ON THE MAT
THE ORIGINS OF MODERN TIDDLYWINKS
The author wishes to express his gratitude to the C.U.Tw.C. for making freely available to him the Club’s invaluable Minute Books, correspondence, press cuttings and other material without which this volume would not have been possible, and for permission to take quotations from these sources.
Tiddlywinks as we know it today can be dated from November 1954. Its cradle was Cambridge. Bill Steen, at that time a chemical engineering student, described the events of the Michaelmas term:
Two replies to Steen’s letters were penned on 9th December, 1954. Neither was very helpful; the journal The Sports Trader And Exporter said they were “not aware of any official body for Tiddlywinks, or any authorised rules controlling this nursery game.” J. W. Spear & Sons Ltd, of Enfield, said “The Game is certainly very old but just how old it is we do not know.” Similarly Gibson & Sons Ltd, writing a few days before Christmas, knew only that tiddlywinks “has been produced for very many years and there has been no copyright in the game for a long time.” On 4th January 1955 Marchant Games Ltd wrote that “unlike most board games (!) it is of English origin. This Company has been manufacturing Tiddleywinks for over 100 years and I understand that we have never yet been requested to state where the game originated.”
Nevertheless, with these and other replies, Bill Steen found a great spectrum of games varying from mere target practice to something like the present-day International game, which Marchant Games were marketing. John Rilett was unable to find his friend in the army, and Martin emerged from the University and British Museum libraries having found that the game had practically no recorded history. Cricket had its Pycroft, tennis its Marshall, and angling its Walton; tiddlywinks merely had the Greater Oxford Dictionary describing the game’s origins as “Obscure, Unknown”. But around 1870 there was apparently, besides Tiddlywinks, a game called Tiddlywink (singular) which was similar to dominoes.
After these preliminaries, a gathering of enthusiasts was convened. So it came about that on 16th January 1955 six undergraduates and a chaplain assembled in Bill Steen’s rooms in Christ’s College, to found the world’s first tiddlywinks club. Besides Steen, Martin and Rilett, the gathering comprised Lawford Howells, R. Parker, Brian Tyler and the Chaplain of Christ’s, the Rev. J. Brown. The Club was christened The Cambridge University Tiddlywinks Club, abbreviated to C.U.Tw.C. It was laid down that “the aim of the C.U.Tw.C. is to play matches against other Universities and Establishments”, and a challenge to this effect was sent to the `other place’, Oxford. Bill Steen was elected the Club’s first President, Martin became Secretary, and John Rilett was made Assistant Treasurer. The Rev. J. Brown accepted the post of Senior Treasurer; he was the first of two churchmen to be closely associate with modern tiddlywinks, the other being the Rev. E. A. Willis.
C.U.Tw.C. adopted the Rules of Marchant Games Ltd, “with a view to modification as necessary”. In those days the Marchant Rules in full were:
At first, it is perhaps rather surprising to reflect that squopping, which is the really fundamental difference between modern winks and the nursery game, was incorporated into the Marchant Rules in the pre-Cambridge era. Thus the C.U.Tw.C. did not invent the modern game; but it took the Marchant game out of its childhood context, refined and breathed new life into it, and introduced it to a wide circle of university and school people, and to a lesser extent those in other spheres of life.
There was prior to January 1955 no regulation concerning the sizes of the counters to be used. Apart from the squidgers, there were three sizes of counter available. A ballot on the matter showed an equal number of votes in favour of the combinations 3 small + 3 medium + 1 large, and 4 medium + 2 large. The final decision was deferred for a future meeting.
Membership of the Club was declared open to all members of the University, but it was thought wise to observe a limit on the number of members, and in practice the C.U.Tw.C. remained strictly masculine. An annual fee of 2/6 was levied on all members, and it was carefully added that “The Committee are not exempt from the fee”!
The Club determined to send the Senior Proctor a letter requesting official recognition; this was granted on January 23rd, dating back to the first meeting on the 16th.
The pioneers met for a second time on January 26th, and were joined by two new recruits, M. Hodge and D. Flinn. Of their arrival, Bill Steen wrote “first there were six in the Club, but very soon there were eight, thus it was fixed that eight should be the number in a university team.”
It was at this, the Club’s second meeting, that the important decision was made about the sizes of the counters to be used. Article 10 in the Minutes sums up the proceedings thus: “After some discussion, and some practice, a proposal that the counter sizes be 4 medium and 2 large was passed by 5 votes to 3.” Had this electorate of 8 not passed the motion, the game might even today be played with 3 small winks + 3 medium + 1 large. The meeting ended with about five practice games, “after the members had agreed to use a particular type of carpet as found in Christ’s College”. The Club now felt it had modified the Rules enough for the moment, and that extensive practice must precede further modifications.
“At this time, January 1955 (said Bill Steen), the Daily Express sent us a cheque for £2-10-0 for no apparent reason, but as an omen it was significant. From then on the flood gates of man’s inner yearning for tiddlywinks were open.”
To formally celebrate the inauguration of the Club, a Sherry Party was held at about tea-time on Friday 4th February. “The entire Club was present at the party”, states the Minute Book, “together with the Treasurer, Rev. J. Brown, and a member of the Press, Miss Nuala Stanley. The Committee was in evening dress to mark the importance of the occasion. When the party had been under way for an hour, the President, W. M. Steen, rose to make the inauguration speech. He mentioned how the idea had appeared to him and the Hon. Sec. the previous term to form the Club in an attempt to bring the game back into its true perspective. Evidently, he said, the game was quite well known in the middle of the nineteenth century in Europe, but that it had tended towards obscurity at the turn of the century.”
Nuala Stanley, of the Cambridge Daily News, reported the President as saying that “This Club aims at creating history for this much-neglected yet skilful game, a game which requires self-control, dexterity, and a keen sense of direction. It is a new venture and it will be difficult to find opponents.” This report was the Club’s first press cutting, the first of many, and it “caused some rejoicing amongst the members”.
The Rev. J. Brown replied to the President’s speech, paying tribute to the drive and efficiency of the founders of the Club.
The third and final speech was made by Martin, who described the Club’s future programme. When a club is the only one existing in its particular field it has of course to coax opposition into existence, and accordingly the C.U.Tw.C.’s programme consisted chiefly of issuing challenges – Oxford, R.C.A.F. North Luffenham, and certain foreign embassies were the immediate targets. In the event of a match materialising the C.U.Tw.C. were to play in dinner jackets. Martin went on to assert that olive oil was necessary to keep the counters in good condition, and he stressed the importance of all members owning their own tiddlywinks sets. “These”, he said, “could either be purchased cheaply or alternatively `borrowed’ from brothers and sisters for an indefinite period.” In these present days of standard equipment there should be no resort to the latter expedient!
After the Club’s next meeting, on February 7th (at which the C.U.Tw.C. crest was decided upon, and incorporated into designs for ties and bowties), challenges were issued in a variety of directions besides those Martin described in his Sherry Party speech. For example, on February 18th Steen wrote to University College London; but a few days later the President of the Students’ Union, Peter Pryor, declined the challenge, adding very prophetically that “though the vogue for this sport has not reached the Metropolis, we shall no doubt one day be running a Cup Competition amongst the various Colleges of the University.”
The Goons also received a challenge, but in a letter of March 24th the B.B.C. declined on their behalf; the Goons had dispersed after completing the current series of Goon Shows, and C.U.Tw.C. should try again in October when the Goons would be together once more. However in April Martin wrote the letter that was eventually to lead to the Club’s first match, and indeed the first match ever played under the modern `squopping’ rules. On April 20th the Editor of the Daily Mirror received a challenge. The Editor passed the letter to one of his columnists, Noel Whitcomb, who replied to Cambridge that “I think it might be quite amusing if I were to get up a team to play you”. It was arranged to hold the match towards the end of the summer term.
Although the C.U.Tw.C. was having difficulty in finding opponents it was far from idle. The founders were a band of adventurers setting out on an eccentric crusade which promised to be fun; yet it was in an earnest spirit of enquiry that these immortals designed a comprehensive programme of experimentation, whose results were to be published in a thesis in the summer. This programme was “an attempt to determine the mechanics of this sport. Thereby it is hoped to gain a knowledge of the factors which affect the play of the game, and thus to eradicate, if possible, random factors for which the player is not capable of allowing, and so to prove that the game is essentially one of dexterity and skill.”
To this laudable end, discussions and experiments formed a major activity of the Club. Apart from the normal meetings in the Lent and summer terms, a series of extra meetings was held.
First the Club listed the five variable factors of the game:
the type of mat
the atmosphere (physical and mental)
“These above divisions are a complete analysis of the game and as such formed a convenient division for research purposes.” They dealt with each variable individually, in a series of controlled experiments.
For research into the first variable, the playing surface, a select committee of the C.U.Tw.C. flicked through the many varieties of carpet material in Eaden Lillie’s carpet shop in Cambridge, to establish the optimum playing surface. It was immediately evident that pileless carpets (e.g. felts and needlelooms) gave a player the best control. On February 27th Steen wrote to Peter Shepherd & Co., of Reading, saying their Berkshire needleloom carpeting had been carefully tested and had been proved the best surface. The Company replied on March 1st: “We felt that in view of the amount of research which has been given to the matter we will supply you with four lengths of carpeting.” These mats served the Club in many of their early matches.
Winks and squidgers were the second and third variables to be studied. “Our search for tiddlywinks and squidgers took us clambering up into cold attics to hunt in cobwebbed teachests full of childhood pleasures, and trotting down the stairs to the basement of Gray’s of Cambridge to retrieve a sack full of apparently useless counters.” The Club found a remarkable variety of winks, differing in diameter, thickness, “and the shape of their faces”. For experimental purposes these were classified as small, medium or large winks. The performances of each size of wink in different shots were established, and the effects of different shapes of counter were examined.
With squidgers, the main point at issue was whether or not a round squidger performed better than a square one (the end of a one-foot ruler served as the square squidger). It was found that for a reasonably practiced player neither had any distinct advantage.
The fourth variable in the game is the player. The four basic shots of tiddlywinks were analysed in detail, the shots being dubbed the long drive, the approach shot, the short putt, and the cover-up shot; were there perhaps some golfers in the Club! Among the intriguing experiments were some devised to discover why and how a wink spins or rolls. “The Club members spent many weary hours lying on the floor watching the spin on tiddlywinks which had been flicked from various materials in various ways”, says the Thesis. In another enterprising experiment “several tiddlywinks were squidged out of an upstairs window, the drop being of the order of 20 feet. The spin was carefully observed on the way down. The only result which was noticed was that the rate of spin increased with increased speed of the wink, but the axis appeared to remain constant. The conclusion to this has not been worked out yet.”
Even the effect of the physical atmosphere on the game was subjected to close examination. Atmospheric density, humidity, temperature, draughts, and the aerodynamic effect on the trajectory of the wink, received as scientific an analysis as was possible.
Finally, certain psychological elements of tiddlywinks came under review. These the Club divided into three types—wine, women, and song. After referring the reader, under “wine”, to the non-existent Test 7 in the Appendix, the Thesis carefully avoided giving any results of the tests into the effect of women on male winkers! A few paragraphs on the implications of song and other aural distractions rounded off the section on the mental atmosphere. As the Club declared, “the mental atmosphere is half the game”.
This busy programme of scientific research continued from the Lent term through the summer term, and into the long vacation. At the Annual General Meeting on June 9th (at which Martin became the new President and Howells took his place as Secretary), Bill Steen “said that certain members of the Club were writing chapters towards the thesis on the game of tiddlywinks, and it was hoped to have it finished by the end of the summer vacation.” The Minutes continue, “
What the Statistical and Physics lecturers subsequently thought of the Thesis is not recorded!
The long vacation did indeed see the completion of the Thesis. The last of the material was written up, and stencils were distributed among members for sharing the typing; one of the many charms of the Thesis is the transition from one typeface to another. There is an undated item headed `Thesis’ in the Cambridge files, which sets out in detail the cost of producing copies: altogether the stencils and duplicating paper cost £1-13-3, and postage came to 3/4.
The Thesis was ready by early October. Included among the opening remarks was a quotation from the erudite Phoenix Dictionary of Games: “To scorn tiddlywinks because it is played by children is to refuse milk because it is the food of babies.” (The editor of the Dictionary, John Pick, became a Life Member of the English Tiddlywinks Association in the autumn of 1964.)
Production of the Thesis far exceeded the brief distribution list mooted at the A.G.M in June. In the search for publishers and publicity copies of the Thesis were sent to (among others) Illustrated, Titbits, Weekend Mail, Hutchinson, and the Daily Express. None of these would publish. Halfway through the Michaelmas term the Thesis was placed in the hands of Robert Sommerville, literary, dramatic and film agent; he replied in mirror-writing, but nothing more came of it.
The Thesis was a great milestone in the history of tiddlywinks, and has become a hallowed classic. Nine years elapsed before the appearance of any other widely published investigations into the optimum properties of the game’s equipment; these were the articles in The Winking World by Aeacus and Phil Villar, in October 1964 and March 1965.
THE FIRST MATCH
The promised match against Noel Whitcomb’s team safely materialised in June, in the heart of London. As the first match ever played under the modern rules incorporating squopping, it has a secure place in the annals of the game, and it lived up to the importance of the occasion.
The story is told in the words of Lawford Howells, from the C.U.Tw.C. Minute Book:
TWO LEAN YEARS
(1) OCT 55 - SEPT 56
The first meeting of the new academic year took place on the evening of October 10th. The Club continued to meet each Monday evening, and during the term membership rose to fourteen. These fourteen were (in order of joining the Club) Steen, Martin, Howells, Rilett, Parker, Tyler, Flinn, Pascoe, Pybus, Hughes, Turner, Cooper, Moreton and Ridge. Hodge had joined at the second meeting in January, but had resigned from the Club by October 10th.
Early in October Howells sent the Goons a copy of the Thesis, and a renewed challenge for a match “at your own convenience”. The Goons for their part replied that they were not keen to play the match “`at our own convenience’, as you suggest. It is a very small one and we would far rather journey to Cambridge to meet you on your own ground or, if you prefer, at your convenience.” But no match could be arranged before Christmas, and the matter was deferred till the New Year. In the event this produced no match.
Peter Shepherd & Co were also challenged, but declined on the grounds of needing practice first.
Howells wrote to Stephen Potter on October 18th, only to find he was lecturing in America, “studying USmanship on the spot”. On his return he wrote, declining the challenge (in spite of his surname!), but had this to say: “One of the thoughts that strikes me is that to say `I represented Cambridge at tiddlywinks’ might sound trivial to thoughtless people. Why not let us invent a new word for this, e.g. `I charted for’ or `I minored for Cambridge’? The initiated will know what it means; the uninitiated will be impressed.”
Gilbert Harding was another disappointment. He replied on October 27th that “unhappily, tiddlywinks was a game at which I invariably lost my temper, until the inevitable onset of adolescence at the age of six. I suffer from an enlarged spleen and high blood pressure”, adding that if he played tiddlywinks again this might cause him to burst, which would be “a horrible sight”.
Denis Compton read the Thesis with interest, but feared that his infamous knee would be unable to stand the strain of a winks match. It thus appears that the rigours of cricket (Compton scored 94 and 35 not out in the Fifth Test against Australia the following summer) are as nought compared with the physical hazards of tiddlywinks! Compton ended his letter by saying that “I read recently that in the 1920s a number of undergraduates founded a movement which urged a return to a more leisured form of life; they sat on pavements, playing tiddlywinks and urging passers-by to join them.”
The two academic sessions from October 1955 to September 1957 were a very lean period for the Club, and in the Lent term of 1956 the weekly meetings were changed to fortnightly. It was undoubtedly discouraging to find no opponents at all for 1 1/2 years: after June 1955 no match appeared until December 1956. By October 1957 there had been only 4 matches in two and three-quarter years of existence. Lesser mortals would have disbanded the Club, disillusioned.
It must be said that the Lent term of 1956 very nearly did produce a fixture. A match had been arranged against the University College London Rugby XV, on Saturday 18th February, at Cambridge; “unfortunately, however, the elements were against us, for a blizzard raged over most of England during the day and our opponents didn’t leave London.”
The Club took careful note of the fact that about this time both Aneurin Bevan and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Harold Macmillan) had mentioned tiddlywinks in political speeches.
On the evening of March 12th 1956 C.U.Tw.C. held an Extraordinary Meeting, the culmination of discussions and debate which had arisen within the Club. The meeting concerned the Rules. One debate centred on the scoring system. The current scores were 5 points for being first, 3 points for second, 2 points for third, and 1 point for fourth. The proposal now being mooted was to award only 4 points for coming first, the other points remaining the same. This proposal runs counter to the predominant school of thought a decade later, where it is considered important that the score earned by gaining first and fourth places exceeds the sum earned by coming second and third; if this were not so it might in some circumstances place undue emphasis on defensive play, aimed at avoiding fourth place rather than gaining first place. This was probably less true in 1956, when the strategy of double-squop was unknown. As it happened, after much discussion the proposal was defeated by 7 votes to 3.
The other matter at issue was resolved when it was unanimously decided to clarify the Rules by means of an addition; the addition is worth quoting extensively:
|I squallop||I squapt|
|You squallop||You squapt|
|He (or she) squallops||He (or she) squapt|
|We squallop||We squapt|
|You squallop||You squapt|
|They squallop||They squapt|
|Past participle –||Squapt|
|Noun –||Squap (masculine).”|
This entertaining addition to the Rules went on to discuss the taking of free turns when the opponents are `squapt’, along with lines similar to present practice. It will be noticed, however, that the term `squapt’ applied only when both partners had all their winks unplayable; the present use of `squopped’, referring to any individual wink or winks being covered, is a later development.
The remainder of the academic year passed by relatively uneventfully. Bill Steen tried unsuccessfully to arrange a match against 245 Squadron R.A.F. The A.G.M. was held on June 5th, Lawford Howells becoming the new President, and John Scully (who with Quarmby was the Club’s newest recruit) taking over as Secretary. There is an incongruous item in the Minutes of the A.G.M., headed Walking Race Challenge: “It was agreed that the Club should challenge any other non-athletic club in Cambridge to a walking race from the Senate House, London, to Piccadilly Circus.” The Minutes conclude “N.B. Although we had no tiddlywinks fixtures we did have a fixture against Green Sox Exclusive Sports Club. We played them at croquet! (and lost).”
TWO LEAN YEARS
(2) OCT 56 - SEPT 57
In the Michaelmas term membership reached an all-time high—19—with the addition of three Freshmen, Peter Downes, Roger Hauland, and Keith Piper. Meetings were now held on Tuesday evenings, and “the previous practice of playing haphazard games was abandoned and a ladder inaugurated which tended to raise the standard of play.” It is interesting to see that the forebears of the present English Tiddlywinks Association Records came into being at this time: “Members were invited to set up records: – (a) the number of counters sunk in 100 winks, (b) the number of counters sunk in 60 seconds – both starting with counters a foot from the cup.”
The highlight of the term was undoubtedly a match organised singlehanded by Bill Steen against a team of nurses from Addenbrooke’s Hospital. The match took place on the last Tuesday of the term, C.U.Tw.C. winning 11 games to 1. For this their second match the Club matted a side composed of Graham Ridge, Robert Turner, David Moreton, Ian Pascoe, John Scully, and the new trinity of Downes, Hauland and Piper. Addenbrooke’s matted a side of only six, “all charming nurses who provided quite stiff opposition and weakened the concentration of some of the Club’s playing members. One member became so enthusiastic that he suggested a return match the following evening at one of the nurse’s flats. The result is not known.”
The Lent term was unusual in that it produced two fixtures: On February 11th 1957 the C.U.Tw.C. played Addenbrooke’s again, winning 69-30, and on February 28th the Club defeated Westminster College 106-48. Three matches in three months was a distinct improvement.
Meanwhile the C.U.Tw.C. persisted in its attempts to encourage opposition from Oxford. The history of these attempts goes back to the very foundation of C.U.Tw.C. Even before the Club’s first meeting in January 1955, Bill Steen had urged a friend of his at Oxford, Gordon Dennis, to form a club there. Dennis gathered together a number of people prepared to play a friendly game against Cambridge, but not prepared to stake the reputation of Oxford on an official Varsity match. In February 1955 there were plans for an `unofficial’ match to be held in the summer, but these plans came to nothing.
When John Scully joined C.U.Tw.C. in the Lent term of 1956 he brought the news that his girl friend was at Oxford trying to form a club there. However the Minute Book reveals that “the Secretary’s girlfriend in Oxford lost interest in the Long Vacation (i.e. in Tiddlywinks not him) but before the Club had time to assimilate this news Peter Downes came forth with knowledge of a group of enthusiasts in Brasenose who are intending to form a club.” Cambridge hopes were raised in vain. C. I. Roberts of Brasenose wrote to Scully “We all find tiddlywinks to be an enjoyable and stimulating game, and one requiring no small measure of skill… However none of us feel sufficiently passionate on the subject to want to form an official club. The general opinion was that even if we did form a club, it would soon die out in subsequent years.” C.U.Tw.C. had to wait until November 1957 before they first had news of an official club at Oxford.
C.U.Tw.C.’s third A.G.M. was held on 11th June, 1957. David Arundale was elected President, Peter Downes Secretary. It was revealed that the Club’s resources amounted to the gratifying sum of £6.18.0. It was at this meeting that Steen and Howells announced their enterprising plan for a World Convention of Tiddlywinks, “to thrash out the vital problems of the rules of the game. Some members treated the idea at first with a disrespectful frivolity, but the general mood was that this scheme could be highly beneficial to the propagation of Tiddlywinks.” The Club now stood, unknowing, on the verge of the most momentous year the game has known – with the great match against Prince Philip’s Royal Champions the Goons, and Oxford match, the First World Tiddlywinks Congress, and a West Country tour. Tiddlywinks began to take deep roots in a host of centres throughout the country. It was the year the game changed gear. But that is another story.
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