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The place of sport in the life of students at Ushaw, at least until the mid-1970’s, should not be underestimated. Former students recall that “sport was compulsory on 6 afternoons per week, and optional on Sundays”. Compulsory is perhaps an exaggeration, but there was sport played every day when weather permitted. Part of the duties of students were the keeping of courts, grounds and sports fields in preparation for games. The Ushaw magazine, published 3 times a year, always included the sports results from contests in the Junior Seminary and Senior College, generally known as “party games”. The most senior team games were those between “Divines” and the “House” . Divines were selected from the most senior students, and the House selected from all years below, and on occasion included Professors.
The term “bounds” at Ushaw referred to specific areas designated for recreation and sport, and an area has always been dedicated to the students of the senior seminary to the east of the buildings. The original bounds, an approximately rectangular area surrounded by a wall to the immediate east of the Georgian quadrangle, contained with Cat rings, “ball places” and “racket houses”, a gradual development that was completed by 1840.
By its completion it was entirely surrounded by a wall, and contained courts and areas for the Ushaw games of Cat, handball and keeping-up. Two versions of handball were played, one on the “ball place”, the other in the “racket houses”. There is mention of a game called “racket” played at Ushaw in the early years of its settlement, but no details of the game or how it was played are recorded. The bounds remained little changed until 1852, when the building of a library complex to the east of the main house (approximately in areas P and Q of the original layout plan) required the construction of a new bounds area further to the east. The new bounds was enclosed to the north by a substantial wall to accommodate courts for the games, designed by Charles and Joseph Hansom, who were the architects for the new library.
The Hansom brothers provided a design for three new ball places and six racket houses in an arc of about 140 metres, running eastwards and turning to the south east. The walls at their highest in the ball places are over 14 metres high. The ground was levelled, and the bounds wall extended at low level for a further 90 metres. Three cat rings were formed on the bounds. Only the one in the north-east corner remains in playable condition, with the other two having been absorbed into the general grassy area, although the profiles and shapes can still be found to this day.
There are several games particular to Ushaw, and a long tradition of the games being a major part of life in both the Senior and Junior seminaries. The games were taught to junior seminarians, who made their own equipment and improved their play as they progressed through the College. The making of cat sticks, battledores, and balls required the handed-down skills of senior students, and success in the games depended not only on coordination and fitness, but on the quality of equipment that a student could create. When the Junior Seminary closed in 1972, this natural progression and inheritance of the skills ceased, and there are now just a few former students who retain first hand knowledge of the games, and the ability to play.
The oldest of the Ushaw games, known as Cat, was a game from Flanders and was played at Douai. It is played on a ring of about 25 yards diameter, which was formed by removing turf in a circular track about a yard wide and replacing it with clay. Within the clay seven stations or holes are marked, these being the positions for the team 'striking'. The striking team each carry a 'cat-stick', a home made stick cut from a block of ash, with a slender shaft and a bottle shaped head.
The ball is made form a hard core of wood, dipped and rolled in hot pitch, and finished with cotton tape and plaster. It is fed to the striker by a member of the fielding side, “feeder”, who lobs the ball in front of the striker. The striker must hit the ball forwards, to land within an angular playing area of about 40 degrees from his position. The object of the game is for the striking team to advance around the ring a number of stations, depending on how far the ball is hit, and how well it is fielded back. After the team has done 2 complete rounds and 5 stations, a total of nineteen holes, they have the opportunity to score a cross, where each of the seven players run to the middle of the ring and cross all seven sticks over each other, and return to their stations. The striking side is put off the ring, “out”, when the ball is caught by the fielding side within defined rules, or when the ball is put into any of the station holes by the fielders before the striker attains his station. The whole team is put off the ring, and is replaced by the fielding side.
The game was largely self regulated on the ring: there was no formal umpire, however there were many opportunities for dispute over catches, fielding in, and “bounds”. If not settled between the players, disputes were referred to the “bank” where spectators assembled, and generally the opinion of the most senior members of the bank was taken. There are stories of prodigious hitting; over the wall to the part was about 175 yards from the first ring, and was considered a rare achievement. There is, however, a record of a hit of 193 yards by a Mr Spencer in the early 1900's, which stands unbeaten to this day.
Ushaw handball games have evolved on our site, but much of the game bears some relation to other versions. There are similarities with some games of 'fives' played at public schools, and influences from handball played in mining communities in Northumberland and Durham. It is also possible that Catholic students of Irish origin brought elements of their own local versions of the game, which became absorbed by the version played here at Ushaw.
Handball is played in the 'ball place', generally by teams of four. The ball is home made, formed with a small ball of wool which is bound tightly and covered with stitched leather, latterly the leather was replaced by successive layers of surgical tape. The ball is struck against the front wall of the ball place with the hand, by a member of the “In-side” and returned by a member of the “Out-side”, alternating until the ball was not cleanly returned or fell out of the defined lines and boundaries. Only the “In-side”, serving, could score points, until a serve was won by the “Out-side”. Games were generally played to 21 points, with a two point advantage needed to win
The game is similar to handball on the ball place, except that it is played by four players, split into teams of two, or single players. The target wall for play is the left side wall, when looking into the racket house, and lines were marked on this wall to define “in” and “out”. Scoring was the same as for handball on the ball place, and the games were played in equal measure by the boys at Ushaw.
Keeping up is played with a home made 'battledore' with a long slender shaft broadening to a paddle shaped head of about four inches in diameter. The ball used is the same as for handball. Keeping Up is generally played by two or four players, singles or doubles. The lines cut into the stonework on the back wall define “in” and “out”, as for handball, and there are also court lines on the ground which define the area where the ball must be served, as in tennis. Like with handball, only the server scores points and the receiver must “win” the serve. Games are played to 21 points with a two point advantage.
The bounds walls have suffered from inherent instability and structural movement over the years and were the subject of major stabilisation and restoration work in 2012, with the benefit of significant grant funding from English Heritage to ensure their future preservation.
Students at Ushaw have always been well provided
for and encouraged towards participation in sports of all kinds. Prior to 1894, the college students had the
opportunity to swim at Broadgate, a small farm to the south of the College were
the river Deerness was diverted by sluices into a basic swimming pool. In 1894 the former students of Ushaw donated the funds to build an indoor swimming pool in celebration of the centenary of foundation in England. This facility was remodelled in 1960 and remained available until 2000.
In addition to the Ushaw games, the more traditional sports of football, cricket and athletics in season were played on the field opposite the College known as the Crease, together with the temporary escapism of cross-country running. There was also a nine-hole golf course at Ushaw, located in the parkland to the east of the College . This was begun around 1905 and gradually developed using “student labour”. Play was usually reserved to more senior students and professors, with annual competitions sponsored by alumni.