Shrove Tuesday in Derby was a hectic day for the city as Thistleton-Dwyer notes:
“Formerly the inhabitants of Derby had a foot-ball match between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s; the conflicting parties being strengthened by volunteers from the other parishes, and from the surrounding country.”
Some significant culturally was the custom that the bells of the different churches in Derby would have rang their merry peals on the morning giving rise to a rhymn of the five parishes of All Saints’, St. Peter’s, St. Werburgh’s, St. Alkmund’s, and St. Michael’s:
“Pancakes and fritters, Say All Saints’ and St. Peter’s; When will the ball come, Say the bells of St. Alkmum; At two they will throw, Says Saint Werabo’;O! very well, Says little Michel.”
Like similar mob football company the goals were wide apart; the goal of All Saints’ was the water-wheel of the nun’s mill, and that of St. Peter’s, on the opposite side of the town, at the gallow’s balk, on the Normanton Road. The ball was also unique it was:
“of a very large size, was made of leather, and stuffed quite hard with shavings.”
It would be thrown in;
“about noon was thrown into the market-place, from the Town Hall, into the midst of an assembly of many thousand people, so closely wedged together, as scarcely to admit of locomotion. The moment the ball was thrown, the “war cries” of the rival parishes began, and thousands of arms were uplifted in the hope of catching it during its descent. The opposing parties endeavoured by every possible means, and by the exertion of their utmost strength, to carry the ball in the direction of their respective goals, and by this means the town was traversed and retraversed many times in the course of the day; indeed, to such an extent has the contest been carried, that some years ago the fortunate holder of the ball, having made his way into the river Derwent, was followed by the whole body, who took to the water in the most gallant style, and kept up the chase to near the village of Duffield, a distance of five miles, the whole course being against the rapid stream, and one or two weirs having to be passed; on another occasion, the possessor of the ball is said to have quietly dropped himself into the culvert or sewer which passes under the town, and to have been followed by several others of both parties, and, after fighting his way the whole distance under the town, to have come out victorious at the other side where, a considerable party having collected, the contest was renewed in the river.”
He continues that:
“On the conclusion of the day’s sport the man who had the honour of “goaling” the ball was the champion of the year; the bells of the victorious parish announced the conquest, and the victor was chaired through the town. So universal has been the feeling with regard to this game, that it is said a gentleman from Derby having met with a person in the backwoods of America, whom from his style and conversation he suspected to be from the Midland Counties of England, cried out when he saw him, “All Saints’ for ever;” to this the stranger instantly retorted, “Peter’s for ever;” and this satisfied them that they were fellow-townsmen.”
Sadly this would not be the case even though by 1846 it had become the biggest and most notorious football event in the UK and ‘that ran in the veins of every Derbeian’ Indeed the historian, William Hutton, states in his 1791 History of Derby that it was so popular the ‘the very infant learns to kick and then to walk’.
The game was well supported and the fact that the locally influential, Joseph Strutt, would play dressed in a specially made buckskin suit, suggested its wide support.
However 1846 was a significant day for the custom when the army was called in to stop it. William Mousley, the city Mayor had been granted permission from the home secretary to it using the facility of two troops of dragoon guards.
However, the players were not keen on following the ban and the ball was thrown up in the Morledge, it was Benjamin Fearn, one of Derby’s first policemen who was sent in to get it. He is said to have dived into the throng of players emerging soon with the ball which was then cut to pieces. Yet the crowd were defiant, later the same day, another ball was thrown up; again the police and dragoons this time chased the players out into the countryside around Normanton. Fearn again gained the ball and although he had it for ten minutes so players from St Peters overpowered him and threw him over a hedge. Despite this 1846 marked the end of the custom and its long history.