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Duration 29:45

Women, darts and the pub in the interwar period

Dart historian Patrick Chaplin offers a surprising insight into the role of women in the social history of darts. He challenges the commonly held belief that women in the interwar period rarely participated in darts, or other pub games, because of their restricted access to the ‘masculine republic’ of the tap room, the public bar and the vault.

This podcast was recorded live as part of the Pub History Society conference on 20 February 2010 at The National Archives, Kew.


My name’s Patrick Chaplin. I’m a research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, but my main research is in relation to pub games and specifically darts. My PHD is in the social history of the sport.

What I want to talk to you about today is women, darts and the pub in the inter-war period, which is an area of study which interested me because there was a general implication by the books that I’d already read that women and darts didn’t sort of meet, because women were restricted from particularly going into the area of the pub which was essentially ‘the masculine republic’; the tap room, the public bar or the vault.

But I’d like to set the talk, if I may, in context, just to begin with. Despite being played by many thousands of men and women in Britain since the original darts boom of the 1920s and 1930s, and as a traditional pub game for many years before that, darts was only recognised as an official sport in 2005.

So 20 years before that announcement was made, I began my research into darts, and today I will reveal some of my general findings relating to darts in pubs in the inter-war years, but also specifically relating to the participation of women playing the game, and because of that nature I will have to take the darts out of the pub for a little while and see where else women had opportunities to play the game.

So throughout the inter-war period there were few forms of popular culture that were not male-dominated. Drinking, gambling and sport were, as Andrew Davies suggests, ‘the cornerstones of traditional male working-class popular culture, which was central to the formation of masculine identities, sport especially being over-whelmingly male-dominated.’

Davies argues that leisure activities were firmly structured by gender, with women enjoying far fewer opportunities for leisure than men, women’s main preoccupation being household management.

However, the period is popularly regarded as one of female emancipation and greater social freedom for women, but I find it difficult to come to terms with this concept, particularly with regard to working-class mothers, the majority of whom not only had the family to contend with but also, out of necessity, often had to seek employment to make ends meet.

Any working-class mother with a large family had little money to expend on forms of leisure. However, evidence has shown that when they were able to afford it, working-class women did increasingly go dancing during the inter-war period, many finding within dance the same kind of cultural and physical creativity that men found in sport, but which had hitherto been denied women.

In addition, many working-class women sought escapism at the local cinema and found a seat at the pictures one of the easiest and cheapest ways of getting a change from the daily round.

However, the social lives of working-class women had to be maintained within financial, domestic and moral constraints, the needs of the family being put before their own, and thus in working-class communities women in general enjoyed fewer opportunities to socialise than men, and this included pub going.

The generally accepted view of the 1930s is that women rarely visited pubs, and if they did, few would do so unaccompanied. Mass Observation’s research ‘The Pub and the People’ first published in 1943, showed that in Bolton in the late 1930s, between 16% and 19.5% of pub customers in Bolton were women. However, the public bars, also known as vaults and tap rooms, were taboo to them. Women were only to be seen in the best room, the parlours and the lounge bars.

Valerie Hey’s research, published in 1986, in relation to women pub-goers of the1930s, focused on the: ‘bourgeois masculinity of the public house’, the classic ‘token woman’, the bar-maid, and the exclusivity of the tap-room to male customers. The tap-room usually offered a variety of games, developed as a ‘men’s games’, or club-room, and was, Hey commented: ‘out of bounds to women’.

The more or less total absence of women in bars such as the tap-room, which were effectively closed to them, not only reinforced the notion of the patriarchy of the public house, but also apparently restricted any opportunities women may have had to enter into recreations played there, including darts.

Shirley Ardener’s argument that it is often the presence of men that defines a space as out of bounds to women, certainly appears to ring true of the 1930s Bolton tap-room, where the sanctity of these men-only bars reinforced the masculinity of the English public house; the tap-room could never be described as a gender-neutral space. One extreme example is a pub in Bolton where Mass Observation recorded the door to the tap-room bearing a notice: Gentlemen only.

But the Mass Observation study was one of a kind. It was restricted to Bolton and to a lesser extent to Liverpool, and it is thus to be regretted that its ground-breaking research into English public houses had not commenced earlier to afford time to undertake comparative research in public houses in the more affluent South, for it was there that darts, in terms of women’s participation, was making most progress.

This may have been due to a more relaxed attitude towards women by Southern licensees, and male customers, to the presence of women in public bars. Although there is insufficient evidence to confirm this, significant data can be found to challenge Hey’s view of exclusivity and the control of the pub by men, and show that women were allowed access to the inner sanctum of the public bar and did participate in darts in pubs in the 1930s, had their own darts leagues in some areas, and were very occasionally successful when competing against the men.

Even before the Queen threw three darts during a visit to the Slough Community Centre in 1937 and despite the perception that the patriarchal nature of the pub prevented women from playing darts, during the 1930s the game was becoming more popular with women in the South and the opportunities for participation were increasing.

From a physical point of view there are no reasons why women should not play and compete against the men, only a modicum of strength being required to propel a dart. Women, if permitted, could play on an equal footing with men, providing they had access to the necessary equipment.

The chief requisites of playing the game, apart from the equipment that was relatively cheap and provided free in many of the pubs, were: ‘a true eye, a neat movement of the wrist, and correct balance’, qualities which one contemporary reporter suggested women displayed to a marked degree, and which often made them difficult opponents.

Of primary importance to the development of ladies’ darts in the South of England, was the fact that they could participate in the News of the World darts competition, which was founded in London in 1927 and was open to all. By the mid 1930s, the News of the World ran thousands of house matches in public houses, prior to the main area and divisional finals. The News of the World competition didn’t actually reach the North of England until the late 1930s – 1938.

Women were in open competition against men in public bars across southern England, but their success tended to be confined to the early rounds; female players rarely making it to area finals. Well, I was very pleased in fact then to discover that there were some successes for the ladies.

For example in March 1936, a Mrs Chandler, playing in the early round of the News of the World competition at the Hanbury Arms, Lindon Street, London, ‘more than held her own’ against the men, with scores of 78, 82, 91, 95 and 99. Although Mrs Chandler lost the match, a News of the World reporter described her as ‘a good loser’.

In May the same year, Miss Eileen Turnage of The Cherry Tree, Whitham, Essex, about seven miles from where I live, became the first lady player to win through to the last eight of the News of the World area final. This was held at The Golden Fleece, Chelmsford, but regretfully, that was as far as Miss Turnage went in the tournament.

The real breakthrough in terms of the major competition came in March 1937, when the News of the World finally recognised that women were playing a prominent part in the championship. This was brought about because of the unparalleled success of a Mrs A. Morgan, of The Old House at Home, Colden Common, Hampshire, a pub which I understand still exists. By March 1937, Mrs Morgan had played well enough to make it through to the preliminary stages of what the News of the World described as ‘the competition proper’.

The Winchester Area Individual Championship was held was held on Monday 12 April 1937, and a local darts correspondent reinforced the value of Mrs Morgan’s participation, noting that ‘it was a novel experience’, but conceded that Ladies’ darts could well be represented, as Mrs Morgan had won through four previous rounds, all against men, and therefore had earned the right to be there.

Mrs Morgan then became the first woman to win a News of the World area title, by winning the Winchester Area competition against the otherwise all-male field. On 24 June 1937 Mrs Morgan joined 31 other area champions, all male, at the Agricultural Hall, Westminster to contest the Grand Final.

The woman who: ‘had beaten all the men in Winchester, was accompanied by a large number of supporters’. Unfortunately, like a number of men who were expected to do well, Mrs Morgan was unable to reproduce her home form at the main event, and was eliminated in the first round.

However, the News of the World reported that Mrs Morgan: ‘may be proud of the fact that she is the first woman to take a place in the final.’ There is no evidence to suggest that the male finalists thought any less of Mrs Morgan for competing against the men because she was a woman, however their view might well have been different and more revealing concerning men’s attitudes to women playing darts, if she’d won the championship outright (which would have been very nice).

Mrs Morgan’s progress in the News of the World was the best performance by any woman, and one that was never bettered in the history of the entire competition.

Given that few opportunities were afforded to women to play, and particularly to play competitively in a male dominated public house environment, it seems surprising that Mrs Morgan managed to achieve the required standard and the experience to become proficient at darts and win through to the Grand Final.

However, Mrs Morgan’s task was made easier, I discovered, because she was the wife of the licensee of The Old House at Home. Thus the opportunity to play was afforded to her by her husband’s occupation and her presence behind the bar, rather than any freedom women may have felt at the time to venture into a public bar, encroach upon established male territory, and play and practice darts.

As wife of the licensee, the public bar customers would have been more receptive to Mrs Morgan’s presence in the bar, and on the dartboard. Mrs Morgan stepping from behind the bar counter and offering to play the men at darts would have been greeted in a welcoming way.

The attitude of the customers, the locals, would have been different to that which male occupants of a public bar would have adopted if just any female had walked into ‘their’ bar, and attempted to join the men in a game of darts.

The case of Miss Turnage of The Cherry Tree in Whitham, in May 1936, was similar to that of Mrs Morgan; however in this case, Miss Turnage was the daughter of William Turnage, the licensee of The Cherry Tree.

Further evidence that the public bar, or tap-room, was not as closed to women as appeared to be indicated by early research, is that by the mid 1930s, some brewers were running Darts championships exclusively for women through their pubs.

On 21 May 1937: ‘remarkable play by a girl’ was witnessed at the final of the Taylor-Walker Ladies Championship held at the Iron Bridge Tavern, East India Dock Road, London. The finalists, and I love this name, Mrs Go-to-bed, from the pub called The Bishop Bonner, and a Miss Ring, from The Duchess of Kent, Islington, played two games: ‘both exhibiting amazing skill, with no trace of nerves’. Miss Ring, who was only 16 years of age, won both games.

Ladies Leagues were also in place by the mid 1930s, for example the Isleworth Brewery in Middlesex, setting up its league within its pub chain, in 1934. These league matches would of course be played on a different night to the men’s matches, and I believe there is much research yet to be undertaken in terms of the spacial issues around darts playing where women allegedly encroach on men’s space in the public bar to play their darts.

Brewers seized upon the potential of the Royal darts match that I mentioned earlier, and a number issued instructions to their houses to install dartboards in saloon bars, to cope with the increased demand for the game from the middle classes, and particularly women. A guy called John G. Showers, landlord of the Stanhope Hotel, Rodley, Yorkshire, came under pressure from his brewer to extend the game into his cocktail bar, by providing what Showers described as ‘a super dartboard’.

Reluctantly, Showers hung a dartboard in his cocktail bar, describing the new attraction in his autobiography ‘The Welcome Inn’ as: ‘a nightmare’, but it took him only a short while, in his words: ‘to close the doors on the board, and use the tray meant only to catch darts, for flowers’.

Showers, in his opinion, instinctively knew where darts belonged, and actively encouraged the game in the public bar of the Stanhope, where darts matches between locals, and chance visitors became very popular.

Showers was actually a very egotistical landlord, and some members of the Society will have read my articles about Showers in the newsletter. I’ve recently discovered another book by him, over and above the two that I’ve got, ‘The Welcome Inn’ and ‘Behind the Inn Door’, called ‘Showers and Bright Intervals’, which takes us away from the actual pub and it actually refers to all the women he loved in the period of time that he was actually at the pub. I’ve managed to get hold of a copy of that, and I look forward to reading of his escapades.

In contrast, during 1937 the demand for darts in fashionable Bayswater was such that the Kent brewer Style and Winch opened a beautifully designed, tastefully decorated lounge, built especially for the convenience and comfort of dart players at The Chepstow Tavern, Bayswater that was an immediate success.

A photograph accompanying the article in the Darts and Sports Weekly News (that only lasted about a year and a half, but it was a very interesting source for my research) carried the caption: ‘Two of the lady patrons of the Chepstow try the board in the beautifully designed darts parlour.’ This was to accommodate the interest in the late 1930s of the upper classes especially in playing darts.

Indeed that momentum was maintained and women’s interest in darts increased when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth undertook an extensive tour of the Slough Community Centre on 17 December 1937. ‘Their Majesties entered the games room, and unexpectedly the Queen asked one of the dart players if she could try the game. The Queen threw first, scoring 21 points, with her three darts; the King then took the darts and scored 19 points.’ (My sort of average in the pub game that is, really.) ‘The King then announced that the Queen had won the game by two points.’ He played left-handed apparently, because he played tennis that way as well.

This albeit brief involvement of a Royal couple with darts, was reported in the national daily papers, reference being made to: ‘Royal visit to Worker’s Club’. ‘The Queen beats the King at darts’. And The News of the World commented that: ‘If further evidence was required of the growing popularity of darts, this was surely it.’

Not surprisingly, the editor of Darts and Sports Weekly News predicted that by throwing only three darts, the Queen would encourage thousands more women to follow her example and begin playing ‘the World’s most fascinating game.’

Another newspaper report indicated that the Queen’s action had changed the country’s overall perception of darts, and made everyone, especially British women, darts conscious. Thousands of women approached the newly formed British Darts Council, asking where they could obtain tuition in dart throwing.

By 1938, members of the brewing trade were happy to note, that in this darts boom, women were taking their part. As I mentioned earlier, some breweries had already instituted Ladies’ leagues, and women’s darts knockout competitions to be played in their houses, but from 1938, these significantly increased.

The trade was certain that: ‘when women associate themselves with any activity attaching to the licensed house, better conditions follow.’ In many cases it had been the better conditions of the improved public house, which had encouraged more women to frequent licensed premises.

A writer called Valentine Williams observed in 1937, upon returning to London after 15 years abroad: ‘People, who in my younger days would never have thought of entering a public house, now gather in the evenings, husbands and wives, for a glass, in pleasant surroundings, varied by a game of darts, or ping-pong, or a turn on the adjacent dance floor.’

Early in 1938, Mr E F Shaw, licensee of the Crown Inn, Crawley, Sussex, applied for a change in his license, requesting that the licensing bench permit him to sell wine. Two years previously Shaw had made considerable alterations to his premises, to include a large club room, and by the time he stood in front of the West Sussex bench, his pub boasted two exceedingly good darts teams, one of which was a ladies’ team.

In May 1938, the Horsham Times reported that considerable amusement had been caused when Shaw’s application for a license to sell wine was heard. The Sussex Daily News expanded on this by reporting the brief discussion between the chairman of the bench and Shaw’s representative Mr P G Eager, which was as follows:

Chairman: ‘I thought beer was the proper drink for darts.’ Eager: ‘No Sir. There is a ladies’ team here, and I am told the ladies prefer a glass of wine.’ When Shaw himself gave evidence, the chairman asked him: ‘What drink is best for darts?’ to which the licensee, who had clearly been briefed by Eager, immediately replied: ‘Beer for men and wine for the ladies, Sir.’ The application was granted.

That paints quite a pretty picture, but not all was well with women’s darts, I’m afraid. The contemporary writer Rupert Croft-Cook, who during this period wrote the very first book about darts, held strong views about the participation of women in the sport. He wrote in December 1936, (and this is him writing, not me, ladies, okay?): ‘There are women who can play darts. They are few and their merits are usually exaggerated. By their very presence in the public bar, they impose an uncomfortable restraint on the idiom of the place, or in an attempt to remove it, become themselves grotesquely vulgar. There are times when women who can really play may be welcome, but they are rare, and it would be as well if they realised it.’

In the less affluent North-East of England, attitudes to women’s darts were even more strongly expressed, and, in South Shields in particular, not without its controversies. The South Shields’ and District Darts League, composed of local pubs and clubs, was inaugurated in 1935, and thrived. But by 1937, problems were being experienced in terms of women’s participation.

According to research undertaken in the late 1990s by Michael Gilmore, a South Shields darts player and organiser who decided to investigate what was going on in that period in South Shields, he discovered that it had been recognised practice in the 1930s in that area, that on occasions when darts teams were short of a player, a spectator would be invited to take part. Occasionally that substitute would be a woman, and they seemed to be able to cope with that.

Although this was not necessarily approved of by all the men, the intrusion tended to be overlooked. That is until it came to light that two teams within the South Shields’ and District Darts Leagues, disgracefully, had ten women between them! Such was the furore generated at the extent of women’s participation that a special meeting of the League was held and a motion put to the effect that ‘mixed darts must cease’ and that the League would continue to be managed by men.

Under pressure from the local press, the secretary of the League, a Mr Wilson, issued the following statement: ‘There can be no objection to women playing darts in the ordinary way, but most teams will not stand for women, and are opposed to them playing in League matches. It often happens that women accompany the team, and occasionally some of them have taken part. It is suggested however, that as good as their aim may be, they are temperamentally unsuited to the game. Experience shows that they quickly lose their heads. Although they are enthusiastic they get excited and give out a yell, which is very disconcerting to the men. The men have complained and they are not going to stand for it.’

And as a result of that meeting, ten women were thrown out of the league, and their membership subscriptions were returned to them.

Darts was but a small part of the rigid male subculture in the North-East of England, born out of living and sometimes working in industrially crippled areas in the 1930s. The statement from the League secretary, whilst acknowledging that women had the essential skills necessary to participate, is a sweeping generalisation of men’s perceived fallacies of women, and indicates a dramatic closing in of ranks of the all-male committee, to exclude without redress, all women from the League.

By such action, the threat from women to the men’s gregarious pub activities, and also to their masculinity, was repelled, male domination of darts in South Shields secured, and the male subculture preserved.  However, graciously, women were allowed to play darts in ‘the ordinary way’, a reference to basic day to day participation in the public bar. Thus women would make up numbers in friendly games in their local or play ordinary games for pleasure, but they could no longer welcome in League competitions.

This ‘permission’ occasioned one woman to write to the local gazette, to the effect that: ‘to exclude women from the League was shameful’, and that ‘rather than suffer the humiliation of a beating at the hands of the weaker sex, men are determined to keep women out of the game.’

Given the male dominated nature of the pub, this was most probably true. The lady correspondent added: ‘Male members of the League have found that in darts, as in any other game which were once monopolised by men, women were frequently their equals’, the writer concluding: ‘this may keep us out of the game for a short while, but the time will come when they will have to admit us.’

Despite this determination, there is no evidence that I’ve found, to show that women were welcomed back into the South Shields and District Darts League, during the remainder of that decade.

Outside the confines of the public house, other opportunities were afforded to women to play darts. There were few restrictions to playing the game at home, or as an adjunct to works’ social functions. In the home, darts took the form of family entertainment, often entered into when bad weather forced young people indoors. For example, Joyce Keen, aged 18, who had purchased a dart board on 14 November 1939, recorded in her diary, on 25 November: ‘Albert,’ (her fiancé, my father) ‘came home for the weekend. Rained, so played darts.’

As regards more formal social functions, at the Annual Staff Social for the Terminus Road, Eastbourne branch of Boots, in February 1939, whist, dancing and a darts competition were the main features of the evening. In the latter event the women proved to be better at darts than the gentlemen. On 30 March that same year, at the last Boots dance of the season at Stamford Street, London, a darts competition was included, and the winner: ‘to everyone’s mild surprise’, was a woman, Miss I M Smith.

So, the level of women’s participation in darts within pubs and without was never so great as to threaten to displace it as a man’s game of the public house, and numbers of women players were never sufficient to displace men from the tap room for any length of time. However, men had sufficient cause to feel challenged by women. In some cases, such as South Shields, and doubtless other places, direct action was taken to exclude them.

At the end of the period, Robert Gathorne-Hardy, a contemporary writer, insisted that: ‘darts remains, for all its intrinsic merit, a social performance, and with beer and tobacco, and rather coarse talk, an essentially masculine pastime.’

A couple of years earlier, Rupert Croft-Cook had written: ‘Darts is a public bar game, a game for good fellows, a spit and sawdust pastime. It is a game to play with the golden glow of beer in one’s brain, to the sound of tinkling glasses.’

Indeed, throughout the 1930s darts remained primarily a male, pub centric activity, although participation levels of women in darts has been shown, I hope, to have been far greater than any other previous scholarly research has indicated. Thank you.

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