The Handball Court at Nelson

In Nelson in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales there is a handball court, a three wall 60 X 30 court, believed to be the only one of its kind built in Britain. The exact date of its construction is not clear, but most authors place it as being built in the 1860s. Mr. T. Vaughan Jones, historian at the Museum of Welsh Life, Saint Fagan’s, Cardiff, has accounts of handball games being held throughout South Wales and in particular areas such as Llantrisant, Porth, Cardiff and the Burrows Court at Swansea at the turn of the century. This year the competitions at Nelson had to be cancelled as the state of the court made it risky to play at the venue. Hopefully it will soon be back to its best.
In the 1860s there was and had been a great influx of Irish into Souh Wales. The Great Famine 1845 - 1850 had forced many to come to Wales for food and work. With the iron and coal industry and the industrial revolution Nelson became a central point with two stations, the Great Western and Taff Vale companies. Labour was intensive and the Irishmen used to meet at the focal point, the Nelson Inn, which was owned by the Llechwen Estate. The Welsh name of the village was Ffos-y-Gerddinen, a difficult one for strangers to pronounce, so they would arrange to meet at the Nelson, and soon this became the name of the village. The game of handball was played against the flat wall of the pub. However, not far away was the Royal Oak pub, owned by the Wingfield and Macintosh Estate. To attract the custom they agreed to build a court near the pub on their land. The Royal Oak became the headquarters of handball with the court itself becoming the “soul of handball in Wales” as Tom O’Connor, Chairman of the One Wall Handball Association, has said.
There were competitions till the 1940s, but in the 1950s there was a waning of interest and in that time the court fell into disuse. There were sporadic attempts at revival, with competitions, until in 1987 the Welsh Handball Association was formed to coordinate the game around Nelson. Players were going to Ireland to compete, but were at a great disadvantage as the Irish 60 X 30 courts and the World Indoor 40 X 20 courts are all four wall. They had no similar facilities.
Yet in May 1995 the first European One Wall Handball Tournament was held at Nelson and was attended by Americans, Irish, English, Belgians and the local hosts. The following extracts are from the Eton Fives Yearbook 1994 - 95 :

“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, Alistair McKenzie and David Barnes of Rugby Fives, Sean McEntee, the Irish handball President and Paul Williams the organiser of One Wall Handball in New York City (with more than 2,000 courts).”
“We saw the soul of handball in Wales this May. This year the court there became the centre of village life. The Irish game of One Wall Handball was gloriously resurrected in a weekend favoured by ideal weather conditions. We saw the game as it was originally devised, a street game, a game of the people...”

The court was proving its worth. It now has to be brought back to its best condition for future games. . .and fear not, there will be future games.
The Nelson court can be used for the three wall game and is ideal for the one wall game, which many believe is a way of providing fair playing rules for true international handball. It was the original Irish game and New York, thanks to one Charles J. O’Connell has over 2,000 courts.
The history of the game is fascinating., with new theories begging major rewriting of the history. The One Wall game has been played in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas for almost 5,000 years. The state now has over 400 courts. Was this before the game was played in Ireland? In the town of Franeker in the traditional Friesland Handball area in Holland they have two one wall courts in an indoor air conditioned complex built recently.
In 1995 Malvern College travelled to Ireland, to Bray, Dungarvan, Cavan and Ballaghadareen to play the one wall game to gain valuable experience.
In 1996 Belgium hosted the second One Wall European Games.
In 1997 the one wall game will be included in the World Championships in Canada.
In the 1950s in Ballymena Academy (County Antrim) George Burton, the maths teacher, remembers one Ken Paisley, nephew of Ian, now the local M.P., as being a very good handball player in the school where the game was very popular.
In all this the one wall game is proving a vital link in forging an international future for handball.

For more information read:

Jones, H. J. - Nelson Handball Court, History of the Court and its Players 1860 - 1940.
With thanks to Tom O’Connor, Chairman One Wall Handball Association for information and support and to the staff at Nelson Library.

©: Joe Moore, Cardiff, Treasurer, Wales Famine Forum, Cardiff, Wales.

Another article by Joe Moore.

Published in The Green Dragon No 1, December, 1996.