Guy Oates (1905-1987): Fun and Festivities – Part Two – Writing Lives

Guy Oates (1905-1987): Fun and Festivities – Part Two

‘Having been in contact with children all my life, I have had ample opportunity to see the way they play the games of to-day. I am sure they do not get the amount of joy that we got. They don’t seem to be able to think of the games that we did’

(Oates, 1:119-120)

Throughout Guy’s memoir, he expresses feelings of nostalgia, which often becomes overshadowed by difficult experiences. For example, in 1914, during his first Christmas at The Yorkshire Society charity School, Guy becomes excited over the prospect of Father Christmas bringing a present to put into his pillowcase. When he wakes, Guy finds a full pillowcase, which sadly goes on to produce an ‘enamel chamber, followed by two pairs of boots’ (2:33). At this moment Guy realises that Father Christmas does not exist, and he ‘burst into tears- feeling hurt and confused’ (2:33), and accepted that his ‘little world of fantacy was over for ever’ (2:33). Many of Guy’s childhood memories ended with similar feelings of dismay, and there seems to be a reoccurring sense of sadness in many of his recollections. However, when Guy talks about the games he played as a child, he seems to come to life, and suddenly he has a sense of excitement and fun, as though he is reliving the joy of each one. Guy’s fond memories and his concern that childhood ‘games of to-day’ (1:119) lacked imagination, has inspired a blog post which will provide children of the 21st century with step by step instructions for some 20th century fun. So, ‘today’s child’ (1:120) it is time to dust off your ‘metal hoop and metal hook- a penny whip and top – and any piece of wood shaped’ (1:120), because to Guy, ‘everything was play’ (1:120).

A Marble-lous Game

Guy recalls that he could never ‘remember any toys or books’ (1:120) in his home, which was mainly a result of his mother’s financial situation, but they were ‘fortunate in having all the roads and streets to run about in’ (1:120). However, on the occasion that Guy or his friends became blessed with a few marbles, they would ‘play all evening and every evening’ (1:120). However, Guy was not one for the new-fangled, ‘lazy ring method,’ which required ‘little skill’ and gave ‘little excitement in return’ (1:120). The children of Knaresborough did not care for this, and resorted to their own style of marbles called ‘Liney’ (1:120), which required only ‘three or four’ friends, ‘a piece of land about 18 feet long, and a wall’ (1:120).

The Rules (as told by Guy):

  • From the wall measure one foot and draw a line in the earth with a piece of wood, which is about 18 inches long.
  • Measure another line 12 feet from the wall and make another line 6 feet long.
  • Now measure another line 3 feet behind this one.
  • Each player places 4 marbles on the line nearest the wall and each take it in turns to try and knock them off.
  • Hold your glass alley marble between thumb and firdt (third) finger, letting your body fall forward, stopping yourself from falling by putting your left foot forward (if you are a right hander).
  • The moment your left foot hits the ground you let go of your alley trying to knock some off. Those you knock off, you keep.
  • You are not allowed to roll you alley it must be pitched in one clean throw.
  • You each take it in turns until all are knocked off, when you start again.
  • You can stand on the 15 foot line and throw from there if you wish, but this time you can take one long stride forward again releasing your alley the moment your left foot touches the ground. By this method you can get much nearer the line of the marbles but, you are not so well balanced, again it must be a clean hit (1:120).

Guy explains that the method of throwing from the 12 foot line was known as ‘odds fair’ (1:120), while throwing from the 15 foot line was known as ‘yarks In’ (1:120). This would be told through the saying ‘odd your alley and taw your fully, odds fair or yarks In’ (1:120).

If you have a spare wall and a few spare feet, I implore you to take this marble knowledge and have some fun! Do it for Guy!

Tag, you’re OMO:
As The Yorkshire Society School lacked a ‘gymaseum or organised games’ (2:29), Guy and his friends relied upon the playground and fine weather to play their ‘favourite game OMO’ (2:29), which he explains is very ‘similar to the game ‘Relievo’ (2:29). ‘The only real difference being that OMO was played in the dark,’ usually ‘after school until prep’ with a short break for tea (2:29). However, on Saturday and Sunday they were allowed to play until bedtime, although, they ‘got no supper on these days’ (2:29). A small sacrifice in the name of fun.

The Rules (as told by Guy):

  • The den is the shed.
  • Pick an even number a people for each side. One side hides and the other seek.
  • You can hide anywhere in the playground, lavatories, or on any basement floor.
  • If the seeking side think they spot you they must first shout ‘OMO’ then the boy’s name and where he was hiding. (EG: OMO, Oates, behind wooden steps).
  • If you are correctly named you are honour bound to leave the hiding place and race for the den. If you get there before the boy naming you, you are judged free to hide again. If not you have to wait until all the others have been caught.
  • After the game ends the sides must switch so each have a turn to go hide (2:29).

Guy ends his instructions by reminding us that the game must be played in a ‘true honest spirit’ (2:29), and warns that the one boy who ever dared to remain in his hiding spot after he was correctly named, was punished in the cruellest way; a month long ban! (This section of the blog took much longer to write than expected. Mainly because we tested the game in the library).

No Ball, No Problem

The piece de resistance of Guy’s childhood merriment can without a doubt be found in the wonderful ‘string ball’ (2:30). The ownership of a ball was considered a complete luxury, especially in a charity school that has orphaned boys to care for. If you wanted a ball, you had two options; go without, or get creative, and thankfully for us, Guy chose the latter. Behold the string ball, ‘a very cheap ball made out of newspaper, a small stone, old used wool, and string. ‘All being items you could in 1914 pick up in any market street, costing you nothing’ (2:30). Although, there is a small cost of a ‘small sacking needle,’ which would cost around ‘three pence’ (2:30). (If you’re a dab hand with inflation rates and maths, you may want to get back to me with the 2019 price). Guy explains that when complete, the ball is the ‘same size as an ordinary cricket ball and will bounce like a cricket ball,’ and when used on grass, should last ‘about two weeks’ (2:30). Guy affectionately goes on to say that ‘should any boy find himself in a similar position to that which I was in, then let me help him to at least provide himself with a cheap and useful ball’ (2:30).

Guy’s Guide to a Cheap and Useful Ball (it only takes ‘two hours’)

  • Find a stone about the size of a marble, wrap this in a sheet of wet newspaper squeezing most of the moisture.
  • Get an old woollen pull-over or pair of socks, unraffle (unravel) rolling the wool into a loose ball.
  • Now wind this round the damp newspaper keeping it round like a ball.
  • When about the size of a cricket ball, stop.
  • Take a piece of string about 5 feet long knotting one end. The other end thread through your sacking needle.
  • Tie the knotted end very tightly round the centre of the ball.
  • Now take your threaded needle and stick this into the ball about a quarter of an inch below the string going round. Push this through coming out a quarter of an inch the other side, passing the needle through the loop just made and pull sufficiently tight so as to leave a small square.
  • Now push the needle through the square you have made at its side making another loop through which you pass your needle and again pull just tight enough to make another square.
  • You now have two squares, now carry on right round the ball when you have completed one row or line.
  • Now push your needle through the square just finished and you will make another square only this time just above the line just made. Carry on right round and you will have two rows or lines.
  • Carry on right round when you will have the complete ball.
  • (Tip) when threading your needle each time put a knot in the string pulling it well into the ball so as to stop the string coming right through and give you something to pull on (2:30).

Kindly, Guy provides a diagram of what the finished product should look like:


Guy is clearly very proud of his creation and it seemed a shame to let such wonderful instructions go to waste, so with a spare two hours (it took 3), Guy’s guide was put to the test. Though his instructions were difficult to follow at certain points, the results are impressive. Once complete, the string ball was put through a vigorous test, which involved three young boys and a pug, and I am thrilled to confirm that the string ball is a great success (see below for pictures).

The Materials
The Finished Product

Guy’s descriptions of games and childhood activities, provides a unique insight into the cultural history of the early 20th century child. For working-class children, toys and games were considered a luxury reserved for middle and upper class children. Through his stories and instructions, Guy successfully demonstrations that despite the lack of toys and games, working-class children were able to participate in a variety of inventive and imaginary ways to play. Born in the early Edwardian era, Guy spent his childhood in a society that had begun to express concerns about working-class children, and the harmful effects of street play. For many, this unrefined method of play could potentially be detrimental to working-class children, due to the harmful effects of street play, which often left children in vulnerable situations without any adult supervision. However, Guy’s memoir contradicts this, and relays tales of children who create games that helped to embed socially acceptable behaviours and rules that were enforced and adhered to by the children who created them. Evidently, ‘the street — the neighbourhood — is a social space where children learn a multitude of skills fostering social and cultural development’ (Christensen, 2003, Pg. 109). Without memoirs like Guy’s, many of these games would be lost to the past, along with tales of how children overcome class restrictions and found creative ways to play (we would also never know the joys of making our own string ball).

If you are interested in learning more about how Guy spent his childhood, I recommend Reading Guy Oates (1905-1987): Fun and Festivities- Part One, by Tasha Silo.

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Tasha and I enjoyed for this particular theme:

/fun/jack-mcquoid-1910-1985-fun-festivities-part-1 this blog was written by Shauna Hughes about Jack McQuoid and his life as an actor.

And if you enjoyed Shauna’s Part One of ‘Fun and Festivities’ check out Part Two /fun/jack-mcquoid-1910-1985-fun-festivities-part-2, this blog is a continuation of Jack’s enthusiasm over acting and how it can bring joy to so many people’s lives.
Last but certainly not least is Demi Louise Clarke’s post –   /fun/charles-william-esam-carter-fun-and-festivities which talks about the memoir of Charles William Esam-Carter and his loving memories involving his maternal grandfather.


Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 1&2.

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. 
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201. article: 
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70.
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Christensen, P, O’Brien M (eds). 2003. Children in the City: Home, Neighbourhood and Community. Routledge Falmer: London, New York.
Martinson, Deborah. ‘Edwardian Childhood.’ English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 36:2 (2 November 1993): 238-239.
Read, Jane. ‘Gutter to Garden: Historical Discourses of Risk in Interventions in Working Class Children’s Street Play.’ Children and Society 25 (2011): 421-434.
Tebbutt, Melanie. Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Inter-War Years. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.

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