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Skittles History

Skittles or Nine Pins has long been played in the Inns of England. In general, players take turns to throw wooden balls down a lane at the end of which are several wooden skittles in an attempt to knock them all over.  There are a number of skittle games across England and there have been many more in the past.  It could be that the game came from Germany as one of the earliest references is to from Germany, in the 3rd or 4th century monks played a game with a kegel which was a club carried for self defence.  In the game, the kegel represented a sin or temptation and the monks would throw stones at it until they knocked it over.  The modern German term for skittles is Kegelen.

Joseph Strutt tells us that this picture is from a 14th century "Book of Prayers".

There are two 14th century manuscripts which show a game called club Kayles (from the French "quilles" or skittles) and which depict 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.  The throwers, in the pictures, are about to launch 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 skittles.  The fact that the thrower is not using a ball is not at all unusual - the Skittles cousins, Aunt Sally, and various games played on a court in Northern Europe still uses a baton shaped stick to chuck at the doll and many modern skittles games throw a object called a "cheese" instead of a ball.  A cheese is any "lump" which is used to throw at the skittles and shapes can vary from barrel shaped to, well, cheese shaped, really.

There is no doubt that Skittles has been one of the most popular sports in England since at least medieval times. Many old pictures and books mention it. A study of old pictures of the Thames Frost fairs shows that Nine Pins was consistently one of the entertainments. On the left is a small part of a painting of the 1694 frost fair. On the right is a snippet of a picture dated before 1666 showing the Thames frozen over. The line of people crossing the ice is shown at the top while a game of Nine Pins goes on nearby.

It seems that for many centuries right through to the present day, there have always been a bunch of different skittles games being played. Information is sketchy until the 1700s but the game of Closh or Cloish frequently appears and later on the game of Loggats turns up. Joseph Strutt tells us that the skittles were often made from bones and in a play from 1860, one of the characters has the immortal line "I'll cleave you from the skull to the twist and make nine skittles of thy bones".

One of the many variations of the game came from Holland and was known as Dutch Pins. You can see from the picture that the balls have holes and it is this game that is believed to have been taken to America where it eventually became the ubiquitous "Ten Pin Bowling". Note also the use of a Kingpin and the fact that the player is "tipping" - playing from point blank range...

Some pictures of the 18th and 19th centuries show a player throwing or rolling the ball or cheese while standing right next to the pin diamond. This is usually not a mistake or an illustrative convenience; in fact many games allowed the players to first aim from distance and then take their final throw at point blank range. This last technique is called "tipping" and this form of the game may still be seen today in France.

Come the early 1800s, Strutt lists the following five as the primary forms of the game:

  • Skittles
  • Nine Pins
  • Dutch Pins
  • Four Corners
  • Rolly Polly

It is interesting that skittles and nine pins were definitely different games at this time (1800). Nine-pins was played at an agreed distance and was a test to see who could knock down all the pins in the least number of throws. Skittles, by contrast, involved both throwing at distance and "tipping" (see above) and was simply scored by counting the pins toppled, the winner being the first to reach a certain total.

This is a picture of Skittles from - J.Wheble Warwick Sq.dated 1801. Below is from Pyne dated 1802..

Dutch Pins also involved both rolling from distance as well as "tipping" but was distinguished by the use of finger holes in the balls, by the pins being taller and thinner and by the use of a kingpin - a single skittle that stood higher than the others and was usually required to be knocked over first.

The black and white photo from Holland to the right was kindly sent in by John Penny. Note the distinctive hole in the balls - this must have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) the game of Dutch Pins.

Dutch PinsVirtually all forms of modern English Skittles (except one) feature projectiles being propelled from one end of an alley in an effort to knock down nine pins stood in a square at the other end.  That is about all that many of the games do have in common, though, and over the years, Skittles developed regional variations in skittle size and shape, skittle alley length, use of a kingpin, size and shape of the balls/cheeses and the rules began to vary quite radically across England.  One of the most marked divisions is in the method for actually throwing the balls or cheeses.  In London, the heavy cheese is flung full toss directly at the skittles, over in the West country balls are rolled down the full length of the alley while in the midlands the Long Alley game usually requires the cheese or ball to bounce a single time before hitting the skittles. 

 

West Country Skittles

Western SkittlesWestern Alley Skittles is  the most popular and basic version of Alley Skittles wherein 9 skittles are arranged in a square at the end of an alley.  The alley is around 24 feet long and each turn starts with all the skittles standing and consists of three throws down the alley.  If all the pins are knocked down, then they are all reset.  So the maximum score in one turn is 27. 

The picture of Western Skittles to the left is published by kind permission of Eric Brain, Bath University.

There are variations from town to town and even pub to pub as to the further details. For instance in Dorset, back boards are installed at the end of each alley. This allows players to use the trusy "Dorset flop" technique wherein the back board is used to 'launch' a player from squatting position down the alley at which point both hands propel the ball towards the skittles! In the Bridport League, apparently only the middle pin is re-erected once all nine have been toppled giving a maxiumum score of 11. Balls can be made from a variety of hardwoods although Lignum Vitae is the traditional favourite. Many leagues these days insist upon heavy rubber balls. This author's research has discovered 4 main types of pin as follows:

Wales / Glamorgan - the smallest of the pins at 6 - 8 inches high, thin with a bobble on top. Gloucester - Barrel shaped pin about 10 inches high. Bristol - A bulge in the middle about the same height as the Gloucester variety. Sometimes with a kingpin. Devon - Very large pins with a bulge in the middle. 12 inches high with a kingpin that can be up to 15 inches high.

Most people have come across this game at some time or other and that's one of the most remarkable things about it. It is an enormously popular game, it's heartland spreading from Devonshire across the South of England to Wiltshire, Northwards through Gloucestershire and into some parts of Wales. Although London Darts is probably the most popular pub game in Britain, Darts is an organised televised sport with a single set of rules and much promotion. It is therefore remarkable that Western Skittles is probably the second most popular pub game in England given that there are so many disadvantages set against it:-

  • it takes up a lot of valuable pub space;
  • there are no generally accepted rules and in fact a myriad disparate variations exist,
  • it has no overall organising body,
  • and consequently no advertising and little media interest;
  • furthermore the equipment is pretty expensive and has to be renewed on a regular basis (some skittles leagues need 2 sets of pins each season).

The only answer to this quandrary is obvious - the game is still played by large groups of enthusiastic followers because it has the key hallmarks of a successful game in spades - easy to learn, difficult to master and great fun for beginners and experts alike.

 

Long Alley Skittles

In the Midlands, people play Long Alley, a skilful game in which the pitch is generally around 33 - 36 feet long and the projectiles are flung the length of the alley and must bounce once before hitting the pins! To add to the challenge, most Long Alley games feature a Kingpin which must be hit first or else no score is counted...   Local variations aside, Long Alley itself appear to be split into two main varieties.  

To the left is shown a Nottinghamshire pin diamond from a pub in Ravenshead. With great thanks to Brian Hedley.

Around Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, they play with shaped skittles and balls, traditionally made from applewood and have a line across the alley to ensure that the ball has to bounce a single time before ploughing into the skittles.  Usually a piece of tin is laid on the alley floor just in front of the all-important line so that any balls that don't quite make it bounce with a clang to indicate the illegality.

In Leicestershire, barrel shaped cheeses are thrown and the skittles are tapered and relatively thin.  Experts use the eccentric shape to produce clever angles upon the bounce and thus can topple skittles in arrangements that would not be possible with an ordinary ball. 

Leicestershire pins and cheeses are shown to the right.

It can be argued with some merit that Long Alley is a closer game to old English Skittles than the more common Western Skittles due to the fact that the ball or cheese is thrown rather than rolled. The Old English game regrettably has almost died out but that brings us now to London Skittles...

 

 

London Skittles

London pinsOld English Skittles or London Skittles is a majestic game in which the alley is around 21 feet, the bomb-shaped pins, traditionally Hornbeam, are 14 1/2 inches high, 6 1/2 inches across the middle (3 inches diameter at either end) and weigh 9 pounds.  The discus-shaped cheese, too, is enormous varying from 8 1/2 to 12 inches in diameter and being made from the heaviest wood in existence, Lignum Vitae, weighs between nine and twelve pounds. None-the-less, the cheeses are thrown in order that they hit the skittles directly without touching the floor first. 

Of all the modern games, this is the game with the oldest pedigree. Illustrations from centuries ago show pins of exactly the same form and similar cheeses being hurled down the length of the alley in the same way. The author can vouch that it needs a fair show of strength and control to deliver the cheese to the front pin in the correct fashion.

The game is now very rare but can still be played at the famous Freemasons Arms in Hampstead. Often under threat of closure, we can but hope that this last bastion of real Old English Skittles can be maintained for the future.

To the right are shown nine London pins at the Freemasons Arms by kind permission of Paul Robinson.
 

Four Corners

In 2007, the author was delighted to discover that the old game of Four Corners that previously had only been known to him from 200 year old books is still being played in Bristol. It is apparently a regular feature at the Bishopsworth Legion Club where it has been played for around 25 years. The author is indebted to Bob Scott, vice-chairman who sent the following information:

To the left is this wonderful old picture owned by author from a late nineteenth century periodical of Four Corners being played with a large Lignum Vitae cheese.

The rules are based upon normal ninepin pub skittles with the exception that we only play with the 4 corner pins ie front pin, back pin and the two copppers (outside pins). Its normally played on an individual basis as opposed to a team competition and is "front pin first" - no pins count until after the front pin is hit. We have 18 players in our league and play each other once over 17 Sunday lunchtimes during the winter. If pins are hit before the front is hit and the 4 pins fall with the third ball left then only the pins hit after the front was hit are replaced.

It should be noted that the game of four corners, as shown in the picture used to be a 4 pin version of London Skittles - with bomb shaped pins and a cheese that was thrown. The version currently played in the West Country is, of course, played in the West Country style with balls being rolled down the alley.

Further information surfaced to indicate that another Four Corners league exists around the pubs and clubs of Hartclffe and Withywood districts of Bristol. Plus it seems that the Portishead and Pill and District League, North Somerset play Four Corners too using the "front pin first" rule. It appears that Four Corners is alive and kicking in the West Country.

 

Rolle Bolle

An unusual game called Rolly Polly or Half-Bowl is or used to be played in England in which a bowl with huge bias is used.  The ball was rolled at 12 pins in a circle, the catch being that the bowl must go past the circle of pins and another pin a bit further away before returning, due to the bias, in the reverse direction.  The game can be thought of as a version of Table Skittles played on the floor with the bias replacing the need for the suspension of the ball on a pole and some have speculated that this is how Rolly Polly originated.  It seems more likely, however, that the biased ball is just an alternative solution to try to reduce the amount of space needed for the skittles game.

Other information suggests that the game is still played in Belgium. Both a skittles variant as described above and a Bowls game called Rolle Bolle have been reported. The latter involves sending large disks with a large bias in an effort to get them close to a stake at the other end of the game area.

The author discovered more recently from his friend Jose Vega from Bilbao that a game of Skittles is also played in the Castillian area of Spain that involves a 'half bowl' (media bola) and nine skittles (bolos). So apparently the half-bowl is found across a far more extensive region of Europe than previously known.

 

Irish Skittles

The Irish have their own version of skittles - a unique traditional 5 pin game. The pins are stood on a circle with one in the middle and are aimed at with 4 batons. To score, you must not only knock the pin over but must knock it out of the circle.

Pictures by kind permission of Tom Brady.

Interestingly, in common with Aunt Sally and court skittles games from Northern Europe such as Kubb, short sticks - batons are used as throwing implements which is another marked difference between Irish Skittles and the English games; perhaps this game is more closedy related to Kubb than it is to Alley Skittles?

 

Other Skittles Games

Ten Pin bowling is the North American version of Skittles and is believed to be based upon the Skittles game from Holland.  It was probably the Dutch who took their version of skittles to America in the seventeenth century although another theory believes it is of English origin. Either way, the game fell into disrepute before long as it tended to attract crowds of undesirables and to be played by gamblers.   Consequently, a law was introduced to ban the game but since the law only mentioned "nine pin bowling", people simply added another skittle and called the game ten-pin bowling to avoid penalty!

Modern Ten Pin Bowling is a bit of a travesty of the real thing; having been sanitised, automated and turned into a money-spinner rather than a competitive pastime for its own sake - in the same manner that many US sports such as American Football and Ice Hockey have evolved into games that are compromised by the requirement to generate profit. From a game-play point of view, the main difference is quite subtle - in most genuine skittles games, the pins are set quite some distance apart and it's often possible to roll the ball right through the pin diamond and miss all the pins. In Ten Pin Bowling the pins are much closer together so that it is relatively easy to score a floorer (called a strike) and the best players can score a maximum of 300 points for their ten turns in a game.

JFRMTableSkittles2.jpg (35548 bytes)Parallel to the alley skittles developments, the phenomenon of miniaturisation must have also been occuring, as it did for so many other old English games.  This would tend to happen so that pub landlords could retain the enjoyment of the game while no longer requiring the space-consuming skittles alley in order to play.  Some of these table-top versions of skittles are still enormously popular - especially the version known as "Devil Amongst the Tailors" or "Table Skittles" - please see the Table Skittles page for full details of each miniaturised skittles game.  In the case of the peculiar Rolly Polly, above, a heavily biased ball was developed - possibly as another space saving exercise.  

The game pictured is from the author's collection. 

Across the North of Europe, there is a possibly related family of games in which skittles are knocked over in a court by two opposing teams. Swedish Kubb is the best known although there are a several related games of a similar nature such as Kyykkä and Bunnock.

Finally, Aunt Sally is in the skittles family but Aunt Sally is a game sufficiently different to merit a section of it's own.

 

Rules

A description and rules for various forms of Skittles are available for free from Masters Traditional Games

 

Buy Skittles and Table Skittles

You can buy a variety of different style of skittles pins and balls from Masters Traditional Games.  Table skittles and a portable skittles alley are also available.

 

Pubs & Leagues

Please see the separate Skittles Pubs & Leagues page.

 

 

 

 

 

Email to jm at tradgames.org.uk

Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.