The Oldest 'Ball' in Britain

Close-up detail of Britain's Oldest Ball

As a city mad on its ball sports, whether they be round or oval, it is interesting to note that Hull is also the owner of the oldest ball in Britain. However, far from it being a football or a rugby ball, it is in fact a wooden bowling ball dating back to the thirteenth century.

The ball or bowl is thought to be the oldest purpose built ball for sports in the country, and although called a ball, it is far from being ball-shaped. Made of solid wood it has one face that is almost flat. Although at first it was thought to be broken, its unusual shape is now thought to be intentional.

The bowl was excavated in the early 1970's from the site of a timbered hall on the corner of High Street and Blackfriargate in Hull. It was found in the remains of stable litter where the water-logged conditions helped to preserve it. The site had been owned by the monks of Meaux Abbey, who owned the port of Wyke before it became Kingston Upon Hull in 1299, so it is possible that the ball is older than the city itself.
The unusual shape of the 'ball'

The game of half-bowl


Although called a bowl, it would not have been used on a green, and resembles the game of skittles today. Believed to have been used in a game called half-bowl, the unusual shape of the bowl allowed it to be bowled in a curving arc. Twelve pins would be set in a circle with one pin in the centre and one on each side of the circle. The object of the game was to knock down the twelve pins but only after the pin at the far side of the circle had been knocked down first.

In Hertfordshire it was known as rolly-polly and a similar version of this game still survives, with versions being played in Spain, Belgium and Holland. As Hull had many trading links with these countries during the medieval period, it is possible that the game was introduced from the continent.

Banned by the King


One of the more interesting facts associated with the bowl is that it was one of several games banned by King Edward IV in 1477, mainly because it was a distraction and promoted gambling. If this is so, is it possible that Hull's monks were involved in gambling, completely against the laws of all monastic orders?!

To this day it still has its fair share of attention, as well as being held by medieval monks amongst others, it has more recently been held by TV presenters Richard and Judy and has featured on their Channel Four show.

For a plain wooden ball measuring no more than 10cm across, its story gives us an interesting insight into the world of Medieval Hull.