The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Sundays in Britain

Category: Politics

English Sunday observance laws, with all their ridiculous anomalies, go back more than 350 years but the most important is the Act of 1780. The 1780 law was framed to block the spread of new ideas sparked off by the revolutions in France and America® and to curb the growth of trade unions during the Industrial Revolution.

To employers, politicians and clergy the time spent by the ordinary people in sport and amusement was time stolen from the employer and God — in that order. A Leeds parson of the time observed that a “variety of mischiefs are certain to ensue’ if the common people gathered together publicly on Sundays. “Allured by unlawful pastimes, or even by vulgar amusements only they wantonly waste their time and money to their own great loss and that of their employers.’’ And a London magistrate was also worried about “allurements’’ which could lead to the “workmen and servants’’ becoming dissipated, profligate, idle and disorderly “and in consequence may be tempted to rob their employers.’’ Presumably only the middle class and the rich were able to abstain from “allurements’’ the poor could not.

The 1780 Act has often been condemned but it remains on the statute books as a bar to the pleasure of most of the people. In December 1964, the Crathorne Commission, set up by the government, recommended sweeping changes in the Sunday observance laws but suggested that the ban remainon professional sport, a 20th century relic of the Calvinist-Puritan influences in Britain.

Subsequent evidence from inside and outside sport showed how wrong Crathorne was. A Daily Telegraph Gallup Poll early in 1968 showed that 64 per cent of the people were in favour of allowing professional Sunday sport, 18 per cent were against and 18 per cent were uncertain.

In Wales, said to be a fortress against the imagined dangers of the “Continental Sunday’’, 62 per cent were in favour although the opposition amounted to 32 per cent, with six per cent don’t knows. The 1780 Act does not apply to Scotland but many local by-laws forbid Sunday sport.

Inside sport itself there has been a steady shift toward Sunday play with a variety of ploys to get round the ban on taking gate money. The John Player Sunday League is lirmly established, and popular, in cricket. Most Rugby League fixtures are on Sundays. Athletics, cycling, golf, motor racing all also stage Sunday events. Along with a number of other sports, football is opposed to present restrictions on Sunday play; for the past five years, on and off, football chiefs have been arguing for the right to stage events on Sunday. For the first time ever professional football matches aré to be played on a Sunday in Britain.

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