Monday, March 13, 2023

Richard Jefferies, Bevis and ice hockey: A mystery solved

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It did freeze and hard. The wind being still, the New Sea was soon frozen over except in two places. There was a breathing-hole in Fir-Tree Gulf about fifty or sixty yards from the mouth of the Nile. The channel between New Formosa and Serendib did not “catch,” perhaps the current from Sweet River Falls was the cause, and though they could skate up within twenty yards, they could not land on the islands. Jack and Frances came to skate day after day; Bevis and Mark with Ted, Cecil, and the rest fought hockey battles for hours together.

This passage comes from the very last chapter of Bevis: The Story of a Boy by Richard Jefferies, which was published in 1882.

One of the reasons I like Jefferies so much is the way he drops in unexpected observations - here it is village lads playing ice hockey in Victorian England. The 'New Sea' here is the boys' name for the reservoir at Coate in Swindon, where Jefferies was born.

Since posting this passage for the first time, I have looked for other references to the game in 19th-century England but failed to find them.

This evening I have found out why.

I'm listening to the second instalment of The Curiously Specific Book Club podcast on The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. And, discussing the sport of speed skating that used to flourish in the Fens, they mention that there was also a game called bandy.

Google bandy and you will find all sorts of references, including a Wikipedia entry. Bandy was a precursor of modern ice hockey codified in Britain in the year Bevis was published, though it is still widely played in its own right in Scandinavia and Russia.

So the game Jefferies called hockey in 1882 was probably then called bandy by most people and references to early varieties of ice hockey will most likely be found under that name.

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