Skittles - History and Useful Information

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Skittles History

Skittles or Nine Pins, the forerunner of 10 pin bowling, has long been played in the Inns of England. In general, players take turns to throw wooden balls down a lane at the end of which are several wooden skittles in an attempt to knock them all over. There are a number of skittle games across England and there have been many more in the past. In Germany, in the 3rd or 4th century monks played a game with a kegel which was a club carried for self defence. In the game, the kegel represented a sin or temptation and the monks would throw stones at it until they knocked it over. The modern German term for skittles is Kegelen.

There are two 14th century manuscripts which show a game called club Kayles (from the French "quilles" or skittles) and which depict a skittles game in which one skittle is bigger, differently shaped, and in most cases positioned so as to be the most difficult to knock over. The throwers, in the pictures, are about to launch a long club-like object at the skittles underarm. The large skittle is presumably a king pin as featured in some of the modern versions of skittles. The fact that the thrower is not using a ball is not at all unusual - the Skittles cousin, Aunt Sally, still uses a baton shaped stick to chuck at the doll and many modern skittles games throw a object called a "cheese" instead of a ball. Effectively a cheese is any "lump" which is used to throw at the skittles and shapes can vary from barrel shaped to, well, cheese shaped, really.

JFRMTableSkittles2.jpg (35548 bytes)

All forms of Skittles feature projectiles being propelled from one end of an alley in an effort to knock down nine pins stood in a square at the other end. That is about all that many of the games do have in common, though, and over the years, Skittles developed regional variations in skittle size and shape, skittle alley length, use of a kingpin, size and shape of the balls/cheeses and the rules began to vary quite radically across England. One of the most marked divisions is in the method for actually throwing the balls or cheeses. In London, the heavy cheese is flung full toss directly at the skittles, over in the West country balls are rolled down the full length of the alley while in the midlands the Long Alley game usually requires the cheese or ball to bounce a single time before hitting the skittles.

Parallel to these developments, the phenomenon of miniaturisation must have also been occuring, as it did for so many other old English games. This would tend to happen so that pub landlords could retain the enjoyment of the game while no longer requiring the space-consuming skittles alley in order to play. Some of these table-top versions of skittles are still enormously popular - especially the version known as "Devil Amongst the Tailors" or "Table Skittles" - please see the Table Skittles page for full details of each miniaturised skittles game. In the case of the peculiar Rolly Polly, a heavily biased ball was developed - possibly as another space saving exercise.

The game pictured is from the author's collection. It was bought from Masters Games.

Skittles Games Still played today

Western SkittlesWest Country Skittles is the most popular and basic version of Alley Skittles wherein 9 skittles are arranged in a square at the end of an alley. The alley is around 24 feet long and each turn starts with all the skittles standing and consists of three throws down the alley. If all the pins are knocked down, then they are all reset. So the maximum score in one turn is 27.

The picture of Western Skittles to the left is published by kind permission of Eric Brain, Bath University.

There are variations from town to town and even pub to pub as to the further details but this author's research has discovered 4 main types of pin as follows:

Wales / Glamorgan - the smallest of the pins at 6 - 8 inches high, thin with a bobble on top. Gloucester - Barrel shaped pin about 10 inches high. Bristol - A bulge in the middle about the same height as the Gloucester variety. Sometimes with a kingpin. Devon - Very large pins with a bulge in the middle. 12 inches high with a kingpin that can be up to 15 inches high.

In the East Midlands, people play Long Alley, a skilful game in which the pitch is 33 - 36 feet long and the projectiles are flung almost the full length of the alley where they must bounce a single time before ploughing into the skittles. Most Long Alley games feature a Kingpin which must be hit first or else no score is counted... Local variations aside, Long Alley itself appear to be split into two main varieties. In Leicestershire, barrel shaped cheeses are thrown and the skittles are tapered and relatively thin. Experts use the eccentric shape to produce clever angles upon the bounce and thus can topple skittles in arrangements that would not be possible with an ordinary ball. Up in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, balls, often roughly hewn and traditionally of applewood, are used to topple skittles that are club shaped.

London pinsOld English Skittles or London Skittles is a majestic game in which the alley is around 21 feet, the bomb-shaped pins are 14 1/2 inches high, 6 1/2 inches across the middle (3 inches diameter at either end) and weigh 9 pounds. The discus-shaped cheese, too, is enormous varying from 8 1/2 to 12 inches in diameter and weighing between nine and twelve pounds but none-the-less, the cheeses are thrown in order that they hit the skittles directly without touching the floor first. The game is now very rare but can still be played at the famous Freemasons Arms in Hampstead.

To the right are shown nine London pins at the Freemasons Arms by kind permission of Paul Robinson.

An unusual game called Rolly Polly or Half-Bowl is or used to be played in Hertfordshire in which a bowl with huge bias is used. The ball is rolled at 12 pins in a circle, the catch being that the bowl must go past the circle of pins and another pin a bit further away before returning, due to the bias, in the reverse direction. The game can be thought of as a version of Table Skittles played on the floor with the bias replacing the need for the suspension of the ball on a pole and some have speculated that this is how Rolly Polly originated. It seems more likely, however, that the biased ball is just an alternative solution to try to reduce the amount of space needed for the skittles game. Recent information suggests that the game is in fact of Belgian origin. Both a skittles variant as described above and a Bowls game called Rolle Bolle have been reported. The latter involves sending large disks with a large bias in an effort to get them close to a stake at the other end of the game area.

Ten Pin bowling is the North American version of Skittles and is believed to be based upon the Skittles game from Holland. It was probably the Dutch who took their version of skittles to America in the seventeenth century although another theory believes it is of English origin. Either way, the game fell into disrepute before long as it tended to attract crowds of undesirables and to be played by gamblers. Consequently, a law was introduced to ban the game but since the law only mentioned "nine pin bowling", people simply added another skittle and called the game ten-pin bowling to avoid penalty!

Finally, Aunt Sally is in the skittles family but is a game sufficiently different to merit a section of it's own.


A description and rules for Skittles are available for free from Masters Games

Buy Skittles and Table Skittles

You can buy a variety of different style of skittle pins and balls from Masters Games. Table skittles and a portable skittles alley are also available.

Other Links

London Skittles at the Hampstead Lawn Billiards and Skittles Club - An excellent site on the rare game of Old English Skittles.

Long Alley from the Coopers Arms, Nottingham.
The Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League (Long Alley)

The Calne and District Skittles League (Western Skittles)
The Highwaymen Skittle team from Worcester (Western Skittles)
The Blockheads Skittles team from Bath University (Western Skittles)
The Dirty Dozen (The Welsh version of Western Skittles at the Llanbradach Workmens Club, Llanbradach, Caerphilly South Wales)
Muni Loonies from Cardiff, Wales

French Nine Pin Skittles is a game of completely different character.


If you want to submit a pub to this list, please just email me:

Long Alley

The Beacon, Ilkeston, Derbyshire.
The New Inn, Long Eaton, Derbyshire
The Ancient Druids, Cotmanhay, near Ilkeston, Derbyshire
The White Lion, North Kilworth, Market Harborough, Leicestershire.
The Blacksmith's Arms, Cosby, Narborough, Leicestershire.
The Royal Oak, Great Glen, Leicestershire
The Wheatsheaf, Thurcaston, Leicestershire
The Plough Inn, Littlethorpe, Leicestershire
The Bull's Head, Broughton Astley, Leicestershire
The Carrington Arms, Ashby Folville, Leicestershire
The Rose and Crown, Thurnby, Leicestershire
The King Wiliam IV, Enderby, Leicestershire
The Lord Nelson Inn, Basford, Nottinghamshire
The Nottingham Town Arms, Plumtree Square, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire
The Royal Oak, Watnall, Nottinghamshire
The Miner's Arms, Ilkeston, Derbyshire
The Coach and Horses, Loscoe, Derbyshire
The Coopers Arms, Porchester Rd., Nottingham,

Old English Skittles

The Freemasons Arms, Downshire Hill, Hampstead
National Westminster Bank Recreation Club, Norbury

The following pubs used to regularly play Old English Skittles. Most regrettably, they have all apparently removed their alleys, recently, furthering the decline of the game:
The Duke of Devonshire, Balham
The Haven Arms, Haven Lane, Ealing, London W5
The Duke's Head Inn, Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London SW15

West Country Skittles

Anchor Inn, Diglis, Worcester.
The Star Inn, Ashton under hill, Evesham, Worcestershire 01386-811325 (submitted John Crowther, Feb 2000)
The Bull, Risley, Near Reading, Berkshire (submitted Ian Bradley, Oct 2000)
The Plough, East Stratton, Near Basingstoke, Hampshire (submitted Ian Bradley, Oct 2000)
The Jolly Miller, North Warnborough, Hampshire (submitted Ian Bradley, Oct 2000)
The Half Moon, Stoke-Sub-Hamdon, Nr Yeovil, Somerset (submitted Richard Feltham, Nov 2000)
The Royal George, West Coker, Nr Yeovil (submitted Matthew Butler, Dec 2000)
Ring of Bells, Norton Fitzwarren, Near Taunton in Somerset (submitted David Lowe, Dec 2000)
Black Horse, Taunton, Somerset (submitted David Lowe, Dec 2000)
The Ship Inn, Oldbury-Upon-Severn, South Gloucestershire (submitted Glynn Poole, Feb 2000)
Dog & Partridge, Risely, Hampshire (submitted Ian Bradley, Feb 2001)

Rolly/Half Bowl

The Chequers, Dereham, Norfolk

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