Playing cards have played an important role in people’s lives for centuries. The Playing Card Festival has been held annually since 1682 to celebrate all the non-gambling uses that playing cards can be used for.
It all began when the wife of local gambler Ralph Meadows decided that she would remove all gambling temptation from his life. She picked up his pack of cards and threw them individually out of the window. Ralph noticed that some of the cards travelled more than one hundred yards and bragged one day in the pub that his wife could throw cards further than anyone else. The challenge was inevitably taken up by his drinking friends and the Contest was established, taking place on St George’s Day in a farmer’s field.
Fifty contestants each took a playing card from the Presiding Judge’s pack. The order of throwing was decided by the number of the card (aces high) – in order of importance the suits were hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. The first thrower was the two of hearts and the final thrower was the ace of spades. Ralph’s wife, Jenny, had the eight of diamonds and hurled it one hundred and twelve yards seven inches.
She used a flicking motion of her wrist that made the most of her powerful forearms strengthened by years of throwing hay bales into the upper floor of the barn. Since that time the eight of diamonds has been known as the Jenny Strongarm card. Jenny Meadows won the first six throwing contests before an accident when moving an entire haystack left her with a damaged elbow.
Her record distance lasted until 1792 when Jeremiah Morse, a local boxer, hurled the King of Clubs one hundred and nineteen yards. He employed Jenny’s flicking motion in his throw but also incorporated the rotation method used by discus throwers to gain momentum.
In 1800 the organizers decided to add an accuracy test to the distance event in a bid to extend the interest of the contest to the more effete members of society. Players use five cards and try to land a card into saucepans set at five different distances from the thrower: 7 yards, 14 yards, 28 yards, 35 yards and 50 yards. Each person scores four points for landing the card in the saucepan, two points for getting the card to balance on the rim, and one point if the card rests against the saucepan – touching doesn’t count.
Jasper Bartram won the first contest with a score of 12 comprising two direct hits and two cards landing on the rim of the saucepan and remaining there. This is the only time that anyone has balanced two cards on the rim of a saucepan in the same contest. Nora Smith is the only person to have scored a perfect 20 in this contest in consecutive years, performing the feat in 1956 and 1957, using what she called her waterfall technique. This comprises throwing the card high into the air and letting it fall vertically into the saucepan. This technique doesn’t work well in high winds and Nora Smith scored zero in 1958 when there was a heavy storm in the vicinity.
Another element added to the contest was the card structure contest, which started in 1869 after the Suez Canal was opened. This element was first held in an organiser’s shed because of the need for stillness, but the contest soon outgrew the shed and is now held in the local sports centre.
There are two types of competition – the first starts at 8 a.m. and is the ‘Build the Biggest Structure Out of Cards” contest, which lasts until 6 p.m. No glue or any additional material can be used to hold the cards together. The largest structure ever made was the Pyramid of Cheops created in 1973 by Sandra Parsons, which had a base of 15 yards on each side and had risen to a height of twelve feet by the time 6 p.m. arrived.
The other construction competition relates to contestants creating a representation of a given building such as the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, or the Houses of Parliament. Each person has three hours to construct their version of these famous buildings using just playing cards. The winner will be the person with the most accurate rendition of the building. Reggie Swinson has won this contest five times since 1998. He uses two playing cards for each element of the construction giving his structures extra strength, rigidity, and permanence. Indeed, his model of The Coliseum from 2001 is on show in the local museum, due to the accuracy of the representation. It stands next to the museum’s only item of Roman pottery.
All the doors to the building are kept locked throughout the contest; this was after the disaster of 1958 when someone came in through the doors followed by a huge gust of wind that destroyed the structures.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker