Sports of British Soldiers
Don N. Hagist
Sport has always been a way to pass idle time, and British soldiers serving in America were as likely as anyone else to engage in physical games, both organized and spontaneous. There was a wide variety of sports played by soldiers, reflecting the popular games of society. This article looks only at those which are clearly documented as having been played by British soldiers in America during the era of the American Revolution. Officers, of course, had their own athletic pastimes, which are not discussed here.
The Jingling Match
Perhaps the most interesting and unusual sport is the jingling match. Although the only evidence that we have found for British soldiers playing this game dates to 1787, there is also documentation for it being played at country fairs in England prior to that date, suggesting that it was a familiar game to the class of men that became soldiers.
While visiting the Fort Niagara garrison in 1787, Lieutenant John Enys of the 29th Regiment of Foot witnessed a jingling match played at a field day, and described the game as follows:
A space of Forty yards square was measured out and enclosed with Ropes into which Thirteen men were placed twelve of whom were Blindfold. The thirteenth was not but had in his hand a small Bell which he was to keep ringing and endeavouring to elude the twelve others who on their part were to strive to catch him. The Bet was wither or no they would be able to accomplish it within an hour. The Match from the very begining appeard to be unequal, as the exercise of evading so many within so small distance was to much for one man. The man who undertook it was both strong and active and did more than any one could have expected he would after the first five minutes notwithstanding which he was taken in about a half an hour. This sort of Game if rendered more Equal by making the space Larger and circular or by reducing the number of pursuers might afford good amusement but it should by all means be a circular space as they by their numbers have the opportunity of hemming him up in one of the corners in the Square.1
The name of the game is reported in an advertisement for a town fair in England that appeared in the Reading Mercury on June 29, 1782. The festivities at the fair included a …
Jingling Match by eleven blindfolded women, and one unmasked with bells, for a very good petticoat ...2
Another source describes the game thusly:
The Jingling Match is a diversion common enough at country wakes and fairs. The performance requires a large circle, enclosed with ropes, which is occupied by as many persons as are permitted to play. They rarely exceed nine or ten. All of these, except one of the most active, who is the jingler, have their eyes blinded with handkerchiefs or napkins. The eyes of the jingler are not covered, but he holds a small bell in each hand, which he is obliged to keep ringing incessantly so long as the play continues, which is commonly about twenty minutes, but sometimes it is extended to half an hour. In some places the jingler has also small bells affixed to his knees and elbows. His business is to elude the pursuit of his blinded companions, who follow him, by the sound of his bells, in all directions, and sometimes oblige him to exert his utmost abilities to effect his escape, which must be done within the boundaries of the rope, for the laws of the sport forbid him to pass beyond it. If he be caught in the time allotted for the continuance of the game, the person who caught him claims the prize: if, on the contrary, they are not able to take him, the prize becomes his due.3
Another sport that Lieutenant Enys observed at Fort Niagara was sack racing. He wrote:
... we found the whole Garrison Assembled in the Plains without the Fort and found them entertained with a Race of four Men in sacks ...4
These races were also among the sports at a day of amusements held by the 54th Regiment of Foot on Long Island in February of 1782.5 From a contemporary description:
Sack Running, that is, men tied up in sacks, every part of them being enclosed except their heads, who are in this manner to make the best of their way to some given distance, where he who first arrives obtains the prize.6
This method of racing, with the arms inside of the sack, was certainly rough and dangerous, but is consistent with the physically demanding sports enjoyed by soldiers.
A Grinning Match
Although not a sport, a popular competition from British country fairs which found its way to the garrisons of America was the grinning match. Still popular in America well into the 19th Century, the winner was the person who could make the most contorted facial expression.
The Grinning Match is performed by two or more persons endeavouring to exceed each other in the distortion of their features, every one of them having his head thrust through a horse's collar.7
Captain Peebles of the 42nd Regiment described the events of the 54th Regiment’s field day in February of 1782 as including a grinning match:
… there is to be a Horse Race, a sack race, & a grinning match all in the Regt.8
References to games of “ball” are found throughout the war in descriptions of both British and American camps and garrisons. The majority of writers refer simply to playing “ball”, leaving us with no specifics on the type of game being played, nor any other details. No doubt there was a variety of ball games, and the methods of play varied. One example is that of a British soldier captured at Princeton, who wrote of having been, at the time of the American attack, "... in the yard, stripped, with our coats and hats off, playing ball."9
An amusing order given to British recruits at Chatham Barracks in England suggests that “ball” was, at least in some cases, a handball game:
Any Soldrs found in future playing at Ball Against the Board of Orders in the Barrack Yard will be severely punished for the same.10
1. The American Journals of Lt John Enys, Elizabeth Cometti, ed., Syracuse Univ. Press, 1976, entry for July 31,1787.
2. Notes from the English Countryside, Clifford Morsley, London, 1979.
3. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Joseph Strutt, London, 1801.
4. The American Journals of Lt John Enys, op. cit.
5. John Peebles’ American War: Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, Ira D. Gruber, ed., Stackpole Books, 1998.
6. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, op. cit.
8. John Peebles’ American War: Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, op. cit.
9. The Revolution Remembered, John C. Dann, ed., University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 47.
10. Orderly book of Ensign Joab Aked, 22nd Regiment, West Yorkshire Archives, Calderdale, SH17/A/4, entry for April 6, 1780.