Friday, April 28, 2017

The brass band played on the curling pond

Wednesday, February 21, 1855, dawned cold and fair. The ice on Corsebar Pond was good. The curlers of Paisley were soon engaged in a bonspiel, those from the north side of the town playing those from the south side. Many came to watch.

A brass band was in attendance! According to the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, the band 'enlivened the spectators by playing a number of popular airs'.

Music to curl to, back in 1855. Just imagine!

According to the newspaper report, "The curlers however were too intent on their game to listen to the strains, and each one seemed to be saying:

'The music o' the channel-stane
Sounds sweeter far than a' that' "

This was an early example of a charity match. The losers in each rink were to pay one shilling, and the winners sixpence, the funds going to benefit Paisley Infirmary which had only recently, in 1850, become a general hospital with medical and surgical wards.

The newspaper report concluded, "After a most friendly game, the numbers (at least so far as we could ascertain) stood thus: South 199, North 193, Majority for South six shots. Upwards of five pounds were realised for the Infirmary."

The venue for the match, Corsebar Pond, on the south side of Paisley, Renfrewshire, has a rather interesting history. At first glance it is just one of the 2391 places that are currently in the Scottish Historical Curling Places database, where there is good evidence of outside curling being played.  However, Corsebar is rather unusual, as it was not a pond which belonged exclusively to one club, as it was used by many!

Curling in Paisley has a long history. Aside from the tenuous evidence from an old protocol book what suggests some sort of contest on ice near the orchard of Paisley abbey in 1541 (which may or may not be a record of an early curling match), we can say with confidence that the game was being carried on in and around the town in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1795, the Sandholes club had more than a hundred members. The Sandholes club was one of those which amalgamated to form the Paisley Union club in 1844. The Union was admitted to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1845. The Paisley Iceland CC had been founded in 1841, joining the Royal Club the same year. The St Mirren CC was founded in 1845 and admitted in 1846. The Boreas CC was founded in 1852, and admitted that same year.

In the nineteenth century if a curling club wished to join the Royal Caledonian Curling Club it had to have somewhere to play. The first of the 'General Regulations' of the Royal Cub, as printed, for example, in the Annual for 1853-54, reads, "Any Local Curling Association shall be admissible into the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, if it consists of at least eight Members, have a designation, and sheet of Ice for its operations, and be governed by Office-bearers under a code of regulations." (My emphasis).

Clubs spent much money constructing and maintaining their curling pond. Rarely though do we find examples of clubs sharing their ice with another.

It seems that by the middle of the nineteenth century the curlers of Paisley were struggling to find suitable places to play! So bad was the situation that the advert above appeared in the local newspaper. Robert Boyd was the secretary of the Paisley Iceland Curling Club.

Robert Brown, in his History of Paisley, published in 1886, writes, "About the middle of this century the game of curling increased its votaries considerably and became very popular, but the curlers laboured under great disadvantage in not having near the town a commodious sheet of ice to play on. This difficulty, however, was overcome. The representatives of the different clubs made choice of a low-lying field on Corsebar farm, in the neighbourhood of Paisley, in which by the formation of an embankment a few feet high on one side a sheet of water extending to about eight acres might be obtained. During winter the water would be accumulated in the pond, and being run off in summer, the land would be used for raising meadow hay. The Earl of Glasgow, to whom the ground belonged, was applied to for permission to carry out this arrangement; and with his usual generosity and desire to encourage an excellent amusement, his Lordship readily agreed to the request."

As the Earl of Glasgow was Patron of the Paisley Iceland curling club the solution to the problem had been close at hand all along!

It seems that a committee of members from four clubs (Paisley Iceland, Paisley Union, the Boreas and the St Mirren) was formed to oversee construction and to run the pond. 

The co-operation of the four Paisley curling clubs is unusual and few details of how this came about are known today, although the online history of the St Mirren CC (here) suggests that two of the clubs (St Mirren and Paisley Union) had previously shared a pond at Hole in Bush (or Holly Bush) farm in 1846.

Construction of Corsebar must have taken place rapidly.

The Corsebar Pond was officially opened in the first week of 1854, although, according to the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser of January 7, 1854, the first games on the pond had been played the previous Saturday (that would have been December 31, 1853) by members of the Paisley Iceland and the Boreas clubs. However, the 'official' opening was on Tuesday, January 3, 1854. Play began at noon, with five games between the Union and Iceland clubs. The Union was to win four of these. Players from the Boreas and St Mirren clubs were soon on the ice too, and two games were played between these clubs, Boreas winning both.

The day was a success. The newspaper correspondent writes, "The play amongst all the clubs proceeded with excellent spirit during the course of the game, and provosts, magistrates, and ministers of the gospel might be seen confidentially consulting with weavers and masons and plasterers whether a guard should be rubbed off or an inwick played."

The Renfrewshire Curling Club seems to have been founded as a result of the availability of Corsebar ice in 1856, and it too joined the Royal Club in 1857. This club also became involved in maintaining the pond.

Brown provides some more facts about the Corsebar Pond, which was still very much in use when he wrote his 1886 book, "The greatest depth of water in the curling pond is little more than three feet, and it is therefore safe from serious accidents. It affords accommodation for at least thirty rinks, and there is a cottage beside it which serves to store the stones and to give shelter to the curlers when required."

The 'curling house' had not been completed when the pond was opened in 1854.

However, it had been completed by 1858, although it turned out to be somewhat insecure, as the above clipping shows.

Other problems that the pond committee had to deal with can be inferred from a paragraph in the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser on December 15, 1855. "We observe that the committee of the Corsebar Curling Pond have give notice that persons found skaiting (sic), sliding, or playing at shinty on the ice there, or trespassing on the gounds adjoining, will be prosecuted."

It was also noted that curlers who were not members of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club could obtain season tickets for five shillings, or day tickets for sixpence.   

As well as being regularly in use by five local curling clubs, the Corsebar Pond became a 'neutral venue' for District Medal matches between clubs, the Royal Club promoting these from its inception. On February 1, 1855, for example, Anderston CC (from Glasgow) met Ardgowan CC (from Greenock) at Corsebar, two rinks aside, four players in each rink. This match resulted in a narrow win for Ardgowan 32-30, and the state of the ice on the Corsebar Pond was described as 'excellent'. The umpire was Archibald Sinclair, from Renfrew.

At least one other club used the pond regularly, the Sneddon CC. This was an old club, dating from 1815, although its minute books, which survive and are in the care of the Heritage Centre in Paisley, suggest a much earlier date for the club's beginnings. It was in 1815 when the club, with more than 100 members that year, was 'remodelled', and the surviving minute books date from then. These show that the Sneddon members played on a number of different ponds until 1855, when on January 24, the club met on the 'Corsebar New Curling Pond'. This pond became the venue of choice for the club for its matches until it was wound up in 1880. It would seem that the Sneddon CC never joined the Royal Club, for whatever reason, but the last recorded minute on January 21, 1880, suggests that most of the members had joined other clubs which were members of the Royal Club, and no longer wished to play in Sneddon competitions.

Occasionally, one of the regular users of the Corsebar Pond chose to play elsewhere. According to the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser of December 29, 1860, eighteen members of the Renfrewshire CC had met the previous Wednesday on Mr John Stirrat's pond at Nethercraigs, 'choosing it in preference to the Corsbar (sic) Pond', to compete at points for the gold medal that had been presented by their patron, Colonel William Mure of Caldwell. Just why Nethercraigs was chosen over Corsebar in this instance is not recorded, but John Stirrat was the Renfrewshire club's vice-president, so perhaps the reason was simply that he wished to provide hospitality to the club members on a pond at his own place of business, Nethercraigs Bleach Works.

Curling on the Corsebar Pond continued into the twentieth century.

This image, from a glass negative found in the Strathclyde Archives in 1979, probably shows play on the Corsebar Pond.

Here's more of that old image, and this shows just how large the pond was.

What of the place today?

Visiting today one finds a flat sports ground, with a changing pavilion, in a primarily residential district. This is the view from the north east corner of the site. The trees seen here are part of 'Donald's Wood', the land rising behind up towards the Glennifer Braes Country Park.

View from the south west.

Along the east side of the site, the original embankment which blocked off the pond from the Espedair Burn has been enlarged and hides a secret. The old curling pond is now part of a flood prevention plan put into place following the Paisley floods in 1994. Should the run off from the Glennifer Braes to the south become excessive a sluice can be opened on the Espedair Burn turning the playing field into a storage area for excess water.

Thanks go to the helpful staff of the Heritage Centre at Paisley Central Library. The Sneddon CC minutes, and Robert Brown's History of Paisley, were consulted there. The British Newspaper Archive was the source of much of the information about Corsebar activities. The top image is a screenshot of the OS 25 inch map of the area from 1897, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland maps website, here. The black and white images of curling on what is likely to be Corsebar Pond came from a glass negative found in the Strathclyde Archives when they were based at the Glasgow City Chambers. The image was published in The Curling Companion by W H Murray. I have been unable to ascertain where the original is now. The recent photographs of Corsebar are © Bob Cowan. If it was not for the enthusiasm and dedication of Lindsay Scotland and Harold Forrester, who maintain the Historical Curling Places website, I would not be a 'pondhunter' and would be unaware of the Corsebar Curling Pond!

Monday, April 17, 2017

One problem of growing old

Back in the eighteenth century, when it was not possible to travel far, curlers would only have had the opportunity to play against those from the neighbouring parish. These were the days before railways, and even getting to a neutral venue for a bonspiel involving players from two or more parishes would involve considerable effort. Later, when the train allowed curlers to travel further, horse and cart still provided the assistance to get the stones to the ponds, see here.

In some cases it is known that curlers walked considerable distances to take part in matches. Some reports describe players wrapping their stone in their plaids and walking to the pond to meet the opposition. The reference to plaids is just romantic nonsense, I would suggest. But just how would you carry your curling stone over a long distance?

Back then it would be a single stone that would be carried, as 'one curler - one stone' was the way the game was played.

The most likely scenario would be that the player put the stone in a bag, or more likely just a sack, and carried it over his shoulder. Or her shoulder, see below!

The suggestion that a single stone could be carried in a bag over your shoulder is backed up in a little story that has appeared in different places in the curling literature. The transcript below is from an 1884 book, Curling: The Ancient Scottish Game, by James Taylor. The incident described took place in Lanarkshire in the early years of the nineteenth century. A veteran 'knight of the channel-stane' had acquired great celebrity as a skilful skip, but he was growing old.

Taylor writes, "The announcement of a parish bonspiel fired the spirit of the veteran curler, but his failing strength made it impossible for him to carry his curling stone over a rough worn track two long miles to the scene of the action.

"I'm no able," he was often heard to mutter on the evening before the match and on the morning of the eventful day. The burden of the old man's song was, "I needna try't, I canna carry't."

"Could you do ony gude, gin ye were there?" inquired his wife, who was several years younger than her husband.

"Ay, that could I! was his ready rejoinder.

"My certie, ye's be there then," was her prompt reply; and forthwith tumbling the stone into a bag, the faithful matron heaved it on her shoulder, and followed by her husband halted not, till she deposited her load on the ice at the loch where the match was to be played.

"There, my bonnie man," she said, "play ye'r part, and gif ye win, my faith, ye's get some-thing gude and warm to ye'r supper the night," and home the courageous dame wended her way.

The result was that both the rink of her husband and his parish gained a victory to which the skilful play of the old curler contributed not a little. And many a good bicker has since been quaffed, first to the health and now to the memory of this model curler's wife."

It should be remembered that this was written in Victorian times, undoubtedly for a male readership, and would no doubt have brought a smile in that male-dominated society.

More seriously, the story does imply that, back in the day, your curling stone was a personal item, for your use alone. There was no consideration that the old skip could just turn up at the pond, and play with a borrowed stone. And you kept your own stone at home, and not at a curling hut beside the rink, presumably because it was such a valuable item. One problem of growing old would be that you weren't as able as you once were to carry your curling stone to the local pond!

But it is difficult to imagine the very large boulders, such as the Grannies, see here, or the Jubilee stone, below, being carried over any distance!

This stone was presented to the Royal Club in 1888 by John Wilson of Chapelhill, Cockburnspath, and we can assume that it had been used in that part of the country in years past. It may have had a name before 1888, but, as it was exhibited at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Royal Club, it became known as 'The Jubilee Stone'. It weighs 117 lbs (53 kg). Read more about named stones here.

The illustration by W J R Cheshire accompanied the story in Curling: The Ancient Scottish Game by James Taylor, 2nd edition, 1887. The photo of the Jubilee Stone is from my archive. It still belongs to the Scottish Curling Trust, see here.

Monday, April 03, 2017

There wasn't always a house

Curling these days is very colourful, and the painted circles at each end of the sheet contribute to making the game look attractive to those who are seeing it for the first time. The circles, the head, or the house, is that area which stones have to touch, or be within, if they are to be considered at the completion of an end of play. It may be a surprise to many that such a 'counting area' has not always been a feature of the sport.

The earliest rules of play, such as those of the Duddingston Club from 1811, show no requirement for circles of any sort. The only marks that were needed on outside ice were the tees - simply small holes in the ice at each end of a sheet - and the hogline, called the hog-score back then. This was defined in the Duddingston rules as, 'The hog-score to be one sixth part of the length of the rink distant from the tee'. Shots counted, as now, if they were closer to the tee than any of the opposition, but it seems that as long as they had crossed the hog, they were eligible to count. They did not have to be within any circles. (For those familiar with lawn bowls, this is not a strange concept.)

Such rules were essentially those adopted by the Grand Caledonian Curling club at its inception in 1838. By 1841, some ninety clubs had already joined, accounting for about three thousand members. The Annual of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club for 1841-42 records, "The Constitution of the Grand Club has this year been carefully revised. The adoption of a uniform system of playing, and the total abolition of local peculiarities, have been strongly recommended, for the purpose of preventing all sources of dispute."

In the Rules of the Game, in 1841, we find, "No stone to be counted which does not lie within seven feet from the tee, unless it be previously otherwise mutually agreed upon." The italics are in the publication, to emphasise that this was a new inclusion in the rules. Note too that the rule makers allowed an exception, that the 'counting area' could be ignored if both competing sides chose to do so. One has to think that the introduction of this regulation was somewhat controversial, and not all agreed with it, if such an exception was included.

There was still no requirement to scratch a circle on the ice.

How then did players know if stones lay within the fourteen feet diameter 'counting area'? One can speculate that, as play was usually the 'drawing game' and towards the tee, rarely would stones far from the tee need to be considered. Perhaps they kept a seven foot measuring stick on hand to check. Or perhaps a seven-foot radius circle was indeed scratched on the ice, even though this was not a requirement of the rules.

The Grand Caledonian Curling Club received its 'Royal' accolade in 1843. Ten years later, in the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1853-54, we learn that a Committee had been appointed to revise the Laws of the Royal Club, and that that Committee, after having the experience of the winter season, were to report to the General Meeting the following July.

This duly happened, and in the Annual for 1854-55 a diagram of the curling rink was printed for the first time, part of which is shown above. The rules of play had been amended to read, "A circle of seven feet radius, to be described from each Tee as a centre, and no stone to count which is wholly without this circle."

The diagram shows other lines. For the first time we see a 'sweeping score', and a 'foot circle', this latter an early definition of where and how a player should stand when delivering their stone, discussions about which would occupy the Club's rule makers for many years to follow.

Note that the 1854-55 diagram shows other circles within the fourteen foot diameter 'counting circle'. These were optional and only there to facilitate measurement as was (eventually) made clear in the Annual for 1879-80 when the rule was amended to read, "Around each tee as a centre, a circle of seven feet radius shall be drawn. (In order to facilitate measurements, two feet and four feet circles may be laid down.)"

This woodcut illustration shows how the circles would have been inscribed on outside ice, the process known as 'tee-ringing'. It's a two person job. One curler holds one end of the marker in place over the tee, the other pushes the marker around, scraping the circles into the ice.

A fourteen-foot diameter circle remained officially the size of the house until 1938, when the Royal Club amended the Rules to make the circles just twelve feet in diameter, a measurement that Canadian curlers were already well used to. I have already written about that change in 'The day the house got smaller', see here.

In summary then, there was no 'counting area' of any sort until 1841, and no requirement for a fourteen-foot diameter circle to be scratched on to the ice until 1854. So that year is the date when it can be said that curling got its first 'house'!

There's a 'But ...'!

Keen curling historians will know the first description of our sport came from the pen of James Graeme (1749-72). In his Poems on Several Occasions, publish posthumously in 1773, Graeme writes about curling. Actually, the poem was first published in 1771 in the Weekly Magazine. The lines which are relevant here are:

'The goals are marked out; the centre each
Of a large random circle ...'

What was this 'random circle'? Graeme was certainly describing something marked on the ice, but this was not a house or 'counting area' as we know today. The use of 'random' would not be appropriate if he was referring to a fixed diameter 'counting area'. These circles on the ice were sometimes referred to as 'broughs', and various clubs had their own rules which required circles, large and small, to be scratched on to the playing surface. The Peebles curling club rules suggested a circle just six feet in diameter, whereas the Abdie club required only a circle just two feet in diameter - an area this small could not possibly define a 'counting area'. 

Broughs then were not the 'counting area'.

In An Account of the Game of Curling, published in 1811, the Reverend John Ramsay writes, 'The place for the rink being chosen, a mark is made at each end called a tee, toesee, or witter. It is a small hole made in the ice, round which two circles of different diameters are drawn, that the relative distances of the stones from the tee may be calculated at sight, as actual measurement is not permitted till the playing at each end be finished."

The term 'brough' is mentioned by James Bicket, Secretary to the Toronto Curling Club, in The Canadian Curler's Manual: or An Account of Curling, as practised in Canada: with remarks on the History of the Game. This was published in 1840. Bicket writes, "Round the tee, two or more circular lines are drawn, the largest having a diameter of about five feet, the others smaller and at intermediate distances. The space within the largest circle is called the 'brough'. The use of the circular lines is to shew, while the game is being played, the comparative nearness of the stones to the tee; actual measurement not being allowed until all the stones have been played to one end of the rink." Note that Bicket refers to the 'brough' being the space within the largest circle, and not to the circle itself. However, this did not define a 'counting area'.

Illustrations of broughs are rare. This little vignette by Charles Altamont Doyle was included in the Rev John Kerr's History of Curling, and entitled 'Making the Broughs'. Doyle's scribed circles are not even six feet in diameter. Indeed, the circles seen in his larger paintings (here) are small in diameter.

Tee-ringing is a job that still has to be done whenever ice becomes available for play outside. Here two members of the Troon Portland club are caught in the act, using - as current rules decree - a six foot marker! The date was January 20, 2001, at Coodham.

A final thought about measuring. If which stone was nearer the tee could not be determined by eye, some sort of measuring device would have been used to find which was closer. This could have been as simple as a length of string. But some clubs had large dividers like those above, preserved at the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres, as an elegant solution for making the measurements. Exactly when these were in use is not known, but John Cairnie used similar at Largs in the early years of the nineteenth century.

As curling moved indoors, colouring the circles became possible. But that's another story!

The top illustration is a screenshot from a World Curling Federation video of the recent CPT World Women's Curling Championship 2017. The diagram of the rink is from the 1854-55 Annual of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The tee-ringing image is from History of Curling, by the Reverend John Kerr, as is the Charles Altamont Doyle vignette. The Troon Portland CC photo is from my own archive, passed on to me by David Smith. It was taken by the Troon CC President Finlay Buchan, at Coodham in 2001. Thanks to Ian Mackin for this information. The photo of the dividers at the Fife Folk Museum was taken by me.