In the Middle Ages not everyone could afford a bow and arrow, so some poorer families became proficient with a pea shooter for self-defence. As Arnold de Boycott said in 1562 “Appen peas are cheaper than arrows and are easier to returne – some arrows gette stucke in things don’t they ande breake, but them peas don’t.”
Accuracy with a pea-shooter is difficult, but the Penistone Pea-Shooting Prize Contest celebrates this accuracy over varying distances. The contest dates back to the Wars of the Roses when young Alec Ramsbottom protected his house from 50 Lancastrian soldiers with only a pea-shooter and ten pods of peas. Ramsbottom’s technique was to fill his mouth with peas and then fire them out rapidly aiming at the mouths of the Lancastrians. He was so accurate that he succeeded in making each soldier swallow a pea; he then shouted “them’s plague peas them you Lanky bastards.” The soldiers retreated to the nearest stream where they tried to regurgitate the peas, believing them to be detrimental to their health. This is one of the first examples of psychological warfare known to historians.
Nowadays contestants don’t fire at Lancastrian tourists but they do fire at two inch high lead soldiers lined up on a shelf three feet from the ground. The distances vary from 10 feet to 12 yards. Each pea-shooter can only be a maximum of three feet in length and can’t be augmented by any devices that would increase the air pressure applied to the pea. “It must be all natural puff” says Robert Sidebottom the current chairman of the contest, “using good natural Yorkshire air.”
Each competitor is allocated ten peas, dyed a colour that the contestant is completely unaware of beforehand, and has to knock down ten soldiers in one minute. If the judges find any undyed peas then the contest is over for that shooter. This dying rule was introduced after the Albert Stubbs Controversy of 1843, when Stubbs knocked down his soldiers really quickly, however when the judges picked up the peas for later use in the celebration lunch they found 33 peas. Under questioning, Stubbs admitted that he’d consumed five pods of peas before each round of the contest and was able to “returne them to my mouth withe easiness.” Stubbs was banned for life and was prevented from growing peas on his allotment by the local council.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker