Cork – Throwing

Following my article Roaring Fire, Cork-throwing and Demolition which was published in the Pub History Society’s Newsletter (Spring 2009) (which can be viewed elsewhere on this website, click here), I was thrilled to have received a response from pub games expert Arthur R. Taylor in November 2009 which details the history of the game of cork-throwing.

The game of corks has a nineteenth century pedigree – in France, not Britain.

The first reference comes from a surprising source – Flaubert’s brilliant novel Madame Bovary, first published in 1856. Many of the guests at Emma Bovary’s wedding, in rural Normandy, having eaten and drunk themselves almost to a standstill at the wedding supper at the farm, “got up for a stroll around the yard, or played a game of corks in the granary”. We never get to know exactly what this game of bouchons – the French for corks – was, but presumably Flaubert’s readers would have known.

Twenty years later, in 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson’s whimsical travel book, An Inland Voyage, was published. The work detailed a journey by canoe through Belgium and Northern France. At Landrecies, on the French side of the border, he and his companion were buffeted by wind and rain, but found “a double-bedded room, with plenty of furniture, real water jugs with real water in them, and dinner, a real dinner not innocent of red wine”. Down at the local café in the evening, they came across an English fruiterer travelling with a Belgian fruiterer…they watched the Englishman “drop a good deal of money at corks”. Stevenson doesn’t actually tell us how the game was played and wagered on, but the fact he mentions it with no further explanation suggests that his readers, too, would know what he was writing about.

Whichever way you look at it, it must have been a simple game, probably involving the knocking over of corks (readily available in pubs, cafes and bars), perhaps with coins? Then again, it could have been something else…..

A few years back, in the course of a wide-ranging and enthusiastic expedition to discover the beers, breweries and bars of Northern France – for a book, of course – I came across the astonishing game of bouchons à la grille horizontale, in Dunkirk. This is a kind of cheerful bucolic travelling circus, which appears outside a different café each weekend through the summer months. The field of play is surrounded by a large triptych wooden screen to stop flying debris. There are also two built-in blue and white wooden sentry boxes, for the lads who have to re-set for action after each throw. French and Flemish flags flutter in the breeze.

The grille is a large block of wood, painted blue and white, with about thirty stout hooked pins stuck in it. It is laid flat on the floor. Hooked on top of each pin is a bouchon – a cork, with a number on it. Each player throws three metal discs, one at a time and the aim is to dislodge as many corks as you can. You count up the scores from the numbers on the knocked-out corks.

Only signed up players are allowed to participate and the scores are noted in a huge book. A great deal of beer and wine is drunk, a bugle is blown from time to time – I was never quite sure why – the Maire turns up in full regalia and a good shot is greeted by a roll on the drum, played by a young girl. The total scores are added up at the end of the game and small prizes are handed out. At the end of the season every weekend’s total is totted up and further prizes awarded at an annual dinner.

Anyway, it’s a wonderful spectacle, well worth a diversion to Dunkirk, but not one likely to be reproduced elsewhere. It has a long pedigree, I was told – originally a fishermen’s game from the mid nineteenth century. That puts it on an historical par with the Madame Bovary game, although the game Flaubert mentioned must have been much simpler.

Meanwhile, back the United Kingdom,…..eventually came another clue, this time from Mick Slaughter, legendary professional photographer of pubs and stalwart of the Campaign for Real Ale. Mick emailed to say he had heard of game called corks, played in pubs in South Wales. He hadn’t actually seen it, but he knew a man who had….. Following up Mick’s lead, I found myself one Sunday in August, driving up the Ebbw valley from Newport, looking for a place called Risca – Rhisga, in Welsh – and a pub called the Fox and Hounds.

The valley is narrow, high sided and decidedly strange. I’m old enough to remember when even this lower part of the valley was a heavily industrialised area, with collieries, copper works, quarries, brickworks, tinplate works and a chemical factory. Steam, smoke, dust, noise. Everything has gone, it seems unnaturally quiet, and you can’t help wondering what everyone does these days. The old workers terraced housing is still there, much neater and cleaner than it used to be, clinging to the roadside and lower slopes. Higher up the valley side, you notice now that there is countryside – white painted farm houses, sheep-strewn fields and some pretty affluent looking large mansions. Actually, the other difference is that today is a lovely early Autumn day, with bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine. In my earlier days, it always seemed to be grey, dull and raining here.

The Sunday lunchtime customers at the Fox and Hounds turn out to be an amiable bunch, especially when I say I want to learn about corks. A member of the all-male congregation is laying out the board over the darts throwing mat. “Handy, you see”, he says. “Corks can be put down or taken up quickly and it takes up exactly the same corridor space that the dart players use”.

Cork Throwing diagram

Above is a rough idea of how the corks are laid out

The game is played on a ten foot long piece of chipboard, hinged in three pieces and unfolded flat exactly over the dartboard mat. At the far end, there is another, smaller piece of tripartite board, stood on its edge to stop the corks from flying around. Five corks, painted white and numbered 1 to 5, are placed on a thirteen inch circle. Four are on the circumference, north south east and west, while the fifth is in the centre. You throw three corks, painted black, underhand, one at a time, trying to knock the white corks out of the circle. Your score is the aggregate of the numbers on the corks knocked completely out of the circle. The game is 61 points up, or rather down, because you subtract the score, rather as you do in a darts match and at the end, you have to get exactly out. The throw is seven feet.

Aerial view of target white corks No’s 1-5One of the three black throwing corks

They encouraged me have a tutored go, before the league match began. I’d been curious, from day one, what sort of corks were used – were they a mixture, of different shapes and sizes, did they use champagne corks in some way? A chap called Dave Watkins, an ex secretary of the league, maker of game boards and painter of corks, put me out of my misery. They had bought a huge job lot of corks from a local brewery years ago: every cork was the same size and shape and had never seen a bottle. Good job they did buy in bulk, because nowadays there is talk of a cork famine. “Couldn’t play the game with screw-tops, boyo, could we?” says one of the team.

Like all simple looking games, corks is harder than it looks. For a start, there is an irresistible temptation to put one foot astride along side the board, to gain half a yard advantage. They soon put you right on this: “Getting our feet a bit wet, then, are we? Fish biting?” That means get both feet behind the throwing line or else. The throwing crouch you then have to adopt is painful in the small of the back, after a while.

Secondly, corks aren’t very satisfying to throw – they are too light and insubstantial. Even if you hit the circle corks, they don’t fly out of the circle in the required manner.

I retired from the board and the league match began, a complex series of singles, doubles and triples games, as far as I could make out.

Dave Watkins filled me in with some history of the game. A couple of locals, doing National Service in the army in the early 1950’s, were stationed “somewhere in North Wales” when they came across a game in a pub. It wasn’t corks as we now knew it, although the principles were the same – this particular game was played with metal, perhaps brass, weights and a whole room in the pub had to be cleared for play. No-one knows which pub the game was played in, or where the weights came from, or where the game came from. Most frustrating.

Those readers who have been paying attention will have realised a few paragraphs ago that South Wales Corks is almost exactly the same game as Irish Skittles, miniaturised and brought indoors. None of the players here at the Fox and Hounds knew anything about Irish Skittles, but one or two of them pointed out that it was strikingly similar to marbles games they used to play as kids. “You had to knock marbles out of a chalk circle, by thumb-firing larger marble, called a tolley” said one. He was right, of course. Grown-ups still play this version of marbles every Good Friday at a pub called the Greyhound, at Tinsley Green, West Sussex. Another evolutionary ludic puzzle, then.

Anyway, corks was considered a clever adaptation of the North Wales game – not as potentially destructive or a space consuming, and the corks were cheap. A local league was set up around Abercary and Crumlin way, further up the valley, in 1956 and is still going. This league, the Ynysddu League, founded in 1959, took in teams from Risca, Crosskeys, Pontywaun and Cwmfellenfach. There are about fourteen pub and club teams in each league, but it never seems to have spread any further.

“If you went down Newport way, twenty or thirty years ago, all the lads were playing shove-ha’penny, whereas around here it was always corks. A kind of culture clash, if you like”, noted one of the bystanders. “Ah in the 1970’s, we had two divisions in this league, with sixteen teams in each” replied Dave. He waxed nostalgic about the dear old days of Sunday licensing laws. “Pubs were only open for a couple of hours on Sunday lunchtime, so that concentrated the mind wonderfully – lots of lads came out for a drink and a game. Nowadays, with the pubs open all day, your time is a bit dissipated you see. You can go to the pub any time you want. Terrible shame”.

© 2009 Arthur R. Taylor

Additional text © 2010 Patrick Chaplin


For details and a review of Arthur’s book Played at the Pub click here.