In times past life was hard for the poorer people in British society. Working in the fields was a tough life especially when the weather was bad. Most families lived from hand to mouth and at meal time there were no kitchen implements to help consume the food.
With this background you can imagine the surprise that Reg Wormold had in April 1782 when he came across a spoon at a fork in the road. Reg didn’t know it was used for eating food. He tried balancing it on his finger and he also placed the curved end on his nose and walked along. Each day he became more proficient at these games until he thought he was the finest spoon balancer in the business.
On September 1st 1782 he nailed a piece of wood to the pub door, on which was written in charcoal the words “ye conttestte bee announced – nextte Saterrday.”
On that Saturday Reginald stood on the town green brandishing his spoon and challenging anyone to balance the implement on their nose for longer than he could. Thus was born the Todmorden spoon balancing competition.
Today, the contest attracts people from all over the world where spoons are used. There are two ways that people’s spoon balancing skills are challenged. The first is when competitors balance a spoon on the end of their finger (any finger will do – Reg Wormold only had five fingers and one thumb due to farm injuries). While balancing the spoon on their finger the contestant has to stand on one leg and then after five seconds transfer their weight to the other leg. The person who does this for the longest time will win the prize of a set of steak knives.
The other contests relate to balancing the spoon on the nose. There are a number of races over distances from 100 yards to one mile. There’s also a sack race of four hundred yards and a three-legged race of 250 yards. The rules are simple: if the spoon falls off the nose the contestant must immediately stop, pick up the spoon, and retreat five paces before placing the spoon back on their nose and re-commencing the race. People have cheated by gluing the spoon to their nose using sticky substances such as mucus, cement, and plaster. The rules state that at the end of the race the unspooning judge has to remove all spoons personally to check to see whether any illegal substances have been used.
Emily Jackson is the champion spoon balancer having won the one mile race every year from 1871 to 1881. She attributed her success to “Good old-fashioned Yorkshire grit and plenty of spittle on the spoon, but not so much that any of it goes to waste.” She had to retire in 1882 because of a neck injury resulting from her preferred running method, which was to run with her head almost parallel to the ground. Jackson still holds the record for the mile race of 5 minutes and 34 seconds.
The sack race is the most difficult race of all because of the jarring when both feet hit the ground at once. In 1862 Seth Sidebottom tripped up during the race and the spoon somehow finished inside his nose when he hit the ground necessitating a trip to the local hospital. In 1900, two competitors, one from Ramsbottom and the other from Barnsley, collided during the race resulting in much bad feeling and shouts of “Remember Towton.”
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker