Shin-kicking and stoolball: the lethal world of British ‘folk sports’

In this cracking book, Harry Pearson travels Britain taking notes on peculiar local sports, some of which sound as though they were invented by JK Rowling: stoolball, shinty, bat and trap, and Aunt Sally. In the Hallaton game of hand-ba, two teams fight over possession of a bottle – in fact, a wooden barrel – and carry it over the boundary of a field, “carting it through thorn hedges and across barbed-wire fences”. 

The match that Pearson witnessed was “hard to follow… A mass rolling maul that occasionally collapsed in a heap of limbs… That a bottle was down there somewhere seemed a matter of faith.” On this occasion, no ambulance was needed. But a running theme among regional sports is violence beget by personal pride – we all know a rugby man who broke his neck, yet carried on playing – and intense local rivalry. It is reported that during one Georgian game of hand-ba, between the Men of Suffolk and the Men of Norfolk, nine men died. 

Don’t judge, says Pearson: these activities were all invented “before the internet”. His writing style is sublimely funny, the subject full of bathos. Attending a bout of shinty, a Scottish variant of hockey that allows the ball to be played in the air, he asked a local if the game ever results in injury. “For yourself, now, it would be dangerous,” came the reply, “but these lads have played since they left the cradle. They can anticipate the flight of the ball and the movement as surely as…” – at which point, Pearson writes, “our conversation was interrupted by the dull thunk of wood on skull and cries of ‘Doctor, doctor!’ from the pitch.” The wounded man was rushed to casualty in the back of a Ford Sierra.

Pearson’s pastimes tell a social history. There’s a habit nowadays of saying that everything old, such as the Coronation, was invented in the 19th century. Sometimes that’s true – the first regular pigeon race on these islands was in 1881 – but in many cases the Victorians took a pre-existing sport and “civilised” it with rules and middle-class etiquette. They didn’t invent nannying, either. The Tudors went to war on skittles because they feared it undermined the martial spirit. The Puritans tried to eradicate sports that smacked of paganism. The title of Pearson’s book refers to a vicar’s injunction against a vicious food-fight called the hare pie scramble: posters appeared that said, “No pie, no priest and a job for the glazer”, threatening to break the cleric’s windows if he didn’t back down. Which he did.

Consider the fate of the Cotswold Olimpicks. Featuring “wrestling, cudgel-play, leaping, pitching the bar… throwing the sledgehammer, tossing the pike and hare coursing”, the Olimpicks faded under Cromwell, but were restored under the jolly Stuarts, and by the 1700s had added races for scantily clad women. The industrial revolution meant trains, which meant fresh punters, which meant freak shows and hucksters. Targeted by Victorian social reformers (read: boring prudes), however, they appeared to die out in the 1860s. 

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