Before rugby and football became the passions of the Welsh, another very different game was played across the country. MARTIN WADE investigates, handball, what one writer has called ‘Wales’ first national sport’.

KEVIN Dicks is 59 and is a former miner and pupil of Lewis School in Pengam. It was here he had his first taste of handball.

“They played a game called fives, which was a version of handball.” It gave him the taste for a game was once played across Wales but now is barely known.

He says: “Many a time I was late for lessons from playing fives and my writing hand felt the size of a dinner plate.”

Kevin is the writer of a recently published history of the game in Wales where he argues that before rugby and soccer took hold, handball was Wales’ national game.

It was a relic of a simpler age when this simple game was enjoyed by thousands.

In Wales handball was played using a hard, leather-bound ball with the hand against a wall before or after it had struck the floor once. Similar to squash but without rackets, the object of the game was to keep the ball out of the opponent’s reach but inside the bounds of the court. Play continued until a competitor did not return a ball.

Kevin tells how the game was recorded far back in Wales’ history. “The Welsh monk Nennius writing in the ninth-century mentioned the sport.” He says while it’s possible that a version of the game may have come from the Roman occupation of Wales, he adds it is “generally accepted that most modern handball and related games grew out of a form of play known as ‘jeu de paume’ or ‘palm play’ which was introduced to the British Isles during the Middle Ages.

“It really took off in the 18th century” he says “it was mainly played in churchyards and it became incredibly popular.” The reason for this popularity was the hefty prize money. “Some of the matches offered prize money of 400 guineas (21 shillings) which when a weekly wager might be eight shillings, gives you an idea of how valuable it could be.”

Although churchyards were common homes for the handball courts, they could also be found in schools and increasingly outside pubs.

Many churches took against the playing of handball with the coming of Methodism. Their austere faith had no place for what they saw as a godless pursuit. Kevin tells how the Welsh Methodist preacher David Jones told congregations at the time that handball was among the things which were “taking the country to eternal woe”.

An inscription from a church in Church of St Mary’s in Llanvair Discoed near Caerwent tells of the dim outlook the game enjoyed from religious circles. It reads: ‘Who Ever hear on a Sonday/Will Practis Playing At Ball/it May Be before Monday/The Devil Will Have you All’.

The sport was what Kevin describes as a ‘folk sport’, one that was popular from the ground up with variable rules to match. “The courts weren’t of a standard size, there were different rules depending on where you played.”

The game having been purged from the churchyards found a more accommodating home in the pubs of South Wales.

“As houses were built across South Wales to house miners, the ends of terraces were used as courts. Also, the newly-opened mines often hosted games and this, alongside the use of courts in pubs cemented its popularity.

“As the century progressed, the game kept growing. “There were as many courts in Wales as there were rugby pitches now” says Kevin.

And so this folk sport gained its folk heroes. One of these was Richard Andrews, known as ‘Dick Ted’. The miner form Nelson played in the 1870s, he played in matches, such as against W Jones of New Tredegar for a purse of the then enormous sum of £20. He took on a young Gelligaer player, Peter Price in 1876 , who was then 19-years-old. Like Ted, Peter was a miner at the nearby Taff Bargoed colliery. His showdown against Dick Ted played at the Harp Inn in Gelligaer was watched by crowds of people, many of whom would be betting on the outcome.

These matches, often watched by hundreds, sometimes over a thousand people were clearly good for pub business and the landlords were often the promoters of the matches.

The game’s appeal seems to be limited to certain areas, Kevin says. “Across Wales it was found in Pembrokeshire, Anglesey, Newtown and in South East Wales in parts of Glamorgan; Monmouth and Chepstow – but not Newport.”

Handball tended to be rural in character. “The prize money would come from members of the gentry which helped its early popularity. With the coming of the mines in the early 18th century, working people led the sport.

Other places in Gwent where the sport was widely played include both Pontllanfraith and Blackwood which had pubs called the Greyhound where the game was played in and the Bridgend Inn in Newbridge was also a venue.

Some pubs had ball courts known as tennis courts, and some pubs took their names from this, with Newbridge and Chepstow having a Tennis Court Inn.

Older centres where fives would have been played are Tintern Abbey and the Fives Court Inn in Monmouth. Kevin says that Raglan Castle also had a ball court in the great hall of state. “The motto of the Order of the Garter had been chiselled from the wall to offer a truer rebound of the fives ball” he adds.

The end of the First World War saw the beginning of a decline in the sport’s popularity. Kevin says: “More modern team sports like rugby and soccer became codified and overtook handball in popularity.”

Another nail in the coffin of the sport came when the sites of so many handball matches were torn down, Kevin says: “The old inns were often demolished to make way for large hotels.”

But there is life in the game still. A court still stands in Nelson and games are often played there. “I played a match there about six weeks ago” said Kevin

“It was against a team playing who play the related game of Eton fives.” This meeting of two very different worlds was sealed with a few beers afterwards, Kevin says that beer, after all, was one of the things which made the game so popular in the first place.

‘Handball – The Story of Wales’ First National Sport’ by Kevin Dicks is published by Y Lolfa.