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Hot Cockles and other Christmas Pastimes

Hot Cockles and other children's games

In this article we look at Joseph Strutt and his book of somewhat dangerous games such as Hot Cockles and Hunt the Fox.

Joseph Strutt (1749–1802) was an English engraver, artist, antiquary and writer, born in Chelmsford, Essex. In 1770 he became a student of the Royal Academy, and in the following year secured both a gold medal for oil painting and a silver medal “for the best Academy figure.” He wrote the Regal and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of England, followed by other works on the manners and customs of the English people, including the well known tome The sports and pastimes of the people of England from the earliest period.

In an article for The Telegraph, Nick Britten writes of a copy of the book which was recently found in a house in Staffordshire.

The “book, dating back to 1801, shows that a game popular with families at Christmas 200 years ago involved placing your head in someone’s lap while guessing who was hitting you from behind. The game, called Hot Cockles, was a variation of the classic Blind Man’s Buff, also a well-loved pastime with our Victorian ancestors… a far cry from the tradition of families gathering to play a board games such as Monopoly together on Christmas Day.

Strutt’s “traditional” games, many of which have long since fallen victim to the march of technology, included names such as Baste the Bear, Duck and Drake and Puss in the Corner.

The latter involved four children, each standing in the corner of a room with another standing in the middle; the object was for the ones in the corners to try and swap positions before the one in the middle took their place.

More energetic games included Hippas, a Greek game involving “one person riding upon the shoulders of another, as upon a horse”. “A curious pastime,” noted Strutt.

Hunt the Fox, where one boy was allowed to run a certain distance before having to return without anyone catching him, was also well known.


One candidate for the attention of the modern-day health-and-safety brigade was a game whose name defied even Strutt’s dedicated research.

He wrote: “A young man is seated upon a pole which may readily turn either way. Immediately beneath him is a vessel nearly filled with water.

“He holds a taper in each hand, and one of these is lighted. His business, I presume, is to bring both together and light the other.”

The player had to be careful not to lose his balance during his task, said Strutt, “for, that done, he must inevitably fall into the water”.

The auctioneer Charles Hanson, who is handling the sale of the book, said it offered a remarkable insight into a long-lost age of childhood.

Written more than three decades before the working and middle classes were granted the vote, it was largely divided along social lines.

It began with “rural exercises practised by persons of rank”, before tackling the more common “rural exercises generally practised”.

Next came “pastimes usually exercised in towns and cities or places adjoining to them” and, finally, “domestic amusements of various kinds”.

Strutt, who decorated his work with dozens of his own engravings, also appeared to foresee the rise in violence in children’s games.

He warned the “vicious” pastime popular with youngsters – pulling the wings off flies – might lead to children turning into violent adults.

Strutt died just a year after /Sports and Pastimes’ – hailed at the time for “attracting the notice and admiration of almost every class” – was published.”

To Play Hot Cockles:
The rules are as follows – One player sits down, another player is blindfolded, kneels, and places his/her head in the sitter’s lap. The kneeler places an open hand on his/her back, with palm uppermost, which other players take it in turns to strike, and the kneeler must guess who has struck the blow.


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