Great Britain

MEMORY LANE: Knur and spell was a big hitter in the world of sport

Here, Robin Longbottom looks at the history of a forgotten sport which was once second only to cricket in popularity across Yorkshire

STOP someone in the street and ask them to tell you what they know about knur and spell and you will, in all likelihood, be met with a completely blank look.

And yet, this now forgotten game is said to have once been the second most popular sport in Yorkshire after cricket.

The Keighley and South Craven area was once a stronghold of the sport.

Three pieces of tackle were required for play. The knur – or ball – which varied in size

from that of a golf ball to a large marble, was made of wood, usually holly, box or lignum vitae and had indentations cut into it to aid flight.

The spell was a rather complex-looking piece of equipment consisting of a base with four spikes, on the underside, to fix it into the ground.

The top side had a spring with a cup at the end to hold the knur and a trigger mechanism that could be tripped to launch the knur into the air.

Individual players often had spells made to their own specification, some were quite simple whilst others were fitted with complex adjusters and hair trigger mechanisms.

The club was like a golf club but had a block of wood at the end for striking the knur. It was held two handed, could measure from three feet six inches to about four feet six inches in length and was swung after the fashion of a baseball strike.

The game required the player to rise the knur into the air by tripping the spring on the spell and then striking it in mid air to send it as far as possible.

A match may have two or more players and before the start of play the number of strikes would be agreed, sometimes as many as 30, each player taking five strikes alternately.

The distance of each strike would be measured in scores (a score being 20) of yards and therefore if a player achieved a distance of 100 yards his score would be five.

At the end of the match each player’s score was added up and the person with the greatest aggregate score was declared the winner.

Many good players achieved a semi-professional status, playing in matches for prize money varying between £10 and £100.

In 1881, J Bottomley of Keighley played S Sugden of Bingley for a prize of £30, about half a year’s income for most working men.

The match of 30 rises, or strikes, was played at the Airedale Recreation Grounds at Sandbeds.

At these matches a knur was often hit a distance of over 200 yards and the furthest ever recorded was in 1899 by Fred Moore of Halifax, who hit a knur 372 yards and one foot.

Local village games were generally more modest affairs.

In March 1900 a match was played at Cononley, near Skipton, for the prize of a silver pocket watch.

Here a total of 16 contestants took part, each of whom had five rises or strikes.

The winner was W Horner, who achieved a total aggregate of 23 score. If he had hit all five rises his average distance would have been just under 100 yards for each strike.

Interest in playing the old ‘scores’ matches eventually declined in the 1920s and ‘long knock’ matches came into favour.

The object of this simpler game was to see who could knock a knur the furthest.

As this game gained popularity pot knurs, made of white china clay, replaced the old wood ones and the spell gave way to hitting a stationary knur suspended in a sling.

An attempt was made to revive the game at Sutton-in-Craven during the 1990s but difficulties over insurance and suitable playing fields saw its eventual failure.

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