Games where you roll or throw something at some sort of target to make it fall over are documented since at least medieval times, maybe even in ancient Egypt. Such games have only evolved marginally since then! Whether its kegel, the nine-pin bowling of the Teutonic world, the ten-pin bowling of the American world, quilles which is played in France, or skittles, a game which is recorded from before Tudor times in England the principle is much the same.
Mind you the detail is very different. I hadn’t realised quite how many variations in the game survive in Britain – each with their own specific rules but don’t worry I’m not going to try and explain them all. These games were sometimes played indoors but in early modern Britain they were more often played in gardens… particularly those attached to inns and hostelries
Read on to find out more about the origins and history of skittles in the beer garden and elsewhere…
I thought this would be a nice light subject, and easy to research. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t! The first difficulty I encountered was sorting out references to the bowls and bowling alleys which evolved into the sedate game of lawn bowls , and those references to bowls and bowling alleys which actually refer to versions with standing pins and which evolved into skittles and nine or ten-pin bowling. Confused already? After a couple of hours I certainly was.
Amongst the earliest references I could find are a couple of 14thc manuscripts which show a skittles game in which one skittle is bigger, differently shaped, and in most cases positioned so as to be the most difficult to knock over. According to a specialist website [incredibly skittles has several of them- see below for the links] the throwers in the pictures are about to throw a long club-like object at the skittles underarm. The large skittle is presumably a king pin as featured in some of the modern versions of the game. The fact that the thrower is not using a ball is not at all unusual – some variants of skittles, including Aunt Sally, and some northern European versions, still uses a baton shaped stick to chuck at the doll, and many modern skittles games throw an object called a “cheese” instead of a ball. And by the way a “cheese” isn’t cheddar or brie but simply anything capable of being thrown at the skittles!
It’s thought that the pin being targeted may once metaphorically have represented sins or temptations and so by knocking them over these evils were beaten or rejected. In medieval England this was apparently known as “knock-the devil-down” although I can’t find any documentary evidence of this but it’s a good story.
Many of these games were prohibited under Edward IV because they were thought to discourage people practising archery. Of course despite that they remained very popular to the point where “Common bowling-alleys are privy mothes that eat up the credit of many idle citizens,” (Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579). John Stow, writing in his Survey of London published in 1598, complained about the loss of space for martial sports, particularly archery because “by the means of closing in of common grounds, our archers, for want of room to shoot abroad, creep into bowling-alleys and ordinary dicing-houses near home.” He also has specific examples such as Northumberland house in the city of London “being deserted by that noble family, the gardens were converted into bowling-alleys, and the other parts into dicing houses.”
Skittles too was emerging as a pastime and the word had certainly entered the language by the mid 17thc. Schoolboys were playing “at skittle-pins, or dust-point” according to an example given in a Latin primer of 1649 [An easie entrance to the Latine tongue, Charles Hoole] and another common use of the term was recorded a few years later during the civil war : “Unruly Rulers are like Ninepins, advanced one by one, to be thrown down by sixes and seavens” [Nathaniel Church, A pocket-companion made of five hundred proverbial aphorismes, 1657]. From then on its pretty clear that skittles or nine-pins was a very popular game with frequent references to it, although usually in association with school boys and if not them then adults in inns, drunkenness or bad company.
There are several reference to skittles in Pepys’s diary and it can be seen being played when the Thames froze, mainly in the late 17th and early 18thc. This carried on every time parts of the river froze enough, right up until the last Frost Fair of 1814.
Already there seems to be a class element creeping in. John Strype’s Survey of London of 1720 lists “the modern sports of the citizen besides drinking” and includes “bowling upon greens” before going on to list the “diversions” of “the lower classes” which include “bowling in allies and skittles”. And of course it’s bowling greens rather than alleys that figure in the great gardens of the day. Even so, Charles Cotton whose Compleat Gamester was published in 1674 was scathing about both. “The Bowling-green, or Bowling-Alley is a place where three things are thrown away beside the Bolts, viz Time, Money and Curses.”
This might have been tolerated in Restoration England but not with the rise of Methodism and concerns for stricter morality and order that become more apparent in the mid-late 18thc. Its certainly true that skittle grounds were scenes of crime. Newspapers report plenty of drunkenness, as well as robberies fights and even murders there.
All this combined to lead to a clampdown. In 1751 Skittles was one of several pub games to be banned, with publicans potentially losing their licence and being fined for allowing them to be played.
Eventually “The magistrates caused the skittle grounds in and near London to be level, and the frames removed.”
This first set of restrictions may have applied just to places that sold spirits [don’t forget we’re in the period of Hogarth’s Gin Lane], rather than simple ale-houses because Further legislation was passed in 1757 to reinforce that but aimed specifically at the working class. They were not fined like the landlord but could find themselves even worse off because this was also the age of the press gang.￼
Of course all this did was to test people’s ingenuity in trying alternatives. One of these was called Nine-holes, where instead of knocking down a skittle players attempted to shove a ball or stone down a board into a hole. The game was also known as “Bubble the Justice” because “it could not be set aside by the justices, because no such pastime was named in the prohibitory statutes” or sometimes it was known as Bumblepuppy!
A version of it can be seen being played at a Frost fair in 1608. Apparently the game was rare by the end of the 19thc but is known to have been played as late as 1959 in the garden of one pub – the Dove – on the riverside at Hammersmith in west London.
For more on that see: http://www.patrickchaplin.com/Bumblepuppy.htm
The effects of the clampdown can be seen in Tobias Smollett’s Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, published just a couple of years later in 1760. One plot of the story has the village justice shutting down the local pub’s skittle ground and taking away the landlord’s licence ruining him in the process. But no amount of Georgian moral outrage could eradicate playing the game.
There is plenty of evidence from things like ads for the sale of inns that everything carried on much as normal, and skittle grounds were still well frequented. They were even still being built for the aristocracy, as Henry Holland’s sketch of one for Lord Palmerston shows, and the rules were published by a Society of Gentlemen!
By the time Joseph Strutt wrote his Glig Gamena Angel Deod – more usually known as The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England in 1801 there were lots of variants being played. This is despite the fact that “Bowling-alleys, I believe, were totally abolished before I knew London”. Strutt then describes the “pastime which might originate from them, called long-bowling” before going on…and on… with the rules of other versions.
To avoid boring you with detail….if you want to know more about all these other variants you can find his entire text at:
So lots of variants but all with one thing in common: “these amusements are only to be met with in places belonging to common drinking-houses, for which reason they play is seldom productive of much benefit, but more frequently comes the prelude to drunkenness and debauchery.” In other words the more the authorities tried to eradicate the more the population played.
And there must have been at least some reversal of attitude. John Claudius Loudon, not someone associated In my mind with drunken debauchery, actually designed pubs with all the necessary appendages such as a skittle ground, Bowling green and tea garden included. He explains that the skittle-ground “ought to be rendered hard, smooth, and perfectly level, by a composition of quicklime, sharp sand, and Smithy Ashes, being spread over layer of small stones or coarse gravel, and rolled or floated so as to be perfectly smooth, before it is time to set.”
But Loudon wouldn’t be Loudon if he didn’t add some of his more usual acerbic comments. The skittle ground or shown “in conformity to modern usage in Britain; though we are convinced that when mankind generally are more highly educated, such childish amusements is playing at skittles will never be thought up.”
Instead Loudon tells his readers that “when cities are self governed by regularly organised representative system there will always be public gardens sufficiently extensive, and furnished with abundance of botanical and zoological specimens, to supply the means of agreeable exercise and recreation in walking through and examining them. We are justified in this opinion by the fact, that rude games have disappeared in all countries, in proportion as civilisation has advanced and been equalised.”
For more of Loudon’s designs see:
Whether Loudon approved or, as seems more likely, did not the popularity of pub skittle garden or skittle ground continued to grow and must have reached its highpoint in the mid to late 19thc. I’ve found references to them in novels by RD Blackmoore [Erema], Mrs Humphry Ward [David Grieve , George Gissing [The Town Traveller] and Thomas Hardy [Mayor of Casterbridge].
But it’s Dickens who has the most mentions. Skittle grounds and gardens appear in Bleak House [when the coroner holds his court at the Sols arms near Euston], in Barnaby Rudge [where there is skittle room in the vaults] in the Old Curiosity Shop where the evil Quilp celebrates in a dismantled skittle ground behind a pub [pub skittle ground in the vaults], in Martin Chuzzlewit [where Mark Tapley offers to design a skittle ground for any gentleman in need of one], and David Copperfield [where Mr Micawber relaxes playing skittles in the Kings Bench prison].
Skittles seems to have gone into a gentle but inexorable decline after that, and certainly lost its widespread appeal. There are now very few pubs with skittle alleys in their gardens or indoors and even some of those are under threat. But there is a small revival underway with pub leagues flourishing in several parts of the country…so…if you want to know more, buy a set for your garden or or find out where you can play skittles yourself the best place to start is http://www.tradgames.org.uk/games/Skittles.htm which has links to everything you need to know!