In the days of our boyhood, which were the days of the chap books, of the wandering mummers and field mountebanks, of the crippled parish constables and the septuagenarian London "Charleys"—in those days the only species of penny pastime which we can recall to mind was that which was popularly denominated "threesticks-a-penny." Unlike some other venerable institutions of an analogous nature, that popular diversion still retains its hold and its fascination upon the pence-paying public. At present it is not, as it formerly was, in the exclusive possession of the gipsies: other innovators have asserted and established their claim to share in its profits; and, though the gipsies have materially diminished in number since the time referred to, their peculiar and profitable pastime has suffered no declension, but is sure to be found in favour with boys and lads at all fairs and festal gatherings, either rural or suburban. We need hardly describe the game. Everybody knows that it consists of throwing stout sticks at three slender ones stuck in deep holes in the ground, and surmounted each with a tin tobacco-box or other bauble, which becomes the prize of the player whenever it is knocked off and does not fall into the hole beneath; a consummation which looks the easiest thing possible to achieve, but which in practice very rarely happens. We suspect that the real charm of the game is in some way connected with the combative instincts of the players, whose earnestness, as we have remarked again and again, invariably rises with their ill-luck; so that, by the time their coppers run low, their muscular vigour mounts high, and the truncheons are apt to fly about in a manner perilous to the limbs of lookers-on. Of late years, be it observed, this spirited game has not been allowed to be monopolized by the penny-paying class, but, first having undergone some modification, and been submitted to a change of name, is pursued with characteristic eagerness by the ladies and gentlemen of the fashionable world—the only essential difference being, that instead of "shying " their truncheons at tin tobacco-boxes, the players launch them at the head of "Aunt Sally," with the amiable intention of knocking off her nose.
A common pastime, but which is far from being commonly appreciated, is that of shooting with a rifle at a target. There is no gunpowder used. What the weapon is charged with is not apparent, but there is something sufficient to propel a small arrowy pellet towards the mark. The marksman who, first paying his copper, hits the bull's-eve, wins a small prize, generally fruit of some kind; but the bull's-eye is rarely struck, the riffle being ingeniously contrived so that the better the aim the worse shall be the shot. It is true that, by repeated firing, a marksman may succeed at length in discovering the course his shot is likely to take; but, long before he has made the discovery, he will have expended far more than it is likely to be worth to him. Shooting at a target with a feathered dart, propelled by the breath through a blow-tube, is an analogous kind of pastime, but does not seem to be very generally practised.
The last of these odd pastimes we shall notice is the practice which prevails in certain English counties, of taking physic in public. In the course of our wanderings through the mining and manufacturing districts of the north, we have come, again and again, upon open-air medicinal booths or standings, at which medicine is dispensed for the cure of all kinds of ailments, at the low charge, so far as our observation serves us, of a penny a dose. Properly speaking, taking physic is, of course, not a pastime; but when those who swallow it in public choose to make it so, and show, by the evident relish and gusto with which they gulp down the most nauseous compounds that the exercise is a real pleasure to them, we feel ourselves justified in ranking this recreation in the same category with the others. The medicaments thus consumed are for the most part not such as will be found in the pharmacopoeia; they are rather simples, or distillations from, or infusions of, herbs and plants, the virtues of which have passed by tradition from one generation to another, and which are gathered, prepared, and dispensed by professors of either sex, unburthened with license or diploma. The pleasure which the swallowers seem to derive from imbibing them may be assumed for aught we know, or, being real, must spring from some secondary source; it may perhaps be referred to the compensating principle in the human mind, by the action of which small trials are more than repaid by the inward satisfaction one feels in the capacity of ignoring them.
Thursday, 10 March 2011
An article from the Leisure Hour of July 1867, which gives a great insight into the sideshows and cheap entertainment available to the lower classes: