Patrick Chaplin: Darts History

1930's Pubs & Darts

THE LEGACY OF RUPERT CROFT-COOKE

Red Lion, Frome, (Somerset) Darts Team 1929/30

Rupert Croft-Cooke was an author who could turn his hand – or more correctly his pen – to almost any subject he chose. Croft-Cooke was a prolific writer for many decades from the late 1920s onwards. He wrote non-fiction on diverse subjects ranging from circus life and cooking to a guide to Madeira. He also wrote reams of fiction, some in his own name, and others under his nom de plume of Leo Bruce; the latter being detective novels with the notorious Sergeant Beef always at centre stage.

OK, I hear you say, what has Mr. Croft-Cooke to do with pub history? Well, there are two reasons why those interested in pubs should know about him. Firstly, Croft-Cooke wrote the very first book on the traditional pub game of darts and, secondly, his numerous volumes of autobiography tell us a lot about 1930s pubs, their landlords and their clientele.

‘Darts’– a title that must have caused him sleepless nights trying to think up – was published in London by Geoffrey Bles in December 1936. Despite being a lightweight work of less than 20,000 words, Croft-Cooke’s own admission ‘’Of its [darts] origin I can tell you nothing’ and, as one critic commented, ‘with an extremely annoying patronising style to boot’, the little book does provide the reader with an insight into the state of the game at that time. In addition, from the point of view of my work of tracing the history and development of darts, Darts does provide some valuable leads.

Despite the lack of any serious academic endeavour, Croft-Cooke knew what he wanted from darts and what darts meant to him. Perhaps those in high places who today continue to squabble over the future of the game should heed Croft-Cooke who 65 years ago was advocating that darts was ‘a public bar game, a game for good fellows, a spit-and-sawdust pastime…a game to play with the golden glow of beer in one’s brain, to the sound of tinkling glasses.’ (And so say all of me.)

Croft-Cooke’s other legacy to those interested in public houses was his numerous volumes of autobiography which he published over a considerable period of time. Although not all mention pubs – Croft-Cooke travelled extensively around the world – a good number contain occasional, yet clear, memories of the hostelries that were dear to him during the 1930s. These are sources which might not normally have been brought to the attention of those studying the history of the public house.

The 1930s was a period of increased mobility which lead to rural pubs, which had perhaps only been used to occasional visits by travellers, being ‘invaded’ by outsiders, either on foot (hiking was all the rage), on bicycle (cycling was an enormously popular pastime), by bus (coach tours) and more especially the motor-car. Cheap mass-produced, production-line cars had brought the ability to purchase a vehicle within the grasp of the middle classes. Many rural pubs welcomed the increased trade and landlords seized the opportunities proffered by this cultural change.

The landlord of one of Croft-Cooke’s locals, welcomed each and every customer and was ‘quick to serve an honest measure’, expert in the care and treatment of his beer, humorous and noisy with his friends yet with self-important visitors he would be ‘opinionated and impatient’. He was also, Croft-Cooke notes, ‘a skilled dart player, a ready gambler and a good loser.’ Politely calling these new visitors ‘less attractive’ than the locals, Croft-Cooke included in their number the ‘dull and prosperous shopkeepers’ from nearby towns with their ‘dressy wives’ wearing what Croft-Cooke describes as an ‘unhappy combination’ of department store fur coats and artificial pearls. The men sought some pleasure from buying pints for the ‘yokels’.

Croft-Cooke also spent some time in the 1930s living in Gloucestershire and had two particular locals that he has recorded for posterity. One was ‘a smoky little stone house, lit by lamplight and patronised almost exclusively by land workers.’ Like most rural innkeepers of his day, the landlord worked a farm during the day as the inn alone did not generate sufficient income to sustain himself and his family. There was no village within two miles of this particular inn, but it was the only licensed house serving those living in no less than five hamlets. Another of Croft-Cooke’s locals was ‘built before Cheltenham was little more than a village’.

The two inns had much in common. Both had flagged floors, open fireplaces, high-backed settles, no drainage, no electric light and both landlords drew water from a well. In the fire in one of them stood a saucepan utilised by the locals to mull their ale and in the outhouses behind the inn the landlord made rough cider which he sold at five pence (5d) a pint.

‘To go into those inns at night,’ wrote Croft-Cooke, ‘was to enter a strange and long-vanished world.’ These inns were, he considered, ‘the true survivors’. In his opinion, changes over the past 300 years had been negligible, namely ‘lamplight instead of candlelight, cigarettes instead of clay pipes, and some small differences in dress.’ However, when Croft-Cooke travelled out to these inns at night in his little open Singer car, chancing his engine and tyres on the rough country roads, it was not ‘to admire the facial and natural oddities’ of his fellow customers nor ‘to delight in the inns as period pieces’ but to play the game he loved, the only pastime at which he ever excelled – the game of darts.

(The original version of this article was first published in Newsletter 2 of the Pub History Society in 2002. For more information about the Pub History Society check out the PHS website at www.pubhistorysociety.co.uk – and join!) (Tell them I sent you.)

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© Patrick Chaplin 2007 (Updated July 2012)