Kevin Dicks, author of Handball – The Story of Wales’ First National Sport, sheds some light on this historical but iconic Welsh sport…
Handball is a simple hand-to-ball-to-wall game, played similarly to squash but using the open hand instead of a racket. A serving player bounces a ball in a service area and strikes it against the front wall, where it rebounds over a ‘short’ or service line to a receiving player. The receiving player strikes the ball with a hand to return it to the wall. Play then alternates between the players until the ball fails to return to the wall.
Points are only scored on service, so either the server wins a point or the receiving player wins the right to serve. The first player to reach a pre-agreed number of points wins the game, and the game can be played at singles or doubles.
This individual sport is known under many names in Wales: Chware pel, Pel Law, ball playing, a game of ball, tally, ‘tenys’, ‘tenis’, hand-‘tenis’, ball-tennis, fives, hand-fives, wall ball, hand-ball or handball. Handball is a folk sport, a pre-industrial sport without regular fixtures, written rules, a governing body or standard size of court. It was a game with literally no level playing field, yet it was a national pastime in Wales and a sport that the South Wales miners held above all others, and their matches drew crowds in their thousands.
At one time there were countless Welsh ball courts found north, south, west and east along the Marches; in churchyards, castles, collieries, terraced streets and public houses. Now they’ve all but disappeared. Very little was recorded and there’s very little photographic evidence, but what does remain holds a certain charm and, taken as a whole, presents a picture of a much-loved sport in Wales.
The last remaining ball court is at Nelson, in Mid Glamorgan. There’s more information on this court than all the others combined, and its story adds richness to those locations that were scantily recorded and provides an insight into the workings of the handball world.
Find out more about the game of Handball in Kevin Dicks’ Handball – The Story of Wales’ First National Sport (£12.99, Y Lolfa)