The next time you head to a bar for a trivia night or a game of darts or foosball, consider that you could have been playing nipsy, noddy board or even bumblepuppy instead. These games, and hundreds more, were invented at the greatest unsung sporting venue the world has ever seen: the British pub.
Over the centuries, British pubs have given us some of our most popular pastimes, featuring everything from coins, skittles (a type of bowling) and horseshoes to cues, balls and, of course, darts. Darts was popularized by Victorian beer drinkers, table football was invented by a fan of the English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in 1923, and even trivia nights grew out of English pub quizzes in the 1970s.
"The pub is a place where questions are asked, problems put forward and daft ideas proposed — all fueled by a pint or two," says Arthur Taylor, author of "Played at the Pub," a comprehensive history of traditional sports and games.
Getting tipsy playing nipsy
Nipsy involved hitting a small wooden egg as far as possible. Bumblepuppy had players rolling balls along a table into cups. The rules to noddy board have sadly been lost in the mists of time. "My favorite odd game is called corks," says Taylor. "It's a form of skittles played with wine bottle corks, in a league of 14 pubs in South Wales. I don't have a clue how it got there."
For the truly daft, though, it's hard to beat the miniature rifle ranges installed in pubs in response to the poor marksmanship of British troops during the Boer Wars of the 1880s. After years of drunken shooting contests, sometimes over the heads of other drinkers, most of them closed down. One of the few still in use can be seen at the Lamb Inn in the Wiltshire town of Devizes.
Why did British pubs, rather than French cafés or German bier halls, become such sporting innovators? Thank a legal loophole. In Victorian times, gambling was outlawed in British pubs but games of skill were not. While a round of poker would attract the wrath of magistrates, patrons could claim a friendly game of corks, bar billiards or bumblepuppy was perfectly innocent. One pub even managed to get away with tortoise races, even strapping little toy jockeys to the reptiles' shells.
Modern pub sports
These days, with slot machines in pubs for gambling and TVs and smartphones for entertainment, some traditional games have been dying out. Lawn billiards, billets, and knur and spell (all bat and ball games) have disappeared since Arthur Taylor began documenting games in the 1970s. Only one pub in the capital city, the Freemason's Arms in Hampstead still hosts London skittles, and no one there has thrown a "floorer" (three clear throws in a row) in more than 40 years.
But some pub sports are thriving, largely thanks to regional breweries. In the West Country and Wales, Blackthorn hard cider sponsors a championship involving more than 1,000 working skittles alleys. Theakstons in Yorkshire funds pub quoits (a ring-toss game). And Hook Norton Brewery in the Cotswolds supports Aunt Sally, a game that involves throwing a stick at a "dolly" (originally a figure of an old woman, now just a ball).
There are even signs that new British pub sports might be emerging. While walking past the Lewes Arms pub in Sussex one fall day, I came across a group of drinkers pretending to pitch something down a nearby lane. Or that was what it looked like. In fact, it was the annual World Pea Throwing Championship, now in its 12th year and open to all comers. The sport is trickier than it sounds, since peas are very small and easily blown by gusts of wind. It might not be quite ready to displace darts, but pubs around the world could do worse than to give peas a chance.
Pub game trivia
* Skittles has been played in Britain since at least the 14th century.
* The first sport in Britain to require floodlights was not soccer but bat and trap, a cricket-like game with a teeter-totter launcher.
* Ringing the bull is now played at just a handful of pubs, including the historic Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham. It involves swinging a bull's nose-ring on a string to hook a bull's horn on the wall.
* The monarchy is not a big fan of pub games. Both Edward III and Henry VIII tried to ban the playing of games including quoits, skittles and shove ha'penny on Sundays.
by Mark Harris
Top: Bar billiards is a popular game at at the Moulin Inn, Pitlochry, Perthshire, Scotland (Photo by Gary Latham/Visit Britain)
Right: British pub games often verge into the ridiculous, as "spaniel racing" demonstrates. (Photo by Mark Harris)
Left: Mark Harris takes a throw as the Lewes Arms pub hosts its annual World Pea Throwing Championship (Photo by Monty Watkins)