FORGIVE these battered pictures from The Northern Echo archive, but they are truly splendid and if we can’t use them this week then when can we use them?
On Tuesday, Sedgefield was the place to be for its ancient Shrove Tuesday Ball Game – a game whose antecedents, and rules, are lost in the hurly-burly of time.
But, as these pictures show, County Durham used to have at least one other battle of a Pancake Day Ball Game. It was in Chester-le-Street, and these pictures were taken in February 1931, which was the last time the game was played as it was then banned because of the danger and violence.
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There are several ball games dotted around the country and they all seem to date back at least to the 12th Century and possibly for centuries earlier. There doesn’t seem to be any real explanation for the existence of the games – although Chester-le-Street is said to have originated from a couple of knights kicking a couple of severed Scots heads down the road.
It may be worth pointing out that in the last decade or so the number of organised pancake races seems to have exploded – we seem to have a desire to be competitive on the first spring occasion.
The Chester-le-Street game was a ruckus but it had real rules. At 1pm, from an upper floor window halfway along Front Street a homemade leather ball was thrown into the throng below. The Upstreeters then battled to get the ball to the top of the street and the Downstreeters battled to get it to the bottom.
Typically, the game lasted five hours. And it was dangerous and violent. In 1891, the footbridge over the town centre beck – the Cong Burn – had collapsed due to the number of excited spectators gathered on it, and a little later, a lad is said to have died from injuries sustained during the action.
It was also bad for trade. Shopkeepers spent days boarding up their windows and still they got smashed.
And so it was banned, although for years afterwards illicit sport broke out on Shrove Tuesday in Front Street until police could confiscate the ball.