Sport in Wiltshire

Sport seems to be as old as the human race – it is believed people have enjoyed sports for thousands of years both as a way of honing skills essential for survival, such as hunting for food, but also for their own sake. Historic artefacts and paintings demonstrate that sports such as wrestling, throwing the javelin, weightlifting, swimming and many others have been practised for thousands of years by many different societies. With the Olympics being held in London for the third time in history it seems timely to create an on-line exhibition to celebrate the Olympics and sport in general.

This exhibition of archives held at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre focuses on a small sample of sports for which we hold relevant archives. Please note, not all these sports are linked to the Olympics.

A Brief History of Sport in England…

In the medieval period sports were very localised, varied and normally formed part of a larger feast day’s celebrations, rather than being a separate activity. They did not have national rules but each community had its own rules and customs which were unlikely to be written down. ‘Folk’ football was a popular activity in the middle ages, with lots of participants and a ‘free for all’ approach which resulted in lots of injuries. Other sports at festivals included running races and feats of strength such as lifting or throwing heavy objects. Traditional boundaries within rural society were celebrated, with contests between parishes, or groups such as young and old, married and unmarried.

Animal sports were likewise popular such as bull baiting and cock fighting, until these fell out of favour in the 19th century, thanks as much to disapproval of the behaviour of the spectators as to concerns for the welfare of the animals. Most of the organised sports we enjoy today have their origins hundreds of years ago, if not longer, but have evolved over time. The 19th century was a period of standardisation and regulation when, generally speaking, national organisations were set up to lay down the rules for their sport essential to allowing competition on a national and international scale. From the 19th century on there has been tension between those who believe sport requires the type of full-time commitment which lends itself to professionalism, and those who feel sportspeople should be amateurs. By the 21st century it is fair to say that the argument has been won in favour of professionalism for most sports played at an international level. However it is probably fair to say that in Wiltshire the majority of sports are currently enjoyed by amateur clubs, teams and individuals playing them for the sake of competition and enjoyment, rather than professionally. 

Archery and Shooting






Inspired to learn more about the history of sport?

Check out our on-line catalogue:

See also our blogs about football and Wiltshire's sports stars

Lots of museums and heritage organisations are celebrating our sporting heritage this year – see: for more details. See also: for archival activities and events.


 ‘England’s Revelry: A History of Popular Sports and Pastimes 1660-1830’ by Emma Griffin (published 2005 by the British Academy)

 ‘Swindon Town 1879-2009: A history in facts and figures – the combined volume’, by Paul Plowman (published 2009 by Footprint Publications) which includes a brief history of sports included in the Olympics


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