The Wall Game

It is not known exactly when the Eton Wall Game was first played, but the first recorded game was in 1766. The first of the big St Andrew’s Day matches — between the Collegers and the Oppidans — was probably in 1844. The rules must obviously have been more or less agreed by then, but they were not actually printed and published until five years later.

The rules have been revised from time to time since 1849, but the game has remained essentially the same. The field of play is a fairly narrow strip, about five metres wide, running alongside a not quite straight brick wall, built in 1717 and about 110 metres from end to end. As in all forms of football, each side tries to get the ball down to the far end and then score. Players are not allowed to handle the ball, not allowed to let any part of their bodies except feet and hands touch the ground, not allowed to strike or hold their opponents, and there are also exceedingly strict ‘offside’ rules (no passing back and no playing in front); apart from that, almost anything goes.

Each phase of play starts with a ‘bully’, when about six of the ten players from each side form up against the wall and against each other, the ball is rolled in, and battle is joined. The player in possession of the ball will normally be on all fours, with the ball at his feet or under his knees. Players on his own side will attempt to support him, to establish themselves in a position where he can pass the ball to them, or to disrupt the opposition. Likewise, players on the other side will attempt to obstruct his progress, to force him down, to gain possession of the ball themselves. Occasionally the ball becomes ‘loose’ and a player may be able to kick it out of play: the next bully is then formed opposite where the ball stops or is stopped — quite unlike what happens in soccer or rugby.

At each end of the wall is a special area known as ‘calx’. When play reaches this area, the rules alter slightly (passing back becomes legal, for example) and the attacking side can score. The attackers try to raise the ball off the ground and against the wall, and having done so to touch it with the hand. They then shout “Got it!” and if the umpire is satisfied that all is correct he shouts “Shy!” and awards them a ‘shy’, worth one point. The attackers can now attempt to throw a ‘goal’ which would bring them an extra nine points (the goals are a garden door at one end and a tree at the other). Shies are relatively common, perhaps half a dozen a year, but goals are very uncommon — the last on St Andrew’s Day was in 1909.

The Eton Wall Game is exceptionally exhausting and is far more skilful than might appear to the uninitiated. The skill consists in the remorseless application of pressure and leverage as one advances inch by painful inch through a seemingly impenetrable mass of opponents. Few sports offer less to the spectator, although St Andrew’s Day has become much more spectator-friendly recently.

The College and Oppidan teams practise throughout the Michaelmas Half in preparation for St Andrew’s Day, playing against scratch teams composed mainly of Masters, Old Etonians, and other boys. Come the Lent half, the younger Oppidans get a chance to play: D Wall and E Wall play once a week, practising in the early weeks and then participating in a series of matches (the most serious of which is E Wall versus Chamber Wall, the College equivalent team), and about 40 boys in F are introduced to the game.

Click here to download the Rules.