At the turn of the twentieth century in England darts was in its infancy. (Yes despite wild guesses to the contrary, darts did not start the process of evolution into its present form until the middle to late nineteenth century).
However, above all else the attractions of the public house or beerhouse were not merely pub games such as darts, crib or dominoes but primarily the noble art of drinking (often to excess).
Drunkenness was a curse of the working class and men came to the pub not only to imbibe but to gamble away the few pennies they had. Pub games were inextricably linked with gaming – playing for money or money’s worth – and as a result were looked upon by the local authorities, the police and licensing justices as encouraging ‘ne’er do wellism’. To this end the Gaming Acts were clear and records reveal the many hundred of licensees who were brought before the courts to answer charges of allowing gaming on their premises.
In the more enlightened authorities, the playing of games of skill was allowable provided it was not directly linked with gaming. Darts became more popular during the early Edwardian period and spread from its origins in the south and south-east of England to the Midlands and the North. There some justices found difficulty in determining whether or not darts was a game of chance – and therefore illegal – or a game of skill. Magistrates in Leeds, Yorkshire, took up the cudgel. The man credited with taking on the law of the land and winning was William ‘Bigfoot’ Annakin.
Standard versions of the Annakin ‘trial’ go something like this:
One day in 1908 William ‘Bigfoot’ Annakin, a Leeds publican, stood before Leeds Magistrates’ Court to answer a charge of allowing a game of chance, namely darts, to be played in his establishment. Annakin duly turned up at Court clutching a Yorkshire Board and needing little encouragement from the officials, set about proving that darts was in fact a game of skill.
He did this by first landing three darts in the single 20 segment. The Magistrate then asked the Clerk of the Court to throw three darts, only one of which actually hit and stayed in the dartboard. Annakin then strode up and thudded three darts out of three into double top. The Magistrate was duly impressed and announced without further evidence that “This is no game of chance. Case dismissed!”
Indeed throughout my early research the facts in the case of William Annakin were never consistent. Every darts writer who had ever put pen to paper about this important legal case seemed to have added a little embellishment of his or her own: some call it ‘journalistic licence’. The snippet quoted above was first published in 1973 (a mere 65 years after the event), and since then the said embellishments have included Annakin managing to hit six treble 20s in six darts, when in actuality he would have used a Yorkshire Board which, as we know, had no treble ring. Another author described the case as ‘a landmark decision’ while another declared that 1908 was ‘the most important year in the history of darts.’ Untrue on both counts.
declared the court case to be ‘the most importantmany darts writersHere are the facts as revealed by my research.
The truth is that in 1908, the landlord of the Adelphi Inn off Kirkstall Road, Leeds, was actually named James (‘Jim’) Garside. William ‘Bigfoot’ Annakin (so named because, – surprise surprise – he had big feet) was a keen dominoes player at Garside’s inn. Annakin worked at a forge not far from the inn: the Adelphi being his ‘local’ (or perhaps one of them).
Up until that year only dominoes were allowed to be played in public houses in Leeds but then some publicans began to install dartboards. Garside installed one at the Adelphi and Annakin soon became the pub’s start player.
Once alerted to this new game, local magistrates became suspicious of its nature (men throwing pointed , metal arrows in crowded places) and the potential dangers of encouraging gaming. Soon darts was categorised as an unlawful game and therefore illegal. So it was that Garside was summoned, presumably as a guinea pig, to appear before Leeds Magistrates’ Court, charged with allowing a game of chance to be played at the Adelphi. What better tactic than to take along the best darter you know as part of your defence?
Annakin’s grandson, Joseph, revealed to me in 1985 (in what is the only written testimony that survives as the Leeds Magistrates’ Court records for the period January 1908 to December 1911 are ‘lost’ and no reports of the case can be found in any contemporary newspapers) that, according to his family, there was little drama in the courtroom. He told me
“My grandfather was not a publican but the best darts player around at the time and the landlord of the Adelphi got him to go to court to prove darts was a game of skill. The J.P’s [Justices of the Peace] asked him to place the darts in selected numbers and he duly obliged, proving it was a game of skill.”
The final outcome, that darts was adjudged to be a game of skill, confirmed the legality of darts and, from that moment, darts could be played legally in Leeds pubs provided, of course, that it was not played for money or money’s worth, as that would amount to gaming which in those days was illegal.
If the game had been deemed unlawful by the Leeds Magistrates’ Court then the progress and development of darts in that city would not have happened. But, contrary to popular belief, this would not have prevented darts’ spread across other parts of the country.
So that means the Annakin case was far from being the most important event in the history of darts. It was simply a locally determined legal decision in respect of a specific, perceived local difficulty.
Over a period of several decades, the facts in the case of William ‘Bigfoot’ Annakin were distorted and the case somehow assumed historical significance; a significance that has now been shown to be totally unwarranted.
Yet it still makes for a great story!
© Patrick Chaplin 2019