From medieval moss-stuffed balls to finely decorated ceramic carpet bowls, Museum of London Docklands
rolled out a small case display of balls from across the centuries. The display is part of the West India Quay Festival, which has a sports week as part of its programme, and will run throughout the month of the festival.
The earliest balls on show are moss-stuffed and wound leather objects from the 1300s, when a London commentator remarked on a much frequented game of ball taking place across the City. The rules have long been lost, but moss-stuffed balls were common and were used as new ball games developed. In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare cites tennis balls filled with beard hair, whilst in France Louis IX introduced strict rules about stuffing materials. Balls were serious business.
Bowling, a favourite pastime in taverns and gaming houses, got numerous Londoners into trouble with the law. Visitors will see examples of a lead weighted bowling ball and a cheese (so called because of its shape), the balls of choice for carousers and gamblers who skittled for riches but more often rolled out of the pubs the poorer for their efforts. Bowling was banned in 1533, except for gentlemen playing on private premises, but by the 1600s most of Londons larger inns had their own bowling alley. Leicester Square was also home to a more genteel bowling green in the 17th century.
Decorative ceramic carpet bowls for well-to-do women, exhibited here, aimed well away from the debauchery of tavern alleys. An advert of 1846 described parlour bowls as an amusement in which the ladies can participate. The manufacturer believed that the ornate bowls would ward off competitive excess and unladylike behaviour, giving all the enjoyments of curling, without causing over excitement. And on a smaller scale, the painted ceramic marbles on display join the millions that have been swapped, collected, played with and lost over millennia. Our London marbles most likely come from Germany, but were found on the Thames foreshore.
A collection of small bats, from an early twentieth century Soho school, accompanies the balls on display. These miniature cricket bats seem designed specifically to prevent too many balls being hit for six.
Jackie Keily, Curator, says Theres a great story of Londons leisure times to be told through the simple instruments of their pleasure. Museum of London Docklands display is a small but well rounded reminder that despite the limiting measures of authorities throughout the ages Londoners have been adept at having a ball with balls.