Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784.

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.


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

Portable Soup, as supplied by Mrs Dubois to the Royal Navy in 1756

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Mrs DUBOIS’s Portable Soup, or Solid Broth, useful on Journies or at Sea, and not disagreeable to chew when Hunting, and a Chace proves long; or for the ready making Gravy Sauce; made in Cakes of a proper Size to make one Mess each, in Quantity three or four Gills.  This Soup is made after the receipt of her late Uncle, Paul Monlong, Cook to the late Duke of Argyll, and with his Grace in Flanders during Queen Anne’s Wars.  The Conveniency of which is late well-known to several Gentlemen of the Navy, from whom she has Letter with great Commendations.  This useful Commodity will never spoil, if kept dry, and is dissolv’d in a few minutes in boiling Water.  She has also succeeded (a Thing never attempted by any) in making some of Veal and Fowls, some of Fowls only, and some of Mutton entirely, in which the Herbs are as fresh as when first made.  All the above Soups or Broths are 6d each, or 5s. a Dozen, in a Tin Box, for Conveniency of Carriage, and to keep them dry at Sea, are sold at the Golden Head in Prujean-Court, in the Great Old Baily.

General Advertiser, 2nd January, 1748

Mrs Elizabeth Dubois had been advertising the sale of her portable soup in the British newspapers since at least November 1746 when they appear to have first been available in this country.  Previously she had sold them in the Netherlands through Mr Arnoldus Brunel Toyman in the Spuy Straat at The Hague (Den Haag).  When they first appeared for sale her plan, as stated in the newspaper, was to sell them under the following names: Gravy Soup, Mutton Broth, Chicken Broth, Veal and Fowls.  In later years, for Lent, she produced a soup using fish and shellfish, which was also suitable to be stored for many months.  To prevent mistakes her cakes of Portable Soups were stamped with her name, Dubois.  Whilst she didn’t invent Portable Soup, she is the first person to market it with any degree of success and seems to have been something of an 18th-century entrepreneur.

Tablet of portable soup dating from around 1765-1779. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Tablet of portable soup dating from around 1765-1779.
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The idea had been about for half a century or so already; something similar was known in France as bouillons en tablettes from at least 1690 and obviously Mrs Dubois’ uncle Paul Monlong (actually her uncle by marriage) had been producing portable soup whilst on campaign with John Campbell, British Army Officer and the 2nd Duke of Argyll and 1st Duke of Greenwich (1680-1743), in the early 1700s during the War of the Spanish Succession.  It is mentioned in a play of 1738 by Robert Dodsley, Sir John Cockle at Court: Being the Sequel of the King and the miller of Mansfield when Sir John Cockle’s French Cook offers to make him ‘portable soup to put in your Pocket’, described as a dish ‘de Englis know not[h]ing of.’

We give a recipe for Portable Soup at the end but, in brief, to make it ‘portable,’ soup it was made as normal but then reduced until it was gelatinous and dried.  It could then be reconstituted with boiling water and used as soup or gravy and alternatively could be treated more like a biscuit and eaten as it was.  Most commonly it was made from the ‘offal’ of a cow; in the 18th century this referred to legs and shins of beef, not what we would term offal today and this misconception has given rise to the notion it was used to prevent scurvy.  However, it was of particular interest to naval officers as an easily transported and stored provision on board ship and for a nourishing food for the sick and wounded.

I beg leave to remind my former Customers, as well as such Gentlemen as at this Season are setting out on their Travels, but particularly those who are going long Voyages by Sea, of that useful Commodity, viz. Portable Soup, or Solid Broth, sold at the Golden Head, a Print-Shop, the Corner of Burleigh-street, near Exeter Exchange in the strand, by their very humble Servant, Elizabeth Dubois.

General Advertiser, 24th April, 1750

View of the South Seas by John Martyn after John Cleveley the Younger (via Wikimedia)
View of the South Seas by John Martyn after John Cleveley the Younger (via Wikimedia)

Although some naval men were using it from as early as 1743 it was not until 1756 that Mrs Dubois obtained a contract to supply the navy together with the aptly named William Cookworthy, a Plymouth apothecary.  She was certainly advertising herself as Portable Soup Maker to His Majesty’s Navy from October 1757.  Captain Cook extolled its virtues and used it on his South Sea journeys, and it was still in use in the early 1800s when Lewis and Clarke took Portable Soup as one of the provisions on their expedition.

We hear that Orders are issued by the Commissioners of the Victualling Office, to appropriate for the future all the useful Offal of Oxen, &c. to be prepared into portable Broth or Soup, for the better Accommodation of the Seamen employed on board his Majesty’s Fleet, which it is expected at this dear Time will prove of great Service to the Navy.

Oxford Journal, 6th May, 1758

A couple of adverts in 1750, giving Mrs Dubois’ address as a print shop at the Golden Head on the corner of Burleigh Street, near Exeter Exchange in the Strand, reveal the identity of her husband, Isaac Du Bois, who carried on the trade of a chaser (engraver) and printseller at this address.  Isaac had been born in 1704, the eldest child of Isaac and Jane Elizabeth Dubois, née Monlong.  He traded under the sign of the Golden Head at various addresses and is probably the same Isaac Du Bois who was declared bankrupt in 1748 (giving his wife a reason to market her Portable Soups to provide for herself) but he seems to have picked up his trade again afterwards.

On the 2nd May 1750, he placed an advert in the Daily Advertiser informing his customers he was leaving town on account of his health and selling his stock.  Later in the year, Elizabeth was living at East Ham in Essex although she was still selling her Portable Soup through her shop on the corner of Burleigh Street and by 1752 was at the Golden Head in Brownlow Street near Long Acre.

Fleet Street and Water Lane from John Rocque's map of London, 1746


By November 1756 he had died and the widowed Elizabeth Dubois had married again and was running the business with her new husband, Edward Bennet, a Sheffield man.  The couple was living at her former marital home, the Golden Head in Brownlow Street before moving to Fleet Street.  The cakes of Portable Soup were henceforth marked with Elizabeth’s new surname, BENNET.

Edward Bennet and spouse, (late Du Bois) the original portable soup-maker to his Majesty’s Royal Navy, at the Golden-Head, in Fleet-Street, opposite Water-Lane, London, makes and sells portable soups, or solid broths, in cakes of a proper size to make one mess each. (1760)

Bennet’s parents had been amongst the first people in Sheffield to welcome the Reverend John Wesley into their house.  Edward moved to London, married Elizabeth Dubois, and made a success of running their joint business from Fleet Street.  Edward died in December 1788 and a lengthy obituary of him appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine shortly after, including the following information:

His father was a grinder at Sheffield, and he was brought up to the same employment; but he was endowed with too large a share of abilities and emulation to walk long in so narrow a sphere.  He came up to London, in quest of a better occupation; and was for some time engaged at the Tower, in repairing and polishing the armour.  Here he became acquainted with Mrs. Dubois, a person of good character and circumstances, whom he married, and with whom he lived in Fleet-Street, and entered into a profitable branch of business, that of making portable soup for exportation.  This he followed with great diligence and success, till, by repeated experiments of his own, he had so far made himself master of sugar-refining as to enable him to set up a small house in his native town, which he enlarged as his capital increased and his business extended, till it came to be one of the most considerable in the country.

Edward Bennet’s sugar house was at the bottom of Coalpit Lane in Sheffield and the Methodist minister George Whitefield sometimes preached from its doors.  Around 1780 Bennet built an independent chapel near his refinery and officiated there himself as a pastor until his death.

Still Life of a Bowl of Strawberries, Standing Cup, a Bottle of Rose Water, a Sugar Loaf and a Box of Sugar; The Merchant's House
Still Life of a Bowl of Strawberries, Standing Cup, a Bottle of Rose Water, a Sugar Loaf and a Box of Sugar; The Merchant’s House

Whilst Edward Bennet concentrated on his sugar refinery in Sheffield, he sold on the portable soup enterprise in London (his wife seems to have ceased advertising in 1771 and it is possible that this marks her death) and by 1780 Benjamin Piper had taken over Mrs Dubois’ business and premises, for the following adverts appeared.

Benjamin Piper, successor to Messieurs Bennet and Dubois, the original portable soup-makers to His Majesty’s Royal Navy, at the Golden Head in Three-King-Court, adjoining to No. 149, in Fleet-Street, opposite Water-Lane, London, makes and sells portable soups, or solid broths. (1780)

RICH FOREIGN CORDIALS, PERFUMERY, &c. AT the PERFUMERY WAREHOUSE, No. 14, Conduit-street, Hanover-square (removed from No. 3 Mill-street) all sorts of rich Foreign Cordials, (liqueurs) warranted genuine and neat as imported, sold wholesale and retail.  Where also may be had every article of Perfumery, both English and Foreign, of the best quality: Great choice of Pocket Books, Silk Purses, and all the most approved Family Medicines.  Piper’s (late Dubois’) Portable Soup, wholesale and retail, very serviceable at sea and in private families, as an expeditious method of making gravy.

The upper part of a large House to lett, ready furnished.  Enquire as above.

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 9th February, 1780.

Benjamin Piper lasted a mere six years at the most, for Thomas Vigor was at the helm by 1786, still supplying the navy and listed in the Sun Fire Insurance registers at Three King Court, Fleet Street as a Portable Soup Maker.

Maid serving soup.
Maid serving soup.

Whilst we can’t be sure that the following recipe matches that of Elizabeth Dubois, passed down to her by her uncle, it is a contemporary one.

Recipe for Portable Soup from The Complete Housewife; Or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, E. Smith, 1773

Take two legs of beef, about fifty pounds weight, take off all the skin and fat as well as you can, then take all the meat and sinews clean from the bones, which meat put into a large pot, and put to it eight or nine gallons of soft water; first make it boil, then put in twelve anchovies, an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, an ounce of whole pepper black and white together, six large onions peeled and cut in two, a little bundle of thyme, sweet-marjoram, and winter-savoury, the dry hard crust of a two-penny loaf, stir it all together and cover it close, lay a weight on the cover to keep it close down, and let it boil softly for eight or nine hours, then uncover it, and stir it together; cover it close again, and let it boil till it is a very rich good jelly, which you will know by taking a little out now and then, and letting it cool.  When you think it is a thick jelly, take it off, strain it through a coarse hair bag, and press it hard; then strain it through a hair sieve into a large earthen pan; when it is quite cold, take off the skum and fat, and take the fine jelly clear from the settlings at bottom, and then put the jelly into a large deep well tinned stew-pan.  Set it over a stove with a slow fire, keep stirring it often, and take great care it neither sticks to the pan or burns.  When you find the jelly very stiff and thick, as it will be in lumps about the pan, take it out, and put it into large deep china-cups, or well-glazed earthen-ware.  Fill the pan two-thirds full of water, and when the water boils, set in your cups.  Be sure no water gets into the cups, and keep the water boiling softly all the time till you find the jelly is like a stiff glue; take out the cups, and when they are cool, turn out the glue into a coarse new flannel.  Let it lie eight or nine hours, keeping it in a dry warm place, and turn it on fresh flannel till it is quite dry, and the glue will be quite hard; put it into clean new stone pots, keep it close covered from dust and dirt, in a dry place, and where no damp can come to it.

When you use it, pour boiling water on it, and stir it all the time till it is melted.  Season it with salt to your palate.  A piece as big as a large walnut will make a pint of water very rich; but as to that you are to make it as good as you please; if for soup, fry a French roll and lay it in the middle of the dish, and when the glue is dissolved in the water, given it a boil and pour it into the dish.  If you chuse it for a change, you may boil either rice or barley, vermicelli, celery cut small, or truffles or morels; but let them be very tenderly boiled in the water before you stir in the glue, and then give it a boil altogether.  You may, when you would have it very fine, add forcemeat balls, cocks-combs, or a palate boiled very tender, and cut into little bits; but it will be very rich and good without any of these ingredients.

If for gravy, pour the boiling water on to what quantity you think proper; and when it is dissolved, add what ingredients you please, as in other sauces.  This is only in the room of a rich, good gravy.  You may make your sauce either weak or strong, by adding more or less.

If you would like to see how to make portable soup today, this video has been recommended by one of our readers.

Sources used not already mentioned:

General Advertiser, 10th November 1746, 23rd April 1747 and 30th June 1752;

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 17th November 1756 and 15th September 1764;

Read’s Weekly Journal, 8th October 1757;

London Evening Post, 8th December 1750;

The Country Journal, Or, the Craftsman, 1750;

Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era, Jane Macdonald, 2004;

Reminiscences of Sheffield, R.E. Leader