Three years ago whilst browsing through a bound volume of late nineteenth-century copies of Tit-Bits I chanced upon an issue dated 28th May 1898 which included an article titled ‘Pastimes which defy the law’. In the piece, the reporter condemned those working-class pleasurable activities which were supposed to have been ‘put down by law’ but alas ‘the utmost vigilance of the police fails to suppress.’

Reporting specifically on places ‘where comparatively large bodies of men are thrown together’, as for instance those employed in a coal mine or a factory, especially where such a coal mine or factory is situated in ‘some rural district rather than the hubbub of the big towns’ there you will find illicit sports and pastimes followed which are ‘never dreamed of in other parts’.

Targeting specifically the ‘wild moorland’ and mining districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire the reporter stated that such men spend their whole leisure and find their sole amusement in sports which are ‘more or less unlawful’. These pastimes including poaching, gambling, ‘game-snatching’ and prize-fighting, even cock-fighting, which ‘is by no means the extinct pastime it is commonly supposed to be.’ All of the above examples have, at one time or another, been connected with the English public house.

Gambling was identified as a vice ‘still terribly prevalent’ in those wild uplands, the writer citing one gambling school that had been raided recently by a large force of plain-clothes policemen surprising over three hundred men ‘round a ring, busily wagering on the spin of a coin as if their whole existence depended on it.’ To the police, fines and imprisonment only seemed to ‘aggravate the evil’ with thousands of pounds changing hands every week at the moorland schools alone. The Tit-Bits reporter then added, ‘The working-man gambler will gamble on anything, and no amount of police vigilance will stop him.’

What better example than the game of Fly Loo…?

The Tit-Bits report states that;

Even the harmless, necessary house-fly is utilized for gambling purposes in a game which is very popular in Yorkshire. “Fly loo” is the distinctive title it has earned. It is played mostly in public-houses, and the players each place a coin in a circle on the table. Flies are notoriously fond of sugar and beer, and they are allured by tempting baits of sugar and beer placed on each coin, and the player whose coin is first touched by a fly collars all the money on the table.

People not familiar with the game have no idea of the excitement which can be got out of it, for the fly is a very fickle being, and when it looks odds on his alighting on one coin, he suddenly turns off at a tangent and drops on another.

‘Harmless’ and ‘necessary’ house-flies?

Such words surely give some idea of the conditions within isolated Victorian public-houses; probably better described, I suggest, as beer houses and, possibly, drinking dens specifically serving the miners or factory workers.

Between 1860 and 1901 a number of legal cases clearly established that the playing of any game, whether lawful or unlawful, whether of chance or skill, for money or money’s worth staked by the competitors was gaming. Thus, with money on the table, ‘Fly Loo’ was clearly unlawful and thus gaming.

Not surprisingly, I could find nothing about Fly Loo on the internet. Arthur R. Taylor does not mention the game in his masterwork Played at the Pub: The pub games of England (Swindon: English Heritage, 2009) so I contacted him. Arthur replied:

Fly Loo is completely new to me – although I remember once seeing a couple of Irish workers, laid off for the day by torrential rain, sitting in a pub and betting on raindrops running down the window pane. A long time ago, but one of those moments that never leaves you.

I recall writing, about a decade ago, about the game of ‘cork-throwing’ which seemed to have only been played, around seventy years ago, at the Fox and Hounds at Thorpe Audlin, near Pontefract. The game simply involved corks being tossed from a prescribed distance into a half-pint glass.

I am sure you will agree that such ‘new’ discoveries as Fly Loo, spinning a coin, cork-throwing and apparently spontaneous gambling opportunities such as the one Arthur mentioned above are part of the joy of on-going research.

I wonder how many similar games remain unrecorded?

Original text ©2020 Patrick Chaplin



Newsletter editor Chris Murray wrote:

Patrick’s piece rang a vague bell with me but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then I recalled a scene in R S Surtees’ “Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour” (1853), (I went through a period in my younger days of devouring Victorian popular fiction; Dickens, Surtees, Grossmith etc.) wherein our hero, “Soapey” Sponge is made aware that some young ladies are (jokingly) playing a game to decide who will marry him first. The game? See for yourselves:

“‘I’ve made out that you’ve as good as twenty*, one way or another,’ observed Leather; ‘some ’ere, some there, all over in fact, and that you jest run about the country, and ’unt with ’oever comes h’uppermost.’

‘Well, and what’s the upshot of it all?’ inquired Mr. Sponge [pictured above with Mr. Leather], thinking his groom seemed wonderfully enthusiastic in his interest.

‘Why, the hupshot of it is,’ replied Leather, ‘that the men are all mad, and the women all wild to see you. I hear at my club, the Mutton Chop and Mealy Potato Club, which is frequented by flunkies as well as grums, that there’s nothin’ talked of at dinner or tea, but the terrible rich stranger that’s a comin’, and the gals are all pulling caps, who’s to have the first chance.’

‘Indeed,’ observed Mr. Sponge, chuckling at the sensation he was creating.

‘The Miss Shapsets, there be five on ’em, have had a game at fly loo for you,’ continued Leather, ‘at least so their little maid tells me.’

‘Fly what?’ inquired Mr. Sponge.

‘Fly loo,’ repeated Leather, ‘fly loo.’

Mr. Sponge shook his head. For once he was not ‘fly.’

‘You see,’ continued Leather, in explanation, ‘their father is one of them tight-laced candlestick priests wot abhors all sorts of wice and himmorality, and won’t stand card playin’, or gamblin’, or nothin’ o’ that sort, so the young ladies when they want to settle a point, who’s to be married first, or who’s to have the richest ’usband, play fly loo. ‘Sposing it’s at breakfast time, they all sit quiet and sober like round the table, lookin’ as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and each has a lump o’ sugar on her plate, or by her cup, or somewhere, and whoever can ’tice a fly to come to her sugar first, wins the wager, or whatever it is they play for.’

‘Five on ’em,’ as Leather said, being a hopeless number to extract any good from, Mr. Sponge changed the subject by giving orders for the morrow.”

* i.e. twenty thousand pounds. The illustration is by John Leech. The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang by Eric Partridge gives: Kentucky Loo, Fly Loo = Betting on certain antics of flies: Students mid 19th – 20th century. 

Additional original text © 2017 Chris Murray

[The original version of this article was published in the Winter 2017 issue of the PHS Newsletter.]

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1 Comment

  1. Hello
    I just discovered your article as I googled Fly Loo. I wanted to know more about it because it is played by Orlando and the ArchDuke in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando!


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