The debate about the true national sport of Wales has been raging for years between rugby and football fans. But a new book claims that the first and true national sport of Wales is neither of these, but the little less know sport of Handball.
In industrial Wales Hanbdball (or Pêl-law) was the predominant sport – drawing crowds of thousands to watch the game that could be described as similar to squash, but without the rackets. Courts were to be seen in many parts of the Welsh valleys and it was played in yards of pubs in front of betting spectators. The game was a national obsession, with people travelling from far and wide to watch thrilling matches between the sporting heroes of the day, and fortunes being won and lost through side stakes and gambling.
Today only one ball court survives, in the village of Nelson in the Caerphilly Borough.
In Handball - The Story of Wales' First National Sport, handball player and former miner Kevin Dicks’ meticulous research traces the long history of this folk sport played with any ball on any wall, from Welsh myth and folklore and the outlawed ‘devil’s game’ of the churchyard, through its glory years in the 18th and 19th centuries and strong links with the mining industry, to its decline in the 20th century as it failed to modernise, and its reboot in the present day. He questions the origins of the grammar school version of the game known as fives, and precisely dates the Nelson ball court – a date that has eluded historians for years.
The book also shatters a widespread modern myth regarding an Irish origin to the court and therefore to the sport in Wales.
‘This is untold story of Wales deserves a wider audience’ said Kevin Dicks, ‘Nothing has been written as in depth as this on any folk sport in the UK’.
‘After a while it dawned upon me that I’m the last miner to play handball in Wales, and it then became somewhat of duty continue the research and complete a work on the subject. It was as if the last man left in had to tell the tale’ added Kevin.
The cover of the book feature the classic 1906 handball at Nelson. Two players and two officials stand on the ball court with a crowd of 1,200 in attendance.
The author Kevin Dicks has been a Welsh handball player and official for nearly fifty years. He has written extensively on handball for various outlets including the BBC, the Daily Mail, the American Welsh paper Y Drych and the Caerphilly Campaign. He has also spoken on the subject abroad in Ireland, Canada and Italy and has contributed to the United States Handball magazine, and this book is the product of 22 years of trawling the archives. An ex-miner, he formerly worked as a Surveyor’s Assistant at Deep Navigation, Treharris. A part-time writer he now works for Admiral and currently lives in Ystrad Mynach, Hengoed.
A refreshing look at a sport devoid of modern commercialism, this is a lively story full of colourful characters, a revealing glimpse into social history, folk sport and the passions of the working man, and a fascinating insight into what can fairly be claimed as Wales’ first national sport.
Handball - The Story of Wales' First National Sport by Kevin Dicks (£14.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.