Indoor Activities

Because there was no TV back then, families had to find their own forms of amusement and since most free time was in the evenings, inside games were a major source of this.
Table games like chequers, dominos, ludo and snakes and ladders were very popular with children, while chess, backgammon and card games were preferred by the adults.
Games such as mah-jongg were a little up-market for many families but some groups of adults would gather to play this for a social evening.These were all good in that they required conversation between players - a feature sadly lacking in many modern homes.
There were several variations to and adaptations of these games. Draughts became fox-and-hounds, dominos became tip-over, and chinese chequers became last-man-standing.
Reading Books, Newspapers, magazines and comics provided more private relaxation and often contained crossword and word-search puzzles which could also produce family interaction.
If you enjoy Word Games, you may like to visit the Free Games page to download some of my original variations on popular word games.
Meccano sets were a marvellous introduction to engineering for those fortunate enough to have access to one. Meccano was a very enjoyable pastime for both girls and boys (and their parents too), for those fortunate enough to have a set or access to one via a friend. The pieces were steel, and although there was quite a variety of shapes and fittings, this was not so varied as in today's building sets. Many of the parts were small enough to be a danger to infants although I never heard of an incident with one being swallowed. Today there's a mandatory warning about this danger on the box.
Magic lantern shows were sometimes held in our home. We would get a piece of cardboard about the size of a postcard and poke small holes in it with a pin, to form a shape. When a torch or lamp was shone onto it it created a shape in lights on the wall.

Outdoor Activities

Picture of conkers (horse-cheestnuts) Conkers
Marbles was a game played by almost every child in our area Marbles
Wooden stilts were an exciting &alt;toy&alt; enjoyed by all Wooden stilts
Family walks occurred much more frequently then than they do now Family walks
Picture of a girls bike Bikes
Picture of hopscotch grid Hopscotch
Picture of girls skipping Skipping

Childrens games were not limited by any formal rules; every district had their own set of limits.
Marbles was a universal game, but there were several versions of it. In some areas several sets of rules were played, and players had to come to an agreement on what was acceptable and what wasn't.
In "Rings", two or more players each placed an equal number of marbles (or equal value - their relative values were agreed beforehand) in a ring that was chalked or scratched on the ground. They then took turns to try to knock them out of the ring. If one or more was knocked out they would keep them, and also had another turn.
"Grids" was similar to rings, but the marbles were placed on a drainage-grid (these had a dimpled top surface) and the game proceeded in the same way as rings. In some areas you were not allowed to fire in a direction that may send your opponent's (or your own) marble down the drain.
Cowboys and indians (played almost exclusively by boys) permitted captured opponents to be tied up, "tortured" with nettles or other mis-treatments in some areas but not others.
Football (soccer) and cricket were pretty well defined, as players tried to use the formal rules. But the control of boundaries could vary... "over the fence is out"!
Night Games Most of my friends and my siblings and I were allowed to "play out" in the evenings in finer weather. We would meet up under the street light and decide what we would play that night. Actually, the older ones decided and we younger ones would hope to be included, and if not, we'd find another game to play.
Hide-and-Seek was one of the more popular outdoor games There were variations on the rules in different areas. You may or may not be allowed to go into sheds, or backyard areas, or out of the street, etc.
One person, nominated as "it" was "it" placed their head between their arms and leaned on a lamppost or gate and counted to a hundred, by fives. Not sure why we couldn't just count to twenty or so normally, but that was the rule. The rest of us would go and hide. When "it" was finished counting they would go and try to find us. If they spotted someone they had to call out their name to show they had identified them, then run back and touch the lamppost before the person they spotted. In the meantime, the rest of us would try to creep back "home" to the lamppost. Anyone who got back safely was safe for that round, while the first one caught was "it" for the next round.
Relievo In this game, "it" counted to a hundred as normal, but the others didn't hide - they just ran to a safe distance and tried to avoid "it" touching them. Once touched, they had to return to the lamppost, while "it" tried to catch the rest. The fun bit was, if someone who wasn't caught managed to get back to the lamppost, they would touch it and call out "relievo", and this released all those that were caught to run away again. So the trick, if you were "it" was to never get too far from the lamppost, and to try to catch the fastest ones first. Picture of children playing "knock-a-door"
Knock-a-Door was a game we played that was frowned on by our parents. This involved knocking on someone's front door and running away before they answered. Sometimes, if the door had a "knocker" on it we would tie a string on the knocker and hide outside the fence or hedge and pull it. Sometimes we were able to pull it several times before it was discovered.

Games using home-brew equipment

Conkers was a game played with horse chestnuts. These were collected from trees and the three or four large seeds inside were hardened by drying for several weeks before using them. A hole was drilled through the conker and a string threaded through. Kids (mainly boys) played a game where they each took turns to swing at the other player's conker with their own, in the hope of breaking their opponent's conker.
Hopscotch and skipping were both played almost exclusively by girls. Hopscotch was played on a grid drawn on the footpath, with a piece of broken tile or wood, while skipping was played with a piece of rope often retrieved from the tip or from the boat-moorings in the canal.
Bottle tops of various colours had certain values according to their colour, but these values varied in different schools and areas. In my area, gold or silver bottle tops were highly prized, while red,blue and green ones were less valuable. They were used in lieu of marbles, and played in the same way. The advantage was that you didn't need to buy them - they were found on the street!
Picture of  boy with catapult, a common sight back then Catapults (shanghais or gings in Australia) were a boy's pride and joy. A forked stick, a strip of rubber from an old bike tube, a small leather pad and some strong twine were all that was needed for one of these. They were used for hunting rats on the local tip, for gang-wars, and shooting contests.
Billy-carts were things that only fortunate kids were able to build. If a baby had just graduated from a pram and it was no longer needed, half the battle was won: wheels were the major requirement, and pram wheels were ideal. Larger wheels such as bike wheels tended to collapse when cornering, and smaller wheels didn't give enough ground clearance or speed. Wood for the frame was usually available from discarded boxes and crates. The hardware, including nuts, bolts, washers and string were a bit more difficult unless your father happened to work in a hardware-related industry. Picture of a billy cart A fine-looking billy-cart like this would be the envy of every kid in the neighbourhood, and would guarantee the owner great prestige and authority. This one even has a handbrake! Every one I rode on had only a footbrake, operated by placing your foot against a wheel or scraping it on the ground! I guess this kept our "live-in" cobbler in a job!
Bows and arrows were also popular, and target-shooting contests with tins or other objects were common.
By the time we arrived in Australia, "rockets" were in vogue. These were straight sticks with a point at one end and 2 splits at the other. Two pieces of cardboard were bent and inserted into the splits as fins. A small groove was cut around the stick just in front of the fins. The user had a piece of string with a knot in one end, which he wrapped around the groove and held the other end of the string and the sharpened end of the rocket in the other. Using the string as a sling to give extra momentum the rocket would be launched and could travel several house-widths.
Picture of tin-can telephones Tin can phones were made by piercing the centre of the bottom of two cans with a nail and connecting the two cans with a string through the holes. One child held a can to their ear while the other one, a little distance away, held the other to their mouth and with the string tight, spoke into it. This was heard by the other child. They took turns to talk and to listen.

Stilts came in two forms in my area: tin-can stilts, made from two tin cans. Two holes were made in the bottom of each, and a loop of string attached. They were used upside-down, by holding a loop in each hand and walking. The other type involved a bit more work, and was made from two wooden sticks with a footrest screwed on near the bottom. The user held the top of the stick and placed one foot on each footrest to walk.
Picture of kite Kites were made by most boys at some stage, usually from two sticks cut from nearby willow trees or similar and with newspaper for covering, and a long string tail with pieces of newspaper tied along it for stability. As a general rule, the longer the tail, the more stable the kite was in flight.
The box kite was a bit more difficult and usually needed adult help to construct, but when built properly they were more stable and could fly in lighter winds than flat ones.

Family Activities

In my childhood, my parents had very little "recreation" time, but somehow found time to take us on family walks to parks and similar places.
Many fathers did shoe repairs for their family. Cobbling My father would often spend the evening mending our shoes. With six active children, there was usually one or more pairs in need of repair. His tools consisted of a last, a hammer and a pair of pincers. Materials were leather, rubber, glue, tacks and steel plates for heels to prevent their wearing out.
Sewing and mending When my mother wasn't busy preparing food, she was usually occupied in other "homely" duties like darning socks, sewing, knitting or crocheting. Her basket contained needles for each of these, plus reels of cotton, skeins of wool, patches of material, ribbon, scissors, a darning mushroom and a thimble. Oh, and a few knitting patterns. She had a Singer "treadle" sewing machine that was driven by a foot-operated pedal.
None of the above qualify as "recreational", but I include them here as they were the activities they engaged in while we children were "recreating" at night.
Walking Families would often walk together to nearby parks or recreation spots. Sometimes these walks would progress to a hunt for tadpoles, frogs or newts. Others would involve picking wildflower, mostly daffodils or bluebells, or daisies for daisy-chains in our area. Finding a horse-chestnut tree with chestnuts on was a definite precursor to a "conker" hunt.
Guy Fawkes night November the 5th is Guy Fawkes' day and the night is known as Bonfire Night, which commemorates the day that Guy Fawkes was captured while preparing to blow up the British Houses of Parliament in 1605.
For several weeks before Bonfire night, all the children and youth of the town would spend most of their free time dragging branches of trees from the nearby woods to form a giant bonfire in a field. Welcome additions to the pile were car tyres and other combustible items. On Bonfire Night, just before dark, an effigy of Guy Fawkes, made by one of the locals, would be brought and placed on the pile and paper placed at the base. Picture of assorted fireworks As dark approached, so did the children, most carrying boxes or bags of fireworks to set off when the bonfire was lit. These included skyrockets on a stick, that shot (hopefully) straight up in the air; squids which were like a small skyrocket without a stick; ha'penny and penny-bangers that were small explosive packages with a wick; jumping-jacks that exploded several times and jumped in a different direction with each explosion; and lots of colour-producing fireworks like snowdrops, spangles etc.
For the younger ones there were sparklers, wire sticks with a powder coating at one end that emitted showers of sparks when lit.
Most times, these events were held without a hitch, but occasionally things went wrong. I recall one Bonfire Night at which a skyrocket changed direction and went down into a boy's wellington boot, causing rather nasty burns.
Toys weren't as sophisticated then as they are now, but were just as precious - maybe even more so. Some were made by the parents, for example dolls and stuffed toys (by the mother) and wooden trains and trucks (by the father). We also made our own playthings, from whatever came to hand, such as boxes, tins, clothes-pegs, rubber bands and gearwheels
Cars and Trains were "wind-up", with a small key at the side that wound a spring inside them. When the toy was damaged, it would return to service without the "body" and was all the more satisfying because it ran faster and changed direction when the key touched the ground. Later models used a battery - but at first, this was only to power a light. Battery-powered motors followed later.
Dolls which were "state-of-the-art" at the time had eyes that closed when you laid them down; and said "Mama" (or something resembling that sound) when you tilted them forward. Nowadays, you feed them, change their nappies/diapers (which they actually wet) and they speak whole sentences!
The sale of cigarettes was not controlled, and warnings about health hazards were very few and far between. Collections We collected many different things - match-boxes, cigarette-packets (State Express, Ardath), bottle tops (black or red were extra special), marbles ("steelys", "glassies" and "clayeys" in order of value) and swap-cards.
Swap cards came in "sets", such as animals, flowers, trains etc.
Cigarette cards were included in packets of cigarettes, and were similar to swap-cards but smaller. These were often kept by the smokers' families, and those who didn't have a smoker in the family found it difficult (and expensive) to obtain them. Some of these have recently been sold on Ebay and other places for up to $2 million!
Train names and numbers Some trains were "namers", like the Royal Scot and Flying Scotsman, and these were highly prized. I don't remember how the collectors verified that they had actually seen the train and not just copied the number from another collector's book, but the system seemed to work. Maybe you can advise me?

Weekends and holidays

These were the times we really got to "let loose". We would form into our little "gangs" or cliques, each of which had its own set of rules and activities.
Some groups would play cowboys and indians or war games; others would go to hunt for tadpoles or newts in the river or ponds; and others may go and raid another gang's base - usually a construction made of branches in the nearby woods.
Some gangs had initiation ceremonies to "test" new members. One requirement for our gang was to walk with bare legs through a patch of nettles; quite a painful procedure.
If nobody initiated a specific activity, there were always the old fall-backs of marbles, bottle tops, conkers and hopscotch, or kite-building.
Christmas For a week or two before Christmas the children and teenagers would go from house to house singing Christmas carols and, hopefully, collecting money for their efforts.
On Christmas Eve we would all place a sock on the mantelpiece, often with a biscuit and glass of milk for Santa, then go off to bed early.
In the morning the food was gone and our stockings would be filled with small toys, lollies, a piece of fruit and maybe a comic. But before we got to these, at the foot of our bed would be the major present - maybe a jigsaw puzzle, doll, train-set or wind-up car if we were lucky.
Because we were church-goers, Christmas morning usually involved a walk to church with our parents. We were usually allowed to take one or two of our Christmas presents to show off, but these had to be selected from those that didn't make a noise - books, wind-up cars, dolls etc.
Easter can fall on any date from March 22 to April 25, which is immediately after winter in England. Attendance at Christian churches is high over this weekend, and as Good Friday and Easter Monday are both "Bank Holidays" in England, many families now take advantage of the extra-long weekend to visit other areas, either to attend church services or just for a family trip. Obviously, the weather is a bit off for seaside visits so overseas travel is popular, now that this is more affordable.
Easter egg hunts are held by many families, and hot-cross-buns are consumed by the tens of thousands.


Picture of tadpoles (pollywogs)

Children have always loved pets, and if family finances didn't allow a conventional one - cat, dog, etc. then they often obtain one (or more) from the wild. This was the case with our family. From time-to-time, there were tadpoles, frogs, newts and the occasional turtle. Of course the finding of these was a recreation in itself!

To read about Movies and Theatre, go to the Movies page, and to download some free word games, go to the Free Games page.
For a discussion of Music, go here

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