Water polo is now an established sport played throughout the world but it has a long history which began in England. The first documented evidence of the game was when the Bournemouth Premier Rowing Club carried out the 'first series' of aquatic handball matches' on 13 July 1876.
Various ball games had been played in the water before this time, the most common seems to have been a type of polo in which the swimmer 'rode' an inflated skin or barrel, propelling the ball with the hands or a form of paddle and moving about by using the feet. These games were probably more in the way of 'comic relief' and the game played on 'barrel horses' was still to be seen in the early years of the present century. This is probably where the name 'Polo' came from.
Evidence suggests that the game was played in the 1870's in Leeds with a rugby ball and in Burton-on-Trent where a goal was scored by grounding the ball on the end of the bath, with the goalkeeper standing on the end and allowed to jump onto any player in possession of the soft india rubber ball.
By 1884 the Midland Counties ASA had sufficient clubs playing to institute its own Championship, won by Birmingham and Leander, and the Swimming Association of Great Britain was asked to recognise the game. The Council declined and the Midlanders started the 'Aquatic Football Association'. This stirred the ASA into action and in 1885 the governing body passed an official set of rules.
At the Annual General Meeting of the ASA in 1888 a committee was appointed to revise the rules and formulate a set of championship conditions. The report which was adopted contained two special points: 1. The goals should be 8 feet wide fixed at least one foot from the end of the bath and a cross bar 6 feet high. 2. A player must be actually swimming when passing or playing the ball.
The first international match was against Scotland in 1890 and was won by Scotland although it was played under the English rules. The following year the match was played in Scotland and again the Scots won. The English officials found there were many points in the Scottish laws which could be adopted. With a view to unifying the laws an International Board was set up. In Liverpool in 1892 this body passed a revised set of rules which was binding on both countries.
With all this pioneering work it is not surprising that Britain dominated the early Olympic Games, winning golds in the 1900, 1908, 1912 and 1920 Games. Today England does well to compete against teams from Europe and around the world, the vast majority of whom are profession players and enjoy televised coverage and large crowds of spectators.
The modern player must be exceptionally fit, strong and fast at swimming, even when not involved in play, s/he cannot touch the sides or floor of the pool and must ‘tread water'. They spend hours daily carrying heavy loads across the pool to build leg power, swimming to increase their speed and fitness and on weights to improve strength and stamina necessary to wrestle for the ball.
Source: British Swimming