It was back in 2006 when a friend of mine, knowing of my interest in pub games, asked, “Pat. What’s ‘four corners’?”
He had been sorting through his collection of pub inventories, thinning some out to sell on e Bay so he could make room for more books and had come across two references to the game. I had to admit that the name meant little – OK, nothing – to me.
The particular inventory related to the “Kings Head Inn”, Chelmsford, Essex, and was dated 1845. Included in the inventory were a cribbage board and card table. There was no mention of cards, presumably because at the time these were very expensive items and, therefore, likely to belong to mine host and not be part of the general contents of the public house. Also, according to the Kings Head inventory, the external buildings included a ‘temp[orary] skittle shed and seats (thatched)’ and a ‘four corner shed’ with a ‘four corner frame’, ‘4 corner balls’ and ‘4 pins’.
Another inventory, relating to the Bell Inn in nearby Little Waltham, dated 1826, included ‘ 6 pairs of quoits’, ‘30 draft men’ and ‘4 corner pins and bowl’. Having no knowledge at all of ‘four corners’, I leapt to the immediate opinion that the game was related to skittles.
Arthur R. Taylor, writer of two authoritative books on pub games, kindly pointed me in the direction of Joseph Strutt’s The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England which was first published in 1801. Strutt’s work is often the starting point for anyone interested in English recreations of a bygone age and he did not let me down. Chapter VII includes all manner of skittle games including ‘loggats’, ‘nine-pins’, ‘kayles’, ‘closh’ and – Ah yes! – ‘four corners’.
Strutt wrote of the latter:
‘[Four corners] Is so called from four large pins which are placed singly at each angle of a square frame. The players stand at a distance, which may be varied by joint consent, and throw at the pins a large heavy bowl, which sometimes weighs six or eight pounds. The excellency of the game consists in beating them down by the fewest casts of the bowl.’
Here then we have the gist of this most simple of pub games.
I asked Arthur R. Taylor for his comments and he replied, “I would think it almost impossible to down all the pins in one throw, although a skilled player should have been able to do it in two.” It also generated the thought that there must be more to the game than that or, as Arthur suggested, “It may have been a foreshortened game played when there wasn’t time for the full monty of nine-pins and endless frames.”
Arthur was also good enough to provide me with a copy of a print from his archives by ‘H. Carter’ called ‘A Game of Four Corners’ and dated 1869, which accompanies this article. The print clearly shows the square set-up, the action of the player (cheese in hand), the actions of the participants (drinking, laughing, smoking and ignoring the dog), the structure of the alley and the conditions under which they played. It also shows pieces of wood which appear to be set up on end around the pins. This might indicate that the game was similar to ‘rolly-polly’.
This derivation of skittles is mentioned by Michael Brander in his work on sports and the inn and was played with a heavily biased bowl or cheese which was cast in such a way as to ‘approach the pins from behind’, that is, to hit the boards and deflect on to the pins. Brander mentions ‘rolly-polly’ and ‘four-corners’ in the same sentence but fails to further enlighten the reader about the latter. To confuse matters further the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘roly-poly’ as a phrase dating back to 1713 as the general nomenclature for ‘various games, in most of which the rolling of a ball is the chief feature.’
The variations of skittles are many. A fragment of information about a game of skittles played with only three pins appears in Norman Smedley’s work, Life and Tradition in Suffolk and North-East Essex. He refers to ‘a purely local game’ at the turn of the twentieth century called ‘three-pin bowling’. Here three skittles were ‘set up at points determined by means of a heavy iron triangle, spiked to hold it in place.’ ‘The wood,’ wrote Smedley, ‘resembled that used in the game of bowls but was smaller, and bound with a broad iron band.’ Was this a more skilful version of ‘four corners’?
The two inventories of the Essex pubs hint at the popularity of forms of skittles in part of the county but do not allow me to make any wild assumptions that Essex was a hotbed of the game – although I believe it was.
Original article © 2006 and 2014 Patrick Chaplin (with due acknowledgement and thanks to Arthur R. Taylor)
Dr. Patrick Chaplin
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