There seems to have been a weapon called a dart in existence for many hundreds of years as various mostly obscure literary references to the term affirm. However, the existence of a dart is not the same as the existence of the Game of Darts.
Strutt in 1800 postulated that the game of "Blow Point" which he found mentioned in a sixteenth century manuscript was "probably blowing an arrow through a trunk at certain numbers in the manner of a lottery" but this all seems highly uncertain and anyway it is more likely that such an activity was just another way for the gambling dens to fleece their customers rather than a game of skill.
The first definite references to a game featuring darts appear in 2 journals dated 1819 in the form of a game called Puff and Dart. In this game, a blowpipe was used to fire a dart at a target of concentric rings - much like an archery target. Interestingly, the game was known as a Pub or Inn game at that time. In the second half of the 19th century, Puff and Dart was transferred to the parlour as various games manufacturers produced domestic versions of the game.
This author hasn't seen anything convincing to show that Puff and Dart existed before 1800. Although there could well be some evidence waiting to be found, it is not mentioned by Joseph Strutt in 1801 so is unlikely to have been a well-known game at that point and none of the many decrees banning games in prior centuries make any mention of it either.
Although some authors have suggested that Puff and Dart evolved into the throwing form of the game, there doesn't appear to be any evidence for such an assertion - instead it seems that the throwing version of the game just gradually replaced Puff and Dart which disappeared in the first 2 or 3 decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps analogous to the manner in which Homo Sapiens slowly pushed the Neanderthals into extinction.
It is said that in 1844, during a game of Puff and Dart at a London pub, a player made the unfortunate mistake of sucking rather than blowing. The dart disappeared into his digestive system whereupon the poor chap died a few days later. On this basis, it may not be too surprising that the game did not make it to modern times...
In Patrick's Chaplin's excellent book 'Darts in England 1900 - 1939', he concludes with good evidence that the English game of Darts originated at the Fairground. Darts is not unique in this as other pub sports such as Aunt Sally and Skittles also have a firm historical link with Olde English Fayres. It seems that, in typical fairground style, the fairground dartboard was divided up into numbered segments in such a way as to make it appear much more easy than it actually was to win a prize. So it is likely that the initial idea for segmentation of the board appeared when Fairground darts appeared - mid 19th century.
However, the really horrifying conclusion of Chaplin's studies are that the origin of the thoroughly English game of Darts is French! Yes, the darts used at the newfangled fairground attraction of Dart throwing were all imported from the Jura region of France where the game had been made and played in a somewhat different form for some time. French darts are wooden and rather larger than a modern dart. For nigh on 60 years, the darts industry in the Northern part of France grew as the sport blossomed in England until, according to Chaplin, by 1937, 10 million darts per year were being produced for the English market... Arthur Taylor, the venerable writer on Pub Games has discovered that French Darts is still being played in France in at least two forms. 'Javelot' involves darts that 'are foot-long steel-tipped monsters, flighted with enormous bunches of turkey feathers, and you throw them underarm, across 20 feet or so, at a target whose scoring areas are a tiny bull'. And 'Flechettes' (meaning 'small arrow') in which rather smaller darts are thrown at a target with concentric rings.
In the same way that the pub game of 'Puff and Dart' was adapted as a parlour game in the late 19th century, the highly competitive parlour games industry also adapted a throwing version of the game which was initially known as 'Dart and Target'; one proprietary version by John Jaques was called "Dartelle". Best guess for date of appearance of this is late 1870s. A book of the time gives instructions for making this game at home - "The dart is a straight piece of stick, about six inches long, with a pin stuck in at one end, and a paper guide at the other". "The target is best if made of a piece of soft wood board and should have painted on it three or four concentric circles of different colours, with a bull's eye in the centre".
The relevance of this to the history of the game of darts may be no more than a red herring. Although Dart and Target is mentioned in 'Lawful Games on Licensed Premises', 1904, the target board was the concentric-circle type whereas Darts as we know it today seems to have evolved from the segmented Fairground dartboard. Together with Puff and Dart (in the pub and in the home), Dart and Target seems not to have lasted through the twentieth century.
The pseudo-random arrangement of numbers was presumably invented in the 19th century by Fairground people along with the very idea of a segmented board. There aren't any pictures of a Fairground board prior to 1900 so one can only conjecture but there are two ways to look at the result. It is clear is that some effort has been taken to ensure that consecutive numbers are mostly placed well away from each other and that higher numbers aren't next to each other. Modern players playing in a pub would correctly feel that such a board requires less luck and more skill in order to hit the high numbers. And it would seem likely that a Fairground owner would view things similarly - by not grouping the high numbers together it is much harder for a random unskilled punter to hit 3 high numbers in one turn and therefore a Fairground stall owner could easily judge the winning threshold to make it tempting while making sure that not many prizes were won!
The oldest known picture of a dartboard is the pre-1900 'Grimsby board' that features 28 semi-randomly situated numbers on a segmented board with doubles. This appears to relate to a game of skill rather than a Fairground pastime.
The segmented numbering scheme that features on the London or Standard Board is inherited from the old Yorkshire, Burton, Irish and Lincoln boards which have a similar arrangement. Many people have written in to ask how this came about and, although there is no definite answer, here are some facts concerning 2 competing theories so that you can draw your own conclusions.
The most commonly espoused theory is that it was invented by a Brian Gamlin, a 44 year old carpenter from Bury, Lancashire in 1896. However, there is only one source for this story and Patrick Chaplin, who knows more about Darts than anyone else, has hunted high and low for any evidence that Brian Gamlin ever existed and could find none. Arthur Taylor who knows more about pub games in general than anyone else is similarly cynical. Further, the first record of the numbering sequence anywhere in print is from 1916 and the idea that the board remained a rare thing for 20 years at that time, given that Gamlin seems to have died in 1903 lacks credence.
Chaplin favours one Thomas William Buckle from Yorkshire as the most likely contender for the famous numbering scheme. A craftsman and domino maker, in 1913 he supposedly converted a London Fives Board into the first version of the standard Yorkshire board that we know today. His motive for doing this remains unknown but sometimes historians ask too many questions - maybe he was just tinkering around and thought it might make a good game!
Although the 'standard' or 'trebles' or 'London' board is the primary darts board in use today, many different designs have existed over the years and non-London variants are still around. The following are all still in use around the country.
The Yorkshire Board. Exactly the same as the 'standard' or 'trebles' board which is derived from it but with no outer bull and no trebles.
The Lincoln board - as the Yorkshire board but without colour.
The Manchester Log-End Board also known as the Lancashire Board. Made from moist elm-wood and rather smaller than it's rivals.
The East London Fives Board features very thin trebles and doubles. They thrown from 9 feet, significantly longer distance than the standard.
This is the classic Fives dart board with standard width doubles & trebles. It is usually known as the Ipswich Fives board or the Wide fives board.
A Mr. Yates wrote in to confirm that the areas of Abbey Hey, Clayton and Beswic in East Manchester have a lot of pubs that still use the traditional manchester /Lancashire board (or log end) board. This is of particular interest because it's rather smaller than the standard size and is made in the old traditional way from a cross-section of elm tree trunk. The boards must never dry out because if they do they split and warp. Therefore, their careful owners keep them in water, regularly changed, in between matches. The boards are removed from the water about half an hour before play and then re-submerged afterwards. That's dedication for you but it's little wonder that the bristle board has superceded the old log-ends in most places around the country.
In addition to the above, one should note that the Kent Board, which is a larger version of the Yorkshire board (so large that there's no room for the numbers and so they are placed on the board rim), is still in use as is the Irish Board or Black Irish. According to Arthur Taylor the Lincoln board used to be a marginally differently size to the Irish board but was adjusted to be the same size as the Irish for ease of manufacture a few years ago (as at 2009) so the picture above suffices for both.
I have compiled a list of other, now extinct regional dartboards, excluding 2 or 3 oddities from the pre-war period when Darts was still embryonic. If you have any pictures or information regarding the following boards, please do get in touch.
|The Norfolk Board||Described by Arthur Taylor in his book on Pub games. A concentric ring target board. Very small diameter at 10 inches with only a 6 inch scoring area. Made from Elm.|
|The Suffolk Board||Norman Smedley in Life and Tradition in Suffolk and North-East Essex, 1976 writes enigmatically "The Suffolk darts board differs, or did, from the regular pattern in the arrangement of the numbers". Whether this means it had it's own unique numbering system or whether perhaps it was just the same as some other board is unknown.|
|Essex OR Corringham Doubles Board||Like a Yorkshire board but with an outer bull.|
|The Rochester Board||All black Yorkshire board of a larger size at around 41.5 cm diameter. In fact, the board's diameter is the regular size but the scoring area is only marginally less than the board's diameter. As there is no room to fit the numbers on the board, they are marked on the rim instead.|
|Staffordshire OR Burton OR Tutbury board||Like the Yorkshire board but with 2 boxes outside the main board (either side on the top half of the board) that score 25.|
|Tonbridge Sevenoaks League OR Tonbridge Trebles board||Like a Yorkshire board but the Trebles are the outer ring and the doubles are triangular segments adjacent to the outer ring.|
|'Club' or 'Tournament' Board||Described by Rupert Croft-Cooke in 1934 - an extension of the Yorkshire board with small round circles for trebles. It's locality and anything else about it at all in fact, remain a mystery.|
As can be seen, most of the regional dartboard variants are based on the Yorkshire board but with some slight modification. In fact, the London Dartboard, now known as the standard or trebles Board, is, when you think about it, just another such regional variation of the Yorkshire board - perhaps an extension of the Essex board with the outer bullseye ring.
Brewers started to organise Darts leagues from around 1925. It received a big boost in 1937,when the King and Queen toured a social club in Slough, Berkshire and casually threw darts at a dartboard. The Sunday Chronicle reported that "the Queen has made the women of Britain darts-conscious." According to the Mass-Observation researchers who studied pub life in Bolton during the 1930's the number of Dart playing pubs trebled over the next two years where it seemed to replace Quoits as the game of choice. Like other games, however, Darts suffered from laws prohibiting it in places such as Liverpool and Glasgow.
Today, Darts is played by 6 million people regularly and is a major televised sport. It is far and away the most played traditional Pub game and is well-known in numerous countries beyond the British Isles, being particularly popular in the USA and Holland.
In Australia, for example, there are nearly 7,000 registered players which is a similar number to Olympic sports such as boxing and rowing.
Masters Traditional Games has a variety of Winmau Dartboards and other Darts equipment. Other leading brands are Nodor, Unicorn and Red Dragon and certainly Winmau and Unicorn products are readily available in the high street. Darts is now a commodity sport.
Please see the separate page for Pubs that feature the more unusual dart boards.