Jul
08
2007
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The old balls

There are loads of old balls in Britain.Gathering mould in the back of cupboards, stuck up in trees or in the rafters of cathedtals, forgotten in lofts of garages. Burned amid the deritus of history, they turn up in all sort of places.
We all have at least one old ball knocking around somewhere in our house or garden.
In fact the oldest known balls in Britain, and perhaps even the world, are a set of three beautifully crafted wood, leather and payrus balls from ancient Egypt, c.2000 BC, held by the Britsh Museum. But these are importedartefacts. They were booted or bounced, bowled or biffed on these shores.
On these pages we concentrate instead on balls that we know for sure were, in the spirit of this series, either Made in Britain, or at the very least Played in Britain.
Balls are so easily disregarded. Or rather, we follow their movements so closeley during the course of a game that we tend to overlook their qualities and characteristics simpljy as designed objects, as manufactured articles.
Balls are so identifiable – their purpose so transparently obvious – that they are, paradoxically, almost invible.
We even describe them as “dead” when they cross the touchline or if play is brought to a halt.
It is therefore time to bring to life the finest of our old balls, to dust them down and peer into their depths. To feel ther mass and ther weight and, above all, to remind ourselves of what they were for, how they were made, and what theyr stores can tell us about our nation’s wonderfull rich and diverse sporting heritage.
Of course balls are in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. The ancient Greeks toyed with them at least seven thousand years ago, while balls played an importan role in the religious, social and militaristic rites of several early civilisations. The Chinese, for example, are known to have played a form of indoor football as early as the 3rd century BC, while the Mayans and Aztecs of central America built extremly sophistcated ball courts for their own unique brand of ball game, with stone circles placed high up on the side walls to serve as goals.
Even many of the sports that we consider to be quintessentially British, such as golf, billiards, tennis and cricket, have their origins firmly rooted in mainland Europe.
The peoples of this island, it must also be conceded, have been relatively slow to cotton onto the use of those technologies upon which the development of balls has so often depended. The use of air pumps to blow up animal bladders, was known to the Romans, the Chinese and to 16th century Italians.And yet as late as the 19th century we come across the wife of Richard Lindon, a ball maker in Rugby, whose death was blamed on her daily exertions from blowing up bladders using the stems of clay pipes and pure lung power.
In a very real sense the history of balls is intimetely bound up with the history of materials.
In 1496, when Christopher Columbus returned from the West Indies with the first rubber balls ever seen in Europe, Spanish observers were said to have been astonished in equal measure. Never before had they seen such bounce. Yet there is evidence of the Mayans using rubber as far back as 1600 BC.
Without rubber, snd particularly vulcanised rubber after 1839, there would have no lawn tennis – because the stuffed balls used in the original formof tennis would not bounce on grass – and no regulation sized footballs.
Cork, worsted, hemp, brown oats, suet, lard, alum, stale ale and dragon”s blood – these were just a few of the ingredients listed in 1853 by Tom Twort of Southborough, Kent, for the manufacture of cricket balls. Ball makers of the pre – industrial age were forever experimenting with organic materials. Early tennis balls were stuffed with hair (even human hair), wool and cloth. Billiard balls were made from ivory, while golf would hardly have got off the ground had it not been for goose feathers. This Playfair cricket ball from the early 1890s catalogue of HJ Gray & Sons was made from cork, worsted, leather and cat – gut.
Not all old balls are readily identifiable. A hoard of wooden and leather balls discovered in a well in Lincoln, for example, might have been used in any number of games, while this stuffed curiosity, on disply at Twicknham’s Rugby Museum, defies categorisation. Around 20 cm in diameter, but weighing in at a hefty 1,8 kg, it is too heavy for any kicking or handling game. Could it instead have been used for a form of mob football? Another obstacle to identification is that leather from before the late 19th century, when chrome was first used in tanning, is very hard to date.
Why is the rugby ball shaped the way it is? Again because before vulcanised rubber the type of pig’s bladder most commonly used dictated the ovoid from of the ball.
Another wonder material discovered in the Caribbean was lignum vitae, the hardes densest wood known to man. First imported in the 16th century it soon replaced ash, yew and other native woods traditionally used for making bowls, which was then virtually the natoinal sport in England.
Sport and industry, meanwille, have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship.
As we shall later learn, it was concern for the supply of ivory tusks for billiard balls than indirectly led to the development of celluloid in the 1870s, which in turn provided the developers of table tennis with just the ball they had been searching for the 1890s. Indeed this gradual transition from organic materials to composites – a process that brought us wonderfully branded American products such as Bonzoline,Evertrue and Mineralite – is a major thread running throughout our story, and continues until the present day. Many modern football and rugby ball contains, as result, no leather at all.
At the same time, as urban workers and the middle classes found more time and cash for leisure pursuits, developing industries were always on the lookout for new markets to exploit.
Thus we find Scottish potteries virtually inventing the game of carpet bowls during the 1840s, and not long after, German glass manufacturers perfecting the mass production of colourful marbles that no small boy could possibly resist. Vast quantities of these baubles found their wayonto Britain’s streets, having served convenientlyas bllast for ships.
Hardly a sport or pasttime was untouched by the fruits of science or industry. Just a fewexamles will suffice by way of illustration.
Before the availability of manufactured footballs of the appropriate weights and pressures in the late 19th century, the idea of heading a ball would have seemed absurd. Untilthe introduction of machine lathes in 1871, by the Glasgow manufacturer Thomas Taylor, it was virtualy impossible for bowls to be produced with a precisely calculated bias. And in golf only when mass production of durable, affordable rubber-cored balls began in the early 20th century could the game be truly embraced by anyone outside the monied classes.
Golf is a prime example of a sport whose spread beyond these shores was to have major consequences for British manufacturers.
For 400 years or so all golfballs were made in Scotland, the majority by cottage indusrtries based around St Andrews, Edinburgh and Musselburgh, However once gutta percha replaced feathers as the prime material for ball manufacture in the 1850s, and the game expanded thereafter, these small companies soon found their market share plummeted.
Sumilarly with cricket balls. For over 100 years a cluster of manufacturers based in and around Tonbrihge and Sounthborough in Kent dominated the bisiness. But once cricket gained popularity in the colonies it was only a matter of time before rival markers entered the field. When the MCC went on tour to Austalia in 1946 and found the local balls were to be used in preference to standart British ones, the writing was well and truly on the wall. From a total of at least 20 ball makers operating in Britain before 1914, today only two survive, Reader and Duke, and both outsource most of their production to India and the Far East.
It is the same tale for makers of footballs, rugby balls and tennis balls.
So it is that the pages of this book are littered with the names of once prominent British ball manufacturers – The Nikes, Pumas, Mitres and Reeboks of their time – who have long since gone out of business.
Here are just a few names to match up against those old balls you might have lying in your attic.\FH Ayers of Aldersgate, London, were one of the leading sport equipment manufacturers on the late 19th century. Estabished in 1810 and equally renowned for their rocking horses, wooden toys and games, Ayres supplied tennis balls to the All England Club at Wimbledon from 1879-1902.
Harry Gradidge, founded in 1870, also made a range of balls and equipment at their factory in Woolwich, not far from that of Jefferies & Malings, specialists in tennis, rackets and fives, and participants in the 1851 Great Exibition, as were Lillywite & Sons of Islington and the Rugby leathergoods firm of William Gilber, who of course made rugby balls.
Henry Mailings later set up on his own account, as did another former Jefferies & Malings worker, TH Prosser, who opened a works making rackets and balls in Pentonville Road in 1866.
Also established during this period was Wlliam Sykes. Originally a saddler, Sykes started making footballs in 1870, before developing what has been described as possibly the largest sports equipment factory in the world, the Yorkshire Athletic Manufactory, in Horbury, near Leeds.
John Wisden, a name more associated nowadays with his annual cricketers’ almanack, was a manufacturer too, with a shop in Cranbourn Street, near Leicester Square, and a factory in Mortlake, close to that of Taylor-Rolph, who were makers of bowls.
Other major retailers of sport equipment whose branded balls were once to be found in Christmas stockings and club pavilions around the nation included Paisley’s in Glasgow, Frank Suggs in Liverpool, William Shillcock inBirmingham, and in London, Gamages, famous for their footballs and model trains.
But while all these names are now confined to history books and the catalogues of auction houses, there are notable survivors from within the British ball making industry.
Thomas Taylor are still in business in Glasgow, making composite bowls, while in Liverpool the Clare Group produces bowls branded as Drake’s Pride. Establish in 1912, Clare are also well known as makers of billiards and snooker equipment, having asquired or incorporated over the years many of the best firms in the sphere, such as Thos.
Padmore of Andover (1830), and most famously of all, the venerable London company, Thurson & Co., established by the furniture maker John Thurson in 1799 and the creators of the billiard table as we know it today.
Even older than Thurston’s is the Edenbridge firm of John Jaques, whose name crops up several times in our story. Foundedin London in 1795 and thought to be oldest sport and game manufacturer in the world – and one which, remarkably, remains in family ownership – Jaques has several claims to prominence, not laest that it invented, appropriately enough, the card game Happy Families, shaped the look of modern chess sets, and was a leading promoter of both croquet, in the 1860s, and table tennis in the early 1990s.
Also controlled by members of its founding family is the firm Grays, now of Rabertsbridge, but for many years based in Cambidge.
Grays were set up in 1855 by HJ Gray, a partner’s son who learnt to make balls at the real tennis court attached to the University Arms Tavern in Cambridge and later became the World Rackets champion. Although better known as makers of rackets and cricket bats, Grays produced a range of balls for tennis and hockey, and over theyears absorbed such firms as John Wisden, Taylor Rolph and, for a short period, the oldest cricket ball brand in the world, Duke’s of Penshurst.
In 2002 Grays also acquired the Giolbert brand of rugby balls, of which more later.
A similar string of acquisitions characterises the history of perhaps the best known British manufacturer of all, Slazenger.
Originally, founded in Manchester by Jewish refugees in the early 19th century, Slazenger started producing tennis sets from a factory in Woolwich – clearly a popular spot for sports manufacturers – in the 1880s, and in 1902 took over as official supplier of balls to Wimbledon from their rivals FH Ayres, whom they later bought up in 1940, along with the Yorkshire firm of William Sykes. Nine years earlier they had also taken over their Woolwich neighbours Gradidge.
That left only one major competitor in the general balls business, and that was the rubber gaint, Dunlop, with whom Slazenger amalgamated in 1958. However Slazenger retain their independent status as suppliers to Wimbledon – a relationship now a century old – and, as we will later read, they also made the football whith which England won the World Cup in 1966.
Also featured is a ball used in another of England’s famous World Cup victories – that of rugby, in 2003. But although it bears the familiar name of Gilbert and is marketed by Grays, along with the majority of balls now sold by British companies, it was actually made overseas.
In that respect, the old balls we are about to parade bear a resonance that carries far beyond the realms of sport. They are historic tokens of great British invention, craftmanship and, above all, our innate of fun and games.
We should guard them well.