“I always wondered why so many people in the country districts of Sussex should devote themselves to marbles on Good Friday, till I discovered that the marble season is strictly defined between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; and on the last day of the season it seems to be the object of every man and boy to play marbles as much as possible: they will play in the road at the church gate till the very last moment before service, and begin again the instant they are out of church. Is it possible that it was appointed as a Lenten sport, to keep people from more boisterous and mischievous enjoyments?”
The Rev Parish (1879) A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect
When William fought Harold on the slopes of Senlac over 1000 years ago…and built the imposing Battle Abble…little did he know that edifice’s shadow would be another mighty battle. …of marbles. Oddly, marble competitions appear to be a Southern speciality with at least three locations vying for epicentre of marble madness. Battle despite being little known, may indeed be the oldest recorded it was revived first in 1928, the current revival dating from 1948 but there is evidence of a record least from 1902.
Lost your marbles
It may come to as a surprise to some readers but there is a marbles season…and it was very strict – Ash Wednesday to Good Friday noon – Marbles Day in Sussex as Simpson (1965) in her Folklore of Sussex notes a number of villages and towns (Battle, Brighton, Burgess Hill, Cuckfield, Ditchling, Seaford, Southford and Streat) although the author is unaware of the revival in Battle. Furthermore until recently the time was very strictly adhered with hot cross buns and marbles being given out to the children. For of course this was and is a game for adults I should add and there was a traditional dress, a white Sussex smock or brown, fishermen’s smocks. These were worn on the day until the 1950s and one of the great characters of the game, a Frank Anderson, has his smock preserved in Battle Museum. Nowadays one of the most colourful of the event today are the fancy dress costumes and they are pretty incredible: Monopoly cards, Where’s Wally, amongst the more obvious priests and vicars, Lego characters, Angry Birds, Dad’s Army to Vegetables, Kate Middleton and country bumpkins. The Lego characters were absolutely incredible difficult to play with no doubt…
No donkey dropping
The organisers have certainly created a great atmosphere with the addition of an Easter Bonnet parade and there was certainly a lot of laughter when I turned up with teams practising and winding each other up. The game used to be played against Netherfield and the Good Friday event was the championship which arose from tournaments throughout Lent. Now it involves local pub and other organisation teams – with amusing names. Each team enters five players and in recent years the numbers have grown considerably. Despite perhaps an outsiders view of the frivolous nature of the custom…it is deadly serious. Top hated official umpires watch carefully the game, take note of positions and record scores. There’s an clear no donkey dropping…an odd term which had to be explained to me. The marble was not allowed to be dropped but rolled, which is odd because at ‘the other world championship’ I am sure they were allowed a ‘nose drop’!
This is more moveable than at other locations, a fact quite noticeable when heavy rains hit and less picturesquely the game was moved inside. The board is a long one and half way along is a circle. Iona Opie (1955) describes the rules:
“First player knuckles down at the edge of ring and shoots his tolley to knock one or more marbles right out of the ring. If he succeeds and his tolley remains in the ring, he shoots again. If he fails, but his tolley remains in the ring it stays there until his turn comes around again, when he shoots from wherever it happens to be. If in the meantime his tolley has been knocked out of the ring by his own or the opposing side, he is ‘killed’ and is out of the game.”
One notices the word ‘he’ for only in 1972 did women have had a chance to enter! In their own tournament of course..no mixed teams. However the rules in Battle are different. Tony Foxworthy in is Customs in Sussex notes:
“within the circle on the board 15 marbles are placed, and each team try and knock the marbles outside the circle. The team that knocks eight or more marbles out of the circle are the winners and move on to the next team. This goes on until each team id beaten and only two teams are left to fight it out, with the result that the winning team is declared the champions for that year.”
The marbles used by the players looked very similar perhaps they were provided, no-one was to be losing their oval sulphide going to Keepsies….bitter memories.
Pick up your marbles
Despite the seriousness of the competition, there is a practice board to develop your skills and sadly I quickly found my skills were nothing compared to an eight year old… but I only knew the marbles played on drains and that was many years ago. Team after team were eliminated, with the top hatted scorers taking note and the game watched by eagle eyed bowler hatted umpires – all dressed in black. Then there was a great cheer when the Cricket Club (I think they were a real cricket club rather than in fancy dress!) won and held aloft the cup, medals were given..it was over for another year.
After the game, it’s the children’s and any adult to scramble for marbles – 1000 or so’ fortunately tossed into the air underarm, I am sure any other way would have resulted in some cranial damage. – the excitement of the children was clear. It as I say a great event, local in flavour but very welcoming of outsiders…and very popular despite the drizzle there were hundreds there and over 70 children entered the bonnet competition – as each got an Easter egg that’s a lot of eggs! Roll on next year.