On The Mat : the origins of modern tiddlywinks 1954-57


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:

"R. C. Martin and I appreciated our chances of gaining a Blue but felt that if only we could represent the University at some sport it might help in an interview some time in our lives. Such remarks as 'I play rugger. I have played for the University' would then be technically possible. "The idea of starting a new sport was the simplest way in, but what sport? Surf bathing was too complicated to organise; tree-felling had its complications in the fen land; camel racing had an attraction, particularly if the course was from London to Brighton, but the zoo does not like letting its camels out for this sort of thing. Then like a thunderbolt both Martin and I realised it must be tiddlywinks, a game we had both enjoyed greatly in our early life. This was November 1954. "Once the idea was formed we had to find out what sort of organisation there already was in this sport. So during that Michaelmas vacation R. C. Martin studied the archives in the University library to try and find out something of the history of the game. John Rilett, who had joined us, was to try and find a friend of his in the army who claimed to be the Junior European Champion to find out what organisation there was, if any, behind him. I was to try and find the official rules, if any, by writing to the manufacturers."

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." (Ed: Marchant may have been exaggerating slightly: the first tiddlywinks patent was filed in 1888 by Joseph Fincher).

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 has 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 associated 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:

"Remove the cup from the box and place it on a table covered with a thick cloth. Each player takes one of the large counters and all the small ones of the same colour. The latter are placed in a row at an agreed distance from the cup and players take it in turn to flip them into the cup with the large counter. If a counter is covered by one of an opponent's, it remains out of play until the opponent plays the covering counter and the player loses his turn if there is not another counter he can play. The player who first gets all his counters into the cup is the winner."

At first, it is perhaps 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.

[Ed.: at this point the original booklet has a figure of a wink in flight towards a pot beside a pint of beer]

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. [Ed: The original CUTwC logo was still in use in the mid-1980's, but it was changed when personal computers became common]. For example, on February 18th Steen wrote to University College London; but a few days later the President of the Student's 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.

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