Please send your memories to the collection.
Traditional games of the playground and other related situations, are a hardly branch of folklore. The one question I am repeatedly asked is “how the games circulate”. This, of course, is the nature of tradition and the appearance and disappearance of games, and their associated songs and chants, ebb like the tide. Most are not taught by the schools although some are reintroduced by them. There seems to be a natural cycle related to the various games whilst some are perennial favourites. Games are very much faddish and when the group is bored with a particular game it is put aside or forgotten. The transient nature of schools where students come and go is ideal for the oral transmission of games.
In collecting games I have found the names of games change often and so do the rules. I try and encourage contributors to explain the rules, the place the game was played, the name of the game etc. Most people think that this is the “bleedin’ obvious” but, as a folklorist, I am interested in variants and surely every contribution is different.
Firstly, some personal memories.
They were in a little calico bag and although I haven’t seen them for over fifty years I can’t recall losing them or offering them on Ebay. I certainly would not have given them away. They were a reminder of my youth in a different Australia where kids walked barefoot, drank water out of the tap, stayed out until sunset and played games like Cockylora, British Bulldog, What’s the time Mister Wolf?, Knuckles and, of course, Marbles.
Some schoolyard games were cyclical. They would sweep the suburb for a month and then, magically, disappear along with the Yo Yo, Hula Hoop and latest teen dances like the Madison, Hully Gully and Limbo. Where they went we never knew and cared less. Marbles never went away for it was the king of games. It was a male thing. Boys with balls. It was competitive beyond belief and it wasn’t unusual for boys to show off their balls during the lunch break. It was important to have a complete set and your ‘taws’ or ‘tollies’, your favourite shooters and lucky marbles.
There are over forty different types of marbles but the classic collection would have to include an aggie (being short for agate) glass and usually streaked ball; cat’s-eye or devil’s-eye (the pattern in the glass being similar to an eye); oxblood (looking like a streak of blood); a commie or common clay (they were way down on the collectable scale); clearie (or crystal) made from clear glass; alley (being short for alabaster); and, for the more aggressive player, the steely ball made, not surprisingly, from steel (not a ball-bearing although they were also popular as ‘weapons of mass destruction’). As kids we scrutinised our mate’s marbles for condition, size and eye-appeal. Scratched and chipped marbles were mocked as inferior. Depending on the size, and size wasn’t everything, they had names. Smaller than standard were peewees or mini marbles while the biggest was the billiard ball-sized grandfather, but it was difficult to flick skilfully. Far better were the slightly larger bonkers, shooter, smasher and King Kong. Some kids had big ball bags but the average Aussie kid had about twelve marbles based around the three most important: the favourite, the tom-bowler and the semi-bowler. The target marble was called the ‘mibs’ or ‘kimmies’. Playing for marbles and swapping kept the marbles circulating like currency.
The rules of the game were strictly adhered to because most games attracted a ring of ready umpires ready to shout ‘fault’ or ‘fudge’. I must have been an avid player because I can still describe the state of play. Firstly the playing field must be defined, grass or earth was preferred but failing that bitumen with a chalk circle. Players then knuckled down, meaning they crouch down, ball in hand ready to flick into the starting bunny hole, an imaginary goal post area. The rule is that you can’t hit another player’s marble (also known as a duck) until you have successfully entered the bunny hole goal. It was important the back of the knuckles be placed on the ground in a stationary position otherwise there would be a dissenting chorus of “disqualification”. No part of the hand was permitted to be in front of the position where the marble had been resting on the ground. The thumb is usually used as the firing mechanism. If you happened to hit an opponent’s marble before you entered the bunny hole, (known as kissing another marble) – you had to start all over again. Confused yet? The aim was to successfully hit your opponent’s marble three times before you entered the bunny hole for the final time (known as the killer hit). If the game was for ‘keepsie’ you kept the loser’s marble. If you agreed on ‘quitsies’ prior to the game you could withdraw without consequence. Like all sport there were variations. If you called out ‘elephant stomp’ you were allowed to stomp your marble into the earth, level to the ground, making it very difficult for the other player to hit yours. If agreed, and you were talented enough, you could also play bombes – where the player takes a couple of steps back and shoots mid air. A ball-bearing flicked at a glass marble could easily shatter it let alone send it flying. Well, I think that’s how it all played out.
Girls usually didn’t play marbles but they excelled at clapping and skipping rhymes, especially the rhymes that taunted boys.
Where did marbles originate? The British are recorded as playing World Marbles Championships in 1588 but they were new to the game. Marbles have been found in the graves of ancient Egyptians. Yes, marbles have a very long history.
Here’s a game we used to play probably in the late forties, I certainly was not playing it by 1951 when I started high school. The game was played with empty cigarette packets folded flat. The tray inside the packet was used to lock the folded packet flat. The folded packets were flicked towards a wall and the closest to the wall won. The winner took the losers’ packets. We played this game on front verandahs.
I played the following games at primary school in Brisbane in the period 1954 to 1961. I hope this helps you. Needless to say, I don’t often play these games now!
MARBLES (and all of the different games and rules covered by this term.)
Usually, marbles involved drawing a ring in the dirt, and crouching at the edge of this ring to have your shot. But I do remember a game we played called Eye Droppers with the large glass marble of that name, about the size of a squash ball. This involved standing over the circle and dropping your eye dropper into it, and any marble that it knocked out of the circle became yours.
FLY – a game involving any number of (usually) boys.
Two sticks or twigs about a foot long were placed parallel to each other, some small distance apart. The “Fly” or boss of the game (this changed for each game, often depending on who won the previous game) nominated the number of steps that all players had to make within the space between the sticks (if you touched a stick, or took the wrong number of steps, you were out.) He went last, and would take a large final step beyond the second twig. Where he landed became the position that the second stick was now placed. And so on, with the gap becoming wider with each round, although the number of steps stayed the same. Players gradually were eliminated, sometimes including the Fly himself. Whoever was the last person remaining became the Fly for the next game. There was a Mosquito too – I think he was the first person in the line of players.
– a well-known playground game, where you had to run from the safe area at one end, through increasing numbers of players in the middle trying to catch you, to the safe area at the other end. If you were caught, you stayed in the middle. A variation was Blue Rover, in which you weren’t allowed the three step dispensation over the line that Red Rover gave you.
DEFENDERS – played with a tennis ball between two teams.
It started with a bounce, and the team who got the ball had to keep it away from the other team. There were no goals as such. It was eventually banned from my school, as too many shirts etc were being ripped while playing it. Very popular.
BRANDY – another well-known game played with a tennis ball.
One person had the ball, and tried to hit anyone else playing by throwing the ball at him. If successful, that person became “it”. A variation was Wall Brandy, where players lined up against a wall, and the person with the ball threw at them. It was quite hard to dodge the ball, as the target was now in quite a confined area. Could be rather painful.
BEDLAM – very popular.
Two teams were chosen. One team had a designated base (say, an area around a tree, marked by a scratched-in line), and it was their job to hunt members of the other team, capture them, and “imprison” them in the base. The prisoners could only escape if an uncaptured member of their side managed to run through the enemy’s base. When all of one side was captured, the teams changed over.
My two sisters and I were at school in the 70’s and 80’s.