Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Bagatelle

Wall of Bagetelles at House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey, Devon. This image has kindly been made available under a Creative Commons License by Glamhag.

I would hazard a guess that most people, if they recognised it at all, would be most likely associate the game of Bagatelle with a vintage 'parlour' game, many examples of which can be seen in the image above. This Bagatelle game was a kind of early pinball which came in innumerable different designs, and was principally a game of chance, and not especially associated with pub gaming.

It's perhaps only in the Cheshire city of Chester that a very different interpretation of the game of Bagatelle is more widely known. The game known as Bagatelle, which is still played at league level in Chester, is a much more skillful 'cue-sport' game than the colourful amusements shown above, and was once widespread and popular in pubs and clubs throughout the country.

This version of Bagatelle (right and below), sometimes known as Old English or Victorian Bagatelle, is believed to date back to the early 19th century. A game which seems to have developed alongside Billiards, and one which may have suffered the decline which makes it such a rarity today upon the introduction of Bar Billiards, which the game of Bagatelle superficially resembles. A comprehensive resume of the development of Bagatelle from its early days to the present can be found here, and I don't propose to repeat it on this blog. Sufficient to say that at one time Bagatelle was very widely played in Britain, and presumably much further afield throughout Europe and the wider British Empire. Indeed tables can still be found in North America where the game was also very popular.

Given that Bagatelle has now almost entirely disappeared from pubs and clubs in Britain, it's not surprising that so few people will have come across or even know of the games existence. A handful of antique tables can still be found in the Coventry area, and some form of competition is believed to take place in North Wales, but the current hotbed of Bagatelle play is Chester, where remarkably the game has seen some measure of growth in recent years.

The table shown here for example, which still bears its original J Ashcroft & Co label, was only recently installed at the Bawn Lodge bar following extensive refurbishment (detailed here). The table is now in regular use for league play alongside around a dozen more such tables in pubs and clubs, found mainly on the outskirts of the town centre. Outside of league play, all these tables are available for free play, and the friendly and enthusiastic members of the local league will often be on hand to offer advice on rules and technique.


The Chester & District Bagatelle League may well be the very last of its kind still operating in the UK. Eleven teams are currently listed on the excellent website, and the league also hosts an 'Open' competition in October.

Despite the apparent huge popularity of the game at one time, tables of the standard shown above are now relatively rare, and the league are always on the look out for examples which can be refurbished and brought back into use. Antique tables, often in need of extensive repair and renovation, occasionally surface at auctions or through the antiques trade, and it's also likely that other tables remain in clubs throughout the country, perhaps dismantled and lying unused like the one at the Nottingham Oddfellows Club in Leicester shown below. This table was refurbished and had its surface re-covered only recently, but was rarely used at the club and has now been taken out of service. The Mahogany frame is in storage, and the slate currently lies safely below one of the clubs two Billiard Tables, perhaps awaiting a revival of interest in the game by club members.



Numerous games can be played on a Bagatelle table, with league play a fairly straightforward scoring game for two players. The basic idea being to pocket as many of the nine balls in the numbered cups as possible to build a score. The black ball scores double, and therefore this would ideally be potted in the central '9' cup for maximum scoring potential. A good video detailing the rules of play can be seen here.


The Bagatelle Table shown above and below is my own 'Baby Bagatelle', a 6 foot long fold-out version for home use. These were also once very popular as 'parlour' games, and a good many still exist and appear regularly in the antiques and online auction trade in varying states of repair. This one is fairly typical of these smaller tables which were available in a number of sizes up to 8 foot long. Constructed within a polished Mahogany case, often furnished with a small lock, and with a lighter wooden bed rather than the smooth slate of full-size Bagatelle tables. The only significant difference in design is the provision of boxwood 'Cribbage' style scoring holes down each side of the table. This one plays well enough, though in common with practically all these old examples, the cushions have hardened with time, and the baize is showing signs of wear.


The wooden arched construction shown below was often included as standard with these tables. Many different games would have originally been played on a standard Bagatelle Table, including one called Mississippi which involved cueing balls off the side cushions and into these numbered arches to build a score.


I will be featuring a few of the Chester venues for Bagatelle in future posts on this blog.

10 comments:

Socio Logie said...

Hi there, nice post.

I'm from Vancouver, BC, Canada. I bought a 8 ft Victorian foldable bagatelle table last year. Got it restored (cushion, blaise, bed of compressed wood), its a beauty.

I'm living in a small house right now, so I have to keep it folded but starting next september I am planning to re-installed it and start a series of youtube videos on Bagatelle.

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment Socio. I look forward to seeing a bit more about the game online whenever you get the chance. I was very tempted by an 8 ft folding Bagatelle last weekend at a large antiques fair. It too had been re-covered, and most importantly of all, the cushions were new. The problem with my little table is the hard cushions, which make a big difference to play. Keep tuned for more Bagatelle posts.

Socio Logie said...

Hi again, I finally start filming some of my bagetelle games. Should be able to put something online during the summer.

Mark said...

Thanks for that, keep me informed, it would be nice to link to a video or two on here.

vsupack said...

Does anybody you know have plans that could be used to help someone build one of these. I live in the states and want to add this to a game room business I am opening and would love one of these. I come across some listed in UK, but they don't want to ship to states. Any help to me getting one of these would be greatly appreciated.

Mark said...

I don't know of anyone with plans as such. For the dimensions of a full-size table you'd be best contacting the Chester Bagatelle League secretary through their website (linked in the post). The smaller fold-up tables are quite common in the UK, and come up for sale regularly in eBay. Shipping is of course the issue. These tables vary in size from my baby one at around 6 ft, to 8 ft which is around the size of the proper tables. Best of luck, it's a great game which presumably made it to the US, but probably a bit rarer over there.

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I have a 9ft table that i would like to restore. However i can not find the numbered cups in US. I know that they are turned from wood. I also need cues and mace. i also need the scoring pins. They resemble cribbage pins. I have a set of balls.
Thanks for any help I get.
David
Chefdavid25@yahoo.com

Mark said...

I very much doubt whether anyone supplies anything specifically for these Bagatelle tables, restoration is usually done by a specialist billiard/snooker table repairer. The cups are made of something like turned boxwood, not too difficult a job for a skilled wood turner I'd have thought. Cues etc are not specific to the game, and the maces are not made now. In the UK these tables with associated equipment often come up for sale on eBAY and at antiques fares. Good luck.

Paige Morgan said...

There are actually two tables I know of in Cardiff in a place right near the town centre. I think they have a league because I have been offered to join a team. Though I'm still unsure of the points and rules which is what led me to this site.

Mark said...

Thanks for that Paige. I was aware of one club with a table in Wales, and I think there may be an internal singles league. I'd be fascinated to know of any other venues for Bagatelle.