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Leicester Special Collections

Games and Recreation

Compilation of recordings containing memories of the games played as a child during the Victorian and Edwardian era, from the East Midlands Oral History Archive. A full transcript can be found here:

The impact of improvements to schooling not only succeeded in producing the first literate generations, but also helped introduce and encourage the concept of team games. However inside and outside of the schoolroom, the popularity in toys and games remained constant throughout the century. Encyclopaedias and ‘book of games’ demonstrate the sheer volumes of games and toys introduced to school children during this time.

Aunt Louisa's London Toy Books: The Alaphabet of Games and Sports, 1870

Valentine, L., Aunt Louisa's London toy books: the alphabet of games and sports, (1870), SCM12082 


Educational Games 

Alongside an increase in school pupils came the rise in resources and education based games. Like present day, the nineteenth century incorporated learning with enjoyment, with toys and games designed to educate or improve learning. The Illustrative Alphabet of Games provides

children with a comprehensive encyclopaedia of games whilst teaching younger children the basic A-Zs.

For older children, the board game ‘Historical pastime or a new game of the History of England from the conquest to the Accession of George the Third’ integrates lessons on history within a fun group activity.


Historical Pastime, or a new game of the history of England, 1803

Historical pastime, or a new game of the history of England, (1803), SCM04767

Whip Top, 1805

The Book of Games or, A History of the Juvenile Sports, practised at the Kingston Academy, (1805), SCS03190, p.84

Whip Top

A popular favourite amongst school children was the game Whip Top. A predecessor to the Spinning Top, Whip Top consisted of a cylinder shaped object with a pointed end (the Top) and a stick with a piece of string or leather tied to the end (the Whip). To begin, the child would wrap the string around the Top and give the stick a pull. This would make the Top spin at a considerable speed and the game would begin.

Featured within The Book of Games, are instructions for its enjoyment:

‘To spin it, all that is necessary is to hold the Top in both hands, and putting the point of it near to the ground, give it a spin round with the hands, then having a short-handled whip ready, you are to flog the top on the thickest part of it, with the thong of the whip, which will keep it up for the length of time required’.* 

Arthur Morton recalls playing this game during his childhood:

‘We used to play Whip and Top up, up Sharnford Hill ‘cos there weren’t no traffic about them days. You’d have one whip one road and another whip the other and see who could get to the top of the hill first or to the bottom’.**

*The Book of Games; or The Schoolboys Manual of Amusement, Instruction & Health, (SCM06718), p.113

**East Midlands Oral History Archive, Special Collections Online,

In The Streets

Childhood games were not confined to the playground however, and for those in urban towns the streets became a place of recreation. The surge in popularity of childhood games was recognised by satirical magazine Punch, who in 1853 complained of pavements being made impassable by children playing shuttlecock and tipcat.* Many other games were played in the streets, with a rise team games such as: British Bulldog, Prisoners Base, Relievo, Hare and Hounds, and Leapfrog.

A very similar game is described by Sidney Coleman:

 ‘There was a very rough game we used to play called Releaso, and this Releaso…several of you used to be one side of the street and your opponents the other. At the word go you caught hold of each other and dragged him, or his clothing to your side of the street’.**

*Hopkins, E., Childhood transformed: working class children in nineteenth century England, (Manchester University Press, 1994), p.293

**East Midlands Oral History Archive, Special Collections Online,

Inspired by adults

Sports and leisure activities enjoyed by adults soon became the focus of playground games. Ordinarily a form of street entertainment, pastimes such as bear baiting or cock fighting can be found mirrored within the titles of popular nineteenth century school games.

The examples below reflect this:

‘Baste the bear’

‘One boy has a string about two yards long fastened to his arm, and he stands in the middle of a large circle, made on the ground. The bear’s master, and who is chosen by the bear himself, holds the other end of the string; all the other players stand round with handkerchiefs rolled up and knotted. The bear’s master must also have one similar. All the boys strive to hit the bear with him, and if the master strikes one of them, whoever it may be, without leaving go of the string that one becomes the bear and of course takes place of the former’.*

Every boy’s book: a complete encyclopaedia of sports and amusements, 1864


‘One player is termed Fox, and is furnished with a den, where none of the players may molest him. The other players arm themselves with twisted or knotted handkerchiefs (one end to be tied in knots of almost incredible hardness), and range themselves round the den waiting for the appearance of the Fox. He being also armed with a knotted handkerchief hops out of his den. When he is fairly out, the other players attack him with their handkerchiefs, while he endeavours to strike one of them without putting down his other foot. If he does so he has to run back as fast as he can, without the power of striking the other players, who baste him the whole way. If, however he succeeds in striking one without losing his balance, the one so struck becomes Fox; and as he has both feet down, is accordingly basted to his den. The den is useful as a resting-place for the Fox, who is often sorely wearied by futile attempts to catch his foes.**

*The Book of games; or The schoolboy's manual of amusement, instruction & health, (c1840s), p116, SCM06718

**William Harvey & Harrison Weir, Every boy’s book: a complete encyclopaedia of sports and amusements, intended to afford recreation and instruction to boys in their leisure hours, (1864), p.7 SCS04521


Advances in printing, the decreasing price of paper and improvements in literacy all contributed to the popularity and consumption of children’s magazines (periodicals) in the nineteenth century. A large majority of the publications were commissioned by religious bodies, such as the Sunday School Union and the Religious Tract Society. These periodicals were similar in format, and featured: poems, puzzles, engravings, and short stories often with biblical influence or moral instruction.

Games and Recreation