The firm of Gibson and Balls is not one that immediately springs to mind when thinking about dartboard manufacturers. Names such as WINMAU, NODOR and UNICORN are usually top of any dart players list.
And when American, Canadian and European soft-tip darts players think of electronic darts companies their minds surely turn to, amongst others, Medallist and Arachnid. The names Elliott and Warne would mean nothing to them.
Yet during the 1930s in the English counties of Suffolk and Norfolk and within two miles of each other amidst the first burst of the darts craze of that decade, four East Anglian men were developing two entirely different dartboard ideas. One would eventually see the light of day as ‘The Bungay Dartboard’ whilst the other, an early electronic dartboard, appears to have vanished without trace.
Bungay is an historic Suffolk market town situated in the loop of the River Waveney which boasts many ancient attractions but few are aware of the unique dartboard that was created by the firm of Gibson and Balls. Gibson and Balls were partners in an ironmongers and general merchants shop situated in Market Place in the town.
The story goes that one day, during a discussion about darts and diversification, they came up with the idea of a dartboard based around the game of snooker. Over the years there have been many other attempts to create a dartboard with a snooker theme but it seems that the Gibson and Balls board, known commercially as ‘The Bungay Dartboard’, was, if not the original, then certainly one of the first.
The Bungay Dartboard was rectangular and the surface green in colour to give the impression of a snooker table. As the photograph (reproduced courtesy of the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service) shows, there was a complete set of ‘balls’, with the red balls scattered around the board and the other colours fixed on their familiar spots. The rings that formed the area of each target ball were the same as those used in the manufacture of rabbit snares, another popular line at Gibson and Balls.
The instructions on how to play were an integral part of the Bungay Dartboard. After stating that the rules and the value of the ‘balls’ were the same as the usual game of snooker the instructions continued
‘Three throws for each colour. As reds are taken, mark reds with the pins provided. If a dart is thrown and takes a wrong colour the value of the colour counts away. If dart is thrown off the board, two points away.’
As can be seen from the photograph some of the reds were very close together. Hitting the same red again resulted in a four point penalty.
Just how popular this board became is difficult to calculate. Only two are known to exist today, one, ironically, in the Strangers’ Hall museum in Norwich; the other appropriately in the local Bungay Museum.
At about the same time as Gibson and Balls were manufacturing The Bungay Dartboard, a man from across the river, less than a mile away from Bungay, Suffolk (but geographically in the county of Norfolk) in the village of Broome, was working with a colleague on a patent for one of the world’s first electronic dartboards.
In 1935 Baden Warne from Broome and an associate named Maurice Elliott from nearby Beccles, patented their invention which I have called, solely for the purposes of this article, ‘The Broome Electronic Darts Target’. The patent record reveals that
‘The invention relates to a score board or target, divided into a plurality of scoring areas and comprising electrodes adapted to be bridged by a dart or other projectile piercing a scoring area to complete a circuit through a corresponding electrically operated score indicator…’
In essence, this is a forerunner of the game of electronics darts which five decades later became extremely popular in America and in parts of Europe (countries mainly previously untouched by steel-tip) and commonly known as ‘soft-tip darts.’
What exactly happened to Warne and Elliott’s invention is, unfortunately, lost to history. Eighty years on and electronic darts has still to make an impact on the darters of the UK.
But surely Warne and Elliott were way, way ahead of their time.
Whatever possessed them to engage in producing such a complex board when there seemed to be little demand (at any time) for such dartboards? That too is lost in time; unless of course any readers of this article know different.
I am also, of course, keen to learn more about ‘The Bungay Dartboard’ so, if you can help with either of these inventions, please contact me.
© 2009 Patrick Chaplin (Updated 2019)
(With special thanks and due acknowledgement to Frank Honeywood, the Bungay Town Recorder, and Helen Renton of the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service)