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World Cup kicked off in the Cloisters

Thursday, 1st June 2006

World Cup kicked off in the Cloisters

A game that started life in Westminster Abbey's cloisters three hundred years ago will transfix millions all over the world next few weeks.

Of course boys have been kicking around rag bundles for centuries but the game now known as Association Football was first played in the Abbey's cloisters by the boys of Westminster School

Football was played all over London in the 17th and 18th centuries. The butchers' apprentices' game in Smithfield Market grew into street games in Cheapside, Covent Garden and the Strand but this mob soccer was little more than little more than a violent gang battle.

The public schools were among the first to attempt to bring order to a thoroughly disorganised game. At Rugby School in 1846, the headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold, gave his blessing to a game in which players, following the example of William Webb Ellis, were allowed to handle the ball. This became the game known as rugby football.

The kickabouts in the Abbey cloisters, though, were the precursor to formal games and the matches between Westminster School and its rival schools focused more on dribbling and passing skills in which the use of the hand was outlawed.

The game that evolved into Association Football is generally accepted to have started in 1863 with the first fixtures between Westminster School and Charterhouse, then at Charterhouse Square close by the Smithfield meat markets.

"The boys played in the cloisters up to the 19th century," said Christine Reynolds in the Abbey's library. "It is a fact that it was from the game played at Charterhouse and Westminster that the rules of the Association game were drawn up."

The rules imposed by the masters for that inaugural match were adopted by the Football Association and it is that game which will keep millions rooted to the TV sets in countries around the globe when the opening match of the World Cup between Germany and Costa Rica kicks off in Munich next Friday.

The Westminster v Charterhouse fixture is still played out between the schools' Old Boys playing in the Arthurian League at Vincent Square each year. This year Old Carthusians beat Old Westminsters 2-0 in the final of the Arthur Dunn Cup.

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It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.

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Martin - The Dean’s Verger

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