Until recently, a great deal of what passed for darts history was nonsense.
There were two problems. Firstly, people who wrote knowledgeably about the contemporary game knew nothing of its history and therefore simply recycled the same old stories within an obligatory jokey prologue or chapter. Recycling darts historical rubbish has got even worse with the expansion of the internet.
Secondly, few writers recognised that the game was a comparatively recent addition to the pub game repertoire and many have tried endlessly to invent or perpetuate an ancient lineage. So, we get ‘mists of time’ theories for a game which is no more than 150 years old.
The Agincourt Connection (1415)
The battle of Agincourt has a particular resonance for the Englishand the Welsh. Everyoneknows about the havoc caused by the English longbow men.Not so well known perhaps, was the bloody work carried out by Welsh troops, who used knives and short spears to finish off the unhorsed French cavalrymen. The daft darts story goes something like this: darts was descended from archery, because darts themselves are often referred to today as ‘arrers’. The most famous archery event in English history was the battle of Agincourt, therefore, the game began after the battle, when archers whittled down their arrows and threw them at targets. There is no historical record of this momentous event. There seems to be a certain lack of continuity here, since there is no further reference to the ‘game’ until a century later, when:
Henry VIII played darts (c1530).
Yes he did, but this was not darts as we know it. The darts he played with were huge and heavy and were thrown underhand, outdoors, probably for distance. This was a European game, not English at all. The French still have a game called Javelot tir sur Cible, played in Picardy. They trace it back to Hannibal, who, prior to crossing the Alps, asked for reinforcements among his ‘javelotiers’ – lightly armed soldiers who threw short spears.
The Pilgrim Fathers played darts aboard the Mayflower in 1620
Puritans? Playing a pub game? British darts historian Dr Patrick Chaplin has always said that this was ridiculous nonsense. He wrote to the Pilgrim Society, Plymouth, Massachusetts and asked them if they had any information – ‘There is no hint of this in our records’ was the reply. Dan William Peek, American historian, author of To The Point: The Story of Darts in America (2001) says forcefully that the story has no basis in fact.
Royalist soldiers invented the game in Oxford (c1644)
These Royalists were busy during the Civil War – they invented darts, by throwing shortened sharpened arrows at the end of wine barrels. Then they invented Aunt Sally…. There is not a scintilla of evidence anywhere to back up either of these stories.
One of the earliest books on darts, published in 1938, came up with the startling claim that the most expensive board then on offer was the ‘Bristle’ board, made of ‘compressed pig bristles on end’. It cost 25 shillings in those days.
Has anyone looked at a pig recently, and wondered how you might be able to shave enough bristles off its back to make a dartboard? The ‘Bristle’ board – and the term is still used – is actually made from coiled sisal. Not a flying pig in sight.
The mysterious business of the vanishing Hockey
The line behind which players have to stand before throwing their darts was known as ‘the hockey’ from the early days of organised (and recorded) darts. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) quotes the National Darts Association’s Official handbook of 1934: ‘Referees should be appointed to watch ‘the hockey’. This fits in with other games – the throwing line for Aunt Sally was known as ‘the hocking’
Suddenly, in the late 1970’s the British Darts Organisation began to use the term ‘oche’. A claim was made that it derived from an ancient term – could have been Anglo Saxon, Anglo Norman, Middle French or Flemish – meaning a notch in the ground, a line from which archers drew their bows. Are we to believe that everyone who wrote about darts from 1934 to 1979 were middle-class folk who aspirated an aitch that shouldn’t have been there?
Or was the ‘new’ word a Cockney aitchelesss pronunciation of hockey? Or was it all a piece of playful nonsense?
Then again, another more recent theory has it that hockey derived from Hockey and Sons, a West Country Brewery. Three of their beer-crates in line made up nine feet, and that became the throw for darts. Apart from the fact that no such brewery ever existed, this makes an interesting tale. Interesting in that pure fantasy is now being deliberately introduced into darts history.
Dr. Chaplin agrees. His research, through the Brewery History Society (BHS), has revealed that there has never been a brewery named Hockey & Sons anywhere in the country at any time. He also claims to know the identity of the creator of this perpetuated darts myth – a West Country darts enthusiast who invented the story in the 1970s who vigorously denies the accusation.
And just for the record, I don’t believe the Brian Gamlin story either…..
© 2007 Arthur Taylor
(Arthur Taylor is author of the award-winning book Played at the Pub – The pub games of Britain (Swindon: English Heritage, 2009). Whatever you need to know about pub games can be found there.)