Alnwick, 1932: Alnwick Shrovetide Football Match

Shrovetide football is an ancient English tradition which is still played each year in the Northumberland town of Alnwick. Back in 1932, British Pathé was there to capture the action.

Shrovetide Football in England

According to Dr Ruth Larsen, senior history lecturer at the University of Derby, Shrove Tuesday football matches began in England sometime in the 12th century. 

At a time of feasting in preparation of fasting for Lent, it was easy to source the pig’s bladder needed as a football.

Over several centuries, certain towns across England became known for their annual Shrovetide football matches.

They were rough and tumble events,  often taking place along the high streets and main thoroughfares. 

It was commonplace for shop fronts to be covered with wooden barricades, in an attempt to avoid damage during the event. Most Shrovetide football matches have ended or moved to less busy grounds. 

But even today, shopkeepers in the Derbyshire Dales town of Ashbourne cover their shopfronts in advance of the annual 16 hour Shrovetide football match held over two days.

Alnwick Shrovetide Football Match in 1932

During the 19th Century, the annual Shrovetide Football match in Alnwick moved from the main trading streets into pasture land owned by the Duke of Northumberland. This decision probably saved the tradition, since 1932 saw the outright ban of County Durham’s popular and rumbustious game in the town of Chester-le-Street.

Luckily, 1932 was also the year that British Pathé recorded the football game at Alnwick. As a result, we can see how the game looked almost a century ago.

The procession from Alnwick Castle to the pastureland was led by the Duke of Northumberland’s piper. It started from the Alnwick Castle gate, into streets lined with spectators.

The procession consisted mainly of men coming to take part in the sporting fun, but some women and the occasional child walked along too.

Hundreds of people arrived at the pastureland, where goalposts covered in leaves were ready. But the action took an unexpected turn, with several men valiantly wading neck deep into the cold River Aln to keep up with the game.

The Duke of Northumberland’s Official Piper

The north of England is the birthplace of the Northumbrian smallpipes and less common Border smallpipes. These versions of bagpipes are smaller and quieter than their Scottish counterparts, and are played differently. They are designed to be played inside, and don’t have a mouthpiece.

The first official piper to the Duke of Northumberland was appointed more than 250 years ago. Until the retirement of musician James Hall in 1931 this was a full time position.

James Byrnes was then appointed Piper to the Duke. His duties included piping for the Shrovetide football match, and other important events as required.

The British Pathé film of the 1932 Shrovetide football match in Alnwick shows James Byrnes playing the Northumbrian smallpipes as he leads the procession out of the castle gates.

In 1949 Jack Armstrong succeeded James Byrnes as Piper to the Duke.

Today the official piper to the Duke of Northumberland is Richard Butler, and his website can be found at Northumbrianpipes.com

The Alnwick Tradition Continues

Although it receives less media attention these days, Shrove Tuesday football in Alnwick remains an annual event, complete with a procession led by the Piper to the Duke.

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