Fair Catch

The Football Association was founded with the intention of unifying football rather than formally dividing it into different codes. The hope was that their rules would prove satisfactory to everyone, and that the players of more rough-house variants would abandon their misguided ways and adopt the new laws that were intended to promote skill over brute force and make the scoring of goals a more frequent occurrence.    

What we are concerned with here is association football. Regardless of the impact that the football Association had on the game that was being played in the 1860s (the Association code was quite slow to catch on, and local variants of football continued to thrive alongside or even surpass it in popularity) we must accept that without the Football Association there would be no association football. 
And yet, there was a period in its early history during which association football was essentially different from the game we know today, not merely in the subtleties of it's practice or the manner in which players approached the game, but in that some of the most fundamental rules were different. The most significant was that in the first three years of the Football Association game the catching  of the ball by any player was permitted.

From the earliest days of the Football Association there had been an emphasis on moving away from the handling game- the earliest comments of both the public and members of the FA reveal this.

 Earlier codes of rules (which the Association used as reference points) limited the use of the hands.

The Uppingham Rules (1862)

2- HANDS may be used only to stop a ball and place it on the ground before the feet.
Earlier versions of the Cambridge Rules had: 
8- When a player catches the ball directly from the foot, he may kick it as he can without running with it. In no other case may the ball be touched with the hands, except to stop it.
By 1863 the Cambridge Rules were only concerned with the following with regards to handling: 
The ball, when in play may be stopped by any part of the body, but it may NOT be held or hit by the hands, arms or shoulders.
The Sheffield Rules (1858) allowed the following:
3. A fair catch is a catch from any player provided the ball has not touched the ground or has not been thrown from touch and is entitled to a free-kick.
7. It is not lawful to take the ball off the ground (except in touch) for any purpose whatever.
8. The ball may be pushed or hit with the hand, but holding the ball except in the case of a free kick is altogether disallowed.

These codes then, were generally prohibitive of the type of handling we associate with Rugby, other than in the case of the fair catch. 

Early drafts of the Football Association's 1863 Laws of the game did have provision for more handling than was eventually sanctioned: 

Law 9: A player shall be entitled to run with the ball towards his adversaries' goal if he makes a fair catch, or catches the ball on the first bound; but in case of a fair catch, if he makes his mark he shall not run.
It was decided to expunge this draft rule at the fifth meeting of the Football Association (1.12.1863).

The Football Association's 1863 Laws of the game make the following prohibitive references to handling the ball:

Law 9: No player shall run with the ball.
Law 11:A player shall not be allowed to throw the ball or pass it to another with his hands.
Law 12: No player shall be allowed to take the ball from the ground with his hands under any pretence whatever while it is in play.
There is however, the following:
Law 8: If a player makes a fair catch, he shall be entitled to a free kick, providing he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such kick he may go back as far as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked.
Which sounds very similar to the 'mark' rule in Rugby Union (which is also used in Australian Football). The player who catches the ball effectively stops play and becomes untouchable until he punts it. Defensively (as in Rugby Union today) this would be a considerable advantage.

A version of Rugby school's football rules (1862), defines the Fair Catch:
3. A Fair Catch is a catch direct from the foot or a knock on from the hand of the opposite side. (Interestingly enough this was the only legitimate way to get the ball in hand- one couldn't simply pick it up off the floor, even if it was in motion).
My comparing the fair catch to Rugby Union rules is, of course, anachronistic. The Fair Catch was removed from the Football Association's Laws in 1866, and the first Rugby Union Football laws were not written until 1871. This set of rules (more specifically rule 28) defines a  Fair Catch in very similar terms to the Football Association's 1863 laws.

By 1870 the prohibition of handling in Association football was more explicit:
Law 8: No player shall carry or knock on the ball; and handling the ball, under any pretence whatever, shall be prohibited. 
In 1871 the amendment  except in the case of the goal keeper, who shall be allowed to use his hands for the protection of his goal was added.
There was, of course, more handling than the modern game permits up until June 1912.
Law 8 of the Football Association stated: The goalkeeper may, within his own half of the field of play, use his hands, but shall not carry the ball.
This was amended to: The goalkeeper may, within his own penalty area, use his hands, but shall not carry the ball.

see: The Football Association 1863-1883: A Source Book by Tony Brown (2011)