It is important to recognise the crucial conditions under which the game of darts flourished in the twenties and thirties. Once it had been confirmed at the Leeds Magistrates Court in 1908 as game of ‘skill’ rather than ‘chance’, it was then only a matter of time before it would take its place amongst other working class activities.
The increased popularity of darts was inextricably linked to a new age of leisure in Britain after the Great War. Contrary to traditional belief, the inter-war years were not a period of constant poverty and depression for the British working classes. The majority of those seeking employment found it, and the introduction of structured working hours meant that recreational pursuits took a more prominent place in everyday life.
Darts was a relatively cheap hobby, going hand-in-hand with beer consumption. Indeed it is these origins from which the sport has yet to escape in the modern era.
Its popularity although nation-wide with the ‘drinking classes’ tended to be especially prevalent in the northern counties. Photographs provide evidence that a competition was held at Tyneside in 1938, interestingly outdoors! The sport was (and still is) a typical example of the power of popular culture to create private languages for players, such as exclamations of ‘swans in a lake’ or ‘three in a bed’. Undoubtedly such cultural developments reflect the consolidation of national identity in the late thirties that revisionist historians have attempted to deny.
There were also efforts from the upper echelons to use the game to their advantage. In 1937 the King and Queen were photographed throwing darts while opening a social club in Slough, further enhancing the sport’s image. But of course from the royal position its importance was much greater than merely giving darts a boost. To be seen playing a game that, up until then had been restricted to the public houses and working-men’s establishments was a sign of the anxiety of the royals to attract support from the working classes at a time when war with Germany was looking imminent.
Darts was thus used as a political tool, and tabloid newspapers also saw the opportunity for increasing their readership by starting to cover a favourite pastime of the masses. The People introduced the Lord Lonsdale Trophy in 1938, and subsequently the News of the World, read by around fifty per cent of the nation, also began to feature articles on the game. Thus darts took its place alongside cricket and football in the sports columns of the principal journals, and took on a significant role as embodying the typical ‘British’ nature of society at a time when national solidarity was exceptionally crucial.
By Matt Gilbert
University of Kent
My thanks go to Richard Holt for providing invaluable information for my work.
© Matt Gilbert 2002