How English boarding school teachers brought football to the Netherlands

Date of news: 19 November 2020

Sport pioneer and VIP Pim Mulier was involved in the introduction of many sports in the Netherlands, including football. At least, that's the classic story. However, according to PhD candidate Jan Luitzen, that image needs some adjustment. “Mulier was an important promoter of English field sports at the end of the nineteenth century, but he is by no means one of the pioneers.” The posh boarding school Noorthey is central to Luitzen’s thesis, where English teachers introduced cricket and hockey from 1845, and football from 1854. Luitzen will defend his PhD thesis on 23 November at Radboud University.

Ever since the publication of Pim Mulier’s classic Athletiek en Voetbal (1894), the patriotic canon writes that football was first played in the Netherlands in Haarlem ('in the winter of 1879-80'), and later in Amsterdam, The Hague and Enschede as well.

Noorthey boarding school

Jan Luitzen's research corrects that image on the basis of the history of the Protestant Christian boarding school Noorthey (1820-1882) in Veur (South Holland) for sons of the elite. Luitzen: “Cricket and hockey were practiced there from 1845 and a form of football was played from 1854 onwards, with the English teachers taking the ball with them from their home country.”

The first concrete proof of a game of football dating to 3 October 1864 that was played on the sports field at Noorthey, was found in a letter from one of the boarding school boys: “Now let me tell you what happened on Monday. At the beginning of the first hour of play, the English schoolmaster came to me and said: "We play foot-ball today." [...] This game is great when it's cold, because one has to kick a big gummy ball, which is leather-wound and measures almost 3 palm centre line [= about 30 centimetres].”

According to Luitzen, it was the English teachers and pupils at Noorthey and later the alumni of Noorthey who introduced English field sports in the Netherlands. “To conduct my research, I really started at the micro level. Who exactly were involved and what did they do? A different story then develops that challenges the sociological account, which assumed that English merchants, industrial craftsmen, sailors and diplomats brought the sports to the Netherlands.”

Pupils and teachers on the sports field at Noorthey, after a communal game of football (8 April 1894). Source: National Archives.

Stubborn myths dispelled

Jan Luitzen describes the incremental introduction and spread of the English sports of cricket, football and tennis in the second half of the nineteenth century. The biography of the boys' boarding school Noorthey also shows how the alumni later played a crucial role in the further popularisation of English sports in the Netherlands, from the 1880s onwards.

“Noorthey alumni moved to Amsterdam, The Hague and Haarlem as sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, for instance, after their boarding school years. I know for a fact that a talk about cricket was hosted at the gymnasium in Haarlem, after which a cricket club was set up in the evenings.” The Noorthey alumni founded the first sports clubs and many later became directors of all kinds of sports networks.

Luitzen dispels several persistent myths, including that about the establishment of the Haarlemsche Football Club: “H.F.C. is said to have been founded in 1879. But according to my research, David van Lennep and Pim Mulier (with two others) only started their cricket club Root en Zwart in the spring of 1881. David was its first president. The boys switched from static cricket to more dynamic rugby late in the autumn of 1881 and to association football in 1882 or 1883, and in the process changed their name from Rood en Zwart to Haarlemsche Football Club.”

Top photo: Pupils and teachers playing football around 1895-1897 on the sports field at the boys' boarding school Noorthey. Source: National Archives.