Pillow fighting, tug of war and smoking races at Hebden Sports

Craven Herald: Ian Douglass oversees the children's tog of war in 1982 Ian Douglass oversees the children's tog of war in 1982

Not many people can say they’ve run a 100 yard dash with an Olympian and even less, I would imagine, can say they’ve run an egg and spoon race with one. For anyone who is currently in their early 30s and competed at Hebden Sports as a child, there is a very strong chance that they did just that. Hebden correspondent Victoria Benn reports

Hebden Sports has been grabbing the headlines in recent years thanks to double gold Olympian Andy Hodge being a native of the picturesque Dales village.

And, in case you are wondering, the young Andy did compete in the children’s races at the Sports.

Indeed, some of my earliest memories recall my excitement competing at the Sports, so as a new resident of Hebden, it felt only fitting that I explore the history of this celebrated Dales event.

Hebden Sports, as it is known today, started out life well over 100 years ago as Hebden Feast. It has always been held on August Bank Holiday Monday, though until 1965 this was the first Monday in August, rather than the last.

Unfortunately records don’t exist to clarify exactly when the event started. However, Craven Herald archives carry a report about a Hebden Feast in the 1800s, which tallies with what local people understand of the history of the event. Programme archives start in 1923 and see the event being called ‘Hebden Sports and Gala’.

This and other early programmes offer insight into the content of the Sports in times gone by and provide a real flavour of the popular entertainments for these times.

Our story begins in the 1920s in Sedbers Field at Townhead, which was located behind the current Sports field. It is evident from the programmes that Hebden Sports and Gala was a much grander affair than it is now. Indeed it shows some similarities to Kilnsey Show, boasting ‘sports, trotting match and fell races’.

Proceedings kicked off down at the village shop with a procession led by a local brass band. The band would lead a procession of local children in full fancy dress attire up to the show fields.

A ‘white shoot’ opened events on the show fields. Next, various track and field events were scheduled, commencing with the trotting, of which there were different heats, leading to a final.

Flat races on the track consisted of sprints, middle and long distance events. The fell race course at this time was different to the course now, and, while this was running, the children and adult novelty races for which Hebden Sports is still acclaimed took place. These were followed by some of the other long-standing favourites such as the pillow fight and tug of war.

Motorcycle events were also a popular highlight, featuring races and a ‘Grand Motorcycle Gymkhana’ organised by Grassington and District Motorcycle Club. The day’s festivities were rounded off with a dance which then, and for many years after, was held in the original Hebden School Room.

Programme archives indicate that this format for the day remained relatively unchanged until the late 1930s, apart from a name change to the more abridged Hebden Sports.

During the Second World War the Sports were suspended for a number of years and resumed again in 1947, still in Sedbers Field. This break seems to have led to the demise of the trotting and the senior flat races. However, the white shoot, fell races, motorcycle events and novelty races all continued in the new post-war programme.

The flat race, egg and spoon, and potato race have always been regular stalwarts in the ‘novelty race’ itinerary. However, a look back through the programme archives highlights the inventiveness of the committee in coming up with even more bizarre race ideas, and also illustrates how values and social beliefs have changed over the years.

The 1920s and early 1930s saw the ladies of the village competing in a ‘ladies washing competition’; where they had to race to wash a set number of items and peg them out on a line.

Programmes in the ’20s and ’30s also show a distinction between the ‘married ladies flat race’ and ‘single ladies flat race’, with no such distinction for the Gents.

And most outrageously perhaps, in the 1935 programme is listed a ‘gents smoking competition’ and a ‘ladies and gents candle and cigarette race’ – something to do with lighting a cigarette and running!

Race listings became noticeably less controversial (by our current standards) after the war, but the Sports did have its own controversy in 1966 when the majority of the committee decided that some ladies from the village should be invited to join it. Up to this point the Sports Committee had been wholly male.

In an unforeseen move, one male committee member resigned in protest about the decision. In fact, Muriel Hargraves and Peggy Howick, who have helped in the research of this article, were two of the original female trailblazers!

In 1955 the Sports moved to its current home, which is the Powder House Field adjacent to the B6265.

Despite the loss of some events over the years, the real backbone of the Sports has remained unchanged, which is the fell race (which have become fell races over time with the inclusion of junior events), the glorious flat and novelty races for both adults and children, and of course the equally celebrated tug of war.

One of out photographs shows Skipton man Norman Beck (foreground) who held the fell race record throughout the late ’50s and ’60s, leading the way in 1962. He is being closely followed by John Bell originally from Giggleswick, now in his 80s, who recently made the headlines selling his sheep dog for the world record price of 9,000 guineas. Local man Stephen Hawkins holds the record for the current fell race course, with a time of 10.22 which he set in 1999.

Much has changed at Hebden Sports over the last 150 years – the gents smoking race and ladies washing race thankfully ran out of smoke and steam – but much remains the same.

You can still race your egg and spoon, knock down ginger, ‘bat the rat’ or compete more seriously against Stephen’s record in the open fell race. Laughter therapy is also provided, courtesy of Hebden man Ian ‘Adge’ Douglass, who crafts the most hilarious commentary to accompany the absurd comical pantomime that is guaranteed to be the children’s and adult novelty races.

Best of all, there is one thing that hasn’t changed – all the prizes are paid in hard currency, something no child ever forgets!

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