OWER BIT BOG OIL (1963-1964) film no: 998
This is an entertaining film made by keen Yorkshire filmmaker Eric Hall about the local game of Knur and Spell. It features many aspects of the game and has an accompanying commentary in a Yorkshire dialect.
Title: Ower Bit Bog Oil Produced by J Eric Hall
To the accompaniment of brass band music, the film begins with a road sign which says ‘Cowling.’ This is followed by a row of terraced houses along a steep street with a couple of women standing in the doorways and a man coming towards the camera on a pony. A slightly comic commentary, one with a strong West Yorkshire accent, begins informing the viewer that Philip Snowden, the ex labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, was born in this town. One of the women looks up at his name plaque on a house.
Four men walk across a field to “go lakin knur and spell.” As the game, or 'tippin', is being played, the commentary explains that it is a bit like, “poor man’s golf.” He explains the rules and how it is played. The game consists of hitting a small porcelain ball, the knur, with something resembling a golf club, the spell, as far as one can as it is suspended on a band hung from a cross piece of timber placed in the ground, a gibbet. A group of men stand in the distance waiting for each numbered knurl to be hit. Each is then marked with a flag. Each player, tipper, has ten goes.
The film shows how the balls are set up and how the tippers, some in clogs, mark out the ground from where they hit the knur. After the knur has been hit, a couple of men rush out and shout at the seekers at the bottom of the hill telling them where the knurr has gone. One shouts, “it’s ower bit bog oil,” and the commentary explaining, “that’s a right sloppy corner of the field.” The film shows some ducks in the field and a group of people looking for the knurl. More players hit the knur, and others put new heads on the spell using heated wax and string. The face is then rubbed with resin to stop slipping when the knurr is hit.
A woman is shown collecting and counting the money that was bet. At the end of the game, the referee measures the distance of each shot. A man stands by each shot point with a white flag to ensure that they are measured in a straight line, the last few feet using a tape measure. The local bookie pays out the winnings, and the players go to the local pub, the Bay horse Hotel, “for a pint or two.” The film finishes in the pub with a painting of a knur and spell match on the wall, and the commentator speculating that, “they will still be tipping for a hundred year from now.”
This is one of a large collection of films made by Eric Hall donated by his daughter Susan Hall. Hall, born in 1906, was a very keen filmmaker from Bingley who made films dating back to 1929, Random Recordings, and continuing up to the 1980s. For a period he was Chairman of the North East Region of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) and President of the Bradford Cine Circle, founded in 1935. Many of his films won awards and commendations from the IAC, including Ower Bit bog Oil, which was ‘Highly Commended’ in 1968, and Hall regularly won the President’s Trophy of the Bradford Cine Circle. The film was commissioned in 1964 by the curator of Bollin Hall Museum, Mr S Harrison, to keep a record of the game of Knur and Spell. Most of the filming was done either in late 1963 or early 1964.
Hall was inspired by films when attending the Co-op cinema above their Emporium. So much so that Hall got himself a copy of Behind the Motion Picture Screen, by Austin C. Lescarboura, when it was published in 1921 whilst still at school (he had to save for a long time because the price of 20 shillings was equivalent to a labourer’s weekly wages). Also as a child Eric frequently went to the Hippodrome Picture House in Bingley. At first he made do with his Brownie camera, but £20 compensation for an accident when out on his Sunbeam motorcycle in 1929 enabled him to buy a Pathe hand-turned 9.5 cine camera and projector.
Earlier Eric had opened up a motorcycle business in Bingley in the early 1920s, enabling him to have a new, and different, motorcycle each year! From here Eric got involved in racing and trials riding. The accident didn’t put Eric off motorcycles though, as he continued to feature motorcycles in many of his films. He also features Bingley in many of his films, as well as many of the places where he went on holiday. These films were shown in Bingley at Church House. For many years Eric run a sports outfitters in Saltaire.
This film, Ower Bit bog Oil, was probably made using a Bolex H16 cine camera that Eric had bought second hand (a photo from 1963 shows Eric with his camera), and which he continued to use through to the late 1970s. Eric’s daughter-in-law, Sue Hall, remembers how serious he was about his work and that he would say that he was “giving birth” when working on a project. He had no formal training, learning as he went along, but being something of an artist he recognised the importance of composition within the frame and directed his actors accordingly.
Very little is known of the origins of the game of Knur and Spell (sometimes spelt with two 'rs'). It has been played from at least the early eighteenth century and may have its origins in northern Scandinavia. It was particularly popular with colliers. The lack of any written rules meant that it had many variations around the West Yorkshire region: with some calling the ball the spell and vice-versa (the commentary in the film calls the stick the spell, but this might not be correct). Sometimes the knur, or ball, is sprung into the air with a spring and both the bat and the ball can be made from various materials.
According to the Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports, the ‘spell’ is a spring loaded device, tripped when a stick presses a lever, that catapults the knurr (also spelt knur with one ‘r’) into the air, and the gallows type contraption seen in the film is called a ‘pin’, the same as used in ‘Bat and Trap’. The player could be called either a ‘tipper’ or a ‘Laiker’ (they seem to be called both in this film). Around the Barnsley area the stick was known as a ‘pummel’, and sometimes the Knurr was known as a ‘potty’; hence it was sometimes called ‘Potty Knocking’. They claim that Fred Moore’s score of 18 scores (one score = twenty paces or yards), using a wooden knur, in Halifax in 1899 remains the record. It certainly beats Fred Lenthal’s more recent record of 293 yards in winning the World Championship at Elland in the early 1970s. Another contestable claim is that its heyday was in the early twentieth century when pubs sponsored games at weekends. However, a match at Wibsey, near Bradford, on May 2nd 1859, between W. Sutcliffe, or 'Bill at Mount', from Mountain, near Queensbury, and J. Jagger, attracted a crowd of about 10,000 (an 1870s photo of the game being played in West Ardsley near Barnsley can be seen at the Photographic Archive in Leeds).
Although it was most established in West Yorkshire, it was also played in Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Shropshire. It has many similar cousins, such as nipsy where the ball is placed on a brick. The game was typical of very many other working class games in being unregulated and highly adapted to locality. Most of these have died off with the commercialisation of sport.
The game had a bit of a revival in the 1960s and ‘70s when sponsored by breweries and pubs (the tradgames websites gives a list of some pubs that sponsored the league – beer seems to have been an essential aspect of the game!). With sponsorship from Tetleys and Yorkshire Television a World Championships were held for a few years from the end of the 1960s in Halifax, with cricketers Fred Truman and Geoff Boycott among those hosting it (Boycott had a go and was reportedly no good!). The game in the film was one within a league that started up in 1960. This would have about 40 to 50 players with 5 per heat, and running over 12 weeks. The players would have a handicap on the length of their stick, the longer the further it went!
Eric Heseltine, the person who blows the whistle in the film to signal a shot, and who appears on the TV programme The Way We Were, recalls how competitive the matches were: the players took it very seriously, and especially when playing those from Colne in Lancashire, who probably helped to get it reintroduced at Cowley. Quite large amounts of money were put on who would be the overall winner, although the woman collecting money in the film is the farmer’s wife collecting for the loan of the field. Several reasons probably led to the decline of the game. One of the players, Jack Higson, who also appears on The Way We Were, states that they were unable to make a knur, or ball, that didn’t disintegrate when given a good pelting. The art of making a knur had clearly been lost, and he believes that this is a major reason why the game petered out. But the increasing building on fields might also have contributed to its decline – and, of course, the fact that weekends have been taken over so much by shopping! Nevertheless, the game still resurfaces at annual events.
A feature of the film is the distinctive Yorkshire accent that the commentary is made in. It is not known who the speaker is, but Hall provides the hand-written text of this, complete with phonetic spelling, in with his background notes also held at the YFA.
Tony Collins, John Martin and Wray Vamplew, Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports, Routledge, 2005. (this also provides some further sources)
Cassell's Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes: Being a Compendium of Out, Cassell, London, 1896.
Samuel Dyer, Dialect of the West Riding of Yorkshire: A Short History of Leeds and Other (1891), with a new introduction by Stewart F. Sanderson, Wakefield: S.R. Publishers, 1970
‘Knurr and Spell’, Shipley Times and Express, 19th February 1964.
F. Atkinson, ‘Knur and Spell and other allied games’, Folk Life, 1, 1963.
J. Shillito, ‘The Game of Knurr and Spell’, Yorkshire Life, April/June 1952, p. 332.
A. Tomlinson, ‘Shifting patterns of working class leisure: the case of knurr and spell’ Sociology Of Sport Journal, 9, 2, June 1992, pp. 192-206.