The Marbles Games of the Eighties at Sandhurst
During the past few years I have been much interested, and sometimes amused, as each successive Eastertide has approached by the statements in local papers that on Good Friday the Marbles Championships will be played at Tinsley Green in Sussex. I have read of its being regarded as a “World Championship” though I am not in possession of any details as to how many countries were involved, nor where the preliminary heats were contested.
Sandhurst schoolboys took the marbling season very seriously during the Eighties and Nineties of last Century, and the adults had their sessions on each Good Friday, but I never joined in or even heard of any inter-village or inter-county contests, which would seem to be a natural preliminary to a World Championship contest. The game of marbles were the most localised of any games I have ever contacted, so localised in fact that the names of the games and the rules which governed them were never the same, even in adjoining villages. Most of the games played provided scope for the real skill and even artistry, and Sandhurst could provide the real artists in any of the half-dozen most popular at that time. The bulk of my marbling was done at the Sandhurst National School from 1886 to 1894, and the most favoured games were the ordinary ring games, the Soldiers’ Ring, Auntie, Long Auntie, dobber, droley up, and follow after, the last being the game with which we trolled ourselves to and from school. All but the latter boasted exponents who were really artists, and at times found it difficult to get another boy to play them.
Now I wonder how many of the players or officials at Tinsley Green can tell me the rules governing any four of the six main games I have mentioned.
Yet on any fine day in the season at our school many scores of marbles changed hands at every noon break. Those who carried their mid-day meal with them to school, and wasted very little time in eating it, naturally had the longest spells of noontide marbling. When I started school in 1886 the stalwarts of the Sandhurst Cross contingent whose pockets bulged with bags of marbles during the season, were Earnest Burt from Old Place, Tom Mallion from Church Cottages, George Featherstone from Lock Pond, Arthur Barnes – bother of William Barnes – from Ives and two elder brothers of mine – William and George from Silverden. A youngster near my own age, Albert Clout, from the little general shop at Sandhurst Cross, was later to become a real wizard at shooting a marble off the thumb to make a direct hit on an object marble two yards or more away. I heard later that he became a conjurer, which did not surprise me.
I hope to follow up with a few rules of these games, some of which, I feel sure, were peculiar to Sandhurst.
The Marbles Games of Sandhurst (No 1)
“The Ring Game”
I am inclined to think that some form of the ring game had its place in the marbles games of a majority of the villages in the Weald of Kent and over the boarder in Sussex. I played several times at Peters Green in Bodiam, Sussex and on the Sussex side of the Wharf premises at Newenden, Kent where, in material items, the rules were much the same as at Newenden and Sandhurst, Kent. The last Eastertime I listened to a broadcast on the B.B.C., who interviewed the sponsors of the game at Tinsley Green, Sussex, and queried the rules governing the game played there. From the replies given it was clear that there the game was played very differently. It would seem that a fixed number of marbles were placed in the ring for each game.
Now in our part of the Weald of Kent the number of marbles placed in the ring varied according to the number of players taking part. Two, three, four, or more players could join in the game and if the stakes were 2 up then each player contributed 2 marbles to the ring, and a game with 4 players would start with 8 marbles in the ring. The four players started in turn from a base line, and after that each player made his shot at the ring marbles from the point where his shooter came to rest after his previous shot. A player who shot one or more marbles from the ring picked them up and pocketed them, and was entitled to continue shooting till he failed to score. If, during a scoring session his shooter came to rest near to the shooter of another player, he could, if he wished, kill that player by shooting at, and hitting his shooter, and claim his winnings, but if he was not entitled to another shot, then his shooter lay there to be shot at by that or any other player in his turn. This was an open and sociable game and quarrels were rare. If two players were playing together, and a third boy came up, he would query “Chance for a game?” I never knew of a refusal, and if, as was usual, he was impatient, he could put his stake marbles straight into the ring and follow the two playing at once in third place.
Further, if a player was shot out early in a game he could if he wished, place a renewal stake in the ring and continue in his turn.
Two players often played in a ring of as little as 8 inches diameter, but with more players it was often increased to 10 or 12 inches. The base line was from 8 to 10 feet away from the ring. The rule “Knuckle down” was in the main disregarded at Sandhurst in favour of a more upright stance, with the hand poised rigid at about 18 inches from the ground. Our playing area was rough and artistry of direct hitting had to be cultivated as no dependence could be placed on a rolling shooter. If the course of a shooter was accidentally impeded by the boot, leg, or body of an opponent the shooter claimed “Kicks” under which rule he turned his boot sideways at the point of deflection and bounced his shooter against it so that it recoiled in its original direction to find a new lie. If, however, the foul provided him with a good lie, he could dispense with kicks. Numerous unwritten laws were faithfully observed and goodwill invariably reigned.
There was nothing haphazard about the game. Skill and foresight brought their rewards. If, at that early age I had known anything about “tradition” I should have been prepared to accept the rules as “traditional” (in our little world).
The Marble Games of Sandhurst (No 2)
“The Soldiers Ring”
This game was a variation of the basic ring game for which the base line was converted into a ring of from 8 to 10 feet radius – according to the space available – completely encircling the central ring in which the stake marbles were placed. The outer ring became base line at any point and a shooter which passed outside the large ring was picked up by its owner, who took his next shot from any point he chose around the large ring. Any shooter coming to rest inside the large circle was “alive” and if the owner was not entitled to another shot it had to be left lying for any opponent, if he wiahed, to kill off in his turn.
A major difference from the small ring game was that the object marbles had to be driven right out of the large ring before they could be claimed by the shooter. If shot out of the small ring, but not out of the large ring the object marbles had to be left where they came to rest and the players in turn took a good look round before selecting their object marble. Player with their shooter “in hand” would sometimes walk right round the large ring before deciding which of the spread-eagled target marbles available presented – in their opinion – the best chance of a scoring shot. If an opponent’s shooter lay among the available target marbles he was entitled to ask, “How many shots have you scored?” and if the answer was “None” he usually let the opponent live on, unless of course he was the last survivor in which case he killed him if he could, and picked up the remainder of the marbles. As will be seen, a different technique had to be developed than that which served for the small ring game. One scheme which paid dividends was, I think, developed by Albert Clout whom I have previously mentioned. If he was not first off from base he noted opponents’ shooters left alive in the ring, and avoiding these he played a gentle shot to leave his shooter near the outer edge of the inner ring. Surviving a kill till his turn came round again he became the expert with the concentration of a billiards player. Selecting his object marble carefully his thumb knuckle and finger tip were tensed up against his shooter and the object marble was struck hard and low but not quite full. If it did not fly to pieces it certainly flew out of the outer ring while the shooter, spinning fiercely, rolled sideways and came to rest just outside the small ring in an ideal position for a repetition of the shot. I have known him to scoop the pool by this method, his two or three opponents not getting a second shot.
The Marbles Games of Sandhurst (No 3)
Of the origin or proper spelling of this name I have no idea, but have never heard any other name for this marbles game for two players. One thing I can say about it is that in playing this game the marbles can change hands at a greater rate than in any other marbles game I know of. The most favoured posture is to go down on the right knee for a right handed player and vice versa for the left hander. One thing in favour of this fame is that it can be played in a space as little as one yard square. A tough clayey surface is best and a hole is made which would almost half bury a cricket ball. For the skilled player this must be shaped and smoothed by hand till the marbles when jotted in with a little impetus from the one side, will roll up, out, and away from the other side according to the wish of the player on his knee. The opponent, on both feet, or sometimes on both knees, watches carefully as the marbles are jotted into the “Auntie Hole”.
A game usually commenced by one player holding out a single marble on his palm in front of his opponent to be, and soliciting, “Give us a Crow” or “Give us a Cock” – two of the names by which a one-up was known in the nomenclature of our village lads. To win the one-up the receiver had to lay the two marbles one behind the other on his open palm, and jot them at the proper angle and speed into the hole so that one stayed in, and one – the back one with a skilful player – ricocheted off the front one and sped on out of the hole. One in and one out was a win with a “one-up” but above that number a win could be claimed only when a even number stayed in the hole. Very few players indeed failed to win a crow or a two-up but as the unwritten laws demanded that after two wins at one level the stakes must be increased, the palm soon got too small for orderly arrangement of the marbles and the gods of chance took over. Only the very skilful could be at all sure of winning a four-up or a five-up, and inevitably the count at last revealed odd numbers in and out, when the opponent scratched up the lot and was quickly down on his knee with – “Give us a crow ‘click’. Give us another ‘click’. Give us two!” and so on till he too came a cropper. A needle game between two good players could, at times boast half a dozen spectators.
A friend of mine, G. E. Fussell, F.R.Hist.Soc., a well known writer on Agriculture and rural customs of bygone years, sends me a quotation from Rogers’ “Pleasures of Memory” 1-137 Published 1792.
“On yon gray stone that fronts the Chancel door
Worn smooth by busy feet now seen no more
Each eve’ we shot the marble through the ring.”
Samuel Rogers was a London Banker Poet born at Stoke Newington.
“Each Eve” seems to suggest that playing marbles on the Chancel door-step was at least tolerated in that age and district, if not encouraged. I wonder if the Church, and the door-step still exist?
The Marble Games of Sandhurst (No 4)
“Long Auntie” and “Drolley up”
This name “Long Auntie” is appropriate in that the marbles, instead of being jotted into the hole from a few inches distance are lobbed carefully from a base line 5 or 6 feet away. The hole must have a background, a wall or fence, the hole being rather more than half a circle, the wall or fence forming the back of the hole and slightly reducing its width from front to back. Many a swallow’s nest built against a building under the eves gives a good idea of the shape of the long Auntie-hole. A good pitch should slope slightly upwards from the base line five or six feet away, and the surface should be trodden, patted and smoothed about 18 inches left and right and in front, where the marbles are to be gently lobbed so that they roll on towards the hole. Ricochet from the back wall or among the marbles themselves seldom favours the pitcher. A back line parallel to the back wall at about 18 inches distance is important. All marbles which do not cross this line or which rebound to stop short of it are at once picked up by the opponent, and the remainder belong to the pitcher only if a even number have stayed in the hole. A player enjoying a run of luck may sometimes find himself lobbing up 12 to 20 marbles which, well lobbed could overflow the hole. Mild excitement among the spectators, while the marbles are carefully lifted ans counted, commencing from the back. As the bottom is cleared the leaners roll in, and possibly one or two remain poised on the rim to be counted out. This version was never as popular as Auntie proper where real skill paid a certain dividend.
The pitch for Long Auntie was also used for Droley up, but the marbles were carefully droled up one at a time, and all that stayed in the hole where the property of the “Drollee”. He didn’t see a chance to collect more as his opponent had snapped up all the losers as they came to rest outside the hole. The hands were played turn and turn about except when a player holed all of the hand when he could claim another go.
A generation later the boys, or their fathers for them, constructed what was known as a “Droley Board”. This was after the pattern of a section of a railway viaduct, the arches were numbered one to four, and the owner held this upright while his opponents tried to roll marbles through the arched openings. The owner snapped up all that rebounded from the buttresses, and although he had to pay out one, two, three or four for those that got through he generally came off best.
The Marble Games of Sandhurst (No 5)
In describing this as the final article I ought to state that there were other marbles games played which never became popular, and also games played with marbles as the medium but in which marbles were not won or lost. Newcomers to the school frequently introduced new games of marbles or variations of the old ones. I remember a family named Paine who moved to Sandhurst Cross from Wittersham which, by the way, they referred to as Wittsum. They were engaged to work for Major Tom Neve of old Place and they moved in as neighbours to us in the double cottage near Lock Pond. Of the boys I remember there was William, George, Frank, Stephen, Charlie – a good cricketer – and Tom.
I am not sure, but it is possible that the date of the introduction of Dobber to the schoolboys of Sandhurst coincided with the influx of this sextette of boys from Wittersham.
Dobber is a game for two players and is played on a pitch similar to that used for Long Auntie and Droley, but without a backing of wall or fence. Stakes are usually two or three up and the four or six marbles are tossed towards the hole. Bar accidents, all that come to rest in the hole are picked up later by the pitcher but prior to this the dobber comes into action. This was usually a flattish stone culled from the bed of a stream, and carried in the pocket of every Dobber fan. Following the pitch up, the opponent selects, from the outlying marbles, that one which, in his opinion, lies in the most difficult position, and calls on the pitcher to stand on the base line and hit this marble and no other, with his dobber. While the pitcher is framing up for this the opponent will be chanting the penalties for a foul throw: viz “Hit the wrong one” – All mine. “Dobber in the hole” – All mine, and so on. If the pitcher succeeded in hitting the marble indicated cleanly with his dobber, he picked up the entire hand, the loser taking over as pitcher with new stakes.
I have always enjoyed this game and became quite an adept at it. Having suffered much when my dobber hit the right one and then sped on to hit a wrong-un, I conceived the idea of making a dobber by pouring a little molten lead into the lid of a cocoa tin. This was just the job as it stayed put where it first struck, and I was well away, but never minded making a similar dobber for my opponents if they brought along some scraps of lead. The iron coal shovel set carefully on the open kitchen fire did the job and all was well.