Patrick Chaplin: The Inns of Darts

The Inns of Darts

It is a well-known fact that the game of darts evolved over a number of years within the smoky haze and raucous atmosphere of the inns and taverns of England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Therefore, you might imagine that, as the game’s popularity grew, there would have been more and more pubs being named after darts or at least including the word ‘dart’.

I thought it seemed to be a relatively simple task to find out how many public houses in Britain today had names that included ‘dart’. After all, darts has been the singular most popular indoor pub game in this country for well over a century and responsible for more downing of ale than probably any other pub pastime in the history of mankind.

Almost immediately my research uncovered ‘The Dart’ in Dartford, Kent, which I straightaway discounted because I assumed that it was named after the River Dart and had no connection whatever with the sport. I moved on. Hours of research later brought forth not a great deal. I considered stretching a point a little. I knew, for example, that there is a famous establishment in Stoke-on-Trent which was originally called ‘The Crafty Cockney’, but that was named after the most popular of all darters, Eric Bristow OBE, so strictly speaking should not count.

I recalled the ‘Double Top’ in Romford, Essex. That was close – and indeed featured within a shed load of dartboards – but it still did not count. (The pub has now been demolished.) It seemed I was searching in vain for a pub called ‘The Dart.’ However, one of the few delights of hours and hours of persistent research is that it eventually pays off. One day, whilst flicking through a dusty tome, I discovered a reference to a pub called ‘THE DART INN.’

The Bull’s Head in Norwich, Norfolk, had stood in Ber Street for many years, one of a number of pubs in that area named in connection with cattle, not surprisingly given that, for several centuries, cattle had been driven along the street up to the market near to the Castle. In 1936 Ber Street underwent a major redevelopment with many of the former buildings being either renovated or demolished. The Bull’s Head was amongst those demolished and then a more modern, improved public house built in its place. The game of darts experienced its initial ‘boom’ during the mid-to-late 1930s and the forward-thinking brewer, Morgan and Company, who owned the premises, opened their new establishment in 1938, naming it ‘THE DART INN.’

The ‘boom’ had been created by the ever-increasing number of brewery dart leagues which had first been organised in the mid-1920s. Ever eager to compete with other developing and new forms of leisure which were driving customers away from the pub, darts retained large numbers of existing pub-goers and encouraged others to pop in for a game. The News of the World Individual Darts Championship expanded during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of pub players entered the competition for a chance to play in the Grand Finals of the darts championship everyone wanted to win. Millions of working men – and a significantly less number of women – were playing the game. But it was a single visit in December 1937 of the King and Queen to a new community centre in Slough, Buckinghamshire, which was to herald a previously unheard of national interest in, and enthusiasm for, the game of darts.

Whilst walking around the community centre, the King and Queen saw a game of darts in progress. They stopped and asked if they could play. They threw three darts each and the King declared Her Majesty the winner. The ‘match’ was front-page news the next day and the impact across the country was fantastic. It seemed that everyone wanted to play darts. It may well have been that, as a result of the Royal game, Morgan and Company decided there and then to name their shortly to be opened new public house THE DART INN.

Norwich was certainly one of the first cities outside of London to have large numbers of organised leagues and was an East Anglian hotbed of darts at that time. That, coupled with events nationally, could have resulted in the brewer’s decision to so name the pub. (It should also be noted that, at the time, the county of Norfolk could boast its own regional dartboard – a concentric target, rather like a cut down version of an archery target.)

There is another school of thought which suggests that, as the pub was previously known as the Bull’s Head, the change of name was an allusion to the ‘bull’s eye’ and that ‘The Dart’ was a naturally progression in that line of thought. On yet another hand, the new name may simply have been nothing more than a whim on the part of the landlord or the brewery – why not ‘dart in(n)’ to your local?

If you had taken a stroll down Ber Street in 1938, you would have been impressed not only by the fine architecture of THE DART INN but also by the pub sign. It was magnificent and probably one of the most unusual in the country. It was a huge dartboard and darts perched atop the low roof of the extension to the pub.

On the night of 27th June 1942, enemy incendiary bombs destroyed almost half of Ber Street. That previously notoriously run-down area of the city, which the City Council had done so much in the years immediately preceding the war to improve, was still thick with drinking establishments. Many buildings suffered damage or were totally destroyed. Indeed, two churches were hit but, through it all, THE DART INN remained intact.

However, nothing, but nothing, stands in the way of progress and, alas, at the turn of the 1980s, this fine monument to our game was refurbished. Although the building remained, the new owners required a new image. But come on! Let’s be honest about it. THE DART INN was not, by then, a very inspiring name for a pub, especially at a time when brewers were trying desperately to go ‘up market’ and the game of darts had begun to descend into the doldrums as TV company after TV company and sponsor after sponsor withdrew their support for darts. For years the huge dart sign lay rotting away in an alley at the side of the pub. What value that sign now?

Thus, in 1980, Adnams and Company, plc, brewers based in Southwold, Suffolk, took over THE DART INN and, after improvement works, reopened the pub in September that year with the more traditional name of THE HORSE AND DRAY. And thus it remains to this day.

I paid my first visit to the pub in early December 2003 and met mine host William Smith and his wife Liz. They made my wife and I most welcome and the pints of Adnams Broadside Ale we supped were excellent and the cheeseburgers were the best we’d tasted for ages. William, formerly a tanker driver, and Liz had taken the pub on only nine weeks previously and were settling into the pub life very quickly. Also they had already undertaken some research into the history of the Horse and Dray. Photographs of the Bull’s Head and its reincarnation as The Dart Inn hung from the wall opposite the bar. In the corner, on the right as you enter the establishment, is a dartboard.

Despite the presence of the dartboard, William told me that very little darts is played there. As with so many other pubs, the pool table has replaced the dartboard as the pub game most in demand – especially by the younger drinkers. Perhaps the dartboard is merely a nod of acknowledgement to the pub’s previous ‘life’.

As for the other ‘Dart’, the one in Dartford, Kent, I was recently reliably informed that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the River Dart because the river isn’t called the Dart at all – it’s called the Darent. Thus, apparently, the pub name had everything to do with the game of darts.

‘The Dart’ is situated in Chastilian Road, Dartford and was opened in 1958. Everything about ‘The Dart’ was ‘designed to make drinking pleasurable.’ (Whether or not the discerning beer drinker would today be pleased to see all draught beers pressurised in stainless steel oval barrels known as ‘sputniks’, I’m not sure.) It was a ‘new look’ pub in which there was a television in the public bar, the room ‘tastefully decorated’ with red flock velvet wallpaper. The saloon bar, ‘attractively panelled in light oak’, was ‘comfortably furnished’ and had ‘a traditional brick fireplace.’ No surprise from this description that ‘The Dart’ was a Watney house; indeed the only Watney house in Dartford at the time.

In 1962 the landlord of ‘The Dart’ was Charlie Armfield, an ex-North London publican and stolid Tottenham Hotspur supporter. In fact he had not missed a missed a home game since 1946. Charlie had been glad to bring his wife Lally and daughters Jacqueline and Elizabeth to the town. Not untypical of his trade, Charlie had, in his youth, been a keen boxer and footballer and had boxed for the Alexandra Palace Boxing Club. However, on moving to Dartford, he was more likely to be found on the local golf course.

The sign outside the pub depicted, not surprisingly, a dart and one would have been forgiven for assuming that within the public bar would be found a hotbed of darting expertise – or at least a burgeoning darts club. In fact, when Charlie arrived at ‘The Dart’ in 1960, he had attempted to set up darts matches with other neighbouring public houses. Sadly, it proved increasingly difficult to find opponents so ‘The Dart’ Dart Club folded, leaving the regulars to play amongst themselves.

So, despite the game of darts being the single most popular public house recreation for decades, a mere two public houses appear to have been given the name. But then, upon reflection, that’s not unexpected. Darts is only one element of the life of the pub and by giving your premises such a specific name might lead to a misinterpretation by potential customers of what actually lies within. Forever associated with ‘working class’ activity darts as a name for two pubs might even seen excessive to some.

© 2004 Patrick Chaplin

With special thanks to Susan A. Wells for providing information concerning THE DART INN

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