Victorian Football

Claude Grahame-White was a leading pioneer during the early days of aviation. He became the first licensed British aeroplane pilot in 1910, competed in numerous air races and challenges, and became an international celebrity. He established a flying school and an aeroplane and aerodrome design company, and wrote numerous books and articles about aviation.

He was also, it would seem, a football fan. In 1912 (just four years after the Wright Brothers' pioneering first flight), Grahame-White wrote a lengthy article, syndicated to several newspapers, which invited the reader to imagine watching a football match from his aeroplane. "I want the reader to join me, in fancy, in a novel, amusing and instructive exploit," he wrote, "and imagine himself with me as a passenger in my big Farman biplane, witnessing a football match from the unusual vantage point of the air."

The reader would meet him at his flying school at Hendon Aerodrome in north London, Grahame-White explained, and fly with him across the country to watch the match, before returning to the aerodrome. The Farman III biplane had two stacked wings and a 50 horsepower engine that drove a twin-blade propellor. "The passenger in the aeroplane is provided with a comfortable seat immediately behind that of the pilot," he explained.

After safety checks, the engine was started, and, on Grahame-White's signal, the ground mechanics released the plane. "The passenger feels it move forward without jolt or jar; then, before he realises that we have left the ground, he glances down and sees the aerodrome slipping away below. Up! Up! The swift, smooth rush provides a sensation that the passenger cannot liken to anything else he has experienced before. The noise of the motor sinks to a drone... And so across country, 1,500 feet high. Houses, roads and trees are dwarfed to midget-like proportions. The tiny world below appears far-off and unreal."

"Soon the football field we intend to visit lies in front of us. From our bird's-eye point of view it appears just a tiny strip of dull-coloured green, framed by a fringe of black. As we approach closer, we see that this black fringe is the crowd of spectators who surround the field. Viewed from an aeroplane flying at a considerable height, a man seems a queer little creature. He appears just an insignificant black dot, with a tiny white speck at the top of it. This white speck, by the way, is the face, upturned to watch the aeroplane fly past."

Claude Grahame-White pilots his biplane outside the White House, Washington DC, 1910

Grahame-White switches off the engine, tilts the wings, and allows the plane to descend. "This is one of the most glorious sensations in flying," he writes. "Swiftly, gracefully, the biplane glides down."

"The football field grows rapidly larger to our sight. Tiny flutters of white appear among the crowd... people are waving their handkerchiefs at us... Now a roar of cheering greets our ears. I let the biplane sink until it appears as though we are about to land in the field. Then, switching on the motor again, I steer through the air quite close to the rows of spectators, whose excited faces and waving hats are now distinctly visible."

"Ah! What is that? A number of little red dots have emerged... They move towards the centre of the field, and are joined by a group of midgets in blue. It is the two teams, about to commence the game." He brings the plane around and reduces the throttle "till we seem almost to stand still in the air".

"Gazing down, we can see every detail of the scene below. It does not look like a contest between men, but some interesting parlour game, played on a small green cloth by tiny marionettes."

"We watch the players take their positions. The football, when it is placed ready for kick-off, appears an infinitesimal brown speck against the green. And so the game begins."

"We are at an ideal height to see everything that happens. Whereas those on terra-firma look across the field and sometimes miss a neat piece of play... we from our seats aloft have the whole game mapped out vividly immediately below us."

"Combination play, which is the science of football, can, of course, be studied quite well from the ground, but every piece of clever combined work is revealed to us from our aeroplane, much more realistically than would be the case if we were standing at the edge of the field."

"A quick run down the field by the red forwards is seen with wonderful clearness... A murmur of the crowd's strenuous shouting reaches us. It is one of those moments of intense excitement that gives football its immense vogue. 'Will they score?' That is the question the crowd below is asking itself, craning forward to see every movement of the players. All thoughts of the aeroplane above their heads is banished from the people's minds. It is now the game, and nothing but the game, that chains their attention."

"I dip the biplane a little lower to give us a better view. Ah! The red forwards have broken completely through the blue defence... From the wing to the centre-forward comes the ball. The goal-keeper makes a dart to one side. But it is no good. Like a flash the centre-forward has shot the ball into the corner of the net. Reds have scored! The roar of the cheering comes to us plainly. We, too, give a cheer and wave our hands. Football, as seen from an aeroplane, is a scintillating novelty."

Claude Grahame-White surveys the wreckage of his biplane following an accident, 1912

Grahame-White and his passenger watch the game until the end, "noting every detail from our bird's eye point of view". "Then, having joined the earth-folk in their applause of the reds' three-goal victory, we speed back to the aerodrome and make a perfect landing."

"'By Jove!' says my passenger, 'there are many worse ways of spending an afternoon than seeing a football match from an aeroplane! Let's do it again.' And we decide that we will."

Extracted from A Football Match as Seen From an Aeroplane by Claude Grahame-White, published in various sources including Western Daily Press, 31 August 1912.

How did we become football fans? Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans is the brand new book from Goal Post's Paul Brown, tracing the remarkable evolution of the fan from the earliest origins of the game right through to the present day.
It's available from at the sale price of £10 (RRP £12.99), and from Amazon stores worldwide.

Leave a Comment