Thursday 24 January 2019

One Hundred and Eighty! Elizabeth Chadwick and one of her leisure pursuits

The author having a practise.
In my day job I'm a best selling author of historical fiction,  passionately steeped in the Medieval period.
In some of my leisure time, I spend Tuesday evenings as an enthusiastic but decidedly average player in The March Hare's mixed darts team (men and ladies) in the City of Nottingham's Central darts league.  I love my night out. Playing darts is a very different experience from my day job spent in detailed researching and writing.  It's a refreshing getaway that keeps me grounded and recharges my batteries.

The league in which I play involves different pub teams of fourteen players - seven women and seven men and matches are played alternately at home or away.  (We were at home to The Fox last night and lost 4-3).  Seven games of 501 are played, with breaks for the 'snap' i.e. a bit of something to eat.  The food runs the gamut, depending on the landlord, from sandwiches and crisps, to curry and rice, chip butties, sausage and never know what you're going to get.  There's usually a raffle and a number card to help pay for the food and enhance the home team's funds.

A game in progress with the markers (white tee shirt and blue sweater) standing either side of the board.
The games of 501 are played on a modern  standard dart board. (dart boards have a long and varied history).   In the mixed league, the players take turns,  a lady and man from one team against a lady and man from other.  A Team One player throws three darts and their score is added up and the total subtracted from 501 on a chalk board beside the dart board. Then Team Two player throws, followed by Team One second player and then Team Two second player. Usually the strongest players in the man/lady combo throw first in order to maintain the advantage.  Markers, one from each team, stand either side of the dart board to keep the score. The aim of the game is to score as many points as possible and finish on a double (the coloured band in the outer ring of the board which scores double points). You have to finish on a double, unless your final countdown is fifty, in which case, it's 'bull' i.e. the red spot at the cetnre of the board.  It your end score is forty - i.e. double twenty (known as 'tops' because it's at the top of the board) and you miss and hit a single twenty, you then aim for  double ten. If you miss double ten and accidentally put your first dart in the six next door, then that leaves you with fourteen i.e. double seven.  And so it goes on until someone finally gets that double shot.  And then it's 'game over.'
The players in the Nottingham league stand 6ft away from the board at a line on the floor known as the 'oche'  pronounced like 'hockey' without the 'h'.  Different counties and areas have different distance rules, usually further away that 6ft, which is quite a rarity.  Apparently in Nottingham, the pubs were so poky and cramped that there wasn't room for a longer throw.

Team member Gary Britten at the oche.
The team that wins the most 'legs' of the seven is the winner and awarded points in the league.  At the end of the season the team with the most points is the league winner, but there are also prizes for the highest finishes in games, both for men and ladies. 

With my historian's hat on though, I began to wonder how old the game of darts was - in the form more or less that it's come down to us now.  I thought it might have been medieval, but I was in for a surprise.

There are many unsubstantiated stories about the game going back to Henry VIII who gets credited with the responsibility - as he does for many legendary historical matters that usually turn out to be apocryphal.  The story goes that he wanted people to practice archery all year round and since no one wanted to be out in the nasty cold, wet, winters,  the practice came indoors with the bottom of barrels and sawn off tree trunks used as a board. However, there is no provenance for this ever having taken place.  The same goes for Ann Boleyn supposedly giving Henry a magnificent set of darts in a case. It never happened except in romantic imagination.

There is an idea that the first darts were made from broken arrows that were sharpened and then thrown at the ends of wine casks for amusement.  Or perhaps crossbow bolts shot into wine tuns. Another game called 'Puff and Dart' goes back to the 16th century.  It was played in taverns and involved blowing small darts through a tub at a numbered target and it's thought it might well be an ancestor of the modern game. It was, however, considered old hat by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne. It could be fatal if one inhaled rather than blowing out and ingested the dart!   By the mid to late Victorian period, there was a fairground game known in Britain as 'French Darts' whereby the punters would throw wooden darts at a numbered target. The end of the dart had a metal point and the 'flight' was made from turkey feathers. By 1906 a metal barrel had been patented in the United States and in 1908 darts was judged a game of 'skill' rather than 'chance' in a Leeds magistrates court and began its rise in into popular and especially pub culture.

My darts, complete with the Scarlet
Lion Marshal blazon! 
In 1896, a Lancashire carpenter named Brian Gamlin devised the current board numbering system (he died in 1903 before he could patent it) which is designed to reward accuracy and penalise inaccuracy. For example the high scoring twenty at the top of the board is bordered by a five and a one.  So instead of scoring sixty with three straight darts, if you err to one side, you can end up scoring three! Similarly the nineteen near the foot of the board is bordered by three and seven.

Although Gamlin set the number pattern, doubles and trebles were not part of the early game (the outer and inner coloured bands on the board) and the highest score was the bull's eye in the centre. Darts boards were not regularised until the 1930's, and even then, regional variations remained strong.  Gamlin, it is thought, was a fairground man himself, and his number invention certainly helped to make sure that the drunk punters visited the darts booth, didn't have a high success rate!

Darts boards themselves, originally made of wood, were, by the 1930's composed of sisal fibre, today's 'bristle' board, which, unlike wooden boards, did not have to be soaked overnight and lasted much longer.

Darts today is an international affair and big business - not without its socio-political controversies such as the banning of the darts 'walk-on' girls in TV darts contests, where some saw the ladies as providing a bit of glamour, and others regarded it as exploitation having no place in current society.

Be that as it may.  In my own patch of inner city Nottingham, such matters are far from our minds. To the strains of Roy Orbison Driving all Night on the landlady's CD player, we step up to the oche, set  our shoulders, aim our 'arrows' and 'Game on!'
Team member Janet Cummings demonstrates one hundred and eighty! 
Note:  For anyone interested in reading more or who has a general curiosity about darts and pub games, I can highly recommend this website. My blog is just a coffee time snapshot, but Patrick Chaplin  will keep you busy for a week!

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