Scottish Referee (1888-1914)

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, ‘Scottish Referee‘, in Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, ed. by Laurel Brake et al (ProQuest, 2012). There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

Scottish Referee (1888-1914).  The Scottish Referee was the most successful of the Scottish sport-only weekly newspapers during the late-nineteenth century.  After the turn of the century, it was the only remaining journal devoted solely to sport, continuing to print bi-weekly issues until November 1914.  The Referee’s success, and its eventual move to a bi-weekly printing ironically reflected the challenges of its own genesis.  By the mid-1880s, Scottish dailies had gotten their act together with regard to reporting sport.  This was especially the case for Glasgow’s Evening Times.  By the late-1890s, the invention of the telephone ensured a faster delivery of news and scores.  The Referee’s survival, then, moved against the tide.  Daily newspapers’ coverage of sport was not typically as in-depth as that of the Referee, but in an atmosphere of intense partisanship, and with sport’s profitability as an industry driven to an extent by gambling (especially in football), speed came to be of more value than pages-long analysis.

The Referee’s arrival on Monday, 5 November 1888 was a game-changer in the field of sport weeklies.  While the already-existing weeklies, the Scottish Athletic Journal and the Scottish Umpire, had in-depth coverage of sport, the Referee’s was even more thorough, with a wider breadth of subject matter, and – more importantly – sold at a lower price.  The paper was on sale for one halfpenny, cheaper than both the SAJ and the Umpire.  The same month of the Referee’s arrival marked the bitter rivals’ amalgamation into Scottish Sport, which survived until 1900.

Football was the main selling point of the Referee, and coverage of it was given from many different angles, for both the ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ tiers of the game, with regional competition analysed as well.  ‘Cups and contests’ covered the main matches of the week, while the active character ‘Our Special Commissioner’ typically provided critiques of the main games.  ‘Fitba Chats’, on the other hand, provided the ‘opinion’ of the ‘working man’, with the column written in a Scots dialect.  Other columns on other sports included ‘Tries and Touches’ (rugby), ‘Cycledom’, ‘Splashes and spurts’ (swimming), ‘Far and Sure’ (golf), ‘Over the Border’ (English football), a column on gambling, ‘Masks and Faces’ (amateur dramatics), and the extensive ‘Our Fireside’, which provided information and advice on whist, chess, draughts and billiards.

Advertising was an important part of the Referee’s repertoire.  During the 1890s, adverts in the Referee cost three shillings per inch, rising to six when in close proximity with the leader.  Despite the paper initially being wary of professionalism, this included advertisements from English clubs seeking to employ Scottish footballers.  Like other sport papers, the Referee set deadlines for the submission of articles from around the country (typically the central belt), with real names rarely used.  The paper, on a number of occasions, engaged in sectarian-baiting with regards to its correspondence and cartoons, and was particularly critical of Celtic FC, founded in 1887 initially as a charity for Catholic youth in Glasgow’s East End.  The Glasgow-based Referee’s first proprietor was Frederick Wicks (1888-90), with J.M.Smith printing the paper from 1892 to 1899.

Matthew L. McDowell


Andrew Aird, Reminiscences of Editors, Reporters and Printers During the last Sixty Years.  Glasgow:  Aird & Coghill, 1890.

Joseph M. Bradley, Ethnic and Religious Identity in Modern Scotland:  Culture, Politics and Football.  Aldershot:  Avebury, 1995.

Matthew J. McIntire. ‘“The news that sells”:  Sport and the press in British society, 1855-1914’. Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 2003.

Bill Murray, The Old Firm:  Sectarianism, Sport, and Society in Scotland.  Edinburgh:  John Donald, 1984, 2000.

Ed. John S. North, The Waterloo Directory of Scottish Newspapers and Periodicals. Waterloo, Ontario:  North Waterloo Academic Press, 1989.

Scottish Athletic Journal, Mitchell Library.

Scottish Referee, Mitchell Library.

Scottish Sport, Mitchell Library.

Scottish Umpire, Mitchell Library.

Alexander Sinclair, Fifty Years of Newspaper Life, 1845-1895:  being chiefly a Reminiscences of that Time.  Glasgow:  Glasgow Herald, 1895.

John Weir, ‘The Press and Scottish Football pre-1914’, Scottish Football Historian 55 (October 1994), 22-28



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