Anyone for a game of beck ball?

Anyone for a game of beck ball?

By Gareth Dennison | 05/08/2020

Anyone for a game of beck ball?


FOUR teams, two balls and water from a blocked up dike across the middle of the pitch — welcome to the wacky world of beck ball.

This rough-and-tumble chaos of this physically-draining sport was watched by thousands when it was resurrected in the 1980s.

Games averaged about 20 goals, it pitted teams of colliery workers against police, teachers and rugby players, it had identical twins as referees and the winners took home a trophy donated by a local car dealership.

It is a sport unique to Maltby and one which played a significant role in healing a seriously fractured community in the aftermath of the 1984/85 miners’ strike.

The game — named after what residents call Maltby Dike — literally became a big fixture within the weeklong Maltby Festivals.

The village’s team rector Alan Davis pushed for such an event — wishing to “re-engender community cohesiveness” — and a festival committee was formed.

Among that group was community bobby Keith Spilsbury, who had remembered his parents talk about the earlier version of beck ball when he was a child.

He was a keen football and rugby player, so was allocated the task of organising the new version, which used the balls from both sports anyway.

“I had been sceptical about beck ball at first,” said Keith. “Maltby was fractured as a result of the strike. It certainly wasn’t a particularly pleasant time.

“I knew the strength of bad feeling and I remember saying at a meeting that it could have been an opportunity for someone, in a sports context, to use violence against me or a colleague.

“That was always the risk, but there was none of that. I did impress on people not to take it seriously. It wasn’t like playing in the Premier League.

“It was basically just a bit of a laugh, a lark and very rough and tumble. It was physically exhausting. An hour of beck ball took a great deal of energy.”

The earlier version of the game had been inspired by the Royal Shrovetide football match still played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in Ashbourne, Derbyshire — continuing a ball game tradition dating back to at least the 12th century.

Alice Rodgers, a founder member of Maltby Local History Society, said: “It was the idea of a number of Maltby teachers who wanted to raise money for sports equipment for the children in, I think, the late 1920s.

“The original Maltby game was played through the dammed up Maltby Dike by a team of teachers and a team from the pit.

“Their day also included a greasy-pole challenge over the deepened water and other similar antics.

“The first Maltby Festival took place about 18 months after the end of the 1984/85 strike.

“It was noteworthy that the four teams were miners, teachers, Maltby Comp old boys’ rugby club and emergency services. There were large crowds and it was great fun!”

After Keith was handed the role of leading the beck ball revival, he researched the older version.

“It was clear from early on in us resurrecting beck ball that we weren’t going to be able to do what they did all those years ago,” he said.

“It would have meant sequestering many farmers’ fields. It had been played over an expansive area, with probably hundreds of people taking part. That was never an option.

“I had to sell it to my superintendent. He was old school, but I pushed him for the police to be involved, not only in beck ball but the whole festival, so we also took the horses and dogs to the gala.”

Maltby Dike was dammed up to run through the middle of the “pitch”, which had rough, natural boundaries such as rows of hawthorne trees down at the Maltby Crags venue.

“It was about the size of a football pitch, but by no means the shape of one,” said Keith, now 62.

“It was higgledy-piggledy, with four goalposts as near as we could to the corners.

“One of the refs chucked the ball up to start with and then ran off, as there was always a mass pile-up at the start, a scrum of bodies. It was chaotic.

“The best advice I offered anyone was if you find yourself in possession of a ball, kick it quick! If you tried to run or hang on to it, you were asking for trouble.

“We had plenty of spare balls because they would get stuck in trees. And there was little discipline about how many were in play at any one time.

“The rules were barely rules. It was no ungentlemanly conduct, but that was down to the discretion of the refs.”

Any player deemed to have stepped out of line was required to tread water in the deepest part with only their head above water.

Brothers Jon and Mark Carratt — once in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s tallest twins — were the officials.

Jon, now 65, said: “It took place down at the very bottom of the Crags, past where the Caledonian pub was and near the swimming pool, which was built by the miners.

“You could pay sixpence and stop in all day at that pool. Some of us used to go up on the diving board platforms and do ‘suicide’ jumps to soak the gangs of lasses when they arrived.

“Beck ball was played near there, with the water dammed just down from the parish church with railway sleepers.

“The water was halfway and you had one ref on each side. We ended up getting soaked, jumping in and it was freezing.

“Being refs meant we could give yellow cards and make people tread water for five minutes. If they walked away mumbling something about the yellow card we could tell them to get back in the water.”

He added: “The crowds were 1,500 to 2,000 and they sold ice creams and burgers. People had a real day out and it was lovely on the Crags then for families. I take the grandkids down and reminisce about those times.

“It was a good laugh and people met up at the Catholics or miners’ welfare afterwards.”

Keith’s sister, Janet Brown, remembers how family members helped dam the dike — and how her husband Jim was a late addition to play.

“He was an ex-soldier, just come out of the army and suddenly he was getting roped into all this because they were a man short.

“I was putting calamine lotion on his nettle stings for about three days. I don’t think they cleared the ground very well that year.”

Janet (70) added: “The Carratts were the refs, which was great because you never knew which one had told you off. It was really funny.

“If you were naughty, there was an especially deep bit of the river where you had to stand up to your neck in it.

“The whole of the bottom of the Crags would be full of spectators, and there were hotdog sellers.

“It was very, very rough. If you came out without a few bruises, you had done well. I can understand why it was stopped. It wasn’t the most hygienic place in the world.”

But did bringing back beck ball accomplish its aim?

“I’m sure it did,” said Keith, who lives near Bolsover and still works in an admin role for South Yorkshire Police.

“The festival weeks as a whole helped to mend relationships, and beck ball was a big part of the festival for a lot of people.”


Rules of the 1980s iteration

Four teams

Four quarters of 15 minutes, with a beer break at half-time

Two balls in play. One rugby ball, one football. Both can be handled or kicked.

Teams of (about) 12 players

You can only score in goal diagonally opposite, meaning you must cross the water

No ungentlemanly conduct (at refs’ discretion)

Anyone sin-binned has to tread water in the deep bit for a time (at refs’ discretion)

Winners take home the trophy from HD Hand on Rotherham Road