Skittles and Nine Holes, or Bumble Puppy: sporting pastimes in the Georgian era

The nine pins used in the game of skittles were originally known as kayle pins, a term derived from the French word for bowling, quilles.

Miss Tipapin going for all nine, 1779.
Miss Tipapin going for all nine, 1779. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The kayle-pins were afterwards called kettle, or kittle-pins; and hence, by an easy corruption, skittle-pins, an appellation well known in the present day.

Gentlemen Playing Skittles, 1740; Balthasar Nebot
Gentlemen Playing Skittles, 1740; Balthasar Nebot; National Trust, Hartwell House

It is a game similar to bowling; the player stands at a predetermined distance and bowls a ball at the pins; the winner is the person who knocks them all down in the fewest throws. And, while you might have thought it quite a simple game, in 1786 a quite comprehensive list of rules and instructions were issued by a Society of Gentlemen.

Rules and instructions for playing at skittles. By a Society of Gentlemen, 1786.
Rules and instructions for playing at skittles. By a Society of Gentlemen, 1786. © The Trustees of the British Museum

During the eighteenth-century, and especially in and around London, skittles was a popular pastime, often played in the grounds of public houses and accompanied by gambling upon the outcome of the game. Although pictured here being played by gentlemen, the game was known as one which was notorious among the lower classes.

Modern Exercise, one of twelve illustrations to Contemporary Life and Diversions by Robert Dighton.
Modern Exercise, one of twelve illustrations to Contemporary Life and Diversions by Robert Dighton. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Lewdness, profaneness, Sabbath-breaking, and gaming, are by all good men, reckoned to be the cause of so much distress among the lower ranks of society. Of these vices none are more destructive to the poor families, than the Skittle and Nine-pin Alleys, Cards and other games at low Public houses.

(Kentish Gazette, 14th July 1784)

As if this wasn’t enough, with the skittle grounds a known haunt for ne’er-do-wells, they featured on the radar of the press gangs. Further distress must have been caused to families when their menfolk were taken up from skittle grounds and impressed into the armed or naval services, a practice which happened not infrequently as reports in the newspapers record.

Monday and Tuesday the Constables were very assiduous about Moorfields and the Publick Houses, especially about those that had skittle grounds, where they impressed several for the army and navy, by virtue of impress warrants delivered to them, and backed by the justices of the peace for that division. Several also, who were found gambling in the fields were laid hold of, as useful hands to serve his Majesty.

(Sussex Advertiser, 26th April 1762)

In the notorious Fleet Prison and also the King’s Bench Prison, where people were held for debt, they were afforded the opportunity to squander more of what they didn’t have by betting on the outcome of various games. Of course, skittles – and a similar game named bumble-puppy – were two of those. A writer claimed that:

Here racquets are played against the wall, – also cards, bumble-puppy and skittles.

(Bristol Mirror, 23rd November 1811)

View of the inner court of the Fleet Prison, with the prisoners playing rackets and skittles on the left, 1807.
View of the inner court of the Fleet Prison, with the prisoners playing rackets and skittles on the left, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nine holes, otherwise bumble-puppy, was a childhood game; known to have been played in the early seventeenth-century, it met with a revival, particularly in London, in the late eighteenth-century. Around 1780, the magistrates caused the skittle grounds to be levelled in an attempt to stop the ‘lower orders’ playing the game in the gardens of London pubs, and losing whatever income they had on the outcome of the games. Into the breach stepped the game of nine-holes.

The game is simply this: nine holes are made in a square board, and disposed in three rows, three holes in each row, all of them at equal distances, about twelve or fourteen inches apart; to every hole is affixed a numeral, from one to nine, so placed as to form fifteen in every row. The board, thus prepared, is fixed horizontally upon the ground, and surrounded on three sides with a gentle acclivity. Every one of the players being furnished with a certain number of small metal balls, stands in his turn, by a mark made upon the ground, about five or six feet from the board; at which he bowls the balls; and according to the value of the figures belonging to the holes into which they roll, his game is reckoned; and he who obtains the highest number is the winner.

It is suggested that the game of nine holes was also known as ‘Bubble the Justice’ as it could not be banned by the magistrates because nine holes was not named in the prohibitory statutes. Another popular name for it was, however, bumble-puppy.

The game of Bumble Puppy or Bubbling, 1803.
The game of Bumble Puppy or Bubbling, 1803. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Justice: Hallo there, what game do you call that, I’ll have you all taken up for disturbing the Neighbourhood.

Player: No Sir you won’t – It’s Bumble Puppy an please your Worship

Justice: O’ Lounds, I’m smoked here I must be off.

By the early nineteenth-century, skittle alleys had once more become common-place in public houses, although no less notorious.

"The Poacher's Progress:" Poachers Scuffling with the Constables in the Skittle Ground; C. Blake, c.1825.
“The Poacher’s Progress:” Poachers Scuffling with the Constables in the Skittle Ground; C. Blake, c.1825. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Nine-pins, Dutch-pins and Four Corners (which we have blogged about before) are all variations of skittles which is now mainly played indoors, the practice still kept alive in several public houses which retain a skittles alley.

Sources not mentioned above:

Curiosities of London: exhibiting the most rare and remarkable objects of interest in the metropolis, John Timbes, 1855

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2 thoughts on “Skittles and Nine Holes, or Bumble Puppy: sporting pastimes in the Georgian era

  1. Pingback: Thursday Links — July 12, 2018 | Capmocracy.com

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