Traditional Shrove Tuesday Ball Game

Atherstone Ball Game

The Atherstone Ball Game is an ancient Shrove Tuesday tradition in which the people of this normally sleepy rural North Warickshire Town awaken and literally brawl over a large ball up and down the towns small ancient streets.

Shops are boarded up, local schools are closed and towns people of Atherstone gather in the main street at 3pm for the beginning of this 800 year old Shrove Tuesday tradition.

There is only one rule, and that rule is the ball can not be taken outside the town. Anything and everything else goes. The winner in this no holds barred contest is the person holding onto the ball at 5pm.

Welcome to the Atherstone Ball Game, let battle commence.

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.

Walter Croxall

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11 Responses to “Atherstone Ball Game”

  1. andrew cooper Says:

    just woundering if you have got any pictures of the 1967 or 68 ball game because my family was in it and all my uncles have got a ball just need some pictures to go with them and cant find any anywhere
    andy

  2. Harold (H) Taft Says:

    Gary, The 1998 Ball was thrown out by Tony Maycock (Central T.V.presenter)and won by Clint Walker. Upon winning the ball he dedicated his victory to his father Bill,who was terminally ill with cancer.Also i do have photos and cuttings from this year,I will try to get some posted on here if possible. Andrew,through the 60s the ball game was dominated by a team led by a man who was known as (the King of the Ball Game)Mr Sam Fulleylove,again i do have some photos,and will try to post them on here.

  3. Roger Tasker Says:

    I live in Italy but was born not fat away from Atherstone in Castle Bromwich. My sister told me about the ball game today, sounds like a really good day, will try and get there next year. By the way my sister is the old lady walking round with a iPod with no batterys in it. All say hello to Ruth.

  4. me babby Says:

    arm gonna win it next year lark- it’s our babbies turn an’ all. yoth.

  5. admin Says:

    This years winner was Stuart McLean 28 from Atherstone.

  6. Anthony Weaver Says:

    2008 was my first ever Atherstone Ball Game,even though I was born in the George Eliot Hospital Nuneaton (1947 vintage)and live in Bedworth.
    The rain failed to dampen the enthusiasm and I shot a whole roll of film.
    Yesterday’s newspapers,by coincidence,carried the story that the Dean of Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire had decided to cancel their ancient Pancake Race,going b ack 700 years (119 years less than Atherstone),because of “fears” over filling in the Health and Safety bullshit “risk assessment “forms. I suppose for an Anglican Dean,it would be too much for him to simply say “We have managed without the risk assessment forms for 700 years,darlings,and the kids love it, so SEE YOU IN COURT” !!!
    Warmest congratulations to everyone involved in the Ball Game.
    It warms my heart to know that this corner of North Warwickshire has not caved in to the risk assessment forms!
    See you next year!
    Anthony Weaver

  7. >dannie Says:

    i moved into atherstone three years ago and my mate told me somthing about the ball game . To be onest with you i did’t have a clue so 2006 ball game i went and i would of catched the ball if i didn’t see lots of big men hedding towards me ….. ITS GREAT ….lv to all my atherstone buddys lol xxx

  8. Walter Croxall Says:

    Dated 18 Dec 2008,
    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 (founded 1573 and lost with all its traditions to comprehensive idiocy) 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.

  9. debbie edwards Says:

    i have lived in atherstone for 43 years and never missed a ball game. my daughter kimberley as won the golden penny twice. my brother vinno as won three ribbons. it must be my turn to win the ball lol.

  10. Larks Says:

    I am coming to Atherstone this year to participate, and hopefully win the ball game. It’s got my name on it !!!!!!!!!

  11. beth Says:

    i lived in atherstone all me life and me me brother and me dad never missed one ball game the best part is the fatted riots and fights always went home with an injury love bethaney evans xx