The world of pub games is a fascinating one and here I publish the results of my research into the long-lost game of ‘Bumblepuppy’

In the Winter 2004 issue of the Pub History Society (PHS) Newsletter the editor asked if anyone could shed some light on ‘the forgotten game of Bumble Puppy.’

In his review of Chris Amies’ Images of London: Hammersmith and Fulham Pubs, in the PHS Autumn 2004 Newsletter, Simon Fowler mentioned an ‘extraordinary’ photograph of folks playing ‘bumblepuppy’ at The Dove, Hammersmith and wrote that it was ‘a sort of miniature skittles.’ In addition the editor mentioned that Donald Stuart had called the game ‘a form of 17th century tennis’ in his work, London’s Historic Inns and Taverns.

Let the light-shedding commence!

In 1959 George Izzard, landlord of The Dove, published his autobiography, One for the Road (London: Max Parrish, 1959). On page 59 when talking of ‘summer chats in the cool bar’ with visitors George stated that ‘if my visitors went out into the garden, I was able to repay their entertainment by showing them a rarity: the only surviving Bumblepuppy board in England.’ The bumble puppy board was situated ‘just under the vine’ and consisted of

‘…a rectangular slate, six foot by three, built on brick piles or irregular height and sloping down at one end. At the lower end was a strip of wood with a series of numbered holes, with little boxes behind them. Bumblepuppy, which some of my older village customers played regularly, was played with smooth stones which they could pick up from the river bank if they lost the old ones. The players were allowed five stones each and bowled them down the slate towards the numbered holes in the strip of wood: they were caught in the boxes on the far side of the strip…’

George looked up the history of bumble puppy in his local library and discovered that it was derived from an older game called ‘nine holes on the green’ and was in its turn ‘the ancestor of bagatelle.’ The image accompanying this article shows the bumble puppy board at The Doves as depicted in the West London Sketcher & Recorder in 1889. The Recorder described the game as ‘a Hammersmith curiousity’.

When I stretched up to retrieve my copy of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles from one of my bookcases, the exercise proved worth it. There was ‘Bumble-puppy. 1801. (Origin unkn.) a. Nine-holes. b. Whist played unscientifically.’ And under ‘Nine-holes’ I found ‘1573. a. A game in which the players endeavour to roll small balls into nine holes made in the ground, each hole having a separate scoring value. b. A similar game played with a board having nine holes or arches.’ Sounds to me like a fairground game I used to play as a lad, rolling balls down a slope and trying to get them through sufficient arches to score high enough to win a goldfish.

Iona and Peter Opie trace the origins of ‘Nine Holes’ back to at least 1534 when it was known in France as ‘Trou-madame.’ For a fabulous engraving by the German artist Mathaus Merian of seventeenth century gentlefolk playing ‘Trou-madame’ see the Opie’s Children’s Games with Things(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, page 25) and compare it with the photo in Chris Amies’ book.

Joseph Strutt devotes an entire page of his masterwork Sports and Pastimes of the People of England(1801) to ‘Nine-holes’, describing it as ‘a boyish game.’ Strutt suggests that the game was ‘instituted, or more properly revived’ about 1780 ‘as a succedaneum for skittles, when the magistrates caused the skittle grounds in and near London to be levelled, and the frames removed.’ Strutt states that nine-holes was called ‘Bubble the Justice’ ‘on the supposition that it could not be set aside by the justices, because no such pastime was named in the prohibitory statutes.’ (Clever!) Strutt further reveals that the game was by 1801 more generally known as “Bumble-puppy,” ‘the vulgarity of the term [being] well adapted to the company by whom it is usually practised.’

The illustration accompanying this article thus shows how the bumble puppy board actually looked like and this might even make readers think of the fairground side stalls where you are encouraged to roll coins down a slight incline to see if you can get them through the little archways at the end to win a prize. What it isn’t is a form of 17th century tennis.

(c) Patrick Chaplin 2005-2019