The journey to school
In the 19th and early 20th centuries children often travelled long distances to school, and many used that time to play. Boys hunted or shot at convenient targets with shanghais (catapults), bows and arrows, pea shooters and spring guns. Fights were a common pastime among boys, sometimes between ‘gangs’ from rival neighbourhoods or schools.
Travelling was ideal for games of movement, with hoops, tops, stilt walking, kite flying, and skipping. Children raced, and played tag, leap frog and follow the leader. Those children who rode horses to school raced each other and performed riding tricks. In the 20th century children carried out similar activities on bicycles and later with skateboards. In the 21st century many children no longer had this play opportunity, as they were driven to school by their parents.
The tip cat game involved a ‘cat’, a thin six-inch stick with pointed ends, placed on the ground. In the game’s simplest form, the cat was tapped on the end with a bat (or ‘dog’). As the cat flew into the air it was hit as far as possible. The winner was the player who hit the cat furthest. Tip cat resulted in much damage to school windows and bystanders.
School playground games
In 19th-century school playgrounds boys played many rough games such as bar the door (later called bullrush), tag (or tig) and king of the castle. In a game sometimes called ‘cock fighting’ boys had piggy-back fights. Boys also played games with knives, sticks, balls, tops and hoops. In conkers, each tried to break the other’s conker (a horse chestnut suspended on a string) with their own. In the game of soldiers players competed to see who could knock the most flowerheads off grass stalks with a stick.
Rounders and shinty
Before the introduction of rugby and cricket, older children commonly played games of rounders and shinty. They organised these games themselves, often making their own equipment and rules. Rounders was a summer game played by both girls and boys. It involved batting a ball and then running between bases. Shinty was a common winter game for boys. It resembled a violent form of hockey, whacking a ball around a field with improvised sticks.
In buck buck a group of boys formed a line bent over with horizontal backs. A player jumped on the back of the first boy and then made his way down the line. At the end of the line he asked the boy underneath, ‘Buck buck, how many fingers do I hold up?’ If the boy underneath answered correctly he was allowed to buck off the ‘rider’.
Games that have lasted
Since the 19th century girls have played games with singing and rhyming chants including hopscotch, skipping and clapping games. Cat’s cradle (a string game) was generally only played by girls. Both girls and boys played knucklebones and marbles. Versions of all these games continued in the 21st century. From the mid-20th century informal ball bouncing games such as handball and four square were widely played. A girls’ game from the 20th century that continued into the 21st century was elastics. This chanting game involved stretching long elastic bands between two players, while other players jumped in and out of the bands. The rhymes or chants used in all these games often contained a mixture of traditional elements and modern references.