Tug-of-War History


A history of English tug-o-war

By Peter Lambert, Editor of

On the last day of 1599 Queen Elizabeth the first granted a charter to a group of London merchants allowing them to send ships to the east Indies  to trade as The East India Company.

Those early ships were not the great tea clippers of later years, but they would have been crewed by men that had learned their seafaring ten years earlier on much more dangerous decks fighting the Spanish Armada.

In 1588 Sir John Hawkins designed and built a new type of fighting ship for the English navy. Hawkins’s revolutionary design reflected a new approach to naval warfare by increasing their length, cutting down on the width and leveling off their deck lines. Along with the new hull design came new high velocity cannons placed low on the water line.

The new outline was the technological expression of a profound tactical revolution which no longer treated the sailing vessel as a means of conducting land war at sea, but as an instrument of destruction suited to the ocean.

The English sea captains in their trim new warships could outpost,  out    man oeuvre and out sail anything the Spanish had afloat. Their ships swept in close to the huge Spanish galleons and delivered terrible broadsides and then veered off, either to wheel about and thunder in another salvo or move on to the next one.

Spanish Gallantry was recorded by the English as magnificent, but with their ships sunk from under them and half their crews dead, they had nothing left to fight with.

You may ask how does all of this have anything to do with tug of war! The great maneuverability of these ships was supplied by teams of men on the now open decks, pulling on ropes to take in or let out sail much like a modern racing yacht does today. The only difference being that they were  shot at by musket men from the Spanish ships. Imagine trying to pull on the rope and listen to orders with a hail of lead shot hitting the deck all round you.

Down below on the gun decks familiar orders where being shouted out over the noise. When a cannon was ready to fire, it was pulled up tight into the gun port with ropes and pulleys and held there to stop the recoil hurling it back across the deck. In the dark cramped space were the gun crews worked, you had to listen for the voice of the gunnery officer. When he was satisfied the aim was ready, and that depended on the rise and fall of the sea, he shouted, Take the Strain, and as the lighted wand came down on the touch powder, Steady!

It was the only way, and it is still our way, can you think of any other sport that takes four commands to start it.

For the next two hundred years ship design advanced as ever faster ships to bring tea from India were required. The fresher the new season tea the higher the price for the ship owners, as much as ten shillings a ton.

These crews were not press ganged into serving, they were hand picked and offered a share of the profits, so the faster the ship the higher the wages.

Legendary ships and captains came from these times, How good these men were we can only guess at, but one such ship was the Cutty Sark launched at Dunbarton on the Clyde in 1869. For the first 16 years of her life she made only unspectacular runs and was not considered fast enough for the tea trade, so she was employed hauling wool from Australia.

All this changed in 1885 when the 49 year old Richard Woodget, a Norfolk farmer's son, who had sailed the world as seaman,  before accepting his greatest command. Woodget was an intuitive seaman and a born leader and knew exactly how to get the very best from the men, he drove them as hard as he drove the ship, but they worshipped him and strained every sinew for him.

Within a year she became the fastest ship on the sea, the records she set for sail then, still stand for sail today.

On July 26th 1889 she enjoyed her proudest moment when she swept past the crack P & O Steamer Britannia off eastern Australia and docked in Sidney Harbor a full hour before the Britannia steamed in, with her passengers and crew lining the rails to give this remarkable sailing ship a resounding cheer.

With the coming of steam our link with those tough remarkable men may have been lost, but for a young army officer who on a troop ship on his way  to India, watched the sailors pulling a form of tug of war on deck while there ship was becalmed.  The boson explained that it was a way of keeping the crews fit, and from the rivalry and great pleasure that the men got from it, he decide to put his men to it, to keep them fit on the long sea journey from England to India.

In India the army put it on the grass, and it quickly became a source of great rivalry between regiments. The number of men in a team, and the style of pulling culminated in a near deadlock situation, where pulls of two hours were common. Sitting , locking, anything to stop the other side taking rope were used.

The rivalry between the regiments became bitter.  At the end of one pull that lasted four hours some men were near to death. The army realized it must act as the whole thing was getting out of hand. Rather than stop it altogether they set about devising rules that would ban anything that prevented the free movement of the rope, knowing that no man could pull with just his hands for anything like the times that were going on.

Now tug of war entered a golden age. It became the favorite sport of the other ranks, who brought it back to England. On leaving the army they took it with them into the police forces and the Fire brigades  and into the factories. Soon it spread across the whole country, displacing anything that had been before.

The Amateur Athletic Association took it up and added to it. So popular was it that it was included in the first modern Olympics in 1900,  which Sweden won, Sweden being another great seafaring nation.

The games of 1908 were won by England, as they did the last time it appeared in 1920.

On the home front all the early records of the AAA Championships show military and Police teams taking the honors.

Right up until the outbreak of the second world war the services were the driving force behind tug of war in this country. The first Village team to show in the records books were New Haw & Woodham in 1956.

In 1958 it is estimated there were in excess of six hundred teams in the country, though not all the teams joined, the English Tug of War Association was founded.

History has demonstrated the name Tug-O-War came from those crews that hauled on the ropes to power the Man-O-War Ships. Everything points to this as the one that spread across the world, by way of the English tug of war Association who were one of the founder members of TWIF.

Now over a hundred and fifty years since the army laid it down in its first form, and with many new rules. It still comes to us with much of its naval and army heritage. Army boots are still the approved footwear. The terms number one, anchorman, take the strain, and steady are all words straight off those decks of 1588.

The sheer fitness and skill of teams like those that drove the Cutty Sark into the record books can still excite us today.

Whatever it was that got into their blood, that made them love it so much, still flows through mine, and every tug of war man and woman I know.

Peter Lambert,