Cowling Revives Historic Knur and Spell – By Wyn S. Lee

Supplied By: John Wallace – USA

The old Yorkshire game of knur and spell began to fall from favour at the turn of the century. By the ‘thirties it was becoming a memory. Now it has been revived by a band of enthusiasts in the moorland village of Cowling, and their club is the only one formed to put knur and spell, on an organised footing.

Appeals for knurs, which are made of pot, did not go unanswered. Letters were received from all over Yorkshire, and with them came the knurs, heads, sticks, spells both spring and sling.

Mr. R. Harrison, keeper of the Bolling Hall Museum at Bradford, had several specimens of equipment, and only a vague idea of their use. Now he has built up a comprehensive collection, and relevant material about Britain’s oldest bat and ball game.

Mr. Harrison interested the Bradford Cine Camera Club, and their president, Mr. Hall, has made a pictorial record. He spent some very cold days in the wet fields while filming.

A Knur is a white glazed and ball-shaped piece of pottery, made of special clay and fired at a high temperature. It measures seven-eighths of an inch in diameter and weighs half an ounce.

This type has been in use since 1870 or 1880. Originally wood was used, and painstakingly carved into a ball. That was larger than the pot ones, some being one and a half inches in diameter. George Walker, while gathering material for his book The Costume of Yorkshire, published in 1814, saw the game being played, and remarked that the “nor” was wood. An earlier book, written by one Strutt, Games and Pastimes of England, describes the knur as being made of leather. Can this have been the original knur ?
In the B.B.C.’s programme Eye witness knur and spell was said to have been brought to this country by marauding Norsemen over a thousand years ago. Probably, therefore, leather was the original material and not an abbreviation of Norsemen.

Strutt also states that the stick was bat-shaped. Could cricket be an offspring of this ancient game? We know that cricket was founded before this, and that John Small, of Hambledon, in Hampshire, did much to standardise the game. Yet to see a knur and spell player striking at the knur from the sling spell, also described by Strutt as the method used in his day, gives one the impression of a batsman in those earlier days when wickets were pitched at one end only.
It may not be illogical to assume that golf is another child. Some features of both games are identical. The object in golf is to put the ball in the hole in the least number of strokes. In some games of knur and spell a player endeavours to place the knur, or ball, into a measured area. At the turn of the century knur and spell was termed by the popular press as ” Poor Man’s Golf.”

How the spell got its name is problematical. It is generally agreed that a long sliver of wood is a spill or spell. The sling spell resembles a miniature gallows, and is sometimes referred to as the ” gallus sling,” this last being a phonetical pronunciation.

This sling is believed to be the original, and like the one referred to by Strutt. The one to-day is more adaptable. The up right is slotted near the top, as is also the top arm. Connecting these two by means of a bolt and winged nut allows for play both up or down and sideways. Some have small plumb bobs or small spirit level inlaid in the wood to enable the player to get the pin, or spell, absolutely upright.

In the language of the game the spell is more frequently referred to as the pin. Thus a player setting his spell is “ pricking his pin. ” About Walker’s time the spell resembled a miniature see-saw, pointed at one end, the other having a small hollow in it. This made a receptacle for the wooden ” nor.” The pointed end was struck and this made the ” nor ” airborne. The striker then tried to hit it.

About this time there seemed to have been moves to make the game more spectacular, and various devices were introduced to lift the knur, including tossing the knur with one hand and striking at it with the stick-held hand. The side of the head was hollowed out to hold the knur. A flick of the wrist, a swing back with the stick and the player tried to send the knur into the next parish.

The name for strikes to-day is “rises.” On handicap cards it will be noted that each player is allowed ten rises.

Reverting back to the see-saw spell, the action of getting a rise was known as ” tipping.” To-day this is a general word for all knur and spell games.
Specimens of this type of spell may be seen in Skipton museum and in the Bowes Museum, near Barnard Castle. One will also be found at York; and along-side of them will be their big brothers, the spring spell.

These came into use around 1850, and were either a beautiful job of engineering or a cumbrous monster. They had four spikes about 6-8 inches long, fastened to a block of wood about 18 inches by 8 inches by 12 inches. On the side opposite the spikes was the spring, of leaf pattern.

This was strictly utilitarian and ugly, or beautifully wrought with scrolls. The leaf spring normally was slightly tapered and bore a cup at the tapered end. The wider end was bolted or screwed into the block of wood. A spring loaded catch held down the flat bladed spring. A light touch on tap of the catch sent the knur upward and about two yards forward, though the height and forward movements could be adjusted by turn screws.

One player from the Barnsley area could hit the knur in the dark as well as in daylight, from the spring spell. The secret lay in the careful setting of the spell, keeping the feet at a certain set distance.

This was possible by the ” tekkin’ of a band.” The touching of release, the full pivot around and follow through were all attained by synchronisation. Its weight, however, was against it being carried about, and it gradually fell into disuse.

About the time of the introduction of the spring spell new methods were devised in the making of heads. Strutt had described them as being bat-shaped. In Walker’s day they were an oblong of any hard wood, with a rounded stick tied to them. Then came the idea of making the striking face a separate piece: sycamore gave the best results as its stringy grain was suitable to the compression it received in the presses that were also produced at that time. The subsequent compression and heat application and tempering produced a face of about 3 inches by 2 inches by ½ inch.

This was the normal size, which had a certain resilience quite different from the lifeless ones used previously. Hornbeam and other hard woods were tried: they proved much too hard, however, and smashed the pot knur.

The face was then glued to a block of beech, generally, the short grain not easily splitting. It measured about 3 inches by 2 inches by 2 inches, and was shaped to the individual’s taste. When finished it weighed five or six ounces, again according to one’s fancy.

The stick resembled a short billiard cue, round and tapered, again according to fancy, 3ft. 6in. to 5ft. long. The tapered end had a flattened surface to match a short dowel which protruded from the head. A light coating of cobbler’s wax was put on each surface. A candle flame when applied melted them sufficiently to be pressed together and bound by a waxed thread.

When the heads received their final shaping and sanding the majority were stained and polished, and some fine examples of craftsmanship were produced.

The rules of knur and spell are simple. In the long knock players take their ten strokes on rises in rotation. A miss counts, and the subsequent winner is the one who sends the knur the furthest. It can be amusing to watch some of the players, after a good send, running with stick upraised after the follow through, in the manner of a bowls player after a good wood, and shouting encouragement.

Score playing is a different proposition and requires a flatish field, taking a line from the ” spell hoil ” to a distance of five score. Pegs are set up at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 score by 2 score in width, the object being to get the ball in the pegged area. A knur alighting just over the 5-score mark counts just the same as one alighting nearer the 6-score mark. In other words, anywhere in any of the pegged areas counts to the player.

To hear anyone, say after a player has just had a strike, that he “cut hissen ” doesn’t mean anything sanguinary, but merely that he’s beaten his previous send. The ” spell hoil ” previously mentioned is the means by which a player can be sure of keeping his feet in the same place.

The ” band ” is string of a variety that will not stretch. It is attached to the bottom of the pin by means of a small hook.

Lined up with the tap arm the player pulls it towards himself. A peg attached to the string is then pressed into the ground. The string-is carried to the player’s right and a short distance away, another peg is put into the ground. Where the pegs mark a heel and toe plate are put in the ground then the string is lifted.

” Doll hoil ” is another dialect term and is the place, just off centre, on the face from which the player gets the longest send.

Another name for a head is ” Kind head ” which means a head with a not too hard face. Expert players use these on windy days to enable them to lift the knur into wind. A score is a measure of twenty yards.