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9 August 2018: Education and the county’s Record OfficeA large modern building seen across a river

Today’s speaker was a lady from our county’s Record Office, who came to tell us how she had used a donation of £250 from our Club on a literacy project.

She worked with six children from a local junior school in special measures, selected for their interest in football or because they needed a boost to improve their reading and writing skills. She took them through a scenario based on a real incident in 1860 which is recorded in letters, newspaper articles and court reports held by the Record Office. 1860 was three years before the Football Association was founded, before the rules of the modern game were formulated and even before the name “football” was in general use. Football games (to use the modern term) were usually rough, rowdy and violent affairs.

She got the teachers to tell the children that she would want them to do lots of reading and writing. Then she started by taking them outside to play games based on football (there were only six of them) wearing “Victorian dress” (top hats, even for the one girl in the group). That must have been quite a relief for the children after the somewhat dour build-up the teachers had given them!

After that each child received a “letter from William Dare”. William Dare was a local tenant farmer who, in 1860, wrote to men who had been playing football on a piece of ground telling them that football was an awful game, banning them from playing it on that land again and threatening legal action if they did. The letters the children received were based on William Dare’s actual letter from the Record Office archives but couched in terms the children could understand rather than the legalese the real Mr Dare had used.

The children were then asked to write letters to Mr Dare, using their “best writing” explaining why they should be allowed to continue playing football.

In 1860 the men continued playing football and Mr Dare duly called in the local policeman, a Mr Spencer. Mr Spencer then wrote to the players telling them he would be forced to take action if they continued. The children received letters from “Mr Spencer” and had to write replies. “Mr Spencer” then wrote back to the children, telling them they were not allowed to play football but also praising each child for any good arguments or good pieces of writing.

Back in 1860 the players continued playing on land and the policeman, Mr Spencer, found himself arresting his own son, William Spencer. The children all received cards from “William Spencer”, written from prison and encouraging them to continue playing football where it was allowed. They had to write cards to be sent back to him.

In 1860 the players were prosecuted for trespass and for cutting down trees belonging to Mr Dare so that they could play football. The Record Office has reports of the case. Some of the elderly men in the village had given evidence to the court that as young boys they had themselves played games on the land in question and that it had always been used for that purpose. The children were asked to write their own letters to the court explaining why they should be play football on the land (although this was not acutally done in 1860). In order to impress the court, of course, they again had to use their “best writing”.

In real life the trespass charge was dropped but the men were found guilty of cutting down Mr Dare’s trees and given the lightest sentence the judge could impose - one month in prison.

The project caught the children’s imagination and fired their interest in reading and writing. It remains to be seen whether that interest will be maintained when they return from the summer holidays.