Swansea schoolboys in the 1930s

Swansea schoolboy medals and photographs in the possession of Alison Spence. Her father Jim Rees captained Swansea Schools. He attended Dinefwr School.  After leaving school he went on to play for the Post Office and won another medal (the blue one in the collection below).


An extract from Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

The schoolboy game

It was in school that most boys first tasted organized soccer.  Organized games had been gradually introduced in elementary schools in the late nineteenth century but, despite official encouragement such as the 1902 Education Act, their adoption was by no means wholesale and relied on the enthusiasm of individual teachers.  Some Edwardian schools even assumed that walking to school was sufficient exercise for pupils.  Others distrusted organized games because of their commercialisation and emphasis on winning and instead preferred gymnastics and drill.  At some schools, sports were orientated around the school team and the best players, thus marginalising the less talented or less enthusiastic pupils.  At Landsdowne School in Cardiff, members of the school soccer team were taken to the park once a week for practice, but the rest of the school had to make do with a walk in the countryside.  In Edwardian schools where sports were actively encouraged, new concerns arose.  In 1908, unease was expressed at Pengam County School that boys spent too much time talking about football.  ‘Games might be an excellent tonic’ said one speaker at a school function, ‘but they could not live on tonics alone … the future of Wales was not in its heels but in its head’.

The Welsh Schools Football Association (WSFA) was founded in 1912.  Its objective was the ‘mental, moral and physical development of schoolboys’.  Inter-war educational reports increasingly stressed the virtues of organized games, leading to a far wider encouragement of sport within schools.  The poverty and poor nutrition that the depression was inflicting upon many south Wales children also accorded physical education an added importance.  By 1930, organized sport was an integral part of the timetable in many schools, although girls were still largely neglected in the new agenda.  Yet the popularity and success of team sports remained dependent on the commitment of individual schoolmasters.  Some took it very seriously, devoting up to three evenings a week to their budding young stars and even personally paying the teams’ train fares to games or training sessions.  Such dedication and sacrifice were not just rooted in a belief in the moral and physical benefits of soccer.  A love of the game and a pride in setting some boys on their way to a professional career were more human motives.

Alongside the rise of school sports was the adoption of soccer instead of rugby as the main winter game.  Although rugby dominated such school sports as had existed at the turn of the century in south Wales, soccer made rapid headway in the Edwardian period and the years immediately after the First World War.  By 1910, the new CardiffCity directors were claiming that 80 per cent of the city’s schoolboys played soccer.  In 1913, forty-five schools were affiliated to the WSFA.  Ten years later there were nearly 300 and twenty-seven affiliated leagues.  During the First World War, schoolboy rugby had ceased along with the senior game, which allowed soccer to become established in some schools.  Also important was the growing number of teachers in south Wales who had attended the training colleges in Carmarthen and Bangor which had strong soccer traditions.  Leagues, cups and internationals all added to the attraction and development of the school game for both boys and teachers.  Soccer also gained support from the belief that it was a safer game for children because it involved less physical contact than rugby.  Rugby enthusiasts, already worried about the growth of professional soccer, began to express concern that boys were not having the opportunity to play the handling code.  In an attempt to stem its growth in schools, they decried the evils of professionalism and soccer’s lack of patriotism during the war.  Such animosity spilt over into several local authorities.  In 1920, Newport’s elementary education committee made a grant to the local schools’ rugby league but was adamant in its refusal to do so to the local schools’ soccer league.  Only after pressure from the ratepayers’ association was there an eventual change of heart.

By the mid-1920s, disdain for soccer’s associations with professionalism and gambling led many secondary and grammar schools to revert to rugby.  The growth of league and cup competitions had also raised fears that school soccer was too fixated with winning rather than the traditional Corinthian values.  The WFU actively encouraged schools to take up rugby again through letters of persuasion, financial grants and, in 1923, the belated formation of the Welsh Secondary Schools Rugby Union.  By the 1930s, nearly every secondary school in south Wales played rugby as its main winter sport.  Yet schoolboy soccer retained its dominance in elementary schools and many older boys continued to play the code outside school.  The WSFA, essentially an elementary school organization, still had over 300 affiliated schools in the 1938-39 season, a figure easily comparable with the early 1920s.

The schoolboy game could be a source of considerable local pride and entertainment.  In 1921, 11,000 people watched a midweek match between Aberdare and Caerau schoolboys.  A year later in Ebbw Vale, 16,000 watched the local schoolboys play a team from West Ham.  It was in Swansea that pride in the schoolboy game was strongest.  In the 1930s and 1940s, a succession of players of immense talent was educated in the town’s schools, where soccer continued to exert a hold, even at secondary level.  Most notably, Trevor Ford, John and Mel Charles, Cliff Jones, Ivor and Len Allchurch and Jack Kelsey all went on to become international stars.  Swansea schoolboys won the English schools shield in 1939 before 20,000 at the Vetch, a crowd nearly 10,000 higher than SwanseaTown’s average that season, and the mayor gave the victorious boys an official civic reception.  The feat was repeated another three times in the early 1950s.

Many schools had neither the facilities nor the willing teachers to provide an extensive sports programme.  This meant that many boys’ clubs were organized by individual adults or even by the children themselves.  Money was raised for equipment through door-to-door collections or enterprises such as selling jam jars or collecting empty beer bottles.  Such independence not only annoyed residents, who found themselves plagued by the ‘young beggars’, but was also a cause of concern for those who saw sports as having a social function:

 In the case of a youth working in cramped, unnatural conditions out of the sunlight, and living such a confined existence at home, the matter of physical recreation must have a prominent place.  We have to encourage and control it rather than hand it over to undesirables …  The control … of many of our physical recreations has either passed into the wrong hands and been prostituted accordingly, or our boys have been left to play their games in their own way, and ‘dirty play’, the winning of cups and medals at any price, the laying of protests and the clever avoidance of rules … [become] the main features.

 That boys’ teams often changed in the tempting surroundings of public houses further developed fears about the way football was being run.  Thus, youth organizations were encouraged to take a more active role in physical recreation, so as to ensure that games were played and administered in the right spirit.  Rising unemployment intensified concern about the pastimes indulged in by youths.  Providing the opportunity of playing organized soccer was seen as a means of helping to ensure that they did not fall into unhealthy physical and moral habits.  The Scouts, like many other youth organizations, ran regular soccer competitions in south Wales to develop individuals’ self-control and ‘foster a spirit of brotherhood’ between competing packs, although there was some concern that football might become the only motive for the existence of packs.  Moral concerns also contributed to ex-schoolboy leagues being set up for youths not yet old or developed enough to play in adult competitions.  Teams were usually run by youth clubs or religious institutions under the guidance of concerned adults, keen to instil certain standards of conduct and discipline.  Typical was the Merthyr headmaster who set up a side for his former pupils in 1921, because so many of them were unemployed.  He was insistent that the team be well behaved, win or lose.


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