Towards the end of 1875/76 tragedy struck the Moseley when, on 19th March, a player, Matthew Wilcox, died as the result of a broken neck sustained in the previous day’s away game with Derby Wanderers.
During these years there were fairly frequent serious accidents in both codes of football. Six years earlier the correspondence columns of The Times had contained many letters both supporting and stigmatising the Rugby game and there was a suggestion that the game should be banned by parliament.
Only a few weeks before Wilcox’s death the Birmingham Daily Post had reported a fatality due to football injuries that had occurred in Manchester while the Lancet had called for changes in the laws by which the Rugby game was played. Inevitably letters followed these accidents to the press, some correspondents condemned the game while others defended it. Therefore when this latest tragedy occurred it was reported widely and was featured in newspapers as far away as Dublin, Glasgow, Ipswich, Leeds, Liverpool and London.
The Parker’s Field or City Road ground on which Moseley’s game with Derby Wanderers took place was hard owing to frost the previous evening, however, the hardness of the ground was surprisingly not mentioned in any of the later debate regarding the circumstances of the accident. In fact the only reference to it was in an anonymous letter to the Birmingham Daily Gazette from one of the members of the Moseley team who denied that the ground was hard saying that if it had been then the match would have been cancelled.
Eyewitness accounts of the accident varied, one witness said that Wilcox had been making a charge at another player but missed him and fell at which point a Derby player fell onto him, while another stated he was running with the ball when he was ‘collared’ by a Derby player who then fell on top of Wilcox after the latter had turned a somersault. Several correspondents to the papers alleged that Wilcox had a habit of trying to turn somersaults during a game. The latter version of events was accepted by the inquest, which returned a verdict of accidental death.
A day after the inquest a third eyewitness account appeared in the letters column of the Birmingham Daily Post. According to this version of events Wilcox had got possession of the ball in a scrum and rolled between the legs of the players at which point a Derby player threw his weight onto him in order to stop his progress and in the process Wilcox’s neck was dislocated. S.H. Deakin, the Moseley captain, in a letter to the Post later in the week, agreed with this version of events.
The Birmingham Daily Mail, in a long editorial, condemned the Rugby game as it encouraged ‘an amount of savagery more suitable to Lancashire barbarians than respectable youths of the middle classes’ and called for the Birmingham area clubs to meet and agree to ‘discountenance all the objectionable features of football-playing.’ The Derby Mercury meanwhile stated that Rugby rules were ‘unfit to be tolerated in a civilised community.’
The Mail editorial immediately prompted letters of support, one of which referred to football’s ‘pernicious features’ and echoed the Daily Mail’s call for local captains to get together and draft a new set of rules. Another letter maintained that young men were ‘being systematically debased and brutalised’ by playing football.
Some letters to the Birmingham Daily Post also condemned football including one that called for ‘the brutalising sport’ to be dealt with by law while others also called for local clubs to take the initiative in reforming the Rugby rules. Other correspondents defended the game as no more dangerous that other outdoor activities such as hunting. The newspaper itself called for amendments to the Rugby laws and stated that if these did not come from within the game then they must be imposed from outside.
Following the tragedy the Birmingham Football Club committee passed a resolution stating that none of their teams would play against clubs using Rugby rules. This, however, was an empty gesture as they were a soccer club.
At Wilcox’s funeral the rector of Handsworth called on representatives of the clubs to take action to modify the rules of the Rugby version of football in order to remove the dangers to players. The furore, however, soon abated and only eight days after Wilcox’s death the Birmingham Daily Post declared that no more letters would be published as ‘all views on the subject have been fully expressed.’
There is no record of any rugby clubs meeting in an attempt to make the game less dangerous despite the various appeals following Wilcox’s death and in October 1876 the Lancet was once more denouncing the game as dangerous for both men and boys. Almost identical incidents to that which led to Wilcox’s death occurred in games at Middleton in Lancashire in 1881 and at Birkenhead Park in 1883 both resulting in the deaths of the injured players. In March 1884 the Lancet once more spoke out against what it considered the brutalities of the Rugby game while in December of the same year the British Medical Journal described football as ‘a barbarous amusement.’
In the following years the newspapers continued to report even minor football accidents and nearly twenty years later, in 1892, ‘the horrors of football’ was still ‘a favourite theme with journalists and correspondents.’
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