Keighley Boys' Grammar School

The Tug-o’-War Match

They’d been fratching like hell in Keighworth Town Council. They were always fratching; but not always like hell.  This time it was because the town had been left a baronial Victorian Castle with its fifty acres of land, and they were arguing about what to do with it.

The benefactor, a Keighworthian, who’d gone up to London and like Whittington made his fortune and become Lord Mayor, had bought Crag Castle when its baronial owner had migrated south to warmer climes and bought a more genteel estate. It needed a lot doing to it, so the benefactor had picked it up for, not quite a song, but certainly for a good tune.

Crag Castle had fiercely divided the Council.  Some on the left wanted to turn it into a dance-hall and recreation centre.  Others, on the right, which included some crafty builders on the Council, wanted to convert it into apartments and build expensive senior executive bungalows in the grounds.  Yet a third section, the more thoughtful and smallest group, wanted to convert the castle into an education centre and museum; for the old 19th century museum in Albert Park had outgrown itself.

As time went on, the Council meetings became more and more acrimonious.  The donor despaired ever having given it to the town, and as it transpired it took them some years to honour him and thank him properly.  They were like that in Keighworth.  Eventually they made him a Freeman of the Borough; but that’s another story.

The rivalry between the two main factions, one headed by Alderman Joe Oxenhead, a leading mill-owner in Keighworth, and the other by Alderman Bill Braithwaite, chief shop-steward at Oxenhead’s own mill, came to a head when in a furious rage Oxenhead challenged Braithwaite’s lot to some sort of duel; not with weapons but by rope: a tug-o’-war match at the local gala taking place the following week.  In the heat of the moment Braithwaite and his cronies accepted. 

Not one of them had ever been in a tug-o’-war competition.  They’d been onlookers often but never participated.  Looking on was one thing.  Actually taking part was quite another. They’d no idea what they were letting themselves in for.  The whole bunch was middle-aged and paunchy.  They’d gone well and truly to seed years before and stayed in seed. 

News of the tug-o’-war went round the town in a flash and bets were laid by Alf Rooke, the town bookie.  All profits, he promised, would go to the hospital fund which the annual gala was in aid of.  Excitement rose to fever pitch during the next seven days and by the time Saturday arrived it could have been Cup Final Day at Wembley in Keighworth.

Gala Day was the one day of the year when Keighworth let its hair down and enjoyed itself.  A large stage was erected in Albert Park where acrobats did their tricks and where the finals of a boxing tournament were held.   On the day, races were run, the town’s schools competing against each other.  A travelling fair moved in with roundabouts and swings.  Fortune tellers did a roaring trade from their caravans, and fat ladies and grotesque dwarves were stared at curiously all the week.  Exotic smells pervaded the park: pies and peas, fish and chips, sickly candyfloss and sticks of rock sold by the bucketful.  The whole day was rounded off by a magnificent firework display; but this year was to be remembered for the tug-o’-war match by the Town Council.

The nearer the great day approached, the more fearful the Councillors became.  Their anger had evaporated and fear took its place, fear of making fools of themselves and being laughed at.  No politician likes that.  However, they put a brave face on it and on the day dressed in their civic robes and three-cornered hats for the procession from George Park, the other end of town, to Albert Park, waving cheerily from open cars at the crowds lining the pavements.

It was a lively procession headed by Keighworth Silver Prize Band.  Other bands were interspersed along it, including the Bradford Kilties in full Highland dress, blowing their bagpipes for all they were worth.  The Scouts added their drums and bugles, and there was a concertina band and jazz band; all very enlivening.  Sunday Schools sported tableaux on the backs of lorries as did youth clubs and The Band of Hope, which received a loud cheer as it passed the town brewery.

At intervals between the bands, tradesmen publicised their wares from highly polished vans or wagons pulled by finely groomed horses.  They were immaculate, brushed, washed and their hooves polished till they shone; so was their harness.  They were transformed from their workaday appearances and seemed to revel in the parade, prancing in their wagons and lapping up the cheers of the crowd. 

The whole of Keighworth was whooping it up and enjoying the day – all except the Town Council.  Their smiles began to fade the nearer they approached Albert Park.  Some of the crowd were jeering, not cheering, and that didn’t help.  Usually, they waved and smiled back at the crowd, raising their tricorn hats whenever they saw someone of note.  This time they sat rigid, their hearts sinking by the minute.

Once in the park, they disrobed in a marquee and donned football boots, shirts and shorts.  And a right lot they looked!  Anyone less athletic was hard to imagine.  Away went their pomp with their sabled robes and hats.  They clustered together looking shame-faced and embarrassed, displaying white spidery legs and great paunches.  As they left the marquee they were cheered by the beer tent next door, which emptied to watch them pull.

Joe Oxenhead’s team were dressed in blue.  The other side in red.  The judge was Sam Watson, the Keighworth rugby league team coach.  He beckoned them over to where the rope lay straddling a white line.  In the middle of the rope was a white ribbon to indicate which team was winning.  It never left the marker line, as you’ll see.

Sam read out the rules: overall pull to be 12 feet and the winner to be decided by best of three pulls.  Then he asked them to take their places along the rope.

The blue team’s anchorman was Councillor Dick Foster, a huge obese purple-faced shop-keeper.  Sam showed him how to wrap the rope around himself then went to the other end to Councillor Herbert Thackeray, who was the red’s anchorman, and showed him, too, how to take up the rope.  He spaced out the rest with Joe and Bill at the head facing each other across the marker line.

“Pick up the rope and take the strain!” ordered Sam, and the two teams heeled in.  When they were balanced he shouted “Pull!”  They did.  They tugged with all their might, but the white ribbon stayed still.  They pulled and pulled as hard as they could, but it hardly moved.  Their eyes rolled round and their veins stood out like whipcord.  Sweat poured off them but neither side gave an inch.  They were evenly matched and remained grunting and tugging for a couple of minutes, being drained by the second by their effort.

To make matters worse, a belligerent wasp began buzzing round Dick Foster’s head.  He couldn’t swat it.  He knew if he let go the rope his side were done for.  He shook his head this way and that, blew and snorted till the thing flew off – and landed on his shorts.  Dick gave a sharp cry of pain, clutched his arse and let go the rope.  He’d been stung!

You’d have expected the red team to have pulled clear, but no!  The sudden release took them unawares and they fell over flat on their backs.  Joe’s team hurled headlong on their faces, and all the while Dick Foster jumped and raved like a madman holding his backside.

The crowd loved it and roared with laughter as Sam asked Dick what was the matter.  A St John’s Ambulance man hurried over and applied some sting relief, so that Dick could go on pulling.  Then they changed sides.  Sam declared the first pull void and cried, “Second pull!  Joe and Bill groaned inwardly.  Both teams wished they’d kept their mouths shut in the Council Chamber.  They took up their places again still shaking from their first effort.  Now they had to go through it all again.

“Take the strain!” shouted Sam.  “Pull!”

They pulled and pulled again but no one gave way.  Then, like leaves in autumn, they suddenly began dropping one by one, utterly and completely exhausted.  The Ambulance man ran from one to another expecting to have to give the kiss of life, so sickly did they look.  Finally, he went to Sam Watson and said, “They’ve had enough.  There’ll be a heart attack if they pull again.”

“But there’s bets been placed,” said Sam.  “Somebody’ll have to pull.  There’s just got to be a winner.”  He went to Joe Oxenhead lying on the ground and knelt by him whispering, “You’re not going to let Bill Braithwaite beat you, are you, Joe?”

Joe clenched his teeth and stood up shakily.  “I’ll die first!” he growled.  And looking at him Sam thought, “You might well do that before we’ve done.”

Then Sam strolled to Bill Braithwaite and said quietly, “It’s between you and Joe Oxenhead now.  Are you game?”

“Aye,” gasped Bill and staggered to his feet.

Sam announced that only Joe and Bill would take the final pull.  “Your last chance to place bets,” he added, and Alf Rooke did a roaring trade. 

Bill and Joe went into the marquee to sponge down and cool off a while.  Refreshed they came out with Sam and took up the rope, glaring at each other.  “Right, lads.  Take the strain,” said Sam, followed by “Pull!”  They did, gritting their teeth and heaving with all their might cheered on by their team-mates and the crowd. 

They’d been at it for only a minute when Joe felt something slip.  The cord holding up his shorts had become untied and his pants began to slide down inch by inch.  He faced it out as long as he dared till a voice from the crowd (was it Ira Fothergill’s?) yelled loudly, “Joe, yer bum’s showing!”  A roar of laughter followed.

Pride comes before any fall and Joe’s pride always came first.  He let go the rope and hitched up his pants.  Bill fell to the ground but he’d pulled the ribbon clear of the marker line and was declared the winner.

The tug-o’war match had a salutary effect on future Council Meetings.  Whenever tempers rose and they began to fratch, the Chairman of Council reminded them of the fiasco on Gala Day.  “A long pull and a strong pull, does not always bring up the best glass of ale,” he used to say -  and they came to their senses at once.


                                                          John Waddington-Feather ©


Fratch= to quarrel (Yorkshire dialect)

The Band of Hope = A youth organisation which discouraged drinking alcohol.