Bumble Puppy

Bumble PuppyIn the 2004/5 Winter issue of the PHS Newsletter the editor asked if anyone in the Society could shed some light on ‘the forgotten game of Bumble Puppy.’

In his review of Chris Amies’ Images of London: Hammersmith and Fulham Pubs, in the PHS Autumn 2004 Newsletter, PHS member Simon Fowler had mentioned an ‘extraordinary’ photograph of people playing ‘bumblepuppy’ at The Dove, Hammersmith and wrote that it was ‘a sort of miniature skittles.’ The editor mentioned that in London’s Historic Inns and Taverns, Donald Stuart had called the game ‘a form of 17th century tennis.’  In the Spring 2005 issue I revealed the results of my research.

Let the light-shedding commence!

In 1959 George Izzard, landlord of The Dove, published his autobiography, One for the Road (London: Max Parrish, 1959). On page 59 when talking of ‘summer chats in the cool bar’ with visitors George stated that ‘if my visitors went out into the garden, I was able to repay their entertainment by showing them a rarity: the only surviving Bumblepuppy board in England.’ The Bumblepuppy board was situated ‘just under the vine’ and consisted of

‘a rectangular slate, six foot by three, built on brick piles or irregular height and sloping down at one end. At the lower end was a strip of wood with a series of numbered holes, with little boxes behind them. Bumblepuppy, which some of my older village customers played regularly, was played with smooth stones which they could pick up from the river bank if they lost the old ones.  The players were allowed five stones each and bowled them down the slate towards the numbered holes in the strip of wood: they were caught in the boxes on the far side of the strip…’

George looked up the history of Bumblepuppy in his local library and discovered that it was derived from an older game called ‘nine holes on the green’ and was in its turn ‘the ancestor of bagatelle.’ (The only image of the game I could find is shown here although I do not have a record of the date or source.)

When I stretched up to retrieve my copy of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the exercise proved worth it.  There was ‘Bumble-puppy. 1801. (Origin unkn.) a. Nine-holes. b. Whist played unscientifically.’ And under ‘Nine-holes’ I found ‘1573. a. A game in which the players endeavour to roll small balls into nine holes made in the ground, each hole having a separate scoring value. b. A similar game played with a board having nine holes or arches.’ 

That sounded to me like a fairground game I used to play as a lad, rolling balls down a slope and trying to get them through sufficient arches to score enough points to win a goldfish.

Iona and Peter Opie trace the origins of ‘Nine Holes’ back to at least 1534 when it was known in France as ‘Trou-madame.’ For a fabulous engraving by the German artist Mathaus Merian of seventeenth century gentlefolk playing ‘Trou-madame’ see the Opie’s Children’s Games with Things (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, page 25) and compare it with the photo in Chris Amies’ book. 

Joseph Strutt devotes an entire page of his masterwork Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801) to ‘Nine-holes’, describing it as ‘a boyish game.’ Strutt suggests that the game was ‘instituted, or more properly revived’ about 1780 ‘as a succedaneum for skittles, when the magistrates caused the skittle grounds in and near London to be levelled, and the frames removed.’

Strutt states that nine-holes was called ‘Bubble the Justice’ ‘on the supposition that it could not be set aside by the justices, because no such pastime was named in the prohibitory statutes.’ Strutt further reveals that the game was by 1801 more generally known as ‘Bumble-puppy,’ ‘the vulgarity of the term [being] well adapted to the company by whom it is usually practised.’

It seems then that the Bumblepuppy board at The Dove had probably been a miniature skittle alley in a previous life before the magistrates ‘levelled’ the game in the late 18th century. This would certainly tie in with the Oxford Dictionary first source of the word being early 19th (1801) which was presumably Strutt.

I can find no reference to Bumblepuppy as a form of 17th century tennis.

Dr. Patrick Chaplin

Original text © 2005, amendments © 2014 Patrick Chaplin

Original article dated February 2005, published in Spring 2005 issue of the Pub History Newsletter. Revised and updated for this website May 2014.

NOTE: If any PHS member or visitor to our website has any further information about the game of bumble puppy please e-mail me via the Contact page. Thank you.


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