Winks Rampant : the development of modern tiddlywinks

Keeping On the Boil

After the excitement of the Goons match the Club might easily have sunk into an anticlimax, but things were kept on the boil. The Lent term still had a week or two of its course to run. The Club held a well-attended meeting (17 members present) on March 10th at Christ's College. The entire Goons team, plus the two umpires and Capt. R.C. Harry, were elected Honorary Members "for services to tiddlywinks". But the main business of the evening was a most amusing and entertaining talk by the Rev. E.A. Willis, author of the Tiddlywinks Anthem. "Mr Willis, a life-long tiddlywinker, and himself genuinely convinced of the skill and beneficient value of tiddlywinks, gave many examples from his own experience of how tiddlywinks can intoxicate even the most temperamental of men, and render the strong into nervous wrecks when faced with a vital tiddle shot. Mr Willis gave a demonstration of some of his own variations on the game, including the 'four pot relay', and the meeting closed with the singing of the Tiddlywinks Anthem, to the accompaniment of Mr. H.W.C. Henderson, a friend of Mr. Willis and also a devotee of tiddlywinks."

Many were Willis's visits to winks clubs in the next few years, infusing his zeal for the game into his audience. One of his stories was how in air-raid shelters during the Second World War he endeavoured to get young people to play Queensbury tiddlywinks (racing for the pot) as a sort of shock therapy. His dictum was that tiddlywinks was only worth playing if it was made enjoyable and played in a gentlemanly spirit.

In a period when every player was wont to extol the game in golden phrases, Willis's were perhaps the greatest eulogies. Almost everything he pronounced on the subject was a hymn of praise. The Tiddlywinks Anthem, which seems to be the game's first piece of poetry, was very much in the 'heroic' vain (as was the early poetry of cricket, another game which in its infancy was held in low esteem by the general ranks of the population). Willis had the happy knack of coining eminently quotable sentences. "Life takes on a new prospect when one holds a squidger in one's hand", he said on one occasion in London. In a letter dated 30th January 1958 he wrote, "The progress of Civilisation will depend in no small measure upon the spread of this most noble sport." He portrayed tiddlywinks as the last wholesome force which was capable of ultimately overcoming the soul-destroying march of industrialisation. "We look to tiddlywinks to get us back to the primeval simplicity of life", he once remarked; this became one of The Observer's Sayings of the Year. On 24th April 1958: CUTwC, "alone of all Societies in the British Isles, stands between Civilisation and the threat of Atomic Destruction." (To complete the story, Willis was a graduate of London University and the Champion's Cup in the London Tiddlywinks League, donated by Clive Wolfe and Doug Smith, was named after Willis. He died in 1963.)

At Cambridge the last meeting of the Lent term was held on Wednesday 12th March. By now a match against Oxford had at last been arranged, after three years' endeavour. The meeting largely consisted of trials for team selection, the test being to pot 8 small and 4 large winks from 4 feet; Peter Downes reduced the Club record to 30 shots.

During the Easter vacation the Northern branch of CUTwC played a 4-a-side match against Manchester University Technical Faculty. The Cambridge team was Downes, Taylor and Mellor plus a guest player, Ravenscroft (Christ's College). Cambridge won 26-18.

It is impossible to be sure how many permanent winks clubs were in existence at this time, but there is evidence of at least seven. Cambridge and Oxford head the list. The Willis Hall Tw Club was formed at a Bristol University hall of residence some time in 1957; during the summer term of 1958 the club was granted the title of University of Bristol Tw Club. A letter in "Sennet" during March 1958 shows that a group of students, including one Philip Bryan, had formed a club at the London School of Economics. Manchester University Technical Faculty possessed a club by February 1958. In May 1958 Altrincham Grammar School (AGS) was organising a contest which attracted 64 entries, including 10 masters and most of the prefects; Nick Ludlow and Ken Veitch were the founders of the AGS Tw Foundation which was soon experimenting with spin shots et al. There was also a club at Kings School, Peterborough. This list is probably incomplete. In addition there were a number of bodies which had no permanent club but could sometimes find 8 people willing to play in a match.

One newcomer to these ranks in April was the Telcon Works, Manor Royal, Crawley. J. Mason, from the Marbles Section of the Telcon Social & Athletic Club, wrote to Cambridge on 18th April:

"After reading your artical (spelling!) in the daily papers, we feel that we are in the same position as yourselves. We are both trying to prove that Tiddlywinks and Marbles are both games of skill, and I feel sure that we could help each other a great deal.

"We have been British Marbles Champions for two successive years, and we are trying to revive a game which is very popular down here in Sussex.

"If we could arrange to play each other at our own games for any charity you mention, I am sure it would popularise both games very much."

Cambridge took up this suggestion, and arranged a marbles-and-winks match on Tinsley Green, Crawley, for Friday 13th June, the day following the First World Tiddlywinks Congress.

By now a number of replies to Congress invitations had arrived, but the great majority of those invited did not reply. One who did was the editor of "Honi Soit", a student journal at Sydney University; he wrote on March 19th, saying that "the playing of this magnificent sport has been preserved in Australia by way of a series of quadrannial contests conducted in highly secret catacombs under the sewage outlet on Bondi Beach." He went on to say that a representative would actually be at the Congress; in the event the representative made no appearance.

Five days later Moscow University sent a reply, written entirely in Russian! Part of the letter was translated as saying "As the game has so far not been cultivated with us we abstain from taking part in this Congress." Copenhagen University was another to reply, declining the invitation. "In fact, we are not really sure what a tiddlywinks club is supposed to occupy itself with."

A terse reply came from the House of Commons on May 6th: "Dear Sir, In reply to your letter received today I am sorry to say that there is no Tiddlywinks Club in the House of Commons. Yours faithfully, Speaker's Secretary." How disillusioning it must have been to learn that in between division bells or while waiting for constituents MPs didn't unfurl a mat and snatch a quick bit of potting practice. [Ed.: The House of Commons did in fact play a tiddlywinks match aginst CUTwC in 1989]

Two other letters which Cambridge received in May were on a different subject. The Sports Editor of the New York Herald Tribune (European Edition) wrote to say that Webster's Dictionary "gives the following first definition of the work tiddlywink: 'an unlicensed public house'." In the same month, the Secretary of the King's School Tw Society, Peterborough, mentioned the same definition of tiddlywink, and added "it would be interesting to find the connection (if any) between the most honourable of sports and the most vital of institutions."

On May 17th, 'Everybodys' published a letter from Peter Downes asking for any information on tiddlywinks. There were not many replies, but a few interesting items came up. One reader was fond of playing Obstacle Tiddlywinks, in which tumblers, clocks etc. were placed in front of the cup. A woman, E.J. Goodman, wrote "In 1907 I won a work basket for playing tiddlywinks at a Womens' and Girls' Club. I still have this in use; what happy memories it always recalls." A copy of the rules from a set of tiddlywinks which had been in the family for years was enclosed, but has since disappeared. Unless the letter is a hoax it is, perhaps, the earliest reference to an organised tiddlywinks event. (Another reference to early tiddlywinks came as a result of an item by the present author in Woman's Own in November 1964: a Mr. Graham from north London, a sexagenarian, seeing the item in his wife's copy of Woman's Own, told of a social club to which he belonged in 1921-22, in which a form of tiddlywinks was one of the activities.)

CUTwC's first meeting of the summer term was held on Monday 21st April. In the absence of a reply to a letter sent to Oxford previously, it was assumed that an intervarsity match would not take place during the term. On a brighter note, a tour of the West of England, sponsored by Showerings, was discussed. Next, "It was decided that in spite of numerous fan letters, a CUTwC fan club should not be formed"! A fourth item concerned the name for the Club's 2nd VIII: popular choices were Cuckoos, Chameleons, and Kippers (Kippers was eventually chosen at the AGM).

"At the end of the meeting, the Club listened with great pleasure to a tape-recording of the Goons match. This was made by David Evans (Christ's) and consisted of recordings taken from the BBC" (including tape which the BBC had thrown into a dustbin in Cambridge, and which a member of CUTwC came across entirely by accident) "some taken in the Hall during the match, others taken during the lunch, and various other interviews with officials of the CUTwC. It was decided that the recording, in itself a complete story of the Goons match, should be made into a long-playing record, and a copy sent to the Duke of Edinburgh." Finally, Willis was unanimously elected an Honorary Member of CUTwC.

Two days later a visit was paid to the Social Club of St Columba's Church, Cambridge, giving demonstrations and a potted history of the game to an audience of 40-50.

The following day "three members of the Oxford Club came to Cambridge to discuss the intervarsity match with the Cambridge Committee. The discussion was prolonged and there was a clear clash of ideas. The Cambridge view was, essentially, that a small hastily-prepared match this term would come as an unsuitable anticlimax to the Goons match, and that, accordingly, the first intervarsity match should be left to next year. [Ed.: In fact there's a newspaper article describing a varsity match in 1946, nine years before the modern game was 'invented'. Cambridge won.] The Oxford view was that everybody at Oxford had been anticipating a match for this term, and if the match did not take place, the Oxford Club would probably pass out of existence. In spite of keen disapproval by L.C.M.Howells and W.M.Steen, the President and Secretary agreed to compromise with Oxford, and play an experimental match, each half under a different set of rules, at Oxford on May 9th."

The following Tuesday the rest of CUTwC was informed of the decision to play Oxford as an experiment. The match would provide information which would be helpful in drawing up a definitive set of rules at the forthcoming Congress. Tony Cooper of Oxford, speaking of the different sets of rules used by each club, had said "Ours is a game of manual skill and dexterity while theirs is more a game of tactics." (Looking back on this quotation, it is ironic that it should be Oxford who, about 3 years later, introduced the far-reaching tactical innovation of all- double squop).

A short training session was held by CUTwC on May 5th, followed four days later by the match itself. The Minutes describe in some detail what happened. "The Cambridge team travelled to Oxford in a Dormobile... we arrived at the Forum Ballroom just before the agreed time of 2 pm, and found, to our surprise it has to be admitted, that a crowd of about 40 had gathered to see the event. More disconcerting, however, was the presence of the CBS with its cameras, reporters etc. We discovered that the Rev E.A.Willis had been called upon at the last moment to act as referee, and we were quite agreeable to his being the ref. After Tony Cooper, Master of the Oxford Winks, had welcomed Cambridge and described the match as the first intervarsity match, the Cambridge Secretary, replying, pointed out that this was an experimental match, to provide information for the World Congress in Cambridge in June.

"The game was played on the Cambridge mats and with Cambridge winks and pots, as Oxford were not in a position to provide 4 sets of standard winks. However, they were able to provide considerable opposition when play began. The Cambridge rules were used for the first half of the match and from the very first round Cambridge were behind. We pulled back in the second round, lost ground in the third, held our own in the fourth, but it was too late and Oxford won by 89 points to 87.

"During half-time a four-pot relay race was held between the two teams, which Oxford won by 19 winks to 15.

"Somewhat downhearted by the unexpected reverse in the first half, Cambridge set out on the second half, played under Oxford rules (Queensbury), with grim determination and a foreboding of crushing defeat. However, by a curious reversal in fortune it was now Oxford's turn to find themselves hard pressed. Now it was Cambridge's turn to hold that lead and as the match drew to its close there seemed every possibility that Cambridge were to gain revenge by winning 25-23. But at the last moment, N. Maggs who was Oxford's outstanding player, produced a phenomenal shot to level the scores 24 all.

"It was at this point that a reporter from Oxford Mail, who had already been clearly informed that this was an unofficial and experimental game, deliberately brought up the issue of world championship titles. No amount of explanation would quieten this reporter's provocative attitude... It should be recorded that the 'dispute' or 'storm' referred to in the cuttings, particularly the Manchester Guardian, never in fact took place. Without the action of this sensation-seeking reporter, the match would have ended in the same spirit which marked it throughout, one of keen rivalry and friendliness.

"The Cambridge team retired home, arriving safely back at 9.45 pm as yet blissfully unaware that this match was to arouse interest, and somewhat anti-Cambridge interest, throughout the English-speaking world."

The Manchester Guardian in fact said (May 10) "A storm broke out over who were world champions".

The contest had lasted 3 1/4 hours. Willis produced this insight into the game of tiddlywinks: "Tiddlywinks develops delicacy of touch; corrects colour-blindness; is a soothing influence on the nerves; and is conducive to restful sleep."

The last full meeting of the academic year was the AGM. Peter Downes was elected President and J. Furlonger Secretary. Downes said in his report on the year 1957-58 that the Club now had 21 members, with 13 honorary members. There had been 21 meetings in the year, including 7 matches, with more matches to come during the West of England tour. 158 letters had been received since the previous AGM, and nearly 200 sent, plus about 100 sent out about the Congress. 56 press cuttings had been collected for the Minute Book, and no doubt there were many others which had not been noticed.

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