Foot Ball, Trap Ball and Four Corners: Sporting Prints of the 18th Century

A series of six prints by Robert Dighton, held in the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, illustrate a selection of the sports played during the latter half of the eighteenth-century, some now better known than others.

First, we have four corners, a form of skittles.

FOUR-CORNERS – Is so called from four large pins which are placed singly at each angle of a square frame. The players stand at a distance, which may be varied by joint consent, and throw at the pins a large heavy bowl, which sometimes weighs six or eight pounds. The excellency of the game consists in beating them down by the fewest casts of the bowl.

Four Corners, played at the Swan, Chelsea by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Four Corners, played at the Swan, Chelsea by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

We have found conflicting sources which say that it could be played with a smaller ball that could rebound off either the surrounding wall or the pins and knock down as many as possible, or a larger, heavier one similar to a bowling ball.

The game was played in Kent, and certainly with a ball heavy enough to inflict an injury; a correspondent wrote from Chatham on July 29th to say that:

On Saturday evening as some persons were playing at four corners, near this town, unfortunately a child about three years old ran across the alley, just as a man was bowling, the bowl hit the child upon the head, and it was thought it had been killed on the spot – but being placed under the care of an eminent surgeon, we since hear, there are great hopes of its recovery.

(Kentish Gazette, 3rd August 1787)

Next, there is football, which needs little introduction. The game has been around for centuries (in England, the first documented use of the term ‘football’ dates to 1408). Despite being frequently outlawed during the seventeenth-century, the game continued in popularity; it was in this period that the first references to scoring a goal are to be found.

Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

And it was not just the men who played the sport.

Bath, Oct 4. Yesterday a new and extraordinary entertainment was set on foot for the diversion of our polite gentry; and what should it be but a Match at Foot-Ball, play’d by six young women of a side at the Bowling Green: cards, dice, concerts, plays, balls, &c are the common entertainments of the week; but for want of these, in publick, on Sundays, the meeting sometimes serves for an amusement.

(Ipswich Journal, 8th October 1726)

Trap ball is similar to cricket, rounders or baseball but with a mechanised bowling system and without the need for running after hitting the ball. It is described as a game played with a levered wooden trap by means of which a small ball is launched straight up into the air so as to be struck by a player with a bat. The aim is to hit the ball furthest, either in one or several turns. From Dighton’s print, it would seem that an additional object is for others to catch the ball.

TRAP-BALL, AND KNUR AND SPELL.–The game of trap-ball, or trap-bat-and-ball, which can be traced back to at least the beginning of the fourteenth century, afterwards developed into the northern game of knur and spell. The knur, or ball, used in the game, was made of various hard materials. It was sometimes carved by hand out of a hard wood, such as holly, or engine-turned out of lignum-vitæ; in the pottery districts it was commonly made of white Wedgewood material, and usually called a “pottie”; whilst in its most scientific form the knur was made out of stag-horn and weighted with lead. The spell, or trap, was of varying design, sometimes assuming the shoe form, which could commonly be obtained in toy shops in the middle of the last century and later; but ingenuity devised a spring spell, which, being set and detached by means of a toothed click, could be regulated so as to always raise the knur to the same height, thus greatly increasing the certainty of the player hitting it. The third implement required for this game is the trip-stick used for striking the ball. It differs much from the old form of short bat, and consists of two parts, the stick and the pomel. The former is made of ash or lance wood, so as to combine stiffness and elasticity, and for a two-handed player is about four feet in length. The widened end, or pomel, is made of any hard heavy wood that will not easily split. The main point of the game is the distance to which the player can strike the knur; a first-rate hand is said to have been able to send a loaded ball as far as sixteen score yards.

Trap Ball played at the Black Prince, Newington Butts by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Trap Ball played at the Black Prince, Newington Butts by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

An early – and somewhat gruesome – account of trap-ball relates an accident during play.

One day last week, some boys in Cold Bath Fields, being at play at Trap-Ball, the boy who was striking at the ball accidentally hit another with the stick at the corner of his eye, which instantly fell out of his head on the ground.

(Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 1st June 1752)

The game was still going strong at the end of the Georgian era, as this advert in a Sheffield newspaper attests.

SELECT TRAP BALL CLUB

A number of Gentlemen having expressed their wish to form a respectable Private Club, for the practice of some healthful game which requires less exertion than Cricket, it is respectfully announced that a select Trap Ball Club, to be called the ‘Hallamshire’ will commence playing on Thursday, June 14th.

The Game will be played according to the improved London method; and Gentleman will be supplied on the Ground with Traps, Bats, Balls, Rules, &c. free of expense.

Subscription for the Season, to be paid at its close, 10s. 6d.

After the commencement of the Club, no additional Members to be admitted but by ballot.

At half-past six, on each evening of the playing days, tea and coffee, ham, &c will be set out in the Great Room, solely for the Gentlemen of the Club, at 1s. each.

On the day of playing, the Ground will be free only to the Members of the Club; all others to pay 6d. each admission, to be allowed at the Bar of the House for Refreshment.

Names of the Gentlemen desirous of joining any of the Clubs, will be received by Mr WOODHEAD, King’s Head, Change Alley; and at the House on the Playing Ground, any afternoon after 3 o’clock.

(Sheffield Independent, 9th June 1827)

We’ll look at the other three prints in a later blog.

Six sporting prints by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Six sporting prints by Robert Dighton, c.1784. The London Illustrated News, 1931.

Sources not quoted above:

Illustrated London News, 22nd August 1931

Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt [2nd ed., 1903]

The Boy’s Book of Sports, Games, Exercises, and Pursuits, 1869

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One thought on “Foot Ball, Trap Ball and Four Corners: Sporting Prints of the 18th Century

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    I imagine football was regularly banned in the 17th century because it was so much fun. Fresh air, physical activity and social interaction, instead of relentless work and church!

    Liked by 1 person

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