Nor and Spell - a Regency Game

by Rebecca Jenkins

January 24, 2013

 George Walker's The Costume of Yorkshire, first published in 1814, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in life in the North of England during the Regency period.   One the plates that has always fascinated me is the one illustrating the game of Nor and Spell.

George Walker 1814 print of Game of Nor & Spell from Costumes of Yorkshire

Part of the interest for me is that Nor & Spell was not a game played by the upperclasses and so records are more patchy than for, say , the emergence of cricket.  There were various names for the same game (moreorless) with certain local variations - knurr & spel, knur spell & kibble; buckstick, spell & ore and so on.    It was particularly popular in Yorkshire but not exclusively.    Some sports historians have claimed the game - sometimes referred to as "northern spell" - contributed to the development of what emerged as America's national sport,  baseball.

In the text accompanying his illustration, George Walker describes the rules:

"This is no doubt the same game, a little varied, which Strutt, in his Sports and Pastimes of England, denominates 'Northen', or 'Northern' Spell.   The little wooden ball is in Yorkshire called the Nor, and the receptacle in which it is placed, the Spell...the necessarily played upon an open piece of ground. Upright sticks or stones, placed at certain equal intervals of about twenty yards, serve to regulate the score by determining the distance to which the ball is struck.   The player used a long stick of cane or hazle, to the end of which is fixed a thick solid piece of wood.   With this instrument he raises the ball by tipping the sharp end of the spell, and he strikes it while it is in the air.  Strutt describes the spell as hung upon a pivot considerably above the ground, the ball as made of leather, and much larger, and the stick as resembling in form the bat used for cricket.  In short, it approaches more nearly to the modern game of Trap-ball, and by no means admits of the skill required in the one here represented."

The game continued to be played in the north of England through the 19th century.   A Glossary of Words used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield published 1888 described the game of "Knur and Spell" as something played on Shrove Tuesday:

"The knur is a small round ball, less than a billiard ball.   It is put into a cup fixed upon a spring, which being touched casues the ball to rise into the air, when it is struck by a trip-stick.   The cup and spring are called the spell.   The trip-stick is a slender stick made broad and flat at one end, the knur being struck by the broad part."

My guess is that between George Walker's print and the end of the century, the spell developed into a specially made iron contraption.   I never could quite imagine what it looked like until - to my great pleasure - Philip Serrell gave us all a demonstration on a recent episode of the BBC's Antiques Roadtrip



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