Ivey on Taylor, 'Sport and the Home Front: Wartime Britain at Play, 1939-45'

Matthew Taylor. Sport and the Home Front: Wartime Britain at Play, 1939-45. Routledge Studies in Modern British History Series. London: Routledge, 2020. Tables. xiii + 334 pp. $170.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-367-22925-2; $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-367-22924-5.

Reviewed by James Ivey (University of California San Diego)
Published on H-War (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57568

In Sport and the Home Front, Matthew Taylor guides the reader through the British government’s use of sport to keep morale up during World War II (1939-45) and the meaning of sport to Britons in such troubling times. Taylor rejects the tendency within existing scholarship that emphasizes “what was lost” and that refers to sport “as a ‘casualty’ of the war.” Instead, Taylor argues that sport “reinforced and expanded” its importance within Great Britain during the war and can be used to understand political and social differences across the British Isles during this period (p. 296).

Using two approaches, Sport and the Home Front first tracks the ebbs and flows of government restrictions on sport from the initial phony war period between the invasion of Poland and the invasion of France, through heightened criticisms of sport after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, and then through the loosening of limitations and plans for a new postwar sports culture from 1944 onward. This historical narrative is complemented by Taylor’s thematic approach through which he demonstrates how sport on the home front reflected class and national differences as well as gender politics within Britain. These themes provide thoughtful examination of how sport affected British society and revealed both underlying issues during World War II and opportunities for change.

The book’s greatest strength is its source base. Taylor draws on diverse sources, making this study multidirectional rather than unidirectional. Government files show how the war cabinet, civil defense concerns, and welfare departments decided on which sports to allow and which to stop. Concerns over fuel supplies led to the end of speedway races and to political scandals involving sports teams traveling to away matches. Political debates on the acceptability of certain sports (horse racing versus greyhounds) reflected class biases within the higher levels of government that allowed for a near-complete race calendar but limited use of dog tracks. Taylor also uses letters, diaries, and records from local clubs and organizations to understand how sport was adapted to wartime personal and social needs. Club minutes highlight debates over the acceptability of playing games while the nation was at war but also the clubs’ roles in helping keep morale up. Letters display how those at home communicated with those serving abroad through sports news, both local and national. And personal diaries indicate that sport was integral to feelings of normalcy and serve as an example of what the war was being fought over: sport was Britain.

In between these sources are the reports from the Mass Observation project, founded just two years before the start of the war to monitor public attitudes and morale. These reports provide fascinating insight about a Britain more fractured by class and nation than expected, given popular conceptions of the “Blitz Spirit.” Class was a contentious issue in discussions over sport during World War II. Issues over which sports to allow and which to restrict caused friction between sections of the British population. Since sport was considered an important pastime within Britain, any restrictions affecting one class over another was taken as an attack and as unfair. The Mass Observation reports demonstrate that many working-class Britons felt they were being affected more than the middle and upper classes, which created domestic friction that the government was forced to consider in its decision-making processes. These Mass Observation accounts, short passages, long essays, and survey results are a fascinating resource in Taylor’s argument and make the home front a lot more complicated to understand.

In addition to friction between different classes, nationalism was an issue that sports policy exacerbated. Britain, with its four constituent nations, was both united and divided by sport. Concepts of Britishness that were tied to sport, that is, “fair play” or Sunday cricket on the village green, were southern English, upper-middle-class aspirations rather than an identity that would translate across all of England, let alone the whole of Britain. Taylor shows how certain aspects of English culture being pushed upon other nations through centralized propaganda, largely from the government and BBC, increased resentment among certain segments of the population. In response to Anglocentric propaganda, other nations responded in kind. The war increased the popularity of Scottish documentaries about the nation and sport both domestically and abroad. The purpose of these films was to boost Scottish patriotism, draw attention from other countries to Scotland’s culture, and encourage viewers to visit. Just as with class, Taylor clearly demonstrates that sport had the ability to simultaneously foster unity and sow division.

Lastly, Taylor’s discussion of gender and sport during World War II is worth mentioning as it is one of his strongest areas of examination. The drafting of so many women into the workforce during World War II, as had happened in World War I, meant that there was increased focus in government on keeping women fit, healthy, and happy through the provision of welfare-related sports programs. Programs for women were instituted across the country and participating in sport became part of a national duty. Increased participation in sport was joined by increased participation in sports administration. The departure of many men for the military meant that sports clubs and organizations across Britain were maintained by female directors and board members. The war provided experiences in administrative roles for many female members of clubs that would not have been available otherwise. These opportunities allowed administrators to gain useful experience and participate in the postwar planning for sport. Increased participation across the gender divide, in both playing and serving in administrative roles, shows the war as a transformative moment.

As mentioned before, this book engages with a range of themes that will make it interesting to a broad readership. The overarching argument, demonstrating the importance of sport on the British home front and the difference in government attitude toward sport from World War I, makes it noteworthy. Additionally, the book adds to a period that has had limited established sports scholarship. Taylor builds on work by Norman Baker and Tony McCarthy, as well as many theses over the last two decades, to provide an excellent, well-rounded sociocultural and political history of sport in Britain during World War II. Taylor both pays tribute to those who have come before and done excellent research questioning what sport was like during the war and provides a launching platform for those who will want to go deeper into this topic in the future.

Citation: James Ivey. Review of Taylor, Matthew, Sport and the Home Front: Wartime Britain at Play, 1939-45. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57568

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