In an era when Victorian crime drama seems to be on the wane, 'Ripper Street' is flying the flag for extremely bloody turn-of-the-nineteenth-century hijinks. Based in the gritty environs of Industrial Revolution-era Whitechapel – this was before they got Pret a Manger and pop-up cafes, mind – the programme follows the progress of Inspector Reid and his colleague Bennet Drake, as they go about policing the streets and quietly repressing their love for each other. It's Brokeback Mountain set in historical East London, basically, and apart from its tendency to suggest that every single policing innovation known to man took place on Leman Street – sure, we invented fingerprinting, but chill – it makes for compelling viewing, and is really rather good.
This week's episode, 'Men of Iron, Men of Smoke', was a bit different. For the first time in its four-series history, the creators of Ripper Street decided to tap into the popular obsession with good, old-fashioned association football. The episode centred on the murder of a promising young player, who was smashed in the head with a hammer by his manager after threatening to leave Thames Ironworks for Woolwich Arsenal. Naturally, given this crossover between sport and bloodthirsty murder, our first instinct was to investigate further.
While Ripper Street portrayed Victorian football as a rough, bloody and tumultuous affair, the bloodstained fiction was relatively restrained compared to the violent, brutal and ferocious fact. Nobody was murdered for leaving West Ham (the name 'Thames Ironworks FC' would adopt in 1900) as far as we know, though there was often bloodshed on the sidelines and in the stands. According to The Guardian, football hooliganism first started to grip the national consciousness in the 1880s, when Preston fans described as "howling roughs" attacked players, pelting them with stones, sticks and spittle, leaving one unconscious. There are numerous other reports of football violence from the era, with mass pitch invasions often leading to carnage. Meanwhile, referees and officials seem to have been singled out for beatings by local gangs.
In an era before flat, manicured pitches, and long before the onset of modern medicine, injuries in football could be horrendous. At the beginning of 'Men of Iron, Men of Smoke' there is a vicious punch up which leaves players bloodied, but that would have been nothing compared to the horrific pain of a leg break or ruptured knee. While a bone fracture in modern football leaves a player facing several months on the sidelines, a comparable injury in Victorian Britain could have ended a footballer's career, or worse. While there are relatively few recorded cases from the top level of English football, injuries at a grassroots level doubtlessly left some with permanent disability and, in the context of industrial society and the extremes of poverty that came with it, dramatically shortened lives.
In those cases that are recorded, the dangers of Victorian football are infinitely apparent. In 1889, the first recorded incident of a man dying after a football match takes place. William Cropper, a young forward, was kneed in the stomach while playing for Stavely, and suffered a ruptured bowel. He died in agony in the Grimsby Town dressing room, with his helpless teammates watching on.
Three years after the death of Cropper, St Mirren's James Dunlop died of tetanus after falling on broken glass during a match. Loughborough star James Logan died of pneumonia after a game against Newton Heath in 1896, while James Collins of Sheppey United died of tetanus from an on-field injury not long afterwards. Di Jones, a Welshman playing for Manchester City, died of sepsis from a gashed knee in 1902, which exemplifies how lethal even everyday footballing injuries could be. Perhaps the most famous example of a footballer succumbing to his injuries came from Woolwich Arsenal where, after breaking his arm in a match against Kettering Town in 1896, right-back Joe Powell saw the limb amputated before succumbing to blood poisoning and tetanus in the aftermath.
It would have taken a seriously brave man to turn out for factory teams like Thames Ironworks or Woolwich Arsenal, especially when they came up against sides comprised of rival labourers. The industrial feuds between factories – take West Ham's ironworkers and Millwall's tinsmiths, for instance – were bitter, with impoverished workers competing for the same contracts, and fighting over their basic livelihoods. With tackles flying in and punches raining down, it's a surprise more footballers weren't gravely hurt. In that sense, 'Men of Iron, Men of Smoke' was true to football's working-class history, even if it exaggerated the tendency for managers to bludgeon their star players' grey matter to a pulp.
On points of detail, Ripper Street's researchers got things down to a tee. Thames Ironworks did indeed compete in the London League (as spotted on their factory scoreboard), while the unwieldy boots, thick puttees and heavy leather ball of the opening game could have come straight from a Victorian photograph. When it comes to the bloody reality of Victorian football, however, 'Men of Iron, Men of Smoke' was relatively tame. We say this about a programme which happily showed a man with a hammer embedded in his skull, which should give a reasonable idea of just how perilous the contemporary game of football could be.