Matthew TaylorFeb 4, 2023
Sport and the Home Front
Wartime Britain at Play, 1939-45
Today we are joined by Matthew Taylor, Professor of History at De Montfort University, and author of Sport and the Home Front: Wartime Britain at Play, 1939-1945 (Routledge, 2020). In our conversation, we discussed why studies of British sport histories have frequently neglected the Second World War, how various arms of the British state attempted to mobilize sport during the conflict, and how and why ordinary people included sport in their everyday life despite the deprivations of the era.
In Sport and the Home Front, Taylor uses a range of historical sources, including state documents, newspapers, diaries and memories, and most especially reports from Mass Observation, in order to better understand why and how people played sport in Britain during the Second World War. He shows that sport was both more commonplace and more meaningful than previous historians have assumed. Sport thus provided a lens to examine whether, in what ways, and to what extent the Second World War was a people’s war that unified the nation at a time of great threat.
The book is organized thematically, with seven chapters analysing everything from state interventions into sport, the difficulties faced by clubs, and sport and the radio. These chapters cover a range of sports including popular games such as football, rugby, and cycling, but also less commonly discussed competitions including greyhound and horse racing. In each chapter, Taylor eschews any top-down analysis. Indeed, his work shows that the British government had a range of different views about sports – different ministries were more or less favourably disposed towards different sporting practices. Athletes and sporting officials also fought to help define what appropriate sport during the wartime might be and what value sports can bring to a country at war. Greyhound racing faced a possible ban. School children learned resilience through games. The War Ministry worried about football stadiums being bombed. Factory workers preserved their morale playing on Sundays. Newspapers reported on Civil Defence teams using too much petrol travelling to matches.
Taylor’s narrative includes the sporting activities of groups typically marginalized within histories of sport and wartime. Every chapter covers the ways that British women’s sport expanded and faced challenges, unevenly, during the war as sportswomen across the country asserted their right to play to the state, businesses and local clubs. Taylor also covers the sporting activities of children, foreign soldiers, and colonial subjects in the metropole.
His final chapter, “Sport, War and Nation,” offers the most compelling case for how British sport contributed to national unification during the war. In an era where Britain was beset by friends and foes, British sport provided a means of bringing people together. While frictions remained – notably over who could play sport and sporting life changed due to the deprivations of the war – British sport remained resolutely British and a way for British people to understand their sacrifices and to define themselves against their allies and enemies.
Taylor’s rich account of wartime British sport will be required reading for scholars interested in Britain during the Second World War, British sport, and will open doors for additional research into local sport in the United Kingdom across the war years.