Citius, Altius, Fortius ...... Faster, Higher, Stronger. These three words were used by Henri Didon, a Dominican Priest, when he presided over the opening ceremony of a school sports event in 1881. In 1894 when Pierre de Coubertin succeeded in reviving the ancient Greek tradition of a great athletics event that we now know as the Olympic Games, he adopted those words as the motto for the occasion. I was reminded of this recently when I watched on TV the huge Olympic rings that adorned a bridge in Newcastle during the London Olympics being erected in Rio for the 2016 extravaganza. At the time of writing Dersingham had just hosted a most successful Open Gardens and Art Trail. The village was full of visitors from far and wide and I met and spoke with many as I visited the marvellous gardens and interesting art studios in the village.
As a historian I cannot help but wonder about life here in the past. If we look back to May some 125 years ago the village would also have been full of visitors but they were not here to see gardens or art they were here to watch and take part in the great Dersingham Athletic Sports Day. This event, held every year, was a well-known fixture on the calendar and May 1890 was no exception. The weather that Tuesday was excellent and the villagers gathered along with a huge crowd from Lynn, Hunstanton and the surrounding villages on a field loaned for the event by a Mr. E. Linsley. (I have not yet been able to identify with certainty the location of this field.) The musicians of the village band were in excellent form and the local press reported that they enlivened the proceedings by playing choice strains of music and it is not hard to imagine the scene as competitors and spectators gathered and waited for the fun to begin.
Mr. William Mann, a member of the well known Dersingham family, was appointed Judge and his decisions were to be considered final. Mr. Wales was the starter and Mr. Linnell a local farmer and cattle dealer was the Clerk of the Course. Other officials on hand to ensure the smooth running of the event were Mr. Bird the proprietor of the village butchers and Mr. W. F. Parker who ran the large drapers and grocers at the bottom of Sandringham Hill now an antique shop.
During the day there were the sort of events that are still found at any athletics meeting such as the flat races. At this time it was the 100yards flat race that was staged. In the race for boys under 15, Dersingham residents only, the winner H. Jarvis took home a first prize of 3 shillings whilst the second pocketed 1s. 6d. The fifteen year old girl who won her 100 yard race was awarded 2s. 6d. The prizes in the 100yards open race were 1st a silver breakfast cruet and 2nd. a biscuit box. The race for women, Dersingham ladies only, in spite of a first prize of a dress piece, and a whole 1lb of tea for second place did not attract a single entry; I wonder why not? There was also a 100yards race for boys under ten but not one for the girls. How times have changed. In the boys’ race, thinking of the ten year old boys I have taught in my time, I suspect that the third prize of a whip was more highly regarded than the inkstand and writing case presented to the winner and runner up. Other running races included a 120 yards labourers’ race first prize 5shillings and a 100 yards race for Labourers over 50 years old , first prize 5 shillings.
However, controversy was about to erupt during the one mile handicap race when Mr. Mann the judge would be called on to officiate. This was a handicap race and we know that at least one of the five competitors, Dewson ,was given a 100 yards start while a certain J. Black, clearly a strong competitor, set off from the starting line. Mr. J Black ran in excellent form and to the great excitement of the crowd soon succeeded in gaining second place behind Mr. Dewson. In the last lap with everyone cheering loudly Black caught up with Dewson but then, unfortunately tried to pass him ON THE WRONG SIDE. Dewson, however, was made of strong stuff , and would not allow Black to pass. Whereupon, to everyone’s horror, the dastardly Black deliberately attempted to throw Dewson out of his way. But Dewson would not be denied and to the cheers of the crowd survived this foul attack and crossed the line in first place. Accompanied by the boos of the crowd Black crossed the line in second place but in light of his unsportsmanlike behaviour Mr. Mann duly disqualified him and T. Davey was promoted to second place.
Order and honour were restored during the exciting high jump contest. W. Black and J Batterbee matched each other jump for jump as the bar was gradually raised. Eventually a tie was declared when they had both cleared 4 feet 9 ¼ inches. The first prize, an electro-plated teapot was sold and the pair shared the money. The long jump followed and the first prize. a coffee pot, was won by E. Pitt.
However, there were other events and one that we will all have witnessed at school sports days was the Sack Race. These were held only for boys under 16 and another for Dersingham Men. However everyone would have gathered to watch and cheer the contest to climb the greasy pole. There was a large entry for this with all the young men of the villages vying each other to get to the top. Many climbed well but ended up slowly sliding back down to the cheers and laughter of the onlookers. It was Tom Houchen of Dersingham who climbed the highest and took home the leg of pork. Tom was a well known village sportsman playing in the village football team very successfully. He competed in the sports day every year and in 1902 the local paper reported that “our old friend and veteran runner Tommy Houchen was well up at the tape in more than one event.”
Another event that apparently caused huge merriment was Tilting the Bucket. I have no idea what this entailed but it was very successful and ended in a tie between J. Daniels and J. Drew who shared the prize of 5 shillings. Another mystery event was Jingling Match in Masks. [December 2019] I have now found out what this event entailed after a chance visit to the Sandringham Visitor Centre shop where I foond this description in Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and other Forgotten Sports by Edward Brooke-Hitching:
"JINGLING MATCH - A large roped-off circle was set up, into which entered the players, usually numbering about ten. All but one of them were blindfolded with handkerchiefs, with the one left nominated the jingler. He was given a bell to ring incessantly, and smaller bells were often attached to his clothes and shoes. It was his job to run around within the roped boundaries, ringing the bell and evading the blindfolded players, who were offered a prize if they managed to grab hold of him. If they failed to catch him, however, the jingler claimed the prize. The match usually lasted between 20 and 30 minutes and was a favourite with spectators."
Now I have just to solve what Tilting the Bucket involved.
The one mile bicycle race was open to competitors from a ten mile radius of the village. The competitors had to ride round the course 5 times but only one of the 5 entries managed to ride two laps. The course was in such a bad condition that good riding was impossible. I wonder if the one mile Donkey race had used the course first. There were strict rules for this race as no whips, sticks or spurs were allowed to be used. The donkeys caused great hilarity but it was Mr. Daw’s Dodger who triumphed with Mr Nurse’s Jennie second and Mr. Callaby’s Spider third. It was during this race that the news went round that the Royal Party had arrived and indeed her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales with Princess Maude, Princess Victoria and the Duke of Clarence took up their places to enjoy the antics of the donkeys some of whom were not particularly keen on galloping the course.
The pony race followed over the same course. The Ponies could not exceed 13 hands and it was William Potter’s Spot who was first, with the grandly named Copenhagen of Mr. Callaby second. William Potter was the village blacksmith whose premises still stand at the corner of Centre Vale and Post Office Road.
Perhaps the loudest cheers of the afternoon were reserved for the Tug-of-War between Dersingham and Snettisham, The teams were chosen that afternoon and each team had its army of supporters as the order was given “PULL”. I regret to report that Snettisham had the best of it from the first and easily managed to pull the Dersingham men past the winning post. No doubt they went away vowing to get their revenge next Whitsun or see off those Snettisham Lads at the next Cricket match.
The afternoon then drew to a close with a 120 yard consolation race for men who had not yet won a prize and two fun events again just for the boys, fishing money out of a tub of flour and then ducking for oranges in a tub of water.
Everyone then repaired to the large tent Mr. Tingey had loaned for the presentation of the prizes. I believe they were often presented by the Royal visitors. It was announced that over 2000 people had visited the field that afternoon. Finally everyone made their way home agreeing that it had been the most successful sports ever held in Dersingham. So what if the Snettisham lads had won the tug-of–war; there was always next year!