Knur and Spell

The Sport of the Calder Valley Working Man

Knur and Spell

Eric Barker takes a mighty swipe during a game of billets played at Heptonstall in the early 1960s. Among those cheering him on are Trevor Poole, Tommy Crampton, Albert Horner, Roger Horner, Jack Stansfield, Billy Riley and Ernest (or Freddie) Stansfield. Click image to enlarge

Issy Shannon strikes out:

As late as the 1970s, a sport peculiar to the north of England was still being played in the Calder Valley.

Knur and spell – more usually billets or billeting, a variation of the ancient game played locally, attracted huge support in its heyday, with hundreds of pounds changing hands.

Knur and spell is believed to have originated in medieval times and was often played on Shrove Tuesday and Good Friday. It could be even older: the name derives from the Norse for ball game – “nurspel,” indicating that it may have come over with the Vikings, although “spell” is also a North Country word for a piece of wood.

Knur and Spell

A field near Mytholmroyd Cricket Club was the setting for local billets handicaps, usually held on the Sunday after the gala. Tommy Crampton shows how it’s done in 1961. ALGC.

The game was at the height of its popularity in the 19th century, played mainly in South Yorkshire and Lancashire. Billets, or billeting, acquired an equally enthusiastic following in the Calder Valley area where players congregated on any large open field and competed for prizes such as copper kettles.

Interest dwindled as wages rose and working men were able to afford to indulge in sports such as golf. There are still many, however, who have fond memories of knur and spell: truly the games of the labouring classes.

Knur and Spell

Lined up and ready to play are, back row left to right, Desmond Nutter, Dennis Burton, Rex Greenwood and Nick Helliwell. Front row, left to right, Tommy Crampton, Alf Milnes, Mr Calvert, Kenny Butterworth, Tommy Crampton jnr, Eli Standeven and Cecil Greenwood. ALGC. Click image to enlarge

Read the full story in Milltown Memories, issue 11. If this or other stories stirs a memory, we'd be happy to know - send us your memories and comments.