Clare Balding presents Sport and the British on Radio 4

By Clare BaldingPresenter, Sport and the British
The Corinthians football team
The Corinthians football team

If anyone started listening to my series, Sport and the British on Radio 4, thinking sport was just about playing games, it might be around about programme six on 6 February that the reality dawns: sport has a much deeper impact than just the results on the field of play.

In Britain, the great Victorian educators were the first to cotton on to the benefits of sport in building a robust character, capable of defending and promoting the vast British Empire. They called it "muscular Christianity".

I travelled to Rugby Schoolexternal-link where Thomas Arnold was appointed headmaster in 1828.

His belief in a healthy body and a healthy mind being interlinked meant that sport was a large part of the boys' weekly life.

It was a brutal form of rugby football that was played on the main pitch with any number of boys piling in on top of the ball, 'hacking' each other with specially adapted boots.

The more a boy could take the pain, the more respect he earned. Older boys toughened up their shins by hitting themselves with a poker.

The public schools of England were the training ground for the leaders of the future and sport was used to mould them. Being privileged and well-off, none of these boys needed or desired to earn money from sport.

For those who were talented enough to continue playing into their adult years, an agreed set of rules for football needed to be drawn up as all public schools played their own, idiosyncratic versions of the game.

An early football game
An early football game

The Football Associationexternal-link was formed in 1863 to do just that and one agreed form of football was played across the country.

In the south of England, it tended to be upper and middle class men who played, in the north it was a game for the working class.

This series has given me all sorts of new information and one such revelation to me was that football very nearly split in the way that rugby did, over the same issue - payment of players. The FA decided to legalise professionalism in 1885, with the intent of controlling it.

The only amateur side that remained strong enough to hold its place in the league was Corinthians FCexternal-link.

Corinthians represented more than just a club, they were the embodiment of an ethos. Pa Jackson, their founder, described it thus:

'As I understand the breed, he is one who has not merely braced his muscles and developed his endurance by the exercise of some great sport, but has, in the pursuit of that exercise, learnt to control his anger, to be considerate to his fellow men, to take no mean advantage, to resent as dishonour the very suspicion of trickery, to bear aloft a cheerful countenance under disappointment, and never to own himself defeated until the last breath is out of his body'

Corinthians FC famously refused to take penalty kicks and if the opposition team had a player sent off, they would pull off one of their own to keep the game level.

All important to them was style - one must not look as if the result mattered more than the manner in which the game was played. The loss of 22 club members in the First World War effectively ended the Corinthians as a powerful football team but the club still exists today and I went to their base at Tolworth in Surrey.

Meanwhile in Lancashire, a mill owner called William Suddell latched onto the growing popularity of professional football and the emergence of the football fan, who would pay to watch his team.

Simultaneously, British sport started to be exported around the Empire. Cricket to the West Indies, football by way of Scottish railway workers to South America, rugby to Africa and all three to Australia.

An early cricket game
Cricket was one of the sports Britain exported to the world

It was a way of bonding together the colonies and for the British soldiers, seamen, merchants, engineers and civil servants to feel that they were still linked to the motherland.

So far, all we have talked about is men. Programme six - 'Playing Like Ladies' explains when and how women won the right to play sport. For someone like me, who believes that sport has the ability to empower the weak and the disenfranchised, this is a gratifying example of the freedom to play sport being a precursor to women winning the right to vote.

I hope you have enjoyed the series so far and continue to do so. I'd like to thank the academic team at De Montford University's International Centre for Sports History and Culture for teaching me so much.

I've had a lot of feedback on Twitter and am thrilled that so many people who thought they could never find sport interesting are enjoying the series. Do get in touch on @clarebalding1external-link

Sport and the British can be heard at 1345 GMT on Radio 4 each weekday until 9 March.