Virtual games seem to have replaced street games. Technology has always influenced the way society is shaped and individuals behave. Nothing stayed the same. The day it does is the end of progress. Now and again, however, it is good to reflect upon the past. So let’s take a look at the games kids played in the streets of Hull in bygone times. Timewise, I have focussed upon the “good old days” between the post-WWII years and the pre-TV days. Outdoor games had a seasonal pattern to suit our British weather. We begin around Easter as the warmer climate crept northwards:
EASTER: starting rituals / skipping / ball games / rhymes / marbles;
SUMMER: cricket / rounders / hopscotch / homemade toys;
AUTUMN: conkers / water-pistols / more verses;
WINTER: Bonfire Night / indoor pastimes / Christmas / snowmen; and
SPRING: April Fool / Legging-down / May Pole.
Regardless of the above rough outline, few games began without a starting ritual.
STARTING RITUALS: Foggy First
Games were often played in groups and going first was sometimes an advantage – like when playing hopscotch, marbles or ciggies – “Bags, I go first” or “Foggy First” was yelled out loud. Then others shouted: “Seggy second”. Slower kids ended up “Laggy Last”. Alternatively, there were gibberish counting verses to choose who was ‘IT’. Many of these verbal chants are shrouded in ancient mystery. “Eany, Meany, Miny, Mo / Catch a ‘tiger’ by his toe” – derives from a long-forgotten Celtic counting method used by Druids to select their next sacrificial victim. Older readers will recall this verse being “Catch a nigger by his toe”. But, since the 1980s, the word ‘nigger’ has become PC or Politically Incorrect. Words come in and out of fashion – like the games themselves as the seasons unfolded.
“Hickory, dickory, dock / The mouse ran up the clock…” This rhyme has been traced to the numbers “8, 9 and 10” of a tally system used by shepherds checking their flock; fishermen landing their catch; old ladies counting stitches when knitting; or even witches casting spells over a cauldron. “One pertater, Two pertater…” – I am not sure of the origin or what this popular starting ritual means. One suggestion is that the word ‘pertater’ is the Hull pronunciation of potato. Some other starting chants went:
Ip dip my blue ship
Sailing on the water
Like a cup and saucer
Out goes you (pointing at someone).
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…
Ink, pink, pen and ink
Who made that awful stink? = You.
Finger Flashing was another means of selecting someone for an unpopular role: Paper, Stone, Scissors (the odd one out was ‘IT’). This may be of ancient Chinese origin and brought to Britain by seafarers in the days of sail. Other methods of choosing who was ‘IT’ could be by drawing straws or lots, or simply tossing a coin. Equally, someone in the gang might suddenly burst into the little rhyme: TOM-TIT, YOU’RE IT! – touch the unlucky person and everyone else ran away as fast as possible.
Once it was declared who was ‘IT’, it was as if the selected child had the Dreaded Lurgy – a contagious disease. Those nearby ran for his or her life! Tig was a game that had many forms: Touch Tig was the standard version; Ball Tig where a ball was thrown at a playmate to make them the next person ‘IT’; Shadow Tig involved a kid being caught when the chaser stood on her or his shadow. The taunt: “Ha, ha, ha / Hee, hee, hee / You can’t catch me / For a bumble bee” was used by confident kids to annoy the child who was IT.
But the question is “Why is the selected person called IT?” I enjoyed researching this issue and was delighted with the unexpected result. The diabolical answer is that IT is the DEVIL. And, as Satan was neither Man nor Beast, he was ‘IT’. It was taboo for children to utter his name and so euphemisms or nicknames were used for Old Nick. In other parts of the country the words used involved He, Horny, or On. An implicit message of games is that Lady Luck is a fair judge of who goes first. Chance and circumstances, therefore, has authority and is respected by those who play the game.
SKIPPING: All in Together Girls
Skipping was a popular pastime – mainly with girls in the streets. There was a rich variety: Double jumps – ‘bumps’ with two ropes; double skipping; French skipping with old knicker elastic; and skipping races. The ropes sometimes came from mum’s old washing line or dad’s place of work. Adults usually turned a big rope across the terrace – sometimes as a special event on Good Friday – and many kids tried to get in on the act with such rhymes as: “All in together girls / Never mind the weather girls. Another went, All in, a Bottle of Gin / All out, a Bottle of Stout / All over, a Bottle of Clover / All through, a Bottle of Glue.
Although the next verse is associated with East Hull, it was nevertheless popular throughout the port:
Reckitt’s girls / Reckitt’s girls (this line is repeated between the following lines)
Eyes like diamonds / Teeth like pearls
Rosy cheeks and flaxen curls
High-legged boots and mass of curls
There’s none so fair as Reckitt’s girls
None can beat those Reckitt’s girl.
Most skipping, however, was a solo act with friends looking on waiting to have a turn with the rope. One rhyme went:
I am a Girl Guide dressed in blue
These are the actions I must do:
Salute to the King
Bow to the Queen
Never turn your back on the Union Jack
(or) And turn my back on the Wringing Machine.
[A rude version ends with the line: “And show my knickers to the football team”]
There are too many skipping rhymes to mention in full, but here are a few opening lines: Blue Bells, Cockle Shells / Akabackar Soda Cracker / Sam, Sam, the Dirty Old Man / Teddy Bear / I Like Coffee / 24 Robbers / I’m a Girl from Italy / Apple Tree / Monkey, Monkey / Two Little Kittens / Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on / I had a little doll / Hiperty Hop to the Candy Shop, To buy a stick of Candy, One for you, One for me, And one for your Sister Sandy. Added to these, some slow children were encouraged to chant or sing the alphabet or times tables as they skipped or played double ball.
When lads got hold of a length of rope, however, they were a little more mischievous. They sometimes tied door knobs together across a terrace. They then knocked on the two front doors and watched from a safe distance as the respective householders struggled to get out. Swinging on a lamp-post also involved hours of fun and energy – “until someone broke a mantle and we had to scram“.
BALL GAMES: Lady, Lady, Sling Your Hook
As the weather improved, ball games came more into their own. Boys took to football. The old-fashioned leather ball with its laces could be a real killer. Catch one of those wrong with the head or foot and your neck or ankle certainly knew about it. Some youngsters made their own balls by stuffing newspapers into one of granny’s old stockings. Meanwhile, the girls preferred the more sedate double ball against a wall – “we spent hours playing”. Again, different rhymes went with these games (and some overlapped with skipping verses). One of the most popular chants was:
Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Jews / Bought [or sold] his wife [for] a pair of shoes.
When the shoes began to wear / Nebuchadnezzar began to swear!
When his swearing began to stop / Nebuchadnezzar bought a shop.
When the shop began to sell / Nebuchadnezzar rang his bell.
Alternatively, “Nebuchadnezzar went to Hell”.
When the bell began to ring / Nebuchadnezzar began to sing…
It sounds as if this rhyme could go on forever, but this is where my research ran out of lines. Another version, however, goes: Alla Balla Booshka, King of the Jews – and ends with:
Lady, Lady touch the ground / Lady, Lady turn around
Lady, Lady show your foot / Lady, Lady sling your hook (at this, jump out of the rope)
One rhyme that reflected the poverty in Hull went:
Mary Ellen at the pawnshop door
With a ticket in her hand
And a parcel on the floor.
She asked for six
But he only gave her four.
So she picked up the parcel
And slam went the door.
The following two rhymes have a tentative link with fish:
One, two, three, four, five – Once I caught a fish alive.
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten – Then I let it go again.
Why did you let it go? Because it bit my finger so.
Which finger did it bite? This little finger on my right.
Rude rhymes were also fun and a secretive element between children:
As we walked down Icky Pickey Lane
We thought we could smell some kippers.
We asked a lady what it was
She said, “I’ve just wet my knickers”.
Repetition is central to rhymes. Kids rarely got bored with recurring lines. Indeed, the predictable pattern provided a sort of reassurance and comfort. It was certainly part of the learning process and street games aided the command of language. As did little jokes such as: “Why did the window box? Because it saw the garden fence. / Why did the tap run? Because it saw the kitchen sink.” As well as the fun of the pun, verses such as these unwittingly taught youngsters how English speakers turn nouns into verbs without changing any of the letters in the word. No other world language can do this with such ease. Lots of hidden learning took place during childhood games. “I Spy with my little eye something beginning with S…” helped with both the alphabet and spelling. Wordplay was education at work in a joyful way. And what better time to learn than in the formative years through innocent verses and chants.
I have very few examples of clapping game rhymes apart from:
My mother said, I never should / Play with the gypsies in the wood.
If I did, she would say / ‘Naughty girl to disobey.’
The implicit message here, however, was perhaps a negative one that there are groups in society to avoid. Childhood games can also be a seedbed for prejudice.
HAND-EYE SKILLS: Swap Your Bollies?
A variety of games unwittingly taught children their hand-eye co-ordination skills. ‘Ciggies’ involved flicking a flattened cigarette packet at an opponent’s pack propped against a wall. Jacks is a universal game with many variations, played with five pieces and a little white ball that was bounced into the air whilst the pieces were quickly collected from the ground. A very popular game was rolling marbles along the gutter – especially on the way to school. Everyone had his or her favourite coloured marble. Names for different types of marble may or may not be local. But some of those played in Hull involved Glammoggs or Glassoggs – big opaque glass marbles from the print industry; and Bollies – steel ball bearings from factories or garages.
Swaps was a regular activity and so the ability to haggle was a useful one in later life. In addition to playing marbles in the street gutter, games were played on rough wasteland or bombsites where a hole was stamped into the ground “we dug a bunker out with the heel of your shoe”. Marbles were then aimed into the hole. Another game of marbles was with a strip of wood or an empty shoe-box turned upside down with little arches cut out. Each arch bore the number of points added to a player’s score if they got their marble through it. Bullies sometimes grabbed someone else’s marbles and shouted, “Generals, no corporals” or “No returns of any sort“.
CRICKET: How’s That!
As summer came around, the hard ball of cricket replaced the ‘soft’ football. It was rare to see a proper cricket bat and ball around the community streets of Hull. Many were home-made from a plank of wood. A lamp-post made a good wicket. Several matches took place in the same street at different posts – with not an umpire in sight. The girls’ version tended to be French Cricket where legs ‘stood in’ as stumps. This method certainly avoided the call of “LBW! = Leg Before Wicket”. Rounders used bricks or jerseys for each base and a broken broom handle for the bat. This had less complex rules than cricket, more exciting and action-packed – something akin to baseball in the USA.
HOPSCOTCH: Soul Ascends to Heaven
The very popular street game of hopscotch involved chalking several squares on the flagstones. The first child threw the flat stone and hopped in and out taking turns up to the final square. My big research question to interviewees (or audiences) was: “How many squares? Ten was the most popular – but numbers varied. In rooting out the symbolism of this game, one clue came with the number seven that rhymes with Heaven.
The hidden symbolism of hopscotch is that the seven-squares, from a bird’s eye view, is that of a church layout. The flat stone is the soul on its tricky ascent to Heaven. But if a particular player steps on a line or wobbles over whilst trying to pick up the stone, then the bad news is that their soul will not go to Heaven.
Another flagstone amusement was the expression: “Never step on a line / or you’ll marry a swine“. A more unpleasant one went “Step on a crack / Break your mother’s back”. Other pavement games included leap frog, hand stand, crab walking and, of course, the whip-and-top with different coloured patterns chalked on the top. The tops varied in design from the plain straight sort to the mushroom shape – known locally as ‘window smashers’ – because they flew into the air in all directions.
HOME-MADE TOYS: Tin Can Walking
Post-war poverty and rationing meant that some children had few or no bought toys. Nevertheless, this did not mean they lacked playthings. Home-made toys were common. A child would show a mate something and proudly declare, “Look what me dad made me!”: wooden stilts sometimes had hand grips made from lemonade bottle stopper rubber rings; tin-cans were held to the feet with string – they made a wonderful clanging noise – apparently, treacle tins were better because they were bigger than bean or other tins (a bean-tin phone enabled friends to speak along tightly stretched string – the first mobile phone!); bogie-carts were made from old pram wheels and an orange box on a plank. A length of rope controlled the steering. Brakes were an unknown luxury, so the foot was used. Other homemade items might include a wooden fort, doll’s house, or garage.
There are countless other games I have not mentioned such as: battledore & shuttlecock, Riallio, swimming? What others can you recall?
PART TWO (of Two): “Seggy Second”
In this final part of Bygone Street Games we explore Autumn, Winter and then back to Spring once more. And what better way to start than with that ‘old chestnut’ of games – conkers!
AUTUMN FUN = CONKERS: A Six-lifer!
Conkers was the one game most firmly fixed in the seasonal calendar. The conker craze was highly competitive. Local parks provided the main supply from horse-chestnut trees (especially after a night of strong winds). A hole was poked through the middle of the conker and then a piece of string or an old bootlace threaded through with a knot underneath. If one conker smashed several others to pieces it was awarded the grand title of ‘an eight-lifer’ or whatever. Cheats soaked their conkers in vinegar and then might bake them in an oven to ensure they were extra hard.
WEAPONS: Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!
Troublesome boys had a whole armoury of nasty weapons. Their sense of fun was to disrupt the games of others – mainly girls playing quietly with skipping ropes or prams. Many a boy carried a pea-shooter, spud gun, water pistol or homemade catapult (not all at the same time) – only for defensive purposes, of course! Water bags (balloons filled with liquid) were sometimes dropped onto trains from overhead railway footbridges.
Talking about water, playing in puddles was another autumnal pastime. Mothers often called out, “You’ll catch your Death!” Your death of cold, that is. One Hull joke was that kids had two types of footwear: sannies (sandshoes for summer) and wellies (wellingtons for winter). A child would step from one into the other – sometimes during the same day. Cowboys and Indians was a popular game fuelled by Western movies or Saturday Matinees at local picture places. When I asked people about their
childhood games one bloke responded, “I often played truant”.
Piggy-back fights were a trial of strength. For a lad, to be called ‘Chicken‘ was the greatest insult. There were many dare-devil games, and calls of “I double dog dare you!” between pals and gangs were regular taunts to test the calibre of rivals. Refusal could result in a forfeit or banishment from the group. Each child also has to come to terms with bullying in one form or another. The Duke of Wellington is reported to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton.” But I would argue “It was more likely won during the kids’ games in the back streets of Britain“.
MORE VERSES: Eat Your Own Fish
Here is another batch of childhood verses and expressions that popped up in various street games – regardless of the season:
Mind your own business / Eat your own fish.
Don’t poke your nose / In my little dish.
I warned you once / I warned you twice
So you’d better listen to my advice.
I made you look / I made you stare
I made you cut your father’s hair.
Your father’s hair was full of dicks
I made you eat them, all but six.
Incey, Wincey, spider / Climbed up a spout
Down came the rain / And washed the spider out…
Cross my heart and hope to die,
Drop down dead if I tell a lie.
Chin, chin, Chinaman…
Goodie, goodie gumdrops…
The list is endless, but these are a small sample of what might be classed as local chants that enriched the colourful childhood in post-WWII Hull.
GUY FAWKES DAY: Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November – Gun powder, treason and plot.
In the run up to Bonfire Night, kids were very busy in the streets of Hull. Money was obtained by asking passers-by “Penny for the Guy?” A mock Guy Fawkes was pushed around in an old pram. This tactic was especially successful when a young courting couple were approached. The chap did not want to appear mean in front of his new girlfriend and so was begrudgingly generous. The bounty from this seasonal money-making activity was then spent at the nearest newsagent who sold fireworks such as bangers, rockets, Catherine wheels, etc.
Lads also gathered wood and stockpiled it in derelict houses until the big event on November Fifth. But some boys could not wait and got mini-bonfires going beforehand. The arrival of the Fire Brigade provided more entertainment. It was usually around this time of year when some families decided to go modern, get rid of their old-fashioned Victorian furniture and buy the latest sofa on HP (hire purchase) with an Allied Club Cheque (a local loan company). Sadly, and with the benefit of hindsight, many antiques went up in flames in the 1950s. Some bonfires took place in the middle of a street – if there was no nearby bombsite or wasteland for the stack the wood. Neighbours complained of cracked windows from the intense heat.
Children talking to strangers was not considered odd. Outside a cinema, a child might ask a person in the queue, “Will you take us into the pictures, Mister?” This happened when a parent was unable to accompany the child to see an Adult “A” certificate film. The children paid for themselves (the Box Office staff must have known they were not with the nearby adult), once inside they sat in different places. Talking to strangers, indeed, perhaps taught youngsters how to weigh people up better than being isolated from interacting with those outside their regular family circle.
INDOOR PASTIMES: Back to Square One
Indoor games replaced outdoor activities as the winter became wetter and colder. Kids dug into the bottom of cupboard drawers to retrieve a variety of games in boxes. Some families even had a Compendium – a box set of games. The topic of indoor games could fill a book. Instead, I will simply list what I can of the pre-TV forms of family entertainment: Cards / Cat’s Cradle / Charades / Darts / Diablo / Dolls / Dominoes / Draughts / Dressing-up a wooden peg as a doll / French Knitting / Hangman / Housie-housie (now called Bingo) / Jig-saw Puzzles / Ludo / Magic Lantern Shows / Mummies and Daddies / Musical Chairs / Noughts and Crosses / Pass the Parcel / Shops / Shove Ha’Penny Board / Snakes n’ Ladders / Toy Soldiers.
Listening to the radio was another indoor pastimes. Some childhood favourites were The Ovaltinies; Jimmy Clithereo; The Billy Cotton Band Show; Dick Barton – Special Agent; and, in the latter years of childhood, Radio Luxembourg’s Top Ten Records. Some youngsters were also avid book readers.
SEASONS GREETINGS: We Wish You a Merry Christmas
In the context of the modern-day “Stranger Danger” hysteria, it is sociologically interesting to look at another way in which youngsters approached strangers with seasonal greetings. As Yuletide got nearer, kids stood outside public-houses to greet customers with “Merry Christmas“. Christmas carol singing outside neighbours’ houses was also the norm during this era.
Christmas decorations were often home-made and involved paper chains, hanging mistletoe, helping put toys on the Christmas tree. It was a real family effort. The climax was to leave a stocking (dad’s largest sock) or pillow-case at the end of the bed. Then came the problem of trying to sleep – despite the pending excitement and anticipation. Father Christmas often left an apple and orange or other fruit; a bag full of nuts; a shiny new coin; a jumper, underwear, or other useful clothing for the winter days and nights.
New Year’s Eve was exciting too. Kids lay in bed waiting for the ships, tugs and trawlers to blast their hooters in the port’s docks at midnight to trumpet in January the First of another year. When snow fell and lay thick on the ground, it heralded a host of other street games: snow-ball fights; building a snowman with a scarf around his neck; sledge runs; skating on thin ice; and rolling a giant snowball.
Time seemed to go slower when young. Perhaps that was because there was so much of it ahead. Even so, the year took its course, and it was Spring once more.
APRIL FOOL’S DAY: Legging Down too!
April Fool, on the first of that month, involved pranks such as telling friends, “Your shoe lace is undone“. That was the morning fun. Then, after 12 noon, came Legging-down Day. Some lads used a walking-stick to make people fall down. Tripping people up was not practised everywhere – certainly not throughout Yorkshire – but it was a favourite across Hull. The first of the month also generated some sayings such as: “Pinch, punch – First of the Month / A Pinch and a Kick – for being so quick!” And every month was greeted with “White Rabbit, White Rabbit, Give me good luck / If you don’t, I’ll stamp my foot!” But some children only said this rhyme if there was an “R” in the month.
MAY BLOSSOM: Queen of the May
May Blossom was taboo in some fishing families – delightful though it is, it was associated with death. Another related belief went, “Don’t shed a clout (winter clothing) until May is out“. But whether May referred to the month or the plant I have yet to confirm. I recall, as a child, May Pole dancing being organised by Sunday School teachers at Queen’s Hall Methodist chapel in the Old Town of Hull – no one did it in the streets!
DEATH: Chop Off Your Head
Beneath many an innocent street game was a sinister element. That is, play often concealed warnings of death. This seemed appropriate preparation for children growing up in a port when the knock of death might rap upon anyone’s door. Ring-a-Ring of Roses is associated with the Black Death of 1348 onwards. Each of the four simple lines had its own symbolic meaning:
Ring-a-ring of Roses (Red spots around the neck)
A pocket full of posies (A herbal remedy to hide the smell of the corpse)
Ah-tishoo / Ah-tishoo (Final, fatal symptoms)
We all fall down. (The word DEAD is omitted)
The more pleasant sounding:
Hush-a-Bye Baby on a tree-top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
(also hides a morbid message of a child’s death or injury)
Wallflower, wallflower / Growing so high.
We’re all little children / We all have to die.
Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St.Clement’s
You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St.Martin’s
When will you pay me, Say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
In the game London Bridge is Falling Down, dancing children skip along under the upheld arms of two children who pretend to be a bridge. Then they capture one of the dancers. The veiled meaning of their capture is that they are a human sacrifice to the new bridge that will be built across the river. The unfortunate child is sacrificed to the River Gods of Father Thames. The gods agree not to destroy the bridge that crosses the river if a toll is paid. That is, a child buried in the foundation of each tower sunk into the riverbed. The innocent child’s spirit also becomes a Guardian of the Bridge.
Although not games as such, childhood Fairy Stories also have a scary plot: Little Red Riding Hood has a Big Bad Wolf; Goldilocks is frightened by Three Bears; Jack and Jill fall down the hill; and, What time is it Mr.Wolf? if he answers “Dinner Time!” he will then eat you up! This game was still the most popular, yet frightening. The excitement of the unknown builds up tension and perhaps unwittingly prepares the child for stress and crisis in adult life. Horror films and TV violence are perhaps a continuation of the terrifying fairy tales.
CONCLUSION: The Game of Life
Games serve many purposes. They not only build muscles, but also shape personality. All human traits are put to the test during play. The shy, boastful, confidant, bully, coward, leader, loser – all are exposed. Children learn to laugh and cry; feel a sense of loss or victory; assess right from wrong; develop a concept of fair play – “Life’s not fair“. Games teach the value of co-operation. Children learn to say “I’m sorry“. And, that humour oils the wheels of human relationships.
Some long gone games also contained a get-out clause – a device for opting out. There was an immunity from being caught if a child touched wood, metal, door-knob, stone wall, or any pre-agreed coloured object. If a game got too stressful for a child it was possible for them to shout out “KINGS!” – holding both hands in the air with fingers tightly crossed. This was a truce call that gave the child a respite from all the excitement and tension; a sort of magical protection to opt out, to catch a breath, or tie up a shoe-lace – with fingers still crossed, of course! Pity there is no such device in adult life!
Perhaps the seeds of a community spirit were firmly planted in childhood as the kids played their games on the car-free and carefree streets of Hull. In conclusion of this ‘Laggy Last’ segment, we can see old-fashioned street games as the social networking of the post-war baby-boomer generation. It was face-to-face contact, not Facebook, in the pre-internet era. Virtual technology will never replace the human need to see and be in touch with each other. Let’s hope that this article helps keep alive the notion of bygone street games. Who knows, perhaps these games might return to our streets in the long run.
Dr. Alec Gill MBE