Pub gaming ephemera and equipment has long been a medium for drinks and tobacco companies to advertise their wares. Playing Cards, Dominoes, Darts Flights and Scoreboards were all commonly appended with Brewery names and Tobacco brands, and along with league sponsorship there are few areas of the pub games tradition that would have escaped the marketing departments attention.
Monday, 3 May 2021
Eight in number, these beer mats feature Traditional Inn Games that would have been quite rare, or at the very least in serious decline even then. The descriptions are accurate enough though, such that I have to wonder who's work the marketeers drew more heavily on, Arthur Taylor or Timothy Finn!
I can't in all honesty say I've ever seen Nine Mens Morris (No.5) being played in the pub, though I have seen examples of the games unique board on occasion. The same cannot be said for Dominoes (No.4) of course, which is still one of the most popular games found in the pub, albeit that the mat refers to the 'Block' game rather than the more 'pubby' Fives & Threes version played competitively in pub and club leagues.
Shove Halfpenny (No.1), or Shove Ha'penny, is indeed widespread in that there are still many boards for the game in existence, though sadly not so many located at the pub these days. Competitive league play can still be found in the West Country, Wales, and in its Pushpenny variant, Lincolnshire and Sussex.
The final two mats are real curiosities. Tossing the Penny (No.8) still exists in a handful of pubs in Anglia, with one outlier at a pub in Rutland. A real glimpse of rural pub life, an unsophisticated game for farmers and villagers that's literally part of the furniture in those few pubs where the game survives. Similarly, Ringing The Bull (No.2) was a pub pastime created to while-away an afternoon or evenings drinking. Little more than a tethered copper Bull Ring and a hook, it's hard to imagine how the brewery and tobacco marketeers would have enlisted these two games to their cause.
Monday, 12 April 2021
It's the 12th of April, frosty Spring is just about giving way to the warm promise of Summer, and the pubs are finally open again! Or rather pub gardens are open, bar rooms and snugs are still deemed far too dangerous to linger in! Let's not be churlish though, a pub that's open in any form is clearly better than a pub that's closed, and from where I'm sitting today, at the pub, pint in hand, with the sun shining and temperatures set to rise later this week, the timing seems opportune.
The last time we were released from lockdown was a very different experience of course, given that we were free to drink and dine 'inside' the pub, albeit with a raft of rules and restrictions. Filled with enthusiasm and confident of fine Summer weather, I celebrated that day in July by taking a stroll along one of our long-distance footpaths to a nearby village pub. It was a truly memorable day at one of my favourite traditional pubs in the area, and one that I've been looking forward to repeating all through this latest Winter lockdown. So another trek across freshly ploughed and recently seeded fields seemed entirely appropriate today, and to yet another pub that's been a long-time favourite of mine.
|Sparse description of The George from a 1990 CAMRA guide|
In truth The George became my local because my 'actual' local at the time (which was truly 'local' being in my own village) finally closed its doors as a pub for good. I have to say that I was truly gutted at losing my beloved village local, so exchanging a 5 minute stroll to the pub for upwards of an hours trek to the next village seemed entirely reasonable at the time. A man's got to have his local!
Later on we made the George our home for afternoon rugby matches on the telly, taking an old Shove Ha'penny Board along for a few half-time games that would inevitably extend well beyond the final whistle! Rugby at the George was always a treat given the pubs position near the Leics/Northants border. Ostensibly a Tigers pub, there was always a good few Saints fans in for the banter too. Later on a Devil Amongst The Tailors table made the journey across the valley, a favourite with children in the bar, and therefore a firm favourite with the parents too!
Another feature of the pub that may or may not have survived the recent lockdowns is the weekend Dominoes game. A group of perhaps half a dozen folk from villages round and about were always to be found rattling the tiles on a Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon, the sound of village locals everywhere until recent years. The game of Fives & Threes is open to anyone that likes a game, in fact I sat in on a game one afternoon with typically mixed results!
So the games have largely gone, but in new hands it's still very much the pub it's always been. Open Monday to Sunday, and remarkably for a village pub, that includes lunchtime hours every day of the week, even Mondays! A pub for the locals, but also a destination pub with a strong food offering. You're still welcome to pop in for a drink though, or will be when restrictions on inside drinking are finally lifted in May. I may not be a local anymore, but there's still a bench at the front for horse and tractor watching, and I can see myself walking across the fields to the George quite a lot this year.
Easter Monday Tradition
Tuesday, 16 March 2021
If Bradford Abbas is the archetypal sleepy English rural village, then the Rose & Crown certainly fits the bill as its typical English village pub (though far from sleepy when a skittles team are at home). A 14th century boozer of mellow local stone, firmly planted at the centre of the village in the shadow of the parish church. In fact the Rose & Crown is a proper old 'Inn' with several letting rooms, a long rambling bar and dining area, attractive beer garden, and entirely typical for a Dorset pub, a historic and very well-used Skittle Alley. I didn't see it myself, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were 'Good Stabling' available at the pub too, such is the timeless feel of the place.
I spent an eventful night at the pub in August that year, playing skittles for the home team at the behest of my Dorset skittling buddy John Penny, a man who's even more enthused by traditional pub games than I am, if that's possible! John has captained teams at the Rose & Crown for longer than anyone cares to remember, playing Summer and Winter in the local Yeovil Skittles Leagues. A good player by all accounts, though clearly a very poor judge of form given that he was happy to sign me up as a reserve player for the 2016 Summer league. This bad judgement continued when he actually picked me to make up the numbers for a Division 4 league match, playing in the middle order for the 'Merkins' at the business end of the Summer season! I guess that even in the skittling hotbed of Dorsetshire, there's more to playing the game than merely winning, and I was delighted to accept the challenge.
So there's John (above), showing his best side and setting the pins for a few practice rounds on the Rose & Crown alley ahead of the big night. As it was I didn't entirely embarrass myself, though the team charitably offered me a bye on the bewildering array of big-money forfeits that come with top competition like this. Missing the pins entirely, missing your 'spare' etc. I think I managed all of these, transgressions which usually carry a hefty fine. As a rank novice though, I managed to escape the skittle alley that night with almost all my pocket money intact. All the more loose change to lose in the hotly contested game of Three Card Brag in the bar later!
In fact we won the match that night, thanks in the main to consistent if unspectacular scoring from all team members. Other than myself of course, who scraped to a thoroughly average total of 40. But with just 7 points deciding the winners, I was simply relieved that I hadn't missed the pins entirely and thrown the whole match. As a former Northants Table Skittles player I must say that I found the etiquette of the game slightly odd. The whole team leaving the alley and decamping to the bar whilst the opposing players set their score is not what I'm used to. Of course that meant there was less scrutiny from the opposition, and hence a little less pressure to perform, which undoubtedly helped me with my debut game. The only barracking in Dorset Skittles seems to come from your own team mates!
I describe the pub itself as being famous, and famous it most certainly is, albeit amongst a fairly small circle of games and pub enthusiasts. The image shown here (right) is from one of two 1930's British Movietone films which feature the 'Old Men of Bradford Abbas', including four elderly gentlemen whose combined age of 357 seemed to present no obstacle to regular trips to their village local. Nor indeed a few 'hands' of skittles in the pubs ancient skittle alley or on the Devil Amongst The Tailors (below). Images of these 'Lads of the Village' were used in promotional material by Dorset brewers Eldridge Pope in the 60's and 70's, so it's quite possible you may have come across them before and wondered at their origin.
The 'Athletics' film features the 'Lads' throwing a few balls down the stone-walled alley, and it's thought that this may represent the earliest recorded footage of a game of skittles in progress, albeit one for the 'Four Sovereigns Stakes' and Movietone cameras rather than the cut and thrust of league competition. Perhaps John could resurrect the 'Stakes' at the pub for old times sake, though he might struggle to match the 357 age-total these days. They were made of sterner stuff back then it seems...
|The 'Duck' trophy, traditionally awarded to those players with the skill to avoid hitting any skittle pins at all on their go. Luckily I avoided the Duck on this occasion...|
Having a pub games enthusiast as thoroughly 'enthusiastic' as John Penny for a local, is surely a blessing for the licensees of the Rose & Crown. His enthusiasm extends to being a strong advocate of the local skittles tradition of course, but he's also a keen supporter of pubs in general through his writing (under a pseudonym) for The Visitor magazine, as well as other local beer and pub related publications such as CAMRA's Giant Dongle newsletter. I've heard he also enjoys the odd pint for the cause...
John has also turned his hand to making numerous high quality games such as the 'Norfolk Twister' shown here in the bar of the Rose & Crown. Fellow Pub Games enthusiast Arthur Taylor, author of 'Played At The Pub', is shown here spinning the game with the licensee (photo c/o John Penny). John has made quite a few of these old, traditional games of chance over the years, a game that is now extremely rare in its home county of Norfolk, yet surprisingly common in Johns home county of Dorset!
|John and myself spin for something or other, probably the next round of beers|
Monday, 8 March 2021
|The Skittles Table takes pride of place next to the Darts Board in the older part of the Fox Inn bar. Note the grill across the window at the rear of the table, protection from a stray cheese or pin.|
|Detail on one of the Cheeses at the Fox Inn showing the pub name stamped in the centre. The weight is often stamped on the Cheese too.|
Saturday, 6 March 2021
Not much is known about the grandly titled Shove Ha'penny Control Association, which is perhaps surprising given how widespread the game was in pubs and clubs until relatively recent times. As yet, no-one has managed to unearth an archive of minutes and transactions for this auspicious control body, neither have any trophies, awards, or league tables come to light bearing their name. So it's a bit of a mystery just who or what the Association believed they were actually controlling!
In the post-war years when the game was at its most popular, there were one or two short-lived attempts to develop the game through national competition. The News of the World organised competitions for a number of popular pub games, most notably Darts but also Shove Ha'penny. Some regional and world competitions still occur to this day, and several regional champions of the game can be seen shoving for a big money prize on Yorkshire Televisions fabulously un-PC Indoor League series in the 70's. But other than these rare moments in the spotlight and a handful of local leagues which still exist, the game remains resolutely one for casual play at the pub, without the need for 'control' by an association of any kind.
There's plenty of additional design on this board to warrant the patent, including rubber 'cushions', a handy depression to hold your chalk (right) and numbered beds, presumably for a scoring game. This appears to have been the Rolls Royce of manufactured Shove Ha'penny slates. There was also a cheaper 'Challenger' model without the numbering, and the design was either adapted or copied for later slates with plastic surrounds replacing the expensive aluminium of the originals, and sometimes branded for tobacco products (below). Many of these slates were supplied drilled ready for screwing to a table top, not strictly necessary given the enormous weight so possibly more of a guard against theft.
The Rules of the Game of Shove Ha'penny
There's no mention of who actually manufactured these boards, either on the slates themselves or within the rules, but usefully there are a number of other items advertised that give a strong clue. These include slate scoreboards for Billiards and Darts, as well as two designs of slate-shelved Meat Stores, the 'Eureka' and 'Colstor'. Just a little research online confirms what Arthur Taylor had already revealed in his excellent 'Played At The Pub' book, that all these slate items were produced by Goddard & Son, producers of Slate and Slab products from a base in Battersea, London. Goddard supplied slate beds to many of the Billiard table manufactures of the time, Mr R.S Goddard himself inventing the unique ‘Multum In Parvo' (Much in Little) practice Billiard Table that the mighty Thurston Billiard Table manufacturer developed. I think this finally puts to rest the idea that the ‘Association’ was anything other than a bit of opportunistic marketing by a successful family business, attempting to exercise some measure of control, and therefore extend their interests in, the burgeoning market for competitive Shove Ha'penny.
I'd say that the vast majority of Shove Ha'penny (and Pushpenny) boards that are still played in pubs, or have subsequently come up for sale, are homemade or at best locally made by a skilled woodworker. Often re-purposed from redundant furniture or perhaps a cut-down bar counter, and as the name suggests, played using the smallest currency of the day. Little opportunity for money to be made from the game then, other than the pints that accompany an afternoon game or evening league match. Hence the desire here to codify the game, and sell the idea of just one 'official' manufacture of true 'league standard' boards and discs. Other manufacturers certainly produced boards in great quantities around this time, mostly from what Goddard infers as 'inferior' Mahogany, but only Goddard & Son attempted to take control of the game as a serious competition by producing 'definitive' rules, and 'league standard' slate boards of a patented design.
This rules book shows there were three designs of Shove Ha'penny Board available, the top quality 'Players' at £2:2:0, the 'Challenger' at £1:5:0, and the 'Imp' (right), the most basic slate at just 8/6. I have a couple of these Imp slates, they're very common, but I had no idea until now that they came from the same stable as these more expensive boards.
Tuesday, 2 March 2021
|Weekday afternoon session at the Spanish Bar|
With the pub trade still firmly locked down as part of the ongoing response to this dreadful pandemic, and with little hope of release until April at the earliest (May if you'd actually like to drink 'inside' a pub!), the pleasures of pub-going remain frustratingly out of reach for most of us. It's a tough time for all regular pub-goer, tougher still for those that rely on their local pubs and clubs to sustain friendships and contact within the local community. It's harsh on licensees and bar staff too, people who's lives and livelihoods are intrinsically linked with what is, after all, one of the most social of all retail trades. I'm certainly missing the pub, but for licensees who've been rattling around empty premises for the best part of a year it must be a particularly challenging time.
|The Dartboard at the Three Horseshoes|
So the latest news on the long-awaited re-opening of pubs is quite depressing I have to say. It's clear that we're still such a long way off a return to normal 'pubby' engagement. I guess we all accept that some aspects of our lives may have changed forever, and that the hugs, handshakes and casual intimacy of the very best pub experiences are on hold for the time being. But sharing space with friends, acquaintances, even total strangers, is the very essence of what makes pubs special. Most pubs will clearly survive this disaster, they've weathered much worse over the years. But if they're ever to get back to being the unique social spaces we know and love, and not merely venues for eating and drinking in the company of your own self-selected social circle, we desperately need to return to a time where we can pop-in to the pub on a whim, move around the place freely, and dare I say share a table, a pint, maybe even a game with friends and strangers, all without undue anxiety or fear of breaking the rules.
|Afternoon pints and Dominoes at the Spanish Bar|
All pub games leagues were mothballed around a year ago as infection rates rose and social gaming was necessarily restricted. Some leagues were lucky enough to wrap-up the Winter season ahead of lockdown, but the Summer was a total washout for team games and contact sport, and of course it soon became apparent that the following Winter season would also have to be be cancelled. However, most league organisers held to the belief that this Summer would see the pandemic sufficiently under control for competition to resume. It's now clear that another Summer will come and go without full league competition, hugely disappointing in itself, but the concern is that many of the smaller, perhaps already struggling leagues, may not in fact survive this enforced hiatus.
It's doubtful whether the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire version of Long Alley Skittles will suffer unduly as a result of this enforced layoff. It remains a popular game throughout the region, and pubs with skittle alleys are still relatively common. There is of course the distinct possibility that some venues for the game won't survive the seemingly endless rounds of restriction on their trade, particularly those without beer gardens or the ability to meet the ridiculous 'Substantial Meal' edict that unfairly targeted wet-led pubs last year.
We know that some pub owning companies have supported their licensees throughout this pandemic, probably as well as they can under the circumstances. But equally we know that others have fallen well-short in this regard, and many licensees are likely to emerge from this pandemic saddled with unsustainable debt, finally pushed over the edge and out of business. That we're then likely to see yet another feeding frenzy for valuable pub properties, often by businesses with little or no regard for our unique pub culture and heritage, seems sadly inevitable. Hopefully Ilkeston's more traditional boozers, including the ones that continue to support its most traditional old pub game, will come through this intact and ready to resume competition in the Winter season should it be at all possible.
The Spanish Bar, Ilkeston
These photographs were taken a couple of years ago on one of our big boozy days out in Ilkeston, taking advantage of the towns recently reopened rail station at a time when the notion that pubs might close en masse was barely conceivable. As such it's yet another blog post awaiting a return visit to firm up some details, maybe even catch a game of skittles in progress. Obviously that never happened, but with reopening on the horizon I felt the time was right to get it out there, even if it's likely that things have changed a little at both of these excellent pubs. The town itself has morphed in recent times into quite a destination for the beer and pub lover. Recently opened micropubs and a specialist craft beer bar complement a range of older traditional locals, some of which have retained much of their heritage and community focus. It's also a stronghold for the local game of Long Alley Skittles.
The Skittle Alley at the Spanish Bar (above & below) is verging on 'plush' by the standards of most alleys in Derbyshire, and would be a strong contender for 'Best Skittle Alley in Bloom' should such a competition actually exist! In fact the Spanish Bar is renowned as having one of the best beer gardens in Ilkeston. The tradition in this part of the country has been for outdoor skittle alleys in yards, beer gardens, or set out on the car park, but more recently the trend has been to cover the playing area against the worst of the English weather. I would imagine that the Spanish Bar skittle alley was originally an outdoor one, but it's now sheltered on all but one side. There are two leagues for Long Alley competition in the Ilkeston area, the Ilkeston & District Long Alley Skittles League, and the Border Skittles League which comprises venues in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
|Non-slip Rubber at the skittle alley throwing point|
The Three Horseshoes, Ilkeston
The 'improved' skittle alley lies adjacent to the new function room (home to landlord Scott Ryder's impressive collection of Hardy & Hanson's Brewery memorabilia), and has been cleverly included as part of the patio slab layout, something I've not come across anywhere else in the Long Alley Skittles area. A thoroughly modern interpretation of a very old design that neatly fulfils the needs of the game without imposing on the all-important Summer beer garden trade.