The Online Guide to Traditional Games
Knur & Spell, Nipsy etc. - History and Information
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Nipsy is one of a number of games in which the aim is simply to hit a ball or other object as far as possible. In this game, the nipsy, an egg-shaped piece of Lignum Vitae, starts on a brick tilted slightly backwards. It is 'risen' by clipping it on the edge with with the stick whereupon it shoots into the air from whence it is whacked as far as possible. A player is allowed to practice 'rising' the nipsy up to 6 times before he actually takes a strike.
The picture (courtesy Alan Lever) is of Ron Darlow who has just clipped the Nipsy and made it rise. The picture is poignant because Ron died during a later game of Nipsy.
Rather than this author blather on ignorantly about Nipsy, the following is a piece from Alan Lever who used to be the treasurer of the now defunct Barnsley & District Nipsy league (email: ml014c5457 at blueyonder.co.uk).
Nipsy is an old South Yorkshire game similar to the children's games of Piggy/Peggy and the Lancashire game of Billet played in the mill towns surrounding Bolton etc. Around Barnsley the game was and is played by men rather than children. The equipment consisted of a stick, a nipsy and a brick. The nipsy is rested on an up-turned brick, the photo of me on the local field shows one on the brick at the slight angle backwards required.
Although huge hits have been made in practice, to qualify as a record the hit had to be made in a match or a Long Knock competition. The record single hit is acknowledged at 208 yards by Joe Cooke of Monk Bretton. The highest match total (7 hits) is 1061 metres achieved by Frank Lenthal, whose opponent in the match was Keith Steeples who scored 1016 (the only time that scores totalling over 1000 metres were ever attained)
The stick must be made from one piece of wood normally Hickory although Greenheart and Hornbeam have been used to good effect. Originally a road pick shaft and later railway brake sticks were found to be better as they were thicker in the head area. This became important as it was found that if the head was pressed in from a thickness of about two inches to one inch, a more durable head was made. The presses used took many shapes, the majority hardly touching the thickness but all players wanted a "pressed" stick. After a few attempts my last press was made from 2" plates, with four 15" x 1¼" UNF bolts, thrust bearings on each with 4" captive nuts welded to the base plate. A real beast that could shove the head in to the thickness of a twenty packet of cigs, using a ten foot length of pipe and a 1" drive socket for the 1¼" UNF bolts. Setting this in the engineers vice of the welding bench where I was employed as a Pipefitter/welder, I spent many an hour (on the night shift) pressing my sticks.
Shown (courtesy Alan Lever) is Denis Youel of Miners Higham pressing a stick in an engineer's vice.
This was not the ultimate! As you may know Barnsley used to surrounded by Coal mines and in each pits blacksmiths shop was a rail straightener, a press with a hydraulic ram 8" in diameter that would press the heads in very easily BUT all this technology was kept secret from all but the honoured few. This combined with steaming the wood for three hours in a length of 3" pipe before pressing, fashioned a stick with a head that would last a season, others would shred up after a few weeks.
Pictured is Alan Lever with stick, Nipsy and brick. With enormous thanks to Alan Lever.
The nipsy could only be made from two substances, Lignum Vitae or Permali - a wood/ resin "man improved" wood substitute simply because these were the only things that would stand the hammer of being hit without shattering - although they still did quite often. Permali, a trade name was used on the railway as fishplates to bolt the lines together, when they broke the platelayers slung them down the banking but they would still provide enough material for about twenty nipsys. Years ago very crafty players tried using Ivory. It worked perfectly but gave an unfair advantage to the lucky few that had Ivory nipsys. So it was soon banned as was hard composition rubber. It was said that many a Miners Welfare or Working Mens Club snooker table were missing a ball or two at the time...
Most football pitches are just about big enough for Nipsy so this ensured it's survival into the 80's but now getting the required wood, Hickory, Lignum Vitae is getting very difficult. When the coal industry declined the huge marshalling yards in the Dearne Valley/Rotherham areas were closed and this coupled with the modern "Firecracker" welded lines means that this source has dried up.
Apparently a once-popular children's game in Northern regions and especially Yorkshire involved a small rectangular block with tapered ends and a stick. The peggy was placed within a chalked square and hit down on the pointed end, then, when it flew up, you tried to hit it with the stick, which was often an old cut-down broom handle. A player had three attempts to hit the peggy and any sort of hit meant the end of the turn, even a snick that only goes a few feet.
So far this is pretty similar to Nipsy of course, but the stick was somewhat smaller. Arthur Taylor, the pub games historian reports that there was a Peggy league in Castleford in 1969 but Peggy was also a children's game
The children's game features a game-changing additional rule. Once the player has made a successful strike, the player's team can offer the opposing team a number of strides to reach the peggy from the brick. The opponents have to take up this challenge and they pick their best 'strider' who attempts to get to the peggy in the set number of paces or less - if successful, then the reward is to nullify the score for that round. Otherwise the score (which is the number of yards to the peggy) is added to the team's total.
In laying down the challenge the captain requires a fine judgement - he wants to make the offer such that his opponents will think they can make it but... to be just that bit too difficult that in fact they won't be able to!
Knur and Spell (or Knur and Sling)
Knur and Spell is another games whereby men attempt to hit an object as hard as they damn well can (or otherwise swear violently when they miss). The Knur, a hard golf-ball sized ball, is propelled vertically into the air by a Spell, a mechanical device that is tripped when a foot or club presses a lever (like the Trap in Bat and Trap). It would seem that in the Barnsley area the spell (trap) was always used.
The sling, used in the Pennine districts of Yorkshire was only encountered by Barnsley players when Yorkshire Television organised the World Championship in the 1960's and 70's. It is simply a little sling that dangles the knur from a stick stuck in the ground. Other than that the games are exactly the same.
To the right is a picture from manuscript dating from the 1300s that shows just how old this game is.
The aforementioned Alan Lever (see Nipsy) is good friends with the former Knur and Spell World Champion (Yorkshire TV cup 1970s), Fred Lenthall. Alan and Fred have kindly compiled the following invaluable information and description of this jewel of a game as played by them in the seventies.
When Frank first joined the Yorkshire Cup competition, the sling was more common and he was barred from using the trap having to use a broken sling to take part. Needless to say he came nowhere BUT the next year he came with his own sling etc. and duly wiped the floor with the Ellanders who had barred him. Poetic Justice innit (much stronger language than this was used when he hit the big one - with the Agincourt Salute given to em in great measure) Yorkshire Television had (has?) archive film of the proceedings of a number of years competitions and also a fair bit about Nipsy. Frank Lenthal's winning hit that broke a thirty year record at Elland, West Yorkshire was 13 chains 6 yards and 2 feet. Almost 293 yards so a large field was needed. The chain was a surveyors chain of 22 yds, two men and an umpire measuring the hit. Other men would be spread out along the line to make sure the measure was as direct as possible with no bows in the chain.
The second picture is by George Walker c. 1817 and shows how the 'trippet' or 'spell' worked and how the distance was measured by pushing sticks into the ground at regular intervals. The picture to the right shows Knur and Spell depicted in 1890. The last picture is of a Knur and Spell champion - Selwyn Schofield of Elland - setting up the Knur in a sling prior to taking a shot.
Nipsy and Knur & Spell happily co-existed for many years but as the much larger fields needed for Knurr were swallowed up by housing estates and factories, this may have led to it's decline.
The Knur (or Potty)
The game around Barnsley was known as Potty Knocking or just Knurr as the Knurr is a ceramic sphere about 15 mm in diameter commonly used in the kettles of the pre war era to stop limescale furring it up. The water in this area is beautifully soft so potties were quite rare. Later on when it was impossible to get them a local ceramic pipeworks, Naylor's of Cawthorne was roped in to produce new ones. Officially or not is lost in the mists of time.
The Spell quite rightly is the trap (the same mechanism as for 'Bat and Trap') that throws the potty up and forward, normally a piece of spring steel with a cup at the business end to hold the potty, this had spikes at each corner to enable the trap to be bedded down in grass etc. Screw adjustment to the stop bar allowed very small increments in the height and distance the potty was thrown. The swing of the stick was kept constant, adjustments made until contact was made with the potty, this might take days to get right. When all was set up right the player would trip the trap with the stick and doing a round the head swing would hopefully hit the potty.
Around Barnsley the stick was known as a 'Pummel' with the interchangeable heads as pummel heads. Different heads were used for differing weather conditions. Play was always with the wind if possible and different wood faces would tend to loft the potty to take advantage of the wind or if playing with the wind was impossible, a harder face would be used. These wood faces tended to be fruit woods such as Apple or Plum, stuck onto a Beech head (this giving the weight to the pummel head) giving an appearance similar to a 1 wood in golf, the overall stick length being upwards of 5'6" the shaft being made from Hickory. The shaft end was tapered, this fitted very snugly into a matching joint in the pummell head. To change a head, the whipping that tightened the head/shaft joint together was removed and a lit candle gently run up the joint length. This softened the Bitumen that was used as a form of re-usable glue in the joint and the head removed. Cleaning the joint first, new Bitumen was spread in the joint, the new head fitted and the whipping remade. This whipping was the linen thread used by old time cobblers to sew soles on shoes - "Tatchin end" in Barnsley Speke, no idea of its correct name.
To the left is shown a Knur, Spell and Pommell beautifully restored by Richard Dann, an antique tool restorer from Lincolnshire. It was sold to Mark Morrison a US collector of garden equipment. Date is guessed as c1870. The pommell is hazelwood shaft with a boxwood and beech head. The trap is Oak with multiple brass fittings.
In old times, a Billet used to refer to the stick or cudgel or staff used for stiking a ball in various old English games such as Bandy, Tip-cat, 'billet and ball' or Cricket. The stick was often a rudimentary, not entirely straight, unfinished job - and since these games were often played on village greens next to an Inn, 'The Crooked Billet' became a common pub name. However, it is possible that some 'Crooked Billet' pubs in Northern towns might be named not after the old stick but for a small chunk of wood used in a specific bat and ball game - that of 'Billets'.
A billet is a wonderful piece of gaming equipment - a short stubby stick that is smoothed but not particularly straight. It is whacked by a 'billet stick' which is rudimentary 'golf-club' like implement - a rounded cylindrical piece of wood, around 4 inches, attached to a long handle. Towards the end of the cylinder, a groove is cut and the player starts by weilding the billet stick horizontally with the billet balanced in this groove.
The aim of the game, as ever, is to be the player who can whack their billet the furthest distance. In a simple movement the billet stick is thrown upwards as the player steps forward and it is then smacked with maximum might as it returns downwards.
The game was particularly popular around the Calder Valley, in West Yorkshire. The field would be marked with flags at 20 yard intervals, and a point would be awarded for each flag passed - so a 70 yard effort would earn 3 points. A match might be over 10 strikes.
Holly was a favourite wood for the shaft, giving the right combination of strength and flexibility and the billets would ideally be made from Boxwood. Hornbeam was commonly used for the head.
Jeu De Tapette
Apparently, and perhaps unsurprisingly there are variants of these 'bash it as far as you can' games on the continent. Jeu De Tappette was an old game played around the 'Pas de Calais region in the North Western part of France. It appears to have been played by just hitting the ball from the ground using a club shaped like a hockey stick.
Pubs & Leagues
Please see the separate Knur & Spell / Nipsy Pubs & Leagues page.
jm at tradgames.org.uk
Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.