Of Taw, or Marbles, Through the Regency

Games played using small spheres have been in existence for centuries. Such games were also played in many parts of Britain during the Regency. Games of marbles are still played around the world, even today. However, there have been some changes in the types of marbles used to play these games since the early nineteenth century. Regency authors who wish to include a game or two of marbles in one of their stories may like to have some of the details about the game of marbles during our favorite period. Romance authors may also be intrigued to learn that there is a tale of romance bound up in the history of the first competitive marble tournament in England.

A brief look at marbles through the Regency . . .

Small spheres made of various materials have been used to play games in a number of cultures for at least 5,000 years. The earliest of these game pieces are believed to have been small stones which had been polished smooth by the running water in a stream or river. These small spheres have been found in Paleolithic sites in Europe, the ancient pyramids of Egypt, and even in burial mounds in North America. Similar objects were also used to play games by both the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is generally believed that the Romans brought their games with them when they invaded Britain, for there are Roman-era murals in Bath, England, which depict children playing a game of marbles. However, the Romans called their game nunces, meaning "nuts," because many of their earliest "marbles" actually were nuts, most often acorns or walnuts. Over time, the Romans made their small spheres from polished chips of stone, as did those cultures who adopted the games from their conquerors.

European children were playing marbles by the Middle Ages. There is mention of " . . . the little balls with which school boys played . . ." in a manuscript which survives from the thirteenth century. From at least Elizabethan times, games with these small spheres were played by adults in the yards of many English taverns and public houses, often involving some sort of wager. The game of "cherry pit," played with marbles, was mentioned by William Shakespeare in his comedy, Twelfth Night. The rules of many marble games held that the winner kept some or all of the marbles which had belonged to the loosing players. This sometimes resulted in fights and other outbreaks of violence if any of the players objected. By the seventeenth century, games of marbles were so often associated with some form of gambling, and/or violence, that the undergraduate students at the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge were forbidden to play marbles on the grounds. Many other boys’ schools at that time also had prohibitions against their students playing marbles while at school.

Despite the attitudes of some schools, and even some conservative members of the clergy, games played with marbles remained popular in England, particularly with children, right through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. From the last decades of the seventeenth century, these small spheres were made commercially in Germany, where marbles were especially popular. Most of the marbles produced in Germany were made by hand from leftover marble chips found in many stone mason’s yards. These small pieces of stone were shaped and polished in small mills typically powered by a local stream or river. By the latter decades of the seventeenth century, German marbles could be made so economically that they were soon imported into Britain in large numbers. It was probably for that reason, in the 1680s, that these small German-made marble spheres first came to be called "marbles" in England. But the spheres and the games played with them, were soon to get another, indigenous name. At the turn of the eighteenth century, particularly in northern Britain, a large or fancy marble was called a "taw." Within the next few decades, all across the British Isles, the term "taw" came to be used to refer to both a large or fancy marble, or the game played with these small spheres.

There is evidence that by the latter decades of the eighteenth century, stone marbles were being made in small quantities in Derbyshire and other English counties where stone masons were operating. As was the case in Germany, in depressed rural areas, farmers, or others who were in need of additional income to support themselves and their families, would build a small water-powered mill. This mill would be used to shape and polish small pieces of stone into marbles. In most cases, these small-scale marble-makers could gather the waste stone chips from a local stone mason’s yard at no cost but their time and effort. They would then grind the stone into marbles in their mill and sell the finished marbles to supplement their income.

As the eighteenth century progressed, marbles began to be made of a number of different and new materials. Shaped and polished marble, as well as other hard stone, was joined by several different types of ceramics. The first ceramic marbles were made of small bits of stoneware which were rolled into balls, glazed and fired in a kiln. It is generally believed that these early ceramic marbles were made from leftover clay at the end of a day by the potters, probably for use by their children. In 1710, hard-paste porcelain was first produced in Meissen, a city in the German principality of Saxony. It was not long after that porcelain marbles began to appear, again, probably made from leftover clay for the artisans’ children. Even before the turn of the eighteenth century, potters and other ceramic artisans began to produce some very sophisticated and colorful marbles. These small ceramic spheres were often decorated with a plethora of patterns in colored glazes which made them very attractive and increasingly popular with marble players.

Not to be outdone, some glass-makers began to use molten glass left over at the end of their workday day to make pretty marbles for their own children. Marble scholars and collectors believe the very first glass marbles were made in Germany, that hot-bed of marbles and marble production, in the later Middle Ages. However, those early glass marbles were quite rare and were considered novelties. In England, they were typically called "monstrosities," because they were too fragile to stand up to any amount of real game play. That attitude began to change as a number of new innovations developed into improved glass formulas which produced a stronger, sturdier glass. Though these later marbles were much stronger, they could still be nicked or scratched by a particularly hard hit in the marble ring. It must be noted that glass marbles were still quite scarce during the Regency, as they were not produced on a commercial scale until the 1860s, first in Germany. Any glass marbles which might have been in use in Regency England would almost certainly have been found only in areas near a glass-works. Such marbles would have been made in small numbers by glass-makers, most often for the use and amusement of their children, or as special gifts to children in the area.

Marbles made of stone were seldom decorated. The small stones were shaped and polished and that was usually the extent of the effort put into their production. However, many of these marbles did have some pattern, naturally derived from the stone from which they were made. These marbles might have had clouded areas, stripes or swirls of different colors within the stone. Simple stoneware marbles typically were of a solid color, based on the glaze used in their making. Marbles with a clear glaze were most often some shade of brown or grey, derived from the clay from which they were formed. Those ceramic marbles given a colored glaze might be blue, green, yellow, red or white. Though a few simple ceramic marbles might have patterns painted on them, such designs were much more common on marbles made of porcelain. Those finer marbles were painted with colorful geometric designs, such as squares, circles, triangle or swirls. Simple flower designs were also painted on many porcelain marbles. Glass marbles were not painted, they derived their color and designs from the glass alone. Few glass marbles of this era were completely transparent. Most had at least a few bubbles embedded in the glass. Those bubbles formed while the marbles were being made. Glass marbles were most often green or blue, as those were the glass colors most frequently used during the Regency. But red, yellow and an opaque white glass was available during that time at a few glass-works, and at least a few marbles could have been made from leftover molten glass of those colors. More than one color might be swirled together to create multi-color marbles. [Author’s Note: I particularly love glass marbles, as I find many of them very pretty. However, it must be made clear that glass marbles with embedded or surface designs like cat’s eye’s, corkscrews, swirls and onionskins, with which we are familiar today, were not made until the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Therefore, they would not have been available during the Regency.]

The names of the types of marbles used during the Regency were often influenced by the materials from which they were made. An "ally" was a marble which was made from alabaster, a "blood ally" was an alabaster marble which had a streak of red running through it. Regular size marbles made from plain stone, such a limestone, were sometimes called "mibbs." A plain ceramic marble was usually called a "pottey" or a "commoney." These terms were most often used for the plainest ceramic marbles with a clear glaze. Those with a colored glaze might be known as a "blue pottey" or a "green commoney." Porcelain marbles were typically called "china marbles." Glass marbles were so rare during the Regency that there is no record of any special names for them. In Scotland, all marbles were called "bools," a corruption of the word "bowls," a game which had been played with larger balls on a grass court since at least Elizabethan times. "Meg" was a slang term for any ugly marble, regardless of the material from which it was made. Larger marbles made from any material, those used as shooters in a game of marbles, were known as "taws" or "shooters." Regular size marbles of any type which were placed within the ring in a game of marbles were known as "ducks" or "mibbs."

During the Regency, it appears that, generally, only boys played marbles. Such games were not considered appropriate for girls, though some records suggest that at least some girls did play from time to time. The specific rules for games of marbles varied from region to region, even from locality to locality. In fact, each group of players may have their own unique set of rules. But in general, most games were played by drawing a ring in the dirt, called the "taw ring," the players’ "ducks" or "mibbs" were put inside the ring, either in a specific pattern or randomly, based on the specific rules of the game to be played. This game was usually called "Ring Taw." Once the marbles were placed within the ring, each player would take turns shooting at the marbles with a larger marble, known as a "shooter" or a "taw." Usually, the player who was shooting did so from the line formed by the ring scratched in the dirt. This was known as the "taw line." Typically, the shooting player propelled their taw into the ring by flicking it with their thumb while it was cradled in the curve of their index finger.

The rules of most games required that the knuckles of the shooter’s hand be placed firmly on the ground while they were shooting in order to prevent any momentum being added to the speed or power of the taw by a hand in motion. "Histing" was the term most often used when a player raised or moved his hand before the taw was away. Anyone who was caught histing was usually punished by having to place their shooting hand knuckles down of the ground while the other players shot their marbles at that hand. This could be quite uncomfortable on a cool spring day. From at least 1740, "Knuckle down" was a common call from other players if a shooter was seen to lift or move his hand while shooting. [Author’s Note:   By the turn of the nineteenth century, this phrase had also acquired the meaning of diligently applying oneself to a task.] So long as they kept their shooting hand firmly on the ground, there were seldom any rules regarding the position of the hand, or the thumb and index finger, involved in the shot. There seem to have been many different shooting hand positions employed by marble players, depending upon their personal preference.

In most cases, the object of the game was to knock marbles belonging to other players out of the taw ring. If the game was "for keeps," each player got to keep any marbles which they were able to knock out of the ring. In games played "for fair," players got points for the number of marbles they were able to knock out of the ring, but each player kept all the marbles which they brought to the game. It seems that it was expected that it must be clearly stated before the game began whether that game would be "for keeps" or "for fair." There were any number of instances of violent outbreaks if a player tried to keep marbles belonging to other players during a game which was not specifically declared to be "for keeps." When games of Ring Taw were played outside of public houses or taverns, they were usually played by men, and some form of wagering was often involved. Most were simple drinking games, by which the winner would be treated to one or more drinks paid for by the other players. In some cases, money was wagered on the outcome of a game. Such games could lead to violence, if one or more inebriated player(s) took issue with the results of the game or the sums owed.

An early game played with marbles was known as "Nine Holes," This game originated in France, where the object of the game was to bowl marbles at a model of a wooden bridge with nine arches. Each player was to get their marbles through the numbered arches in a specific order. Whoever accomplished that feat, with the least number of bowls, was the winner. In Regency England, a marble game known as Six Holes, or a lower number of holes, anywhere from six to three, abandoned the small wooden bridge. In this version of the game, the number of holes specified were dug in the playing ground, a set distance from each other. The holes were usually about two inches in diameter, about an inch deep and spaced two to four feet apart, depending upon the rules for that area. Each player then attempted to bowl a marble into each hole in succession. The winner was the player who got a marble into each hole, in the correct order, with the least number of bowls.

Another game played during the Regency was known as "Boss Out," or "Boss and Span." This game had a variety of rules, but was usually played only by two players. In this game, the first player would bowl his marble out onto the playing ground at any distance he wished. The other player then had to bowl his marble in such a way as to hit the first player’s marble, or get as close to it as possible. If the second player hit the first player’s marble, or came close enough to it to span the distance with one hand, he won that round. If the second player’s marble came to rest farther away than the span of a hand, it then became the target for the first player’s second turn. Each bowler would continue to play in turn until the game was won, based on the specific local rules for a game of Boss and Span.

Curiously, taw, or marbles, was primarily a seasonal game in England, from the seventeenth century right through the nineteenth. Games with marbles were played most often in the early spring, particularly during Lent and the Easter season. In many areas of England, marble-playing began on Ash Wednesday and continued until Easter Sunday. In a number of rural areas in the British Isles, Good Friday was also known as "Marble Day" because it was the end of the marble-playing season. According to one account, clergymen gave the children of their village marbles on Good Friday to keep them occupied quietly on that solemn afternoon. Despite the fact that a number of conservative clergymen did not approve of marbles, or the gambling that was sometimes part of the game, many others considered taw to be a much less boisterous and mischievous activity than other rural games played with larger balls. That taw was generally played in the early spring may also be due to the fact that after a long winter, when a lot of the ground was still soft and muddy, only a small space outdoors was needed to play a game of marbles. As the ground warmed and firmed, games with larger balls were preferred and marbles were largely ignored until the next spring.

One of the oldest sporting events in all of Britain is the British Marbles Championship which is held on Good Friday, just outside the Greyhound Public House on Tinsley Green in West Sussex. According to legend, the tournament had its origins in 1588, when two young men, Hodge and Giles by name, were vying for the hand of Joan, a young milk maid of the village. The young men spent a week competing against one another in just about every popular sport of the day, in order to claim her hand. But even after seven days, their respective scores were tied. Finally, the contest came down to a game of marbles, the sport chosen by Joan, to be played on Good Friday, in front of the local public house. As the story goes, Giles defeated Hodge and thus won fair Joan. It is unknown whether the young couple, united by a game of marbles, actually married, or lived happily ever after. It must be noted, however, that though that first tournament of marbles took place in 1588, it was not established as an annual event on Tinsley Green until 1932. The tournament was created and sponsored by a local brewery which had built a new pub on the site of that very first marble tournament. Therefore, though marbles were probably played in Tinsley during the Regency, there was no official tournament during that period.

The word "marbles" came to have some slang connotations, but those were not in effect during the Regency. In the mid-nineteenth century, "marbles" was sometimes used as a euphemism for testicles. In the early twentieth century, initially in North America, "marbles" was a slang term for a person’s mental faculties or common sense. Thus, someone who had "lost their marbles" was considered to have gone mad or lost their senses. But this meaning did not come into use until nearly a century after the Regency ended. In addition, an important item often used when playing marbles during the Victorian period did not exist during the Regency. A "knuckle dabster" was a small, sturdy, often padded, square of cloth on which a player would rest their knuckles while shooting during a game of marbles. These knuckle dabsters became necessary in the later nineteenth century, when marbles were more often played on paved surfaces which scratched and abraded a player’s knuckles while shooting. During the Regency, marbles were primarily a rural sport and games were usually played on plain dirt or clay surfaces, so there was little chance of injury to a player’s knuckles.

Dear Regency Authors, might a game or two of taw help serve the plot of one of your upcoming stories? If you need to have a college student sent down to rusticate, might the reason be that he was caught playing marbles, for money, on the grounds of his university? A school boy might also be sent home if he is attending a strict school and is caught playing taw. Perhaps because he was involved in a fight with a player who tried to keep his marbles, even though the game was being played for fair and not for keeps? Or, might the making of marbles help to supplement the income of a rural family, living near a stone mason’s yard and a fast flowing stream? Will they gather waste stone chips to bring home to put into the water mill their father has built to turn stone chips into marbles? Could it be the heroine and her hero first meet while she is gathering stone chips, or when she is taking the finished marbles to the local village shop for sale? Then again, mayhap marbles could become a defensive weapon. The heroine’s little brother might be very fond of marbles and has a large collection. While she is fleeing the villain, who is pursuing her through the empty house, she grabs her little brother’s bag of marbles, and empties it near the top of the stairs. Will the evil villain loose his footing on those marbles and fall down the stairs? Sometimes the smallest things can add a nice bit of unexpected embellishment to a story. Might taw or marbles do that for one of yours?

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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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8 Responses to Of Taw, or Marbles, Through the Regency

  1. Funnily enough I was researching marbles just the other day to check what kinds were available, for the collection of a small boy to whom the principle of ball bearings was being explained by an engineer, as regards the swing bridge at Selby [built 1791-3], the first of its kind. He is given a worn ball bearing for his collection.
    I prized my ball bearing in my own marble collection which I had won from a schoolmate whose father got to bring them from the factory where he worked; he did NOT put up the prized giant crane ball bearing [a good 2 inches across] to be won! our own games in the marble season involved setting five small marbles or one big one between our spread legs, and other people would shoot to win them. Sometimes the 5 would be 5 matching ones with really nice patterns, sometimes just 5 marbles. It was understood that it was always keepses, and setting up a big’un was a good way of getting more common small marbles from people who missed, which was most of them. I had a couple of peewees as well, very tiny ones. Unfortunately my marble collection, which went back to the late 19th century was nicked by a visitor to the house, a [former] friend of our son.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have a couple of steelies in my marble collection. I suspect they were ball bearings in a previous existence, since they were given to me by one of my uncles, who was a mechanic. I must admit to a bit of envy with regard to that giant, two-inch steelie! How cool! I suspect that any small round object could have been used as a marble during the Regency, including ball bearings. Our Regency ancestors were quite practical about the use of objects.

      From what I learned during my research, peewees were not introduced until the end of the nineteenth century, which means it is unlikely there were any during the Regency. I have a few peewees in my collection, but beyond their size, there is nothing remarkable about them. Nevertheless, I am still glad to have them.

      My condolences on the loss of your marble collection. I learned that many people collect marbles and the older ones can be quite valuable. I hope the thief who stole yours has gotten, or will get, his comeuppance for that theft! Sounds like he has already paid for it with the loss of your son’s friendship. What a fool!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • trouble was, his mother swore blind her son wouldn’t do anything like that [he swiped our boy’s carefully painted warhammer figures too that he had been collecting for years with christmas and birthday money] and we hesitated to set the police on a 14 year old with a disabled father. It would have destroyed his father if the boy had been arrested. I hope Karma got him though. As far as I know my peewees belonged to Great Uncle Charlie who was born in 1900 and died in 1910. I had 4 as well which were 3/4 size, neither big’uns or little’uns. Family history in them. And the rugger-ball shaped one.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Some mothers can be quite blind where their sons are concerned, though I am not sure it does neither parent or child any real good. More than likely, Karma did get him. From what I have seen, those who do bad things get theirs sooner or later. But what a pity to have lost your great uncle’s marbles.

          Regards,

          Kat

  2. chasbaz says:

    I don’t remember what happened to my collection… must be losing my marbles.

  3. Thank you for this, my dad was a little boy during WWII, proud of his marble collection. Still have it.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to know you liked the article. How lovely to still have your dad’s marble collection. I don’t quite know what it is about marbles, but they are just wonderful to handle, even if you don’t play with them. Each one is a little work of art.

      Regards,

      Kat

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