Atherstone Ball Game - The Rules
There is only one rule, there aren't any.
The game begins at 3pm when the ball is thrown by a local celebrity from the window of the Barclays Bank on Atherstone's main shopping street. The object of the game is to be holding onto the ball at 5pm, when a loud klaxon is sounded to signal the end of the game. The ball may legitimately be deflated or hidden after 4.30pm. Any other tactic to hold on to the ball is permitted, the only stipulation being the ball can't be taken outside of Atherstone.
There are no goals and no official teams, though players often work together and protect each other, often in pub teams or through family connections. The participants are, the vast majority of the time, local. The ancient Angel Inn on Atherstones Market Square have had much success in winning the Ball Game in recent history.
The ball is specially made each year by Gilbert of Rugby, who are world famous for their rugby balls. It is 27 inches (65+ cm) in diameter and weighs four pounds being filled with water at the beginning of the game.
Atherstone Ball Game - The Action
The game begins fairly tamely with the ball being kicked up and down the towns main street by anyone brave enough to have ago or get hold of the ball. There are some marshalls who keep a sense of order and allow the kids to have a kick if they wish.
Things though seriously heat up as time goes on and the Ball Game ends in dozens of men literally brawling to get hold of the ball and to hold onto it. Many of the ball games more serious competitors often drink for many hours before the game begins. Shop fronts up and down Long Street, where the game is mainly played, are boarded up in preparation for the afternoon. The towns Queen Elizabeth High School also finishes the school day early on Shrove Tuesday.
Whoever is able to hang onto the ball at the end of the game not only wins but is also allowed to keep the ball and becomes some what of a local celebrity.
Atherstone Ball Game - The History
This traditional Shrove Tuesday Ball Game has been held annually since the early 12th Century and is one of Atherstone's claims to fame. The origin of the game, in the reign of King John, is thought to have been a "Match of Gold that was played between the Warwickshire Lads and the Leicestershire Lads on Shrove Tuesday".
In the year 1925 when I was 5 yrs old the only unboarded shop window in Long Street was that of Mr "Nally" Meads, dairy man. It was at the lower end of the town almost opposite to The Wheatsheaf public house. I saw my father (who, in his pit black, had come home via the old paddy train which plied between Watling Street and Baddesley Colliery) pick up the ball as he turned into Tommy Johnson's entry and kick it through Mr Meads window. Father swore it was accidental, Mr Meads averred it was deliberate. In those days the ball was made by a sadler in Market Street and could certainly not have been filled with water - no-one would have been able to pick it up.
When I was at Q E Grammar School we were never given time off to witness the early stages of the game, though several factories allowed the girl employess a break in order to have a kick at the ball. In my early days the Shilton family usually smuggled the ball, often by knifing it - one had his hand stabbed, another, recovering from pneumonia, made away with it in the canal. They were able in those times of deep depression to collect monay by displaying the trophy around the public houses.
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