Of Bilbo-catch and Bilbo Catchers

      ". . . just a family party, for those who don’t care a straw for fashionable squeezes, but like to spend a cozy evening playing Jackstraws, or Bilbo-catch, or Speculation — . . . "

Chapter 12 of Frederica
by Georgette Heyer

So Frederica told the Marquis of Alverstoke, when she was explaining the Sunday evening gatherings she regularly held at her home in London for a few friends. But just what was "Bilbo-catch?" From the context, it is clear it is a game, a game that, as Georgette Heyer knew, had also been played by Jane Austen. The game is of ancient origin and, though the name bilbo-catch has nearly been lost to history, the game itself is still played, even today. Once they know more about it, Regency authors may wish to play with it in one of their upcoming romances.

A brief history of Bilbo-catch and Bilbo Catchers to the Regency. . .

First, of course, the name. Some references claim the source of the name was the town of Bilbao in northern Spain, since, in England, the game was believed by some to have originated in that country. However, the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary states that the notion of such an origin for the name is an example of a " . . . deliberate perversion of pseudo-scholarship." In fact, the source of the English name is the French word for the same game, bilboquet. The French name is a combination of bille, which means wooden ball, and bocquet, meaning the point of a spear. In French, bilboquet was pronounced beel-boh-kay, and was used both for the name of the game and the device used to play it. When the game became popular in Britain, in the early eighteenth century, the name was gradually corrupted to bilbo-catch, and the device used to play it became known as a bilbo-catcher.

At its essence, bilbo-catch was a game in which a ball, usually wooden, was attached to a handle by a flexible tether. In some versions, the ball had a hole drilled through the center, in other versions, it was a solid ball. The handle might have a spike on one end to received the ball, while in other versions, there was a cup on the end of the handle, large enough to catch the ball. There were some versions in which the handle had a spike at one end and a cup at the other. The point of the game was to hold the handle, then swing the ball into the air and catch it with a flick of the wrist, either on the spike or in the cup at the end of the handle. Variations on this game were known in ancient times, ranging from Greece to India and beyond. When Captain Cook arrived in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in the late eighteenth century, he found the native islanders were also playing a version of the game, which had been popular there for centuries. In modern times, this game is more often known as cup-and-ball.

By the late sixteenth century, bilboquet had become a popular pastime in both Italy and France, among both children and adults. In fact, King Henry III of France had become so addicted to the game that many at his courtiers believed his obsession was evidence of his madness. Upon Henry’s death, bilboquet went out of fashion at the French Court, though there remained a few enthusiasts who continued to play the game. Almost a century later, in the early eighteenth century, bilboquet came back into fashion at the French Court, during the reign of Louis XV. Among the French aristocracy at that time, many had their bilboquets custom-made, carved of ivory or fine woods such as ebony. These aristocrats could be seen playing with their expensive toys at Court and elsewhere, in pubic and in private. By the seventeenth century, versions of the game had also become popular in Spain and Portugal, as well as other European countries.

It is believed that bilboquet crossed the Channel from France to England some time during the mid-eighteenth century. In 1743, Horace Walpole wrote a letter to his friend, Horace Mann, in which he mentioned setting up " . . . the noble game of bilboquet." It retained its popularity into the nineteenth century, for Maria Edgeworth wrote of bilboquets in her story, The Good French Governess, published in 1801. While writing The Watsons, about 1804, Jane Austen has her character, little Charles, mention that in addition to riding his pony, he sometimes plays bilbo-catch. And on 24 October 1808, Jane Austen wrote a letter in which she remarked, "Bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable." Presumably, she was referring to her elder brother, George. In her later years, Jane Austen is also known to have played bilbo-catch with her young nieces and nephews on many occasions.

In 1811, the mathematics teacher, William Saint, wrote a biography of his friend and mentor, the eccentric John Fransham, who had died the year before. In this book, Memoirs of the Life, Character, Opinions, and Writings, of that Learned and Eccentric man, the late John Fransham of Norwich, Saint told of how Fransham had set himself the task of catching the ball on his bilbo-catcher six hundred and sixty-thousand six hundred and sixty-six (666,666) times. He wanted to find an accomplishment that no other man had yet achieved. Fransham’s bilbo-catcher had a ball with a hole drilled through the center and a spike on one end of the handle. He kept track of his catches by putting ten nuts into his left pocket, then he moved a nut to his right pocket after every one hundred successful catches. When he had ten nuts in is right pocket, he put another nut in a special box he kept for the purpose and moved his original ten nuts back to his left pocket and started again. Thus, each nut in the box recorded one thousand successful catches with his bilbo-catcher. Though it took him nearly four years, John Fransham did achieve his goal. However, since the Guinness Breweries would not start keeping records of such accomplishments for more than another 150 years, John Fransham’s achievement with his bilbo-catcher was known only to a few friends and family, until his biography was published after his death.

Like John Fransham, those who played bilbo-catch in England would have used a bilbo-catcher. From the eighteenth century right through the nineteenth, including the Regency, there were many different versions of biblo-catchers made and sold in Britain. Affluent devotees of the game would often have a very lavish and costly bilbo-catcher. The most extravagant of these playthings were made of ivory, often with ornately carved handles. But other ostentatious and up-scale bilbo-catchers were carved of fine woods such as ebony, mahogany or lignum vitae and many were given a high polish to enhance their fine grains. Bilbo-catchers made of more common woods might also be polished, but they were just as likely to be brightly painted or given a lustrous lacquer finish. The cord used to tether the ball to the handle might be made of leather, a sturdy plied or braided cord or even a lenth of ribbon. At the other end of the spectrum, even those with a meagre income could have a bilbo-cather, though they were more likely to make their own. One of the most ingenious, low-cost bilbo-catchers from this era had a handle carved of inexpensive wood, while the ball was made of a large acorn, with a length of twine tied to its stem and to the simple handle.

More importantly, how was the game of bilbo-catch played? Of course, a bilbo-catcher could be used as a solitary plaything, with which an individual, like John Fransham, might test their patience, dexterity and hand-eye coordination. But it seems that during the Regency, it was just as often played in groups. There were numerous versions of the game when played among a company of people. Most of those games involved keeping count of the number of times each player was able to successfully catch the ball in the cup or on the spike of the handle. The player who made the most catches in row without a miss, compared to the other players during a round of play, was usually considered the winner. In some versions of the game, the player was required to twirl the string between their thumb and forefinger to set the ball spinning, before tossing the ball into the air. However, twirling the string usually made the movement of the ball in flight more erratic and harder to catch. Very often, the rules of the game required that the bilbo-catcher be passed to the next player when the current player missed a catch. Thus, even when played in groups, a game of bilbo-catch would only require one bilbo-catcher, which would be used in turn by each player.

The most difficult and challenging form of bilbo-catch was that which required that the ball with a hole drilled through its center be caught on a spike on the handle. The ball was somewhat easier to catch if a cup was attached to the handle instead. In addition, the diameter and depth of the cup also had an effect on the ease of playing the game. A wider cup usually ensured more successful catches, while a cup with an opening very close to the diameter of the ball was much more challenging. The depth of the cup also had a bearing on the ability of the player to make a successful catch. When the ball dropped into a shallow cup, it was more likely to bounce out again, while the ball was less likely to bounce out of a deeper cup since the taller sides would enable the player to better control the tendency of the ball to bounce out.

During the Regency, bilbo-catch was a fairly egalitarian game. It could be played by a single person or a group, it could be played by men or women, adults or children, rich or poor, educated or ignorant. It could also be played indoors or out, in good weather or bad, depending upon the preference of the player(s). Though it was considered a respectable game which could be played at a Sunday evening gathering like Frederica’s, or with children, as Jane Austen did with her young neices and nephews, it could also be played at the local public house or tavern as a drinking and/or wagering game. There were some people who kept a bilbo-catcher in their pocket to pass the time or calm their nerves when they were travelling, or even while waiting for some reason or another.

Dear Regency Authors, might you have a use for a bilbo-catcher or the game of bilbo-catch in an upcoming story? Perhaps the children of an aristocratic family play it in the schoolroom, but get into a squabble with each other over how the game should be played or who actually won. Will the heroine, the governess, be able to diplomatically settle the matter without hurt feelings on any side, impressing their elder brother, the hero, who just happens to be standing near the door? Then again, perhaps the heroine, still a governess, is trying to instill confidence in a shy and uncoordinated child. The little one cannot make even one successful catch with their bilbo-catcher, and is sure that means they are a failure. But the heroine realizes the child’s bilbo-catcher has a narrow, shallow cup, with which only an expert could be successful. Will seeking out a bilbo-catcher with a wider, deeper cup enable the child to make many successful catches and begin to feel better about themselves? On the other hand, could it be that the hero is a spy for the Crown and makes it a point to play the fop to avoid the attention of those who would like to stop him. Mayhap he toys with a bilbo-catcher as part of that persona. This would be particularly appropriate for a spy working on the Peninsula, since the game/toy was very popular in Spain and Portugal during the Regency, though it was known as boliche in Spain. More importantly, the hero has had his elegant bilbo-catcher custom-made and it has a hollow handle, the opening of which is cleverly concealed. He uses the hollow handle in that bilbo-catcher to carry important messages which are unlikely to be discovered in transit. In a pinch, his bilbo-catcher might also serve as an impromptu weapon. Mayhap, a soldier returning from service in the Peninsula brings back one or more Spanish or Portuguese biblo-catchers as gifts for his family or friends. Will these toys be suspect in a remote rural community, simply because they came from a foreign country? What issues might that create which need resolution during the course of the story? Are there other ways in which a bilbo-catcher or a game of bilbo-catch might play a part in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to Of Bilbo-catch and Bilbo Catchers

  1. gordon759 says:

    I am intrigued at your reference to a home made Bilbo catch using an acorn as the ball. I am interested in reconstructing traditional games and toys, and would love to know more about it so I can try and make one next autumn. Do you have a reference for making this toy?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am sorry to say that I cannot give you a specific reference for the bilbo-catcher made with an acorn. I read about it years ago, in either a letter or diary entry, but I no longer remember the exact source. However, it had no instructions that I can recall, it was just a remark that a child was using such a toy.

      However, if you are interested in making toys and/or games, you might be interested in a book I ran across a few months ago: Botermans, Jack, et. al., The World of Games: Their Origins and History, How to Play Them and How to Make Them. New York: Facts on File, 1989. It is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy at a used book store or online, at a site like Biblio. The book includes instructions on how to make a bilboquet and you can always substitute an acorn for the ball in the one you make.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Bilbo, like Frodo and Drogo, is in the line of names popular in the 11th -13th century, I didn’t come upon a Bilbo, but Frodo and Drogo turned up, like Avo, Azo, Odo/Otho [not all Sackville-Bagginses], Ivo etc. I did find a Gandauf though.
        As to acorns and acorn cups, we’ve all played cup and ball with acorns in their cups, but it’s not very satisfactory as they don’t fit back together very well. But kids are kids and have to try.

  2. Frederica was the first Heyer i ever read at the age of 8, when I thought Felix was the central character and missed the romance entirely, and I had not long read The Hobbit from the school library. You can imagine my confusion! however I also read The Borrowers so I figured that Bilbo was named, like the Borrowers, after some household term because hobbits also kept themselves secret. I could not find an explanation at the time, and then never thought to look with greater resources at my command, so thank you for explaining something which has been a mystery to me for more than 40 years.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I did the same thing the first time I read Sprig Muslin, in grade school. I thought Amanda and her soldier were the focus of the story. It was not until I re-read it again, in college, that I realized the true romance was between Sir Gareth and Lady Hester.

      I though about Mr. Baggins’ first name while I was doing my research, but could find no confirmation that its source was the game of bilbo-catch. According to the OED, the term “bilbo-catch” fell out of use in the second half of the nineteenth century. But Tolkien was born in 1892, so it is possible he may have known of the game by that old name. Or, because he was a linguist, he may have learned of it during his studies and thought it would suit one of his characters in The Hobbit. Either way, though there is no proof that Bilbo Baggins got his name from a very old game, there is also no proof that he did not.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Summer says:

    I love the idea about the spy playing the fop. Your tie-ins are so subtle and mine is so blunt: my heroine’s little brother, too young to manage its intended use, whacks her across the knuckles with it (in the same passage she threatens to put him in leading strings.) I didn’t realize there was a game involved, though, so I may pass that bilbo-catch on to their older brother while he’s convalescing (and very bored.)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, I do have to admit that the idea of a brave and courageous man posing as a fop is not my idea. The inspiration is The Scarlet Pimpernel. That story was also the inspiration for some of Georgette Heyer’s early work. I highly recommend any of the The Scarlet Pimpernel stories if you like historical swashbucklers. They are set during the French Revolution and every one of them is a great read. To find out more about the books and how you can get free downloads of them, you can check out my post, Blakeney Manor.

      I can see where a very little boy might be something of a menace with a bilbo-catcher, but it could be just the thing for an older boy confined to bed or his room during an illness. There were bilbo-catchers which were made with a cup on one end of the handle and a spike on the other. Such a version would be the most challenging, since once the young man could successfully catch the ball in the cup end, he could progress to the much more difficult effort of catching the ball on the spike end. Perhaps he might do like John Fransham and track his successful catches, in order to impress his sister and little brother?

      Regards,

      Kat

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