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Table-top Skittles History

There is no mystery about the origin of the various games of table-top skittles shown on this page - they are miniaturised forms of the larger pub game of Alley Skittles or Nine Pins. For more information on the these origins including the history of Skittles and where to buy and play Alley Skittles, please see the Skittles page. Alley skittles itself splintered into a number of regional variations and, since a skittles alley takes up a large amount of valuable floor space in a pub, in some areas varieties that did not require alleys at all appeared. Most of these amounted to table-top, miniaturised versions of the alley game and several games of this type are still well-known and popular today.

Bar Skittles

The most famous of table-top skittles games is indisputably the game known as Bar Skittles or Table Skittles or Indoor Skittles. It has also been called Devil Amongst the Tailors but I believe that was a misnomer due to some mix-up with the older Table a Toupie/Toptafel game in the section below, since the Devil has always been associated with things that spin and not usually with balls.

modern commercial version of Table SkittlesThis distinctive game appeared in the 1700s and was cleverly miniaturised so that no throwing strip was required at all - the nine pins standing on a square table were knocked down by a ball which was swung around a pole, instead.

children's version of Table Skittles

Shown to the left is a modern commercial version of Table Skittles from Masters Traditional Games.  To the right is a children's version  of Table Skittles bought in the 1970's. Author's collection.

Northamptonshire Skittles and other Nine Pin Skittle Tables

modern Hood Skittles table example of Northants Skittles Northamptonshire Skittles, sometimes known as Hood Skittles or Table Skittles is a miniaturised version of Old English Skittles (please see the Alley Skittles page for more information on this venerable game) in which cheeses are thrown at pins on a table about 8 feet away. It is extremely popular Northamptonshire and well known in Leicestershire, Bedfordshire and surrounding counties. Confusingly, in the East Midlands, the came is always referred to as Table Skittles while outside this area, it is not well known and Table Skittles tends to mean Bar Skittles, as described in the previous section.

The surrounding leather bound and cushioned sides of the table offer the option to bounce the cheese off them before hitting the pins thus obtaining angles not possible in other games while the hood prevents wayward cheeses and pins flying off into other parts of the pub. Most people who've played, consider Hood Skittles to be one of the most enjoyable English pub games around so it would be well worth popping into a pub featuring the game if you ever have the chance.....

To the left is a modern Hood Skittles table made by a traditional games maker from Leicestershire. Top right is an example of Northants Skittles ready for play, courtesy of Paul Kirkby of the Shuckburgh Arms, Northamptonshire. Below right are the tall pointy skittles and Lignum Vitae cheeses of Leicester Skittles with the kingpin clearly shown.

Northamptonshire Skittles There are two main varieties of the game. The more well-known Northants Skittles features stubby bomb shaped skittles while Leicester Skittles has taller pointy topped skittles with a kingpin. There are other minor differences in the size of pin position and cheese but ostensibly the games are pretty similar.

Northamptonshire SkittlesThe author is grateful to Bruce Ward who plays Northamptonshire Skittles at the Red Lion, Corby. He kindly sent in the picture of their fine table to the left and said "Here it is in all its' glory, after polishing and ready for a league night. It was certainly there 20 years ago when I first moved into Corby, and no doubt it was there well before then. It's been cared for (apart from the legs, don't know what happened to them) and lovingly polished since then, and is still in daily use by customers of the pub, and by league players at least four nights each week".

Daddlums is a Hood Skittles variant in which the cheese is normally thrown so that it lands near the front of the table and then slides forward until it strikes the skittles. The table and pins are smaller than that of Hood Skittles, from which it is presumably derived and while there once were leagues in Kent, it is now only known to be played in one pub in that county.

In Cambridgeshire, a single league remains of Cambridgeshire skittles, as of 2024. The Cambridge & District League has been in operation since 1930 and games are recorded from as early as 1929. The leather-bound table is similar to Northamptonshire skittles but without a hood and game-play is almost an exact miniature of old English Skittles, played with a single Cheese in which the aim is to topple all the pins with the least number of throws, with five being the maximum allowed.

Lincolnshire SkittlesAlthough it is now extinct, there was one more minor variant of the game played further North, in decades past. The precise area isn't known but it seemed to be centred around Grantham in Lincolnshire with outreaches as far as Nottingham and Guyhirn, North Cambridgeshire. The tiny pins are the same size or even smaller than Daddlums but a strong distinguishing feature seems to be the cheeses which are made from layers of leather rivetted together. The equipment is strikingly similar to the game still played around Cambridge, with the exception of the leather cheeses. It seems plausible or even likely that they are one and the same game but with local variations in pin and cheese manufacture.

Table A Toupie or Toptafel

Table Toupie or ToptafelThe author initially heard about this game from Americans who wrote to say they were trying to find a supplier of the game. It has been handed down the generations in North America for more than a century. The game consists of a several small rooms laid out on a board - designs vary somewhat. Skittles are positioned amongst the rooms and a top is then sent spinning from one end of the table in an effort to topple as many of the skittles as possible. Each skittle scores (or sometimes deducts) differing numbers of points and success is largely a matter of luck.

Table Toupie or Toptafel As the author has discovered more and more about the game it's apparent that a great deal of uncertainty reigns, not least as to precisely what the game should be called. In the USA, it is somewhat confusingly known simply as "Skittles" - this is possible because Americans don't play the original game of Skittles or Nine Pins - only ten pin bowling, it's direct ancestor. One person wrote to say that the game was called "Racketeer" while another wrote to say that he was attempting to restore an old game believed to be French from around 1850 and that the English owner from whom it had been bought referred to it as "Devil amongst the Tinkers". More research has established that the game is alive and still popular in France, Belgium and Holland. In France it's known as "Table A Toupie" (literally Table with Top) although one vendor also refers to it as "Jeu de Roi" (Game of Kings) and in The Netherlands it's called "Toptafel".

Joseph Strutt in his 'Sports and Games of the People of England' describes a very simple version of this played on a circular board without any rooms. Strutt is most disparaging about the game which he says is called 'Devil Amongst the Tailors'. In 1783, some theatre-goers and tailors rioted at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket over a play that the tailors thought insulting. The Dragoons were called in to stop the riot which they did in such an enthusiastic way that their method was compared to a spinning top ploughing through skittles by the local press.

Then, in Aug 2001, an auction house wrote with a picture of an exquisite gaming table featuring a wealth of different games. The table is from France during the reign of Charles X, dated approximately 1820. One of the games (shown on the right) was the most beautiful Table a Toupie game with multiple intricate brass fitments and little bells to ring as well as skittles to topple. It is a piece that would have certainly originally belonged to French nobility.

Like many games of this era, it seems likely to have originated in England or France but it's not clear which. Interestingly, while the French still manufacture and play the game, it's now all but unheard of within the British Isles.

Rules

Description and rules for Bar Skittles, Hood Skittles and Daddlums are available for free from Masters Traditional Games

Where to Buy Table Skittles

You can buy a Table Skittles (Devil amongst the Tailors) game from Masters Traditional Games.  Full size Skittles sets and Northamptonshire Skittles equipment is also for sale as is the rare Toptafel game.