Pub games that fell foul of history’s push and shove
PUBLISHED: 08:20 24 February 2018
In the second part of his series on old pub games of East Anglia, Trevor Heaton takes a look at the likes of skittles, quoits, shove ha’penny and caves.
It’s not often that you can put your finger on where and when a pub game first began – origins tend to be lost in the mists of time. But you can
This form of indoor quoits was invented by the landlord of The Black Boy in Bury St Edmunds in 1930 (he even took out a patent on the game – number 361147 to be exact – so convinced was he
of its success).
Pub games historian Arthur Taylor reported in 1974 that ‘Caves had not spread far and remains scattered most thickly around the Suffolk market town.’ Taylor doubted that the boards were still being made and suggested sweet-talking a landlord to buy one. Have you got one in your house? Or, even better, still in your local?
Caves is – or perhaps ‘was’ - a version of indoor quoits in which five flat rings were thrown from a mark 6ft 6in away at a slightly sloping 16in square board with five circular depressions (the ‘caves’). Players aimed to land one quoit in each bed on their turning, scoring a point for each, with ‘game’ being 21 up.
Much more widespread and longer-lasting is the game of shove ha’penny. This was a nationally-known game which received a major publicity
boost in 1973 when it was included in the television series The
In fact it was a conversation about the game’s subtleties involving Sid Waddell, later famous as ‘The Voice of Darts’, which had sparked the idea for the series in the first place. Indoor League produced a real character in the persona of ‘Buffalo Bill’ from Scunthorpe, who entertained the audience between rounds by singing sea shanties and playing his harmonica.
I don’t know if East Anglia can claim a similar larger-than-life personality among its shove ha-penny players, but judging by the wonderful (and characterful) main picture alongside this feature, I wouldn’t bet against it.
So what is shove ha’penny? Described by Waddell as ‘the most delicate of pub games’, the aim is to use your fingers or heel of the hand to gently tap 27 coins or special metal discs into nine beds – ie, to fill each bed with three coins. As there is only a one-eighth of an inch clearance in each bed it’s a game of great subtlety and lightness of touch.
Nick Guitard wrote in 1969 that ‘before the second world war almost any pub in Norwich or the countryside had one in the public bar’ but a ‘long search’ had revealed only three still in play. The Green Dragon at Wymondham was reputed to
have the finest board in the
area, with games played every Saturday night.
Writing in 1972, the Eastern Evening News columnist Whiffler doubted whether ‘many people under the age of 30’ had played it, although there was a limited revival in 1984.
The game used to be played on chalked-up tables, but manufactured boards of teak or (especially in East Anglia) slate had become standard pub fare by the 1920s. You can still pick them up for a few pounds and, armed with a bag of cheap-to-buy old halfpennies, you can enjoy a nostalgic evening (without the fug of old-time ‘smokes’ or the nasty tang of Watney’s Red Barrel, which has to be a bonus).
Shove ha’penny has a bigger ‘brother’: the game of shuffle- or shovel-board. Norfolk Museums Service has an example, dating from 1670-1680, which is reputed to have belonged to that famous but doomed Norfolk family the Pastons of Oxnead Hall. The table was sold off at the start of the 19th century to the Black Lion Inn at Buxton, before being donated in 1895 by one of the Castle Museum’s first curators, James Reeve, together with some
Dr Francesca Vanke, Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Arts, told me: “The table itself is a standard-looking 13ft-long oak 17th-century table, so whether it was specifically designed for gaming, or whether it just happened to have games played on it, I don’t know…”
The game of shuffle-board eventually crossed over to the United States, where it became very popular around the turn of the 20th century in California. Cruise liners also adapted it as a suitable (and safe) game for playing on deck.
Skittles is another family of games with a range of sizes, ranging from the small (table skittles) through bar skittles up to the full nine-pin alleys which used to be attached to many local pubs.
One of the strongholds of bar skittles was the Plough in Blundeston. A 1976 report from our files talks about a 32-player knock-out contest, eventually won by John Blowers. Games were played in three legs, 34 points per leg. If you knocked down all nine pins you received another turn.
And if you knocked down three sets of nine then – like a hole-in-one at golf – you had to stand ‘drinks all round’. Mr Blowers missed achieving the feat by just three points, telling our reporter: “No one will ever believe me when I said I did try for them!”
The Market Lane pub is still going strong, and skittles are still played there on a casual basis. But the tournaments died out there around the turn of the millennium.
On a larger scale still, there’s the full-scale skittle alley. The former Black Horse pub on Wensum Street, Norwich, which closed in 1969, still has its ‘skittle saloon’ building. The pub is now an optician’s, and the saloon houses the Outpost art gallery. In days gone by ninepins was regarded as a poor winter alternative to the bowling greens possessed by many pubs - one writer observing that “ninepin play is a clumsy, lumbering, beer-bolting game”.
Two other now-vanished local games included loggats – where you threw to hit a wooden post – and kayles. The 1898 book ‘Bygone Norfolk’ talks about the latter as similar to nine pins but with
the pins all in a line and not a cluster. Its name is related to the dialect word ‘kail’, which meant ‘wanton throwing’ (such as chucking stones).
One of the best-known outdoor pub games has to be quoits. This could be played with horseshoes – no shortage of those in pre-tractor villages - or rope rings.
In Suffolk and north Essex quoits were played with specially-made steel rings, thrown at a peg in a special clay bed. This part of East Anglia was very much the English stronghold of the game.
The EADT reported in 1975 how a major revival of the game had encouraged 270 players to join local leagues. Sadly, the game has shrunk drastically since then - writing about the game for Suffolk CAMRA in 2010, Rae Gardiner listed 21 pubs which used to have quoits beds and added that the only two leagues still going were Stoke-by-Nayland and Hadleigh.
The last reference to the game I can track down in our files is from the same year when the 39th season of the Hadleigh and District League was about to start. And the last reference on line to the Stoke-by-Nayland League is from 2016, when seven teams were still involved (but The Crown at Stoke tells us quoits is still played in the summer).
The headquarters of the English Quoits Association was at The Angel, Braintree. The pub is still going strong, but it doesn’t look as if the EQA is. And the pub’s website makes no mention of its quoits connections – outside, there are the usual picnic tables, one of the reasons why quoits has rather died out (that and the encroachment of pub car parks).
So what future, then for pub games? As more pubs become closer to being restaurants (for few landlords can afford to ignore such an important part of their income) then giving space inside or outside the premises for games becomes a real issue for many. When you can squeeze in another revenue-earning table or two, well, it’s no contest. And it’s tempting to put in a pub quiz machine or the like in what few nooks and corners you do have left over.
I suppose the inescapable fact is that pub games have always come and gone. Even early arcade games such as Space Invaders and Galaxians – which started to nudge out the darts, doms and cribs of this world – now have a heady whiff of nostalgia about them these days.
But are pub games still thriving away from the gastro-pub limelight? I sincerely hope so.
In fact it would be a good research project to discover which ones are still going strong across the region. It’s clearly going to take a lot of on-the-spot research, and while you were there you would obviously have to partake of the local ale too (it would be churlish not to, after all.)
Like they say, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.