From a talk by Mr Cyril Robson.
“The origin of kicking a ball about could have been in the 13th century, when war with the Danes entailed decapitating their enemies, and the victors used to kick the heads around of the vanquished”. Mr Robson went on to say the Shrove Tuesday game started in Chester in 1533. Henry VIII barred his soldiers from playing as it was interrupting their archery practice.
By the 19th century, the crowds roaring through the town caused a great nuisance to shopkeepers and townsfolk and street acts were brought in to prevent play. These were ignored for about eight years! Then the Duke of Northumberland was asked to help, and produced a pitch by Malcolm’s Cross.
The vast army of unemployed between both wars used to take part in the game, until their numbers were reduced somewhat, and employers were not happy to release them for the game. The Freemen of Alnwick then started playing the Duke’s School. After that they decided that the single Freemen should play the married members. As the singles were always the sons of the opposite side, they automatically lost every time!
At one stage in the game’s progress, the character was in danger of changing completely, because a carnival air was beginning to take over, as other competitions took place, as well as wrestling etc. The next idea was for different teams from the town: these were Clayport and Canongate. In 1868 the parishes of St Michael’s and St Paul’s became involved, which arrangement survives to this day. There is a book of rules which was drawn up in 1871, and having been rebound, is resting in the archives at the castle.
Shrove Tuesday football stopped during both the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars as the army used the ground. By 1952, the Duke of Northumberland enquired about restarting the old tradition of the game, and offered a new pitch by the river in 1967, when women were invited to take part, and a player called Alison Grey won the ball – this being the first and last time!
The committee raises funds and the castle provides the hales and balls, plus the prize money. On the actual day, they meet at the castle, the Duke attending when possible; the piper Richard Butler accompanies the procession, after the ball has been thrown from the Barbican by the Duke to the Chairman. Hales and officials’ tents are already in situ. The trumpeter summons the umpire to toss the coin (presented by the late K Kim), the linesmen situated along the river bank. If a hale (goal) has not been scored in the first half hour, the sides change ends for another half an hour. If there has been no score or it is a draw, a third session is played. The winners are presented with certificates by the Duke. At the end of the game the officials relinquish responsibility and the ball is kicked into the river. Players of the hardy kind jump in, and the person who brings the ball out on to the bank may keep it.
Mr Robson suggested that this unique occasion had survived because of the encouragement of camaraderie it engenders in defending each parish.