lieu of any better proposal, that more men be appointed to patrol the walls and boundaries of the Hospital Grounds, and to restrain the convalescent Patients. Large numbers of the general public were assembled, drawn there by idle curiosity, in close proximity to the Hospital. I need hardly point out to them and this Committee the risk they run of contracting such an infectious disease as Small-Pox by such contact.[3]

The Football Association’s appeal

It was decided by the FA that the Amateur Cup tie be postponed and a solution sought by the competition organisers. Debates continued in the coming weeks around continuing to play football on Teesside with the smallpox death toll increasing.  The Middlesbrough FC minutes detail a special meeting of the Directors on 5th March detail the Football Association’s appeal for Boro to pull out of the game:

Emergency Committee suggest you should scratch in consequence of unfortunate epidemic, matter considered serious. Trust in the best interest of the sport you will adopt this course please telegram Thornaby also Howcroft, Coatham Redcar and to me. Wall, Football Association.[4]

Middlesbrough FC’s directors had little enthusiasm for the proposal and unanimously refused to withdraw from the competition. At the Cleveland Association meeting on 14th March, Boro were again at odds with authorities and opponents South Bank over whether a Cleveland Senior Cup semi-final scheduled for the following Saturday should go ahead. Eston Urban District Council demanded the tie’s postponement but Boro refused, pointing to the crowds from South Bank and Middlesbrough that frequented Saturday markets. The North Eastern Daily Gazette reported that the Cleveland Association Chairman considered it ‘the height of folly to bring a crowd together to stand 1½ to 2 hours for there would be a great danger of the infection spreading’, but the Council voted 6 to 2 in favour of the match going ahead. Echoing today’s conflicting approaches and decisions that have divided government officials, medics, sports people and the public, the South Bank committee convened and decided to reject the Cleveland Association’s declaration and declined to play the match. Eventually the Cleveland Association decided to postpone the Cleveland Amateur and Senior Cup competitions until the following season.

With closed gates

The FA Amateur Cup Committee adopted an alternative solution to the smallpox epidemic and postponed semi-final between Middlesbrough and Thornaby. At a meeting in London, the Committee decided that the match should take place ‘with closed gates’ and that ‘only players be allowed to take part who have medical certificates as to their freedom from the disease’.

Action from Boros secret Brotton FA Cup Amateur semi final Northern Review. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Libraries

Eventually, the FA arranged for the tie to take place in secret at Brotton in East Cleveland. Poetically Piers Rayner imagines the game taking place witnessed only ‘by a couple of disinterested sheep and a passing tinker’. Catherine Budd’s Sport in Urban England confirms the secret nature of the tie, citing a contemporary report on the affair:

The match was played “with closed gates”…it was reported that though “many keen footballists had been on the alert for the past few days, those who knew the location of the match were very limited in number.”[5]

When the tie was finally played at Brotton there was more drama. After trailing 1-0, Boro fought back through goals from Bishop and Wanless to win the derby tie and secure a place in the final. Further glory would follow in the final at Crystal Palace as Boro ran out 2-0 winners against Uxbridge to bring silverware back to Teesside.

Middlesbrough win the Cup. Richard Piers Rayners depiction of the FA Cup Amateur Final at Crystal Palace in 1898. Image courtesy of Richard Piers Rayner

Twentieth century challenges

The issue of the uneasy interactions between smallpox and football did not end in the nineteenth century or with soccer. There are a number of early twentieth century case chronicled of postponements and objections at rugby teams bringing potentially infected players and supporters to towns, including in September 1904 when the British Medical Journal reported on a ‘curious controversy’ around a scheduled match at Dewsbury between a local team and one from Bramley, a suburb of Leeds.

The intermittent presence of smallpox in Dewsbury and a ‘very extensive outbreak of the disease in a somewhat mild and common, not readily recognized form’ caused concern for Dr. Cameron, the Medical Officer of Health for Leeds. Cameron appealed to the Bramley Football Committee to postpone the match owing to the danger posed by a large Bramley travelling contingent visiting Dewsbury and mingling ‘with a dense crowd of Dewsbury folk, many of whom would doubtless be inhabitants of infected houses.’ Controversially, the Northern League Committee intervened and ordered that the second division Northern Union rugby tie should be played. It was only after further lobbying of the players’ employees by Cameron that rugby officials withdrew its order and the match was postponed.

Into the 1920s, football’s uneasy links with spreading smallpox riled Medical Officers of Health in Durham and Yorkshire. In 1927, the MOH for Whitby complained that the Willington team had visited the North Yorkshire coast without notification that they were coming from a smallpox area. However, the complaint was dismissed and it was pointed out Medical Officers of Health had no powers to stop football teams visiting Whitby.

Conclusion: lessons from history?

In the coming weeks and months, COVID-19 promises to bring challenging times in the footballing world and beyond. History suggests that a coordinated, consistent approach that embraces medical advice can have benefits for supporters and the wider world by dedicating efforts to tackling the pandemic rather than devoting resources to policing patients and coercing communities to follow health guidelines.


[1] Piers Rayner, R. (2008), Middlesbrough FC: The Unseen History (Derby, Breedon), p.63

[2] Middlesbrough Sanitary and Sanatorium Committee Minutes, 8th March 1898, 359, Middlesbrough Reference Library, Proceedings of the Middlesbrough Town Council 1897-1898

[3] Middlesbrough Sanitary and Sanatorium Committee Minutes, 8th March 1898, 359

[4] Middlesbrough FC Minutes 1896-1898, Special Directors’ Meeting, 5th March 1898

[5] Budd. C. (2016), Sport in Urban England: Middlesbrough 1870-1914 (London, Lexington), p.182

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