“Our entertainment recreations were confined mainly to the street in which we lived. We would chase madly up and down with our hoops like fire engines. The boys had iron hoops and sped them along with iron hooks fixed into wooden handles. We did not hit the hoops to get them going but pushed or dragged them with the hood pressed all the time on the back of the hoop until as we got faster and faster the hoop would give out a sustained note varying in pitch with the speed of the hoop (p.38)”
As Frederick writes his account of his childhood, the lack of responsibility and work means that he has the freedom to play games and enjoy the leisure activities that Portsmouth had to offer. He writes in detail of the childhood games in the street, down to the specific nature and necessities of the hoop: The right size was essential for expert manipulation. It had to be as high as the athlete’s shoulder. Larger than that was believed to be a ‘left over’ from an elder brother but a smaller one was looked upon as babyfied, and the other boys soon made everyone aware of the fact. (p.38) The First World War changed the expectations of being a boy, as discussed in more detail by Tebbutt (2012), but prior to this, the expectations and games were less war or patriot orientated, particularly in organisations such as the Scouts, for example. This is evident here; the games that Frederick and his peers played were less war, fighting or ‘masculine’ orientated but consisted of skill and tactics. These games were perhaps synonymous with city life- contrasting to Frank George Marlings countryside childhood in which they’d play with conkers and rejoice in ‘The passage of the seasons’ (Kennett, 2018).
One of Frederick’s friends he considered should be ‘a leading bookie’ due to his shrewd game of marbles, however, other games were simpler; ‘long shot’ was played between two boys along the gutters of the street and consisted of each boy aiming to further each other’s marbles with least shots as possible. ‘In the Ring’ was a bowls type game- in which each boy would place an agreed number of marbles into a ring and they would take turns to try and hit the marbles out- in which case the player would win the marbles that they knocked out.
We had a boy who should have become a leading bookie. He had cut out small holes in various sizes at the bottom of a piece of cardboard. He had crayoned the cardboard in several colours and over the holes had marked a three over the smallest hole, ‘two’ over the next and ‘one’ over the largest hole. [..] if the player succeeded in bowling a marble through any of the holes he won the number of marbles written over the hole. [..] it was noticed that (purely by accident of course) the operator moved very very slightly the cardboard just before a marble was about to disappear into one of the holes and as a result just missed. This happened several times and then there was trouble. The other boys stole the ‘operators’ marbles and scooted home. (p.40)
There was still a divide however between the genders when playing games- whilst the girls also enjoyed playing hoops, Frederick considers them more ‘genteel’, with wooden hoops and purpose-built wooden sticks, ‘rounded and ribbed and painted in the most attractive colours’. (p.38).
The girls also spent their time skipping, something according to Frederick was ‘entirely a girl’s game.’ Outside their houses, they would sing ‘salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper’ and on pepper, the girls would turn the rope faster until the skipper tripped and ‘out goes she’. This, however, was determined by the friendship between the skipper and the girls holding the rope; the rope could be lowered or raised to aid or hinder them. Hopscotch was also considered a ‘girls game mainly’, however, Frederick also writes that they all enjoyed it, despite it being very ‘degrading’ to be out if you didn’t keep on one leg. The boys also played ‘robbers and coppers’ or ‘tin can coppers’, games which ultimately divided the classes. ‘Tin can copper’, which consisted of kicking an old milk tin as far as possible, and chasing it whilst the other boys hid, was a game for those with toe caps or those that families could afford to fix their shoes when they became damaged. ‘Robbers and Coppers was played by one or two boys trying to pass a line of ‘coppers’ to their home base. Many a robber’s coat was ripped in fighting his way through a line of ferocious ‘coppers’.’ (p.41)- something which may have been avoided by the more well-to-do children.
It was a marvellous game for testing out our toe-caps and may have been the reason why the ‘snob’ fitted an iron capping over the toe caps of the boy’s boots. (p.41)
As I have mentioned frequently in my previous posts, such as Home and Family, respectability was an important value for Frederick and his family and this conveyed through his past times- he was not permitted to join in the ‘common’ mudlarks and had to sit on the doorstep instead of the wall with his peers. This value is shown in a humorous anecdote of playing with his friend Rowland, whose mother was quite ‘high class’ in her manners. Rowland, on the other hand, was a ‘bit of a trial’. The two boys were making mud pies in his front garden, and Rowland’s mother called out several times sweetly: “Rowland, darling, please come in!’. Rowland however, had not finished his mud pies and therefore was very deaf. Amusingly, as Rowland’s mother became increasingly angry, her voice changed into a voice that made Frederick shiver and shouted ‘Rowland, you little sod, if you don’t come in at once I’ll break your bleeding neck.” Needless to say, the mud-pies were abruptly finished and Rowland’s mother regained her high-class manners shortly after.
I have written a second post on fun and festivities here, focussing particularly on Portsmouth based events and places- including a visit to the Isle of Wight to meet Queen Victoria!
Clayworth, P ‘Children’s play – The playground and the path to school’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/40846/boys-playing-marbles-around-1900
Edinburgh News (2017). Children Running on Johnston Street, Leith. [image] Available at: https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/our-region/edinburgh/leith/new-tv-series-sheds-light-on-leith-in-the-1930s-1-4373492
Kennett, L (2018) Marling, Frank George ‘Reminisces’ [blog] available at: http://www.writinglives.org/category/frank-george-marling
Tebbutt, M (2012). Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Inter-War Years. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Victoriana Magazine (n.d.). Hoop Rolling. [image] Available at: http://www.victoriana.com/antiquetoys/rollinghoop.html
Wynne, Frederick Charles. ‘Old Pompey and Other Places’. Burnett Archive of Working class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library. Special Collection, 2:08