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Skittles History

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Skittles (and the giant skittles version) is a traditional game that has been played in Britain for centuries. Usually played in pubs or inns, the game of skittles is played by rolling or throwing wooden balls down a lane with the aim of knocking over nine wooden pins or skittles. Skittles is also known as ninepins - the older, more historical name for the game.


It is unknown where the name skittles comes from but it is possible that “skittle” may simply be a word that describes the noise made when the skittles fall.


Skittles shares its ancestry with the lawn game known as bowls. Skittles is also distantly related to billiard sports, some of which also use skittles, as in bar billiards, but the basic game – the throwing or rolling of an object at a set of pins dates back to antiquity. Obviously giant skittles is a simple off shoot of the conventional game of skittles.


Skittles can not really claim to have been the exact game played in the ancient world, but classical references have provided many examples of early throwing games being widely played, and so skittles, bowls and other games where an object is thrown or aimed at a set of pins or other balls, are probably all descended from some of the games played in the ancient world. The Egyptians who recorded much of their lives in carving, writing and physical goods, have left carvings of people playing what looks like a game of skittles, and other ancient references include material by the Greeks, Romans and the Lydians of Southern Turkey. Likewise, the size of the skittles in the ancient world was varied, and it is unlikely they played the giant skittles that we see today.


One of the first European reference to playing skittles was found in Germany where German monks were said to have played a game called Kugelen as far back as the 4th century. The Kugel (meaning club in German) was carried for protection and in this early skittles game the monks would throw stones at their clubs supposedly in a representation of knocking away sins but it seems likely that they just played it for their own entertainment! It is unknown how many skittles were used and if there were any rules, but skittles is still called Kugelen in Germany today and is still played.


The game of skittles being played with nine pins in Britain, is first mentioned in two Mediaeval manuscripts both written in the 1300s. These have references to a game called kayles which from their description can be seen as being the game of skittles, the name kayles being taken from the French word for skittle which is quille.


Today the jeu de quilles has largely died out in France but is still played in the south west of the country. The game uses nine skittles and the ball is thrown rather than bowled, as described in the early English game of kayles.


Skittles has not always been played with a ball. In some games a large stick or club was used to throw at the skittles and in some parts of Britain a round cheese was used to throw at the skittles. In the Midlands today, the skittles ball is usually known as a cheese. With the giant skittles version the round cheese could be quite substantial!


Skittles is a traditional a pub game and although skittles was once played throughout the inns and pubs of the British Isles, this has died out in some areas. However skittles continues to be played in many areas of Britain and remains extremely popular – especially the giant skittles version, as it is potentially easier to play!


Skittles has many variations and unlike most other sports or games there is no national organisation nor any standardised rules. The rules of skittles can be slightly different from village to town or from pub to pub. There are also regional varieties to the shape and size of the skittles used (such as giant skittles!), the shape of the ball and the throwing or bowling technique.


The West Country skittles game is the most well known version of pub skittles and is the game most the widely played in Britain today.


West Country skittles are played in Dorset, Devon Somerset, Wiltshire, some parts of Gloucestershire and Wales.


West country skittles are played in skittle allies that measure approximately 24 feet long (731cms). Each player has three balls and a point is awarded for each skittle toppled. If the skittles are all knocked down in the same throw (sometimes called a strike, a floorer or a flopper) they are reset so a good player may score a maximum of 27 points in his or her turn. This version of the game becomes slightly easier with giant skittles as 24ft is not all that far when the skittles are of the giant variety.


The players use either a ball made of hardwood or hard rubber which is bowled at the skittles with the aim of toppling them. The skittles themselves can measure anything between 6 – 12 inches high (15 – 30cms). The giant skittles measure 22cm.


Skittle matches are often played in local leagues, inter pub games or simply between friends. Skittles remains a very popular game throughout the West Country for both men and women and any pub that has a skittle ally attached to the premises will usually be a popular venue for a social evening, a few drinks and a game of skittles.


In the Midlands a slightly different version of skittles is played. Skittles are played in long alley – measuring approximately 33 feet (1005cms). Long ally skittles require that the ball is thrown rather than bowled at the skittles. This is more demanding when giant skittles are used.


There are two variations to the long ally game of skittles.


In Leicestershire, barrel shaped projectiles, known as cheeses are thrown directly at the skittles. Leicestershire skittles are a thin tapered shape allowing them to be easily toppled by the hurled cheeses.


In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire the game of skittles is also played in a long ally. A shaped wooden ball is used in the game and this has to bounce once before crashing into the skittles. Again the ball or cheese is thrown rather than bowled and again the skittles used here are longer and thinner than their West Country counterparts.


The long alley games are not well known outside their local areas but seem to have more in common with early versions of the game. These throwing games, rather than the bowling games have much in common with the French Jeu de quilles and the early game of kayles.


The other variation of pub skittles is London skittles. Sadly this game has all but died out now but is kept going by a small group of enthusiasts and can still be played in one or two locations in North West London. London skittles are large fat skittles (of which there is no current giant skittles version) and the game uses a shorter skittle ally and a very heavy cheese which is hurled at the skittles.


A skittle alley is not the only place where a game of skittles can be enjoyed. Samuel Pepys was fond of playing skittles and entries in his celebrated diary records that when not working he filled the time with political gossip, religious debates, music and the occasional game of ninepins. In March 1660 he recorded that he played a game of ninepins on board a ship!


Possibly the most well known version of skittles today is Ten pin bowling. The game of skittles was exported to the USA along with the first European settlers where it grew in popularity and was soon being played in ninepin bowling allies. However in 1841 the mayor of Connecticut felt that this game had too many associations with gambling and crime so banned nine pin bowling and it is said that ten pin bowling was invented to get round the law and this ban!


A skittle ally is not necessary to enjoy a game of skittles. Skittles – and especially giant skittles, can be played outside in the garden, the park or in any flat space. The game of skittles has always been played in public open spaces as well as in designated skittle allies and there are plenty of historical references to skittle games being set up in the street or being played at public fairs. During the frost fairs of London that took place in the 1600s when the Thames froze in winter, engravings from the time clearly show skittle games being played on the ice.


Skittles is a simple game of skill that can be enjoyed by all ages and adapted for play in many different surroundings. Whether you decide to play a throwing game or a bowling game in the garden or take skittles to the beach, play the giant skittles version or otherwise, skittles is a sociable and lively game that can be enjoyed by just about everyone.