The Sussex marbles season is of about 45 days in length and in the last century was very closely defined between Ash Wednesday and 12 noon on Good Friday, so much so that Good Friday (and in some places Ash Wednesday) were known as ‘Marbles Day’.
At the Lenten time the toyshops had their windows full of tops, skipping ropes, hoops and marbles. With all the many colours it was these small balls of clay, stone and glass that were the main attraction to both young and old alike.
The Rev W. D. Parish wrote in 1879 about the game as played at Selmeston, East Sussex,
"I always wondered why so many people in the country districts of Sussex should devote themselves to marbles on Good Friday, till I discovered that the marble season is strictly defined between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; and on the last day of the season it seems to be the object of every man and boy to play marbles as much as possible: they will play in the road at the church gate till the very last moment before service, and begin again the instant they are out of church. There is evidently a custom besides a pastime in this case. Persons play at marbles on Good Friday who would never think of playing on any other day; and it seems more over to be regarded as an amusement permissible on a holy day, Is it possible that it was appointed as a Lenten sport, to keep people from more boisterous and mischievous enjoyments?"
The photograph shows a marbles match in progress at the foot of the old market cross, (which was erected in 1833) in Waterloo Square, Alfristion around the turn of the century 1899 or 1900. Mrs. Margaret Piper who’s husband wrote a fascinating book about Alfriston told me that the man shooting is the grandfather of a friend, but she could not remember him mention playing marbles. The last time marbles were play in the square seems to have been in about 1912.
Marbles at Alfristion 1899
Playing marbles was also popular in Brighton where in 1883 an old fisherman, Mr James Rolf told how the fishermen commenced to play on Ash Wednesday in strict accordance with the old traditional custom.
and In Hove it was “Gobblins” on Good Friday if marbles were still being played after the appointed time.
At Cuckfield Marbles was a popular pastime in the 1880’s, so much so that Good Friday was known as ‘Marble Day’. S. M. Kingsley wrote in 1879. ‘It is the custom here on that day (Good Friday) for men and boys of all ages to play marbles and on a remark being made to an old woman about it she replied’ “Don’t you know its marble day?” An old inhabitant of Cuckfield told Miss Lillian Candlin that her father had played on the south side of the churchyard about 1876 and that previously to that they had played right inside the church porch.
Marbles were played at Fletching at the end of the last century; the main game was on Good Friday outside the Rose and Crown against visiting team of men. At other times of the year local men would play on the round stone slab, which was set out side the pub. The children played many difference kinds of marble games. One involved making a hole in the ground using the boys cap to beat the dust and lose earth out of it. Then the idea was to get as many into the hole as possible.
In 1949 and 1950 teams from the village went to play at Tinsley Green. They were called the Fletching Fusiliers A’s and B’s. In 1949 there was talk that they were bringing a mysterious Major from the Chinese Embassy with them, but he never arrived to take part.
In 1950 they fielded the oldest player, he was Harry Allen 87 and was on hand both to show and tell how he played in the championships at Fletching over 50 years before.
The fishermen at Hastings played marbles and there is a photo of them in the local Fisherman’s Museum. They are shown wearing their traditional fisherman’s smocks.
The Red Lion at Hooe was once a venue for marbles, Mike one of the regulars started a fun tournament, which was played on St Georges Day (April 23rd). At first it was played on an old blanket in the main bar. Later a bed of sand was used until a proper ring was built. At one time the ring was covered with course sand paper, Mike told me this was to save the mess and having sand all over the floor. Mike passed over in 1999 and with him the Red Lion marbles.
Lewes, the county town of East Sussex was another place were the game was avidly played. In 1814 when John Dudeney first opened his school marbles were so common amongst the young that he used them in one of his school books On page four of the red covered book published in 1824 entitled an Introduction to Arithmetic we find the following question 1) Suppose John had 19 marbles James 15, Henry 9, Samuel 14, Richard 6, Charles 13, and William 16, if they put them into one bag how many will there be?
Miss Lillian Candlin of Brighton told how her grandfather played marbles in the old navigation pit next to the Snowdrop Inn, South Street, Lewes, some time in the 1870’s. She also said that they played by the pump at St. Thomas church in Cliff High Street in the 1880’s. Marbles still come to light today in Lewes, Fiona Marsden curator of the Sussex Archaeological Society told me that when she digs her garden, which is the old mote of Lewes castle, she still finds old clay and stone marbles from time to time. A small collection of marbles is held in Anne of Cleves House, Southover High Street.
In a manuscript written in 1955 Alfred Ridel of Ninfield talked about the marbles played by the village boys in the 1890s. After mentioning games like ‘Shooting in the ring’, ‘Follows’, ‘Ante’ and ‘Egg in the hat’. He goes on to say “Incidentally, Good Friday marked the end of the marbles season, and on that day only, marbles were played up in the village by grown-ups- a strange and fascinating sight for us boys. After Good Friday ‘hoggings’ came into force, that is, one was perfectly justified in confiscating any marbles being played with, always bearing in mind one’ physical capacity to retain them.”
The well-known Sussex writer and folk singer Bob Copper mentions marbles at Rottingdean in two of his book. It seems when young his father and uncle would play marbles on the hearth in front of a roaring fire. When he was young he said “ we whipped on mushroom-shaped, window-breaking tops along the deserted, traffic-free roads on our way to school, or played marbles along the gritty roadside verges.”
Much later in September 1978, there was a world marbles championship at the White Horse, which is on the seafront. It was a rout for the British; the Pernod Rams took a battering from an 11-year-old Beigian boy, Walter Wardenier.
Pitching marbles into an egg shaped hole was popular as a game in Rye. Mr H.W. Wright (late of Rye) said ‘ I was disappointed no mention of a marbles game which was most popular in Sussex - that is pitching marbles in holes. Every school wall was used and one saw them outside many houses. The holes were scooped out about six inches long and one inch deep, egg shaped. One stood about six feet from the hole and the one who got the most marbles in got all the marbles out of the hole. In those days marbles were stone, not clay as they are now, and they were very strong. Some boys had their favourite Alley; it was called a blood alley and never parted with. I think they had red stripes in them. Another game was cannons. Many times I have played going home from school. Starting outside school we went all along the side of the pavement rolling the marbles at each other till we reached home. Sometimes stones were used, but generally we used large glass marbles for this game.’
On the road from Lewes to Ditchling at the very foot of the south downs lies the village of Streat, where about the turn of the century the local farm labourers performed their essential tasks as early in the morning as they could, and were then given the rest of Good Friday as a holiday on the strict understanding that they should go to church. They attended the morning service, and then went out to play marbles, playing on until evening.
The marbles game at Battle is played near the old Bullring just in front of the Abby gates, on the Abby green used since 1966 as the town’s main car park. The game seems to be one of ‘long taw’, played by two teams of five. A small circle one-foot in diameter is chalked on the ground and 15 marbles are spread around it. Then players from each team take it in turns to roll their ‘bossers’ from the ‘taw line’, a mark some feet away from the ring. If a player knocks a marble from the ring he is then allowed another shot; he carries on until he misses. The first team to knockout eight or more marbles from the ring wins; a result is obtained from the best of three games.
As elsewhere in Sussex the game must end at 12 noon, when the marbles and hot cross buns are thrown to the local children. At one time it was also the custom for Battle team to wear Sussex smocks, later the teams would wear the brown short fisherman’s smock that were easier to obtain. Today they wear fancy dress and there is a separate prize for the best-dressed team.
Jack Wait played for the Battle team, like his father before him. Old Pelham Wait was the town’s lamplighter until electricity arrived. Jack Wait still has his father’s smock, which is now well over 100 years old.
Another member of the Battle team was the late Frank Anderson, the smock he wore until the time he died in 1967 is now in the Battle museum, and can now be seen with a small exhibit of marbles and photographs. Bert Goble has been playing for the Battle team for the last 28 years and said they were playing long before I came to Battle in the 1920’s. The team has included many players born in the last century. Frank Anderson, Pelham Wait 1890, ‘Pop’ Bavistock 1866, Bert Mepham 1880 and Dick Dennis 1875. The other players were James Denning, Guy Duke and Bernard Triggle who was only sixteen when he first played in 1949.
The team in 1978 consisted of Jack Wait, Bert Goble, Roy Carter custodian of the ‘Bossers’, Jim Hatward and Horace Wilkins. This team had beaten Netherfield for the past two years and was looking to make it a hat trick.
The revival game at Battle began in 1948, when the organizers Frank Anderson and Pelham Wait played from Mount Street along the High Street to the Abbey Green. Here they were met by other players and a tournament was played ending at 12 noon. Then Mr Anderson, in his white smock distributed 1,500 marbles from a Sussex trug to the local children.
The first revival match at Battle 1948
In the mid fifties the game stopped being organized for individuals and became, for the first time a team match. The first outside team to play at Battle was the Hastings Winkle Club, which competed for the next three years.
The next real opponents’ played for the first time in 1963; a team nicknamed the ‘Faggots’ came from the Netherfield Football Club. Netherfield’s team included Roy Carter and Frank Chattsfield the well-known bandleader (who was born in Battle). By 1967 Roy Carter had become organizer of the marbles game, and the following year he was playing for the Battle team.
For the 1972 games women’s teams were allowed to play for the first time, and the Battle ladies played a team from the Fuller’s Arms, Brightling.
There were 30 entrants in 1984 and they were divided into six teams of five. Mr. Marbles Bert Goble who was 75 played for the Abbey Men’s team who won the ‘Bert Goble Challenge Cup’. As the headline in the Argus said “Mr. Marbles scoops his own trophy”. The Abbey Ladies’ team won the Ladies’ Challenge Cup.
In April 2001 there was a new trophy ‘the Champions Trophy’ this was played for by the winners of the Ladies and Men’s competitions. The Wait family are still well to the forefront of the ‘Marbles’ with Rose doing most of the donkeywork. Son Bob is the umpire, son John is captain of the Battle men’s team and two of her daughters and daughter-in-law play in the Battle ladies team.
Battle Marbles Rules
1 No donkey dropping.
2 All players must stand behind the white line.
3 The Bosser must roll over the white line on the board.
4 The white marbles are only counted out when a Bosser or another white marble knocks it out, if there is no contact the marble will be placed back in the ring.
5 Players must be rotated.
6 The umpire’s decision is final.
Along the foot of the downs on the other side from Brighton is Fulking, marbles were the male prerogative and in this village while the men and boys played at marbles their womenfolk skipped with their clothes-lines (this was another wide spread folk custom in Sussex).
Henry Burstow the famous Sussex bell ringer and folksinger played marbles in Horsham in the 1830’s, and in his book ‘Reminiscences of Horsham he said the amount of vehicular traffic through the town was considerable, though of course not to be compared to that of to-day (1911), and not sufficient even in West Street to prevent us boy’s playing marbles there. Tony Wales in his book tell of marbles played in Horsham in the 1930’s
Three miles away in Warnham playing marbles was an offence punishable with the utmost severity of the law,
Old handbill dated 1850
Over at Slaugham, a lady who’s father kept the village Post Office and Store towards the end of the last century writes I also remember the Hugh ring for marbles, drawn on Good Friday outside the shop’s stable doors. Local Men, women and children and any passer by had a shot at the marbles in the ring. This also ended the season for marbles, and after Good Friday it was “Smugs” and take when we saw marbles being played.
West Chiltington had its marble players too and there is a photograph that shows children playing in the early 1900s, in the road, on the corner outside the Queens Head public house.
One time member of the Rustington Ramberles, Jack Chipperfield told fellow team members that his father Walter would play marbles in Crawley High Street in the 1860’s and 70’s. The photograph taken out side the George Hotel has children playing in the road.
Marbles have been dug up in the garden of the old Black Dog public house in Holly Bush Road, Northgate. Mr Reg Box from Horley was digging footings for an extension when he came across them together with a broken clay pipe or two. His son, David passed them and this information onto me in 1972 when I worked for him at Horley Press.
While researching marbles it has become clear to me that Copthorne should really be the home of marbles, so many of its folk have lead the way at Tinsley Green. The best players from many teams seem to have come from or had connections with the place.
Harry Langridge who was born in Copthorne told me that a large ring was drawn at Brook Hill, Copthorne and any one could shoot at the marbles in it keeping any they hit. Marbles were also played outside one of the local hostelry, the Builders Arms (now called The Hunters Moon) and at noon on Good Friday when by tradition the game must end, the players would walk to a near by well and toss in all the marbles. Keeping only their ‘Tolley’ or shooting marbles. When the game was revived at Tinsley Green the ex champion of forty-five years before Sam Spooner used the same tolley that he played with in the 1880’s.
Arthur Row was captain of the Copthorne Sharpshooters and one of the few left handed marble players, told me his brother Fred was twice individuals champion – but he used to fudge a lot.
The proper marbles game was the same as the one played at Tinsley Green, but with the ring drawn in the dirt, with a ‘Gubby’ (hole) in the middle. The players put an equal number of marbles in to the hole. They then shot from the hip; down into the hole from the edge of the six-foot ring our tolleys were called ‘Bottlies’.
There was another game where a spigot from a beer barrel was stood up and shot at, every time you hit it all the other players had to give you a marble. A game we played as children was ‘Troll the marble’ this we played on the way home from school.
The game was also played at Singleton; Richard Pailthorpe from the Open Air Museum gave me a copy of an interview with an old inhabitant ‘ Marbles of course in their season, small ring being mostly common, but big ring when it was possible to find a large smooth piece of ground such as where Father mixed his mortar. The toll (short O) was the marble used for shooting, and other terms were ‘clears levelance’ that is permission to smooth a piece of ground, and the cry ‘no pooks, no bunnocks’ was raised when the toll was not shot cleanly. I remember after Dr Harlock died a locum tenens came who lived at Bridge House. His wife once gave me a bagful of marbles 60 or so when I came home from school one dinner hour. I rushed back to school, met Chubby Ticehurst and Buns Pennicott, both older than myself, and who suggested a game down by the plantation, a nice quiet spot, Yes, the result was I went into school having lost the lot, more experience.
It was in the 1980s that the marbles ring was built at the Red Lion, home of the Turners Hill Tollymen. It is used for their annual tournament, which is usually in June. It is now one of the most used ring in the county as the Tollymen practice hard when ever the can tear themselves away from the Harvey’s Best in the bar.
In the 1960’s there was a great deal of marble playing in and around Worthing, the local RAFA club had its own tournaments at Durrington. At first a team went up to Tinsley Green to play, Good Friday 1964 saw the Worthing Typhoons at the championships. Their first year saw six teams playing and they were unfortunately knocked out in the first round. Joe Beckett had the highest score for the team and went on to be beaten by Len Smith in the individual championships.
Two years later saw the first ever Worthing tournament, which was held at the Goring Recreation Ground with eight teams taking part. It was a very grand occasion with the Mayor, Councillor E. J. W. Cuer leading a team of Aldermen and councillors. Referee Mr Joe Moulds, who in his white coat and black top hat made sure that there was no fudging or other fouls, over saw the event. He also issued good-natured advice on how to address the noble art of marbling. At the end of the day it was the Durrington ‘A’ team that won the 4½ gallons of beer, the their ‘B’ team as runners up. Mrs Edwards one of the organizers said, “The only problem to give us any trouble was finding a sufficient number of clay marbles. We searched everywhere and finally got round it by substituting painted aniseed balls.”
The competition moved around a bit and in 1968 the annual event was held at the Bull Inn, Goring.
Len Smith and the Telcon Terribles came to Broadwater Green in September 1971, not only did they take part in the tournament but they set up a new world record. This stood for a number of years and was in the Guinness Book of Records, ‘The record for clearing the ring (between 5¾ and 6¼ ft [1.75 – 1.90 m] in diameter) of 49 marbles in 2 min 57 sec by the Toucan Terribles at Worthing, West Sussex in 1971.’
The Gazette for 12th September 1973 Said “Surprised passers-by at Broadwater Green on Sunday just had to stop when they saw a group of men including the mayor George Godfrey, on their hands and knees and giving an occasional whoop of triumph … the 8th annual marbles tournament was in progress. Top of the eight teams were the Rebels from Handcross, world champion Len Smith presented the prizes.
By the 1970s the Worthing tournament had become the ‘South of England Marbles Championship’ with Les Greenfield as its organiser. Les was also for many years one of the referees at Tinsley Green. In fact it was Les who made the very popular decision to abandon the championships in 1974, when a cloudburst turned the marble ring out side the Greyhound in to a mess as sticky as glue. This was the one and only time that ‘rain stopped play’ at Tinsley Green.