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Relaxation and Time off Watch
This website was established to consider the songs and ditties, short one liners and 'calls' that a Royal Naval man pursued in the course of his work and in his relaxation, in their widest sense. It is in this later aspect that our attention is now diverted to the use, games contribute to a sailors general morale.

A matelots time off-watch, was in most respects his own, generally to be used, in the necessity to sleep and fuel his body, whilst always being sufficiently alert to the need to alter sail, go to action stations or deal with emergency.

In the days of sail and for many decades afterwards  the whole ship would be woken at 0430 (0630 in 20th century), to clean ship and thereafter go to breakfast. Often in good weather, the afternoon watch routine, could be eased, so that one part of the watch, might be allowed to 'make and mend', clothing, in a good light and such periods or opportunity to relax, allowed the enjoyment of games. Many of which were often quite boisterous. - But all of which must essentially occupy a relatively  short period of time. - A game of uckers could be successfully played an a lunch break, but it was a better pursuit for th second dog or evening watch.. A game of 'Noms' in a stand-easy might be easily stretched to a short lunch. etc.

The Dog watches between 1600 - 1800 and 1800 - 2000 were a time when the whole ship was awake, and on their feet. In other words the mess decks would be alive with noise and bustle, which meant that no hammocks could be slung. It was also the time when the crew took their main meal of the day and traditionally - (weather work, battle and situation allowing) - Both the Afternoon and Dog watches allowed the men to congregate together socially, to sing, dance and tell yarns or stories, and play quite games of dice or cards, make models, or be creative with clothing, scrimshaw etc. However in reality anytime where a few moments could be gleaned was a good opportunity to play a game, and in todays navy Stand Easy must rate a favorite time for such activities.

Given the opportunity, the men, could be expected to play most any game that existed, selected from the most energetic and active, field sport. Which given the space could be anything from deck hockey, using home made pucks from a coil of old rope etc, (due to the tendency to launch then over the side, to a form of net-ball or as often called volley ball. Running and weight training are also frequently seen in todays service, but in olden days of sail, the sail drill alone was sufficient to keep them fit and where exuberance held sway,  ib the available space, equipment and opportunity then games like 'swing the monkey were popular.

 Although most any game could be utilised, in practice, there were relatively few that were fashionable or popularly played. It is these which are of concern to us here. Including the historical evidence of such play.

Social Conditions
In considering the needs for entertainment, then essentially, the sailors during the days of sail were no different to the young men of today. They enjoyed the same pleasures, except of course there was no radio, except as channeled through the tannoy system from WW2 onwards. Television was always restricted to big ships and then only from the mid 1980's onwards. Whilst recorded media made little appearance until the late 1980's, when personal tape players were small enough to be brought aboard. During World War 2, wardrooms on ships, might have a gramophone but even then they were scarce enough to be discounted. In the 1970's some messes bought themselves eight track or other types of  cassette tape players etc. but usually because of power restrictions and voltage differences, they were unusual and there was only ever a handful of tapes to play on them. Thus the age old need to entertain yourself continued aboard ships right into recent memory.

In the days of sail a sailors environment was primitive, the ship moved, sometimes quite violently, pitched, rolled and leaned. Modern RN men can vouch for this quite vividly and sea service in WW2 corvettes was more to be endured than enjoyed where the men slept in hammocks which by swinging from side to side, gave some respite, but not against violent pitching or corkscrewing of the vessel. Those few who had bunks would have to strap themselves in and put up side boards to stop themselves rolling around or out.
Remember also that in the sailing ship era there was no heat below decks, and the only fire aboard was that of the galley, which was never lit in rough seas for fear of setting fire to the ship. Mess decks, generally situated on the gun decks, would because of the roll of the ship, have the gun ports closed, and with so many men lying there, they would soon generate an unhealthy 'fug' which was smelly and damp to the extreme, it did however keep, the blood circulation flowing during the many week long patrols off the French coast in gale torn winter months.

Lighting below decks was primitive to the extreme, with only an occasional attended candle or glim available. But like a blind man, the experienced seaman would soon know his ship thoroughly, and it would be common to see a small group of men congregate around a glim light to play a game of cards.

With no heat or warmth on the ship, apart from the 'fug', there was no way for a man to dry his clothing or keep his bedding dry. Also when the ship went to action stations, a mans hammock would be furled up and lashed in the futtocks, as a protection against splinters, (In battle wooden splinters torn up by the cannon balls caused most deaths and injuries.) In reality there was a certain amount of hot bunking, (sharing somebody elses, newly vacated hammock). The only exterior warmth was the false one of the rum ration. No wonder when the ship reached sunnier climates, the men were keen to find a moment of relaxation to clean and air the gun deck /mess decks, before the heat pounding down on the wooden decks, turned them into mouldy foul smelling ovens. Canvas shrouds would then be rigged to channel cooler air down the companion way.

In a sense of uplifted spirits, it was then, that the song sessions in the forebits would be popular and the men dance to the tunes of the fiddle. In other moments they would find time for the games, recorded here, and attend to the maintenance and making of their clothing.

Thus games served not only as entertainment and as a point of diversion, but also as a means to channel the ever competitive nature of a man..

Games On Ship
Any game played ashore, particularly those traditionally found in public houses, will be played on board ship, and in his travels a sailor would often adopt the local games, vide uckers and Majong often adapting them to his needs. However he also had to be pragmatic, and though dart boards were carried aboard ship, we had one on HMS Ark Royal in the PO'S mess in 1976. You really couldn't play them except in port, when most of the men would be on leave or disembarked. Simply there was not sufficient room to consistently get a clear shot at the board. Similarly even bar skittles would not stand up long enough to be knocked over because of the vibration of engines or the movements of the ship. Thus it is informative to look at the known evidence to illustrate which games were popular :-

The Tudor Navy
From the diaries of Samuel Pepys and other persons such as Henry Teonge a Royal Naval Chaplain, who left us a good account of life aboard ship. We can discern the recreational pursuits of the gentry class but seldom do we get an insight into the social lives of the common folk and particularly the sailor

The excavation and preservation of the Mary Rose at Portsmouth dockyard has helped a little to fill that gap, for amongst the thousands of artifacts uncovered was some board games.

These included a set of backgammon found in the Carpenters cabin, and a barrel top on which was drawn or etched two game boards including that for Nine Mans Morris, In addition there were many chests and leather pouches containing  dice. Unfortunately only few scraps of paper or linen were still extant and so we can say with authority that playing cards were present, but we know from the diaries and similar accounts that such games were played on ship.

Sailing Navy - Napoleonic Wars.
We are a little more fortunate here in determining what was played as several accounts abound, and what is noted here will reflect both backwards to tudor days and forwards to the modern service, for as I say the character of these men were similar to the matelot of today.

Robert Hay writing on p.72 of his autobiographical account of his service aboard HMS Culloden  in 1804 [1] notes that his mentor Jack Gillies had learned to play the German Flute … moreover could play at all-fours, at whist, at loo, at cribbage and at least a dozen other games on the cards. He could play at fox and goose, at chequers, at backgammon and I know not what besides.’

Thus we see card games such as Whist, All Fours and Crib mentioned, presumably these being the most common of the dozen or so types of card games played on that ship, whilst Fox & Goose, Chequers (Draughts) and Backgammon gets a mention. We can see here that these involved dice and counters so again Nine Mans Morris can be expected to feature as would certainly Crown & Anchor. and again the evidence of shipwreck archeology is illuminating.

Of particular interest to the Navy is the game of Sling The Monkey

Steam Navy
Little changed in a sailors situation, with the advent of the iron ship. Yes there was an improvement in messing, warmth was now available as steam ships are hot, but correspondingly no cooling in tropic climes. Much improvement with hot food from the galley and lighting of ships steadily got better as the years made dramatic improvements with the use of electricity. (Remember ashore street lighting was by gaslight and it was not till the closure of the Victorian era that electric lighting was commonly installed in new build ships.) Freshwater could to some extent be made aboard from the evaporators, but for a long time to come was piped or brought in from ashore. The big task aboard ship now was to coal ship, and this was channeled into a sports type activity, competitively scores were kept, so that each department might beat the previous time, and the weight of coal moved at a point in time. Coaling rigs (clothing) would seldom be washed as you could not get them dry between, one coaling run to the next.

With the introduction of oil power so conditions for the sailor improved dramatically, but at sea you were still watch on watch off working four hours about, so the situation in terms of relaxation remained the same.

Games WW1 to WW2
The traditional and same forms of entertainment were now in force, though mess decks tended to be more insular than in the sailing ships.
Sport was now given high priority, and there were activities for the individual to do both at sea and in port.
Again snatched moments, such as at stand easy would see groups of men sharing a card game whilst a training round of a game uckers, would now be very common. In the dog watches a more intense games session might be embarked upon.

Accounts of card games aboard ship generally mention Euchre and crib.

Games 1970 - Current Day
Now I speak from personal experience as opposed from autobiographical accounts. For entertainment in the off watch, usually in the evenings, we can note ‘Jack’ turning to games or perhaps handiwork, such as model making, marquetry, scrimshaw or needle craft,( I have known several persons do this during my years of service and particularly in the 1970's.) All to while away the odd moment.

In considering games. there were usually boxed and bought games provided by the canteen fund stored in a locker which might comprise draughts or chess and occasionally backgammon, but none of these ever saw much use except dominoes, as parts would be missing or the dice stolen. The only board game which had any real use or credibility was Uckers. As space for tables on a messdeck was very limited, there was usually only one or two small square tables. Other players would occupy themselves with cards of which seldom did I see any game being played apart from Patience, Whist, including gin, and 'Noms'; Chase the pisser, Euchre and crib. There were others that were fashionable on certain mess decks such as Snipes or Shit on your Oppo, but seldom in my time did we see anyone playing poker. Though gambling schools were known from time to time, but these usually rotated around one of the aforesaid card games.

Skillful players would be treated with serious respect by all those aboard ship, particularly where Uckers was involved. It is very common to have an uckers challenge being viewed by everybody in the vicinity. Each man present adding his own suggestion as to the proper course of play. Such cries as Knock it off and blob up , might crucially sway the run of play - The crowd would forcibly encourage their respective 'champion' to suck back and volubly, will the opponent into a mixy blob of possible appolyptic consequences. Shouts of once at em, twice at em would draw further spectators, from their remainder of the crew who had previously perhaps been occupied in the silent contemplation of their loved ones. Jeers of derision, when a particularly foolhardy move or brave gambit goes dramatically wrong, would bring smiles to even the most distant of shipmates. Such is the energy that is expended into a so called simple game. A game which inevitably serves to create that bond of comradship that prevails aboard the Royal Naval ship.

As earlier in WW1, WW2 and now in the Falklands the long periods of inaction during Action Stations, where men might play cards, write letters or play memory games, sketch or quietly play games like battleships or squares.

On Saturday nights there maybe a ship wide game of Tombola or a competition based on frog or horse racing.

This subject could not be complete without reference to Gambling - In the early days of sail, Gambling inevitably was part of a sailors life, but by the late Eighteenth century, it was mostly actively discouraged. Yet many gambling games were and still are today, carried out for a wager. Indeed, up until the 1970's, the universal currency, for petty wagers was the tot, as it indeed had been for most of the twentieth century and before.
By the Napoleonic period the practice of gambling aboard ship had mostly been suppressed, although there was always the prospect of an illicit card game etc. being held in the darker depths of the ships bilges. Always, in 'friendly' card games, money was never seen on any surface where a game was in progress, whilst certain instruments to keep score were inevitably allowed such as the crib board and the pair of cards in Euchre, seldom would counters or other tokens be allowed let alone used in connection with cards.

But this never stopped gambling for the addicted. The term 'penny a point' was frequently heard and divvied up at the conclusion. Yet those rules and indeed the fear of being reported, had the effect of driving gambling under ground. One must remember that there were many little businesses going on aboard ships. You had to request through channels, to start such a legitimate part-time occupation; such as haircutting. Thus if a rating could earn a few shillings on the side for a run ashore, he would. Thus operators of card schools etc. would have guards posted to warn of an officers approach whenever a really big session was underway. This was particularly the case during the World Wars.

Knowing that a sailor loved a wager, and seeking to control it, the Admiralty allowed certain supervised activities, that were monitored by the Master At Arms or his representatives. Such ship wide games were conducted in the open and the ship itself, always acted as banker, either in the guise of the mess fund (Senior Rates and officer) or welfare fund (Lower deck and ship generally.)
[The welfare fund, acquired and spent its money, for the improvement of the sailors lives, by providing essential items to improve their lot].
Thus this was seen by the men as a 'win win' situation they benefited in terms of the big lottery pay outs for runs ashore etc and in terms of extras for the ship etc.

The games so chosen were those where the 'take' percentage for the banker was low. Evidence suggests that Crown and Anchor, may at one time have been held like this but if so it was quickly replaced from about 1880 onwards, by Tombola. With games often played on a weekly basis, (Saturday night) when the ships routine allowed.

Crown and Anchor is 'the' best known Naval Gambling Game, indeed whenever it appears it is usually in connection with sailors. However it is a game where the 'Win' factor is heavily biased to the banker and although it be occasionally found as a secondary or occasional game on special ships party or banyan days, held under the watchful eye of the regulating staff it was more often found illicitly played.

In conclusion we note -
That irrespective of the period of interest, games are played on four occasions.

  • During stand easy and lunch time - when a game of cribbage or other card game is the order of play or perhaps the training game of uckers.
  • In off watch period - usually the dog watches or evenings. When more elongated tournaments might be found.
  • Action Stations - In the periods of rest or respite whilst awaiting the call to duty or to react to a situation, today's wafoos play sketching and memory games, etc. when waiting for a sortie to land. In such a context you are often sat in a passageway or compartment with your back against the bulkhead, games of cards, are seldom evident but squares or battleships might be used, occasionally some other sketching or mental game.
  • Ship Organised Events like - Garden Parties -At sea, a garden party, banyan, or sports day, is an organized item, which affects the whole ship. On carriers with the flight deck or hanger to serve as a sports field more extravagant social events might be organised such as hot dog barbeques, whilst individual departments (Stokers, 'Airey Faries (WAFU's) or Cooks) might sponsor and man sideshows etc. The whole atmosphere is one of a village fete. There could be swimming, kite flying, skeet shooting etc. During such activities frog racing and horse racing might be the occupation of the day, whilst those same games might be scheduled or accommodated in a mess deck flat in the evening or perhaps during a more select Saturday night at sea. - Small ships would similarly organise the same events with the helicopter flight deck the venue, sweepers and destroyers might find a deserted tropic isle to hold the event. (A Banyan)

Most any game in existance has been played aboard ships, particularly those with cards. (I have seen homemade version of Happy Families in regular use, ( I would often covet the cards for they were prime examples of sailors art. For such items would feature the families of many characters aboard ship in comical and bawdy pose.)
However there are certain games that are more traditionally assosiated with the naval sailor such as Noms, Chase the Pisser, Crown and Anchor, Uckers and Tombola.

The Most Popular Games

Board & Card Games

All Fours

Gambling and Lottery Games

Any game played can be the object of a wager, and Queens (Kings) Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, consider this by forbidding, the presence of money or tokens on a messdeck table where games are played. Only the official lotteries such as Tombola are allowed in messes or canteen flats, after making the proper application or request to the Commanding Officer.
The one exception to this is where a crib board or score sheet is required to keep score but such must comply to the standard expected in such games. Of course all will be familiar with 'penny a point' in crib and dominoes.

This section only illustrates therefore those games where money either legally or illegally changes hands.


Sky Larking Games




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