James O Jenkins
Whichever way you travel through Nelson it’s hard not to notice the open air handball (‘Pêl-law’) court that is situated on the high street. The listed building is the last surviving handball court in Wales and is testament to a sport that was once hugely popular. It was built for the entertainment of miners, following the miners’ strike of 1858 and has been continuously played on since its construction. Handball is played using a hard, leather-cased ball and using the palm of the hand the ball is hit against the front wall before or after it had struck the floor once. Similar to squash without the rackets, the object is to keep the ball out of the opponent’s reach but inside the bounds of the court and play continues until a competitor fails to return a ball. ‘Eton Fives’ was played at grammar schools in Wales but varied greatly from the working-class, often professional, game of handball that was played throughout Glamorgan.
In the nineteenth century handball was played in the yards of pubs in front of betting spectators. At Nelson (circa 1860) Henry Roberts, the landlord of the Royal Oak, built his own bigger court to poach the lucrative handball trade away from his rival landlord at the nearby Nelson Inn. The new court proved popular and the game in Nelson flourished.
In May 1995 the first European Handball Tournament was held at Nelson and was attended by American, Belgian, English, Irish and Welsh teams. The Eton Fives Yearbook (1994-95) commented, “admittedly the weather was excellent, but I would ask you to envisage a court situated right in the middle of a Welsh village, with a local pub literally on the left hand side of the court and a row of terraced houses on the right, and the main road and shops behind. On Finals day you could mingle with the local spectators. We saw the soul of handball in Wales this May. This year the court there became the centre of village life. We saw the game as it was originally devised, a street game, a game of the people.”
With thanks to Kevin Dicks whose book ‘Handball. The Story of Wales’ First National Sport’ will be published in 2016 by Y Llolfa.
James O Jenkins is a photographer working for a wide variety of clients and publications. He has exhibited widely and in 2012 he published his first book ‘United Kingdom’, a visual study of traditional annual UK customs. James is also co-founder of Portrait Salon, a Salon des Refusés for work rejected from the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize. James is one of the founding members of A Fine Beginning.