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Welsh handball

Welsh Handball (Welsh: Pêl-Law) is one of the most ancient native sports of Wales. It is related to coeval sports such as Irish handball, Fives, Basque pelota and later American handball and has been continually attested since the Middle Ages. The sports popularity saw it become an important expression of Welsh culture and offered ordinary people opportunities through prize-money, bookkeeping and even player professionalism.

Due to its cultural significance games of Pêl-law were simply referred to as Chwarae Pêl (playing ball) and it has since been described as "Wales’ first national sport".[1]


Rules and scoringEdit

Pêl-law shares many rules and its methods of scoring with other handball games, as well as squash and racquetball. A hard, leather-cased ball (a Spaldeen is often used today) is struck with the palm against a front wall. The objective is to keep the ball out of the opponent's reach but inside the bounds of play so that they are unable to return, points are only awarded for the serving player.

Scores are marked on the front wall using the traditional "box" scoring system, and formal matches are overseen by an official score marker and one referee. Whilst historically the rules varied from village to village, the scoring method remained constant and is still in use today.[2]


Development and cultural impactEdit

Pêl-law has been attested in the literature of Wales since the Middle Ages. However, as similar games have been played throughout the world for thousands of years, the game is believed to be much older. Handball-like games have originated in several places at different times. Hieroglyphs in the temple of Osiris in Egypt portray priests taking part in a game very similar to handball. Mesoamerican civilisations in South and Central America had a form of handball-like game, which was a large part of pre-Columbian culture.

By Tudor times, most sports in Wales were banned by order of the English Crown. Sports were banned for a number of reasons, but in Wales they were particularly seen as a distraction from the practice of archery as Welsh longbowmen were integral to the defence of the kingdom.[3]

The banned sports were also seen as encouraging gambling, violence and debauchery with only Christmas (and later Easter) seeing the ban relaxed. As sports enjoyed by the English nobility (such as jousting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting) continued with no such restrictions, the outlawed sports came to be seen as an expression of protest against the landowning class. This social context was exacerbated as authorities continued to characterise pêl-law games as havens of mob behavior, sedition and ultimately revolt.[4]

As the Tudor period continued, laws specific to Wales were introduced which removed historic Welsh institutions and barred Welsh people (or English people with Welsh connections) from positions of authority. As such, the surviving Welsh folk pursuits became even more culturally significant to ordinary people. By the fifteenth century pêl-law's social importance and popularity allowed for the contemporary bard Guto'r Glyn to allude to it in a cywydd simply entitled Y Bêl (English: The Ball).[5]

National SportEdit

Initially played against the side of a church or other building, the eighteenth century saw the construction of the first purpose built courts. The new open-backed courts were often built by the owners of public houses to attract trade and the new venues enabled Pêl-law an unprecedented popularity as a spectator sport. However, the new crowds drew more complaints from landowners, who would often refer to the games as 'fives' a very similar game played by English grammar schools. In 1744 a Joanna Lond of Swansea was accused of: "maintaining a certain gaming house for a certain unlawful game called fives" and a letter written in 1817, states the author’s objection to the transformation of the courtyard of the church at Llandaff into a "Fives court", with games interrupting services. It is likely that such instances actually helped the game maintain a distinct attraction. With Welsh language terminology, an archaic scoring system and distinct working-class culture, any vilification by a moralistic church or local authority appear to have only added to the sport's unique appeal. This era also saw Pêl-law become popular in the west of England and players like Richard Edwards ("champion of every church yard in Denbighshire"), become increasingly popular figures.

Brecknock against all Britain! Brecon Castle Fives Court A Pêl-law challenge for prize money by two local champions referring to the game by the English name of Fives (1786)

The nineteenth century saw a great number of workers move to Wales and it seems the increasing population enjoyed the sport. Irish handball was a related working-class sport and it is understood that Irish migrants played the Welsh game, with the construction of the Nelson court in the 1860s possibly built with Irish railway workers in mind.[6]

The developments of the late nineteenth century saw the sport's increased popularity allow vast numbers to spectate or compete and yet more players became professionals, leading to great rivalries between communities. Local champions like Billy Newnam of Llantrisant and the "terrible Treharne twins" of Pontypridd enjoyed widespread fame and adulation. It was common for competitors to travel between villages and towns to challenge the champions of other localities, often for large sums of money. By the 1870s a Dr Ifor Ajax-Lewis of Llantrisant and Richard Andrews of Nelson were offering prize money of £1,000 to any player who could beat them.[7]

Decline and revivalsEdit

Wales endured great economic and cultural changes in the early twentieth century, with the boom Edwardian years (which saw the Welsh population grow more than 20%) followed by war, economic uncertainty and numerous industrial disasters.[8] This societal turmoil was reflected by a decline in traditional Welsh activities such as Pêl-law, while further advances in transportation made it easier for teams and supporters to travel to the increasingly popular rugby and football clubs.

The Great Depression saw a notable revival however, with Pêl-law again becoming popular as an informal and almost costless street game for impoverished workers. The revival was especially prevalent in the Swansea area, where street versions were a notable feature throughout the city until the 1960s.

Another revival began with the formation of the Welsh Handball Association in 1987 to both preserve the Welsh game and coordinate international matches with nations playing similar games to Pêl-law. In 1995 markings for One Wall Handball were made within the three-walled Nelson court and in May that year the inaugural European One Wall Handball Tournament was held in Wales. Attended by representatives from Ireland, England, Belgium and even the USA. The tournament was based at Nelson, with Caerphilly and Bargoed also hosting matches.[9][10] The new international competitions saw Welsh success in 1997 when Nelson's Lee Davies (Welsh champion throughout the 1990s) became World Champion.[11]


Local courts were simply known as Y Plaen (The plain) or Plaen Pêl (Ball plain) hosted singles and doubles matches and tended to be three walled, but one walled courts were also built. Today many of the surviving courts are unplayable, with possibly the Nelson Court being the only one to be continually maintained.

The Nelson CourtEdit

The Old Ball Court in Nelson is a three-sided handball court constructed c.1860. The unique design is based upon the earlier court at the yard of the Nelson Inn. The landlord of the Royal Oak constructed the new court to entice more customers, especially from the Nelson Inn.[12]

The court elevated Nelson to a major center for the game with all the great players of their day gracing the court accompanied by large excited crowds and much betting. The Nelson court was also famous for its annual tournaments held between May and August and accompanied by high levels of gambling. The court length was reduced in the 1990s due to safety concerns from the increasing traffic through the village.

In May 1995 the first European Handball Tournament was held at Nelson and was attended by American, Belgian, English, Irish and Welsh teams. Recent notable players include Lee Davies, who was Welsh champion throughout the 1990s and became World Handball Champion in 1997.[13]

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.”

Today, the game remains a unique feature of the village with a seating area built for spectators in 2010.

Jersey MarineEdit

Another surviving handball court is Burrows Court in Jersey Marine. The Court was built in 1864 by brewery owner Evan Evans. The court features a stone heart set in the highest wall and an inscription which reads Gwrol Galon Hyd Angau (a brave heart till death). This emblem is that of the 17th Glamorgan Volunteer Rifle Corps and it is thought that the court may have been used as a rifle range for the volunteers’ target practice.

It was here in 1875 that Dr Ivor Ajax-Lewis, the handball champion for Llantrisant, defeated Mr Lovett, the champion of Neath, in a celebrated match with £1,000 in betting stakes.

Further readingEdit

  • 'Porth and Rhondda Fach' by Aldo Bacchetta and Glyn Rudd. Pages 22–23. The Most Famous Handball Court in South Wales.
  • The Encyclopedia of British Sport. Richard Cox, Grant Jarvie & Wray Vamplew. Pages 416-417. Welsh Handball.
  • 'A Whole Different Ball Game'. 1995 BBC Radio Wales. Produced by Gareth Whittock.
  • H. J. Jones, Nelson Handball Court 1860–1940. History of the Court and its Players.
  • T. Vaughan Jones: ‘Handball and Fives’ p. 22 (unpublished).
  • John Newman, The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan, 1995, p573.


  1. ^ Dicks, Kevin (2016). Handball. The Story of Wales’ First National Sport (1st ed.). Wales: Y Lolfa. 
  2. ^ "UK's Only Purpose-built Handball Court". Heritage of Wales News (in Welsh and English). 
  3. ^ Prof. Anne McCants. "Engineering the Medieval Achievement - The Longbow". MIT. Retrieved 18 Aug 2013. 
  4. ^ Trueman, CN. "Tudor Sports And Pastimes". The History Learning Site. Retrieved 17 Mar 2015. 
  5. ^ Lloyd, Howard (18 February 1960). The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorian. Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. pp. 97–108. 
  6. ^ Dicks, Kevin. "NELSON HANDBALL COURT". Royal Commission on the ancient and historical monuments of Wales. 
  7. ^ Tony Collins; Emma Lile; Annette Walsh (2005). Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports. Routledge. pp. 143–144. ISBN 0-415-35224-X. 
  8. ^ Jenkins, James O. "Pêl-law". A Fine Beginning. 
  9. ^ Moore, Joe (December 1996). "The Handball Court at Nelson". The Green Dragon. 1 (1). 
  10. ^ Hughes, Tony. "The 1995 European One Wall Handball Championships". 
  11. ^ Jenkins, James O. "Pêl-law". A Fine Beginning. 
  12. ^ Dicks, Kevin. "NELSON HANDBALL COURT". Royal Commission on the ancient and historical monuments of Wales. 
  13. ^ Jenkins, James O. "Pêl-law". A Fine Beginning.