Victorian London - Children - Toys and Play - Playing in the street and street games


Sir, - I have not for many years read a paragraph in The Times which has afforded me greater pleasure than that which heads your "Police" report of this day, conveying Mr. Hardwick's just complaint of, and directions to Inspector Baker, on the hoop nuisance. As a daily passenger along the crowded thoroughfares of London-bridge and Thames-street, where boys and even girls, drive their hoops as deliberately as if upon a clear and open common, I can bear witness to its danger and inconvenience. I have at this moment a large scar on one of my shins, the legacy of a severe wound, which festered, and was very painful for an entire month, inflicted a year ago by the iron hoop of a whey-faced, cadaverous charity-boy from Tower-hill, who on my remonstrating with him on his carelessness, added impudence to the injury, by significantly advancing his extended fingers and thumb to his nose and scampering off. Aware that I had no redress, that the police would not interfere, I was compelled to grin and bear it while I hobbled away. The nuisance calls loudly for the interference of the Police Commissioners.
    Your daily reader,
September 30.            A PEDESTRIAN.

letter to The Times, October 1, 1842


(A Picture dedicated by Mr. Punch with his best wishes for success to the "Playground and General Recreation Society")

Punch, June 4, 1859





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games2.gif (10918 bytes)IT is Saturday and all the streets in this mixed neighbourhood are a riot of children. Are you out? " says one boy to another and it seems a superfluous question. Translated, however, it means "Are you on some vexatious errand for your mother ? or are you at liberty to join in any fun that may crop up?" The boy replies that he is out, and joins the noisy, moving crowd.
    Men must work and women must weep, says the song it might be added that children must play. Even the ill-used, half-starved child of the London slums can find surcease from the horrors of its lot in a world of make-believe. Rag dolls and paper balls serve the purpose just as well as the more elaborate toys of richer children and perhaps there is compensation for the lack of such luxuries in an inevitable quickening of the imagination. Of course there are things to be enjoyed in the streets of London that are, comparatively speaking, quite aristocratic of their kind and out of the reach of the very poorest. I refer to such subtle delights as riding in goat-shays, and flying kites and air-balloons even marbles, balls, tops, and skipping-ropes are not to be acquired without some small outlay. But effective substitutes for these things can often be made at home by means of a little ingenuity and some miscellaneous lumber. Carts and toboggans can be constructed out of soap-boxes and the wheels of disused perambulators. It is just as easy to be happy with a rusty iron tyre, a hoop off a butter-tub, a kite made out of a bit of cane and a page from a copy-hook, a tin lid with a piece of string passed through a hole in the centre that revolves merrily on its edge as you run, a lump of soft clay and a catapault or a rhubarb-bind, as with a genuine shop-made article.
    In a few years the sport will be out of these children. They will be playing "pitch and toss," and "banker " with a [-267-] penny pack of cards; they will, on high days, do their best to make the town hideous with painted horns, and "ticklers" and "tormentors" they will have money in their pockets and "fags" between their lips but they will not be as happy as they are now.games3.gif (12658 bytes)
    It is mostly in the better streets that children play alone. Here is one whipping a top; another is trundling a hoop; a girl is skipping; a boy on a pair of stilts seems anxious to achieve something complicated in the way of a broken nose; a very superior young person is engaged in the prehistoric pastime of battledore and shuttlecock. A man has lately passed through this by-way with a barrow laden with paper windmills and flags; these he has offered in exchange for old jars and bottles and has emphasised his offer with flourishes on a bugle. Now the street is gay with his wares. Yet this clean, tidy boy, for instance, who has both a flag and a windmill, and who occupies his time between bouncing a very handsome ball and counting his "alley taws," has an air of aimless boredom. Another boy is skating on rollers ; he, too, appears dissatisfied. Suddenly he takes off one skate, lends it to the first boy, and in an instant both are happy, for here is companionship to stimulate healthy rivalry. It is this spirit which animates the children of the London streets and enables them to play with an earnestness which seems to denote that, knowing their childhood will be but a short time, they are bent on making the most of it.
games5.gif (47925 bytes)     Some of their games seem to be of a rather spiteful nature. Here is a party playing "Ugly Bear." One boy crawls on the pavement and the rest belabour him with caps attached to lengths of string. Here are others playing " Egg Cap" and "Mondays and Tuesdays." If you are a muff at this you will have to lay your open hand against a wall and allow a boy to shy a ball at it. "King of the Castle" and "No Man Standing" are just red savagery set to rules; "Release" is plain fighting with the anger left out ; whilst "Leading the Blind Horse" is merely an elaborate practical joke, the point of which is to blindfold a trusting innocent and then to maltreat him in any handy way that his defencelessness suggests. Better games than these, though dangerous still, are in progress. Notable among them is tip-cat, but this is perilous only to onlookers.games4.gif (42081 bytes)
    These urchins who are engaged in throwing pieces of the roadway at other pieces of the roadway are playing "Gully" or "Duck" ; they have just been playing Castles, a game in which loose stones also play a big shin-shattering part. "Horny Winkle's Horses," in which one set of boys stoops down and makes a bridge of backs against a wall, and other boys ride them to a thrice-repeated chorus of "Charley Knackers-one, two, three!" or, until they collapse, is another boisterous game. In this category come also "Rounders, a game resembling baseball; [-268-] "Chevy Chace," a form of prisoners base in which one unit of a "side" is captured and held to ransom until a comrade rescues him; "I-spy-I," or hide and seek ; "Tom Tiddler's Ground," "Red Rover " and "Puss-puss," which resemble one another in that one player is prominent above all the rest.
    This is also the case in "Follow-my-Leader" and the various sorts of Leap-frog - inch-it, foot-it, "Fly-the-Garter," and Spanish - with the chief differencw that whilst in "Follow-my-Leader" the prominent figure is rather heroic, in leap-frog he is the butt. games6.gif (58269 bytes) This butt or sport of fortune is known as He, and appears in many games. In the various forms of "Touch"- "Touch Wood" and "Touch Iron," "French Touch" "Cross Touch," and "Widdy-widdy-warny" - it is invariably He who has to catch the others; it is He who comes in for all the indignities. The insane-looking urchin holding his knee is playing "French Touch"; he was touched on the knee by the last He, and must not remove his hand until he touches somebody else. This band of six or seven, all clasping hands and stretched across the road, are at "Widdy-widdy-warny." "Kick-pot " and "Strike Up and Lay Down" are games in which one player opposes all the rest. The last named is a rough form of trap, bat, and ball ; but the trap is dispensed with and the ball merely bounced on the ground. The fielder of the ball endeavours to hit the bat (usually a rough piece of wood) which the striker places flat on the ground. "Straights," cries the fielder ; and, if the striker has omitted to shout " No straights," he is at liberty to stand in a line with the bat.
games7.gif (20066 bytes)     Other robust games, but which belong - either properly or of necessity - to the winter, are "Chalk Corners," which is "Hare and Hounds " (only the hares blaze a trail by drawing arrows on the pavement instead of by dropping paper), and snowballing, and sliding. The fashions of street cricket and football overlap at one period of the year, and both are being played. An amusement for the boys that is an exasperation for the girls will crop up when two blithe spirits snatch a skippng-rope and run down the street, entangling all the indignant petticoats within their sphere of influence.
    In the midst of the prevalent turmoil there are boys at games that might be called "quiet," if only the players would refrain from argument. "Buttons " can be played without any adjuncts at all, or in [-269-] conjunction with a ball, a peg-top, or a knicker - the last a heavy, leaden disc. There are some curious conventions connected with these games that are religiously observed. games8.gif (38472 bytes) You may not, for example, use iron buttons or buttons below the regulation size; and if the peg of your top measures less than an average thumbnail it is a "mounter" and may be thrown over the house by any boy who can get hold of it. Other "quiet" games of a competitive sort are "Buck, buck! how many fingers do I hold up ? " and, in their season, "Cherry-bobs," and "Conquers," ie. horsechestnuts. A fascinating toy for solitaries is a disc of wet leather on the end of a piece of string which will adhere fast to the ground or, by adhesion, raise a cellar-plate. This is known as a "sucker."
games9.gif (70379 bytes)     Besides all these regulation games there are others which owe their origin to some passing London show or predominant public interest. War always fires the boys. A military exhibition may inspire them to a pickaback wrestling tournament But, as a rule, such games have a brief vogue, the genius of organisation not being common in children. games10.gif (26219 bytes) A notable exception to this dictum, however, was to be found during the Boer campaign in the wonderfully drilled regiments of juvenile soldiers that paraded the London streets. It was a memorable spectacle to see these bands of little ones, to whom some tiny vivandieres were usually attached, marching along in perfect step through the mire or dust of the road, wearing their helmets and tunics, carrying their weapons, also an "ambulance," beating their drums and blowing their toy trumpets, With that dignified gravity of which only children know the secret.
    But, generally speaking, the best games of make-believe are either rooted in tradition or founded on the everyday life of the participants.

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[-271-] Boys are not so fond of these games of make-believe as girls are; but you will find them playing at "Horses" with reins of rainbow wool which they weave on a machine constructed of a cotton reel and four pins or, with lanterns, puffing and steaming along in imitation of a train. A thunder-shower will set them to floating paper-boats in the flooded gutters. Mud, at all times, will move the younger fry to make pies. Sometimes, if they are of  a gentle disposition, they will join the girls in a mimic domestic drama of Mothers and Fathers, or " Schools," or "Shops." They will reel about the pavement in dreadful pantomime as "father " they will buy imaginary wares with imaginary coin submit to be cross-questioned or cuffed as the pupils of a small but imperious mistress. They will take part in "kiss-in-the-ring" and the other innumerable love-making games: "Ring o' Roses," "Poor Jenny is a-Weeping," "Bingo," "London Bridge is Broken Down," "Wallflowers," and many others. Their name is legion, and a recital of the rhymes that are chanted in a singsong accompaniment to them would fill many pages. The ruling principle is invariably that a boy or girl shall choose one of the opposite sex, kiss, and then leave the other to pursue a similar policy of selection. These little ones seem to play at love for practice they blush, and are tremulous and constrained; the boys cut awkward capers to show how terribly they are at ease; the girls are fiercely competitive for the favour of their particular sweethearts.
    There are games in which the sexes mingle that are not love-making games: "Oranges and Lemons," "Here We Come Gathering Nuts and May," "Several Men Come to Work," and "Honey-pots." The first two of these games resolve themselves into a tug-of-war. "Several Men Come to Work" is a game in which trades are represented by dumb show. In "Honey-pots" you are trussed up, with your hands clasped under your legs, and swung to and fro by two other players. These things are shrouded in a mystery impenetrable to the mere masculine intelligence, even among juveniles. No boy ever really arrives at the true inwardness of Hopscotch, for instance. It is as baffling as feminine human nature itself, whether it be of the variety that depends on a series of circles and numbers, or on a drawing known as "Spider's Web" which rather resembles a periwinkle-shell in outline and has initials written on it in set spaces. The tiny maids, hopping on one leg, kick at a piece of china or a flat stone ; and if they fail in their incomprehensible endeavours they seem to go on just the same, and if they succeed they are as pleased as a cat in the fender, though it seems to make no difference either way. Then there is "Five Stones" better known as " Gobs" at which they will play for hours without tiring, though the game consists merely in sitting on a doorstep and bouncing a big marble and picking up stones and catching them dexterously on the back of the hand. They will nurse a doll too, in an abstracted way, all by themselves ; or swing on a rope attached to a lamp-post or the railings, monotonously, backward and forward with pathetically intent faces, showing no sign of pleasure. When they play together they are noisier but you rarely see them smile. At the game of "Higher and Higher," which begins and ends in jumping over a rope, they display an amazing agility, whisking their bodies into the air by a revolving action and clearing almost their own height.
    And all the while, in many cases, they have to play another part of little mother to younger brothers and sisters. They ape, with a cruel fidelity, the methods of stern parents, sometimes covering their charges with abuse, slapping, shaking, touzling them but they are very solicitous for the little ones' safety all the same. In short, they are serving their apprenticeship to life. Whilst the boys are being Red Indians and pirates, and yearning to run amuck through the Ten Commandments with a cardboard sword, the girls are learning how to be mothers. For, though she plays, the poor little girl of the London streets is never quite a child.

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902