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Pub Games - Pub Heritage

A brief history of pub games

The English pub has always been a venue for games and sports. The nature and type of games played may have changed over the centuries, but the purpose has not. Friendly rivalry and competition, washed down with a pint of ale, creates bonds and breaks monotony.

"14th century skittles ©"
Early pub games may seem simplistic and naive, but compared with the humdrum life of a farm hand or factory worker, they provided light relief. Some were as simple as flipping a coin through a hole in a box, sliding coins along a board or throwing a stick at a target. Games using dice or cards, such as cribbage, dominoes or 'shut the box', required little in the way of equipment or space, and therefore were within the reach of most pubs.

It’s hard to say where these pastimes came from originally. Many familiar English games have foreign origins; draughts (similar to U.S checkers) was introduced by the Romans, dominos arrived from China, via Italy; marbles came from ancient Egypt and several more were introduced following the Norman invasion of 1066, including quoits, bowls and skittles. Whilst some of these imports were new, it’s likely similar ‘home grown’ games already existed, so there would have been some integration.

"London Skittles played indoors (Video)"
Outdoor games such as quoits and bowls have become deeply ingrained in our culture and are still played around the country. The British weather is probably responsible for the proliferation of indoor games, such as darts, an indoor adaptation of archery, whilst table skittles and indoor quoits have been scaled down to fit into the pub. All these games have regional variations, played with different rules and equipment.

Some weird and wonderful pub games, with incredible names such as Dwyle Flunking, have survived in small pockets, but even more have been lost and forgotten. Others however, have flourished to become national ‘sports’ such as snooker and darts. Modern ten pin bowling owes it origins to skittles, this ancient game still popular and surprisingly strong, particularly in the West Country, although in London, most pub skittle alleys have closed.

If it’s popular, ban it!

Whatever the regional differences, one common theme pub games have, is that at some point, they have all been banned. Both Edward III and Henry VIII were eager to ban pub games, particularly if they were enjoyed by the lower classes, even though they themselves played and enjoyed them. The Puritans, during the Commonwealth rule, were keen to ban all games, but then again; they were keen to ban anything frivolous.

The reasons for the bans vary from moral corruption to dereliction of duty; the theory being that competitive games encouraged gambling and drinking, and therefore must be wrong. Also, those involved in them should be undertaking more responsible activities, such as practising their long bow skills.

Although gaming machines have been legal in pubs for half a century, the law on gambling in pubs was relaxed relatively recently, allowing poker and prize bingo to be played for money for the first time. The stakes are limited to £5 per game with a £100 limit on winnings. (see pub law)

Yes, but is it sport?

There are however many pub related ‘sports’ that have been banned, or at least controlled, which are abhorrent to us now. Seemingly quaint pub names reflect a dark and sinister side of the ‘sporting’ Englishman. The Bear, the Dog & Bull and the Cock are so called not because of the English obsession with animals, but the excitement of seeing them fight to the death. Bears and bulls were savaged by dogs, and cock hens pecked each other apart. These were not spectacles enjoyed only by the mob, but by the gentry and even monarchs.

The human equivalent was bare-fist fighting, which left many participants blind, brain damaged or dead. A few pubs have boxing training rings or names which celebrate prize fighters, such as the Tom Cribb in Haymarket and the Thomas A Beckett in Old Kent Road, where Henry Cooper trained in its boxing gymnasium; alas the pub closed several years ago.

Leather on willow or ivory on green baize?

There are those amongst us who claim cricket is a slow form of death, but its connection with pubs is obvious. The Cricketers is a popular pub name, often due to the pub being situated on the village green where cricket was, or hopefully is, played.

Many games which either originated or at least flourished in pubs, moved away into their own clubs. Historically, both cricket and football owe their prominence to the pub; getting a team together is easier when potential players are gathered, so what better place than a pub?

Many pubs have their own cricket, football and rugby teams, which play other pubs’ teams. Other sports connected with pubs include angling, horse riding and racing, dog racing and of course, controversially, fox hunting.

The distinction between a sport and a game remains blurred, are snooker and darts sports? Television seems to think so, even if the Olympic Committee does not.

The modern game

It was in the large, Victorian pubs where pub games took on a new style. Billiards and snooker were played on full sized tables; they occupied vast rooms, their furnishings more like gentlemen’s clubs. Catalogues of the time boasted a whole range of innovative games for the modern pub in gleaming glass and mahogany cabinets. In more modest pubs Bar Billiards became popular because its table was small and the game played from one end, so space needed was kept to a minimum.

Between the World Wars, there was a drive to make pubs more wholesome. Families were encouraged, to the extent that some pubs put in children’s play areas. The slow and genteel game of bowls was encouraged and developed in pub gardens large enough to accommodate a green. It was not until the 20th century that darts became widely popular, with at least one dart board in every pub and the familiar black rubber mat marking the 'oche'.

No Room at the Inn

"Billiard tables replaced by dining tables"
A full size snooker table needs a large amount of space. Compare the numbers of players taking part with the area occupied and it appears blatantly uneconomic, particularly in city pubs where space is at a premium. In the latter half of the 20th century snooker tables began to disappear, in most cases the only evidence of their existence is a few etched glass windows, door panels or skylights.

In more recent times bar billiards tables have almost disappeared too; and more astonishingly, darts, or at least the number of dart boards has declined dramatically. Whether this is because of pressures on space or the lack of participants is hard to say. So serious has this decline become that a group of darts fans have started a campaign to Save Our Darts . They say 40% of men in their twenties have never played. In general the older pub games have survived better in rural areas than in towns and cities; the lack of pressure on space and a more cohesive, less transient community have kept the games alive.

Flashing lights and telly tubbies

In the 1960's a change in the law allowed gambling in pubs for modest amounts, a few shillings in a friendly cribbage game. It also sparked a whole industry which is now commonplace, the gaming machine. The development from simple one-armed-bandits to sophisticated, computer driven quiz machines took decades.

In the 1980's the sports bar and pub made a short lived appearance, pool being the main game on offer. It coincided with televisions becoming more widespread in pubs. Now of course, with many sporting events available only on satellite channels, a whole pub and television culture has emerged. It also reflects the change in our way of life, passive rather than participating.

New innovations, such as satellite linked pub quizzes, enable pubs across the country to play one another; now bingo can be played on a national scale, with prizes to match. Perhaps, though, they reflect advances in technology, rather than a desire to play them.

Time to step up to the oche?

Maybe its time to enjoy the simple games again, where conversation and friendly competition are more important than winning. Here are just some of the games and sports you could enjoy. These are basic descriptions, comprehensive information is available through the links.


Bat and Trap

"Bat & Trap an early rounders"
This very old game which is thought to predate cricket and is almost certainly the forerunner of 'rounders' (a crude form of baseball) which is played in the UK by children. The player hits a lever which releases a ball which pops up from the trap and the player hits it as hard as possible, or failing that, a by-stander. Should the player fail to hit either, they’re 'out'. Lots of fun.
Photo: ©

Boules / Petanque

A game invented by French sailors to pass the time whilst their ports were under siege by the Royal Navy. Originally played with canon balls and a small ball known as a Jack (poss Jolly Jack Tar?), which is thrown to the opposite end of the pitch. The aim is to see who can toss their boules nearest to the Jack. Origin of the expression, ‘French tossers’.


Flat Green and Crown are the main ones. Requires skill and equipment. It is played on a ‘green’, a manicured lawn. A Jack (a small ball) is placed at one end of the green and bowls are rolled to see who can get the closest to it. Fascinating to watch, believe it or not.

Dwyle Flunking

No seriously. It involves rags soaked in stale beer, poles, and people getting wet. "No I haven’t been drinking officer, I’ve been Dwyle Flunking". Three points at least!


A quoit is a ring of metal or rubber, it is thrown or tossed to land on a designated target, often with a spike in the centre to get quoit over. Similar to pitching horseshoes, as seen on them Westerns. More variants than healthy.


Bar Billiards

Once widespread, now rare game played with cue. Balls aimed down holes on a pool size table, without knocking down ‘mushrooms’. Great fun.

Board and Card Games

Too many to list but they include backgammon, draughts, nine men morris, cribbage, whist and poker. Poker has enjoyed a revival due to a change in the law although prize money is strictly limited. Modern board games usually available in pubs include Scrabble and Monopoly.


"Many variants exist"
The best known pub game (aka ‘arrers’). A form of indoor archery, score by throwing darts at the segmented board and counting down the score (usually) from 501 and ending on a double. Different rules and boards exist depending on area. Britains national indoor game is under threat from people who eat, pubs replacing the oche with okra. Don’t let it happen Save Our Darts


Small tiles divided into two halves, each with a number of spots, from zero to twelve, depending on the type. Players lay them down one at a time in turn and have to match the numbers at the end of the line. If not they have to pick up tiles as forfeit. Player who runs out of tiles first, wins.


A subtle and compulsive card game of Tudor origins, requiring a cribbage score board.


U.S. game like miniature snooker but not as good. Enjoyed widely and played best by those who had a mis-spent youth.

Quoits -indoor

Similar to outdoor but less messy. Rings are made from soft material, usually rubber.

Shove Halfpenny (pron. hape–nee)

Also known as shove groat, slide thrift and push penny. Simplest form is a board on a table with lines drawn across it. Put a half-penny (pre-decimal) on the end and shove it with the flat or heel of the hand. Score by landing the ha’penny between the lines.


Thought to have been invented by German warriors standing their clubs on end and knocking them over with sticks or stones. Akin to ten pin bowling, knock pins down at the end of an alley with a ball or a ‘cheese’. Several types. London Skittles, Western Skittles, Long Alley (Midlands), Old English Skittles, Rolly Polly. A variation called Aunt Sally (Oxfordshire) involves throwing batons at a ‘doll’ (or anyone else you want her to be).

Table Football

A game of two halves, of a table that is, each with a bar with tiny players on them. Move and spin the bars to defend or score. Compulsive, but watch out for people who ask what they have to do; they’re probably a secret table footie ‘Ronaldo’.

Table Skittles

"A devil to play"
'Devil Among the Tailors', variants Hood Skittles, Daddlams. All involve swinging a ball on a chain over a table of skittles in the hope of knocking them all down. Looks easy, devilishly difficult!

Photo: ©

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