Darts At 90: The Modern Game Was Invented In London

By Justin Irwin Last edited 18 months ago
Darts At 90: The Modern Game Was Invented In London

Visit Alexandra Palace the week either side of Christmas and you might spot Fred and Wilma Flintstone clambering up the hill from the station, followed by a set of over sized pencils, eight Stormtroopers, and the cast of the Wizard of Oz. This is darts, 21st century style.

For the fans, a visit to the darts World Championship is about dressing-up, trying to get on the telly, and, primarily, beer.

In this last respect little has changed in the world of darts since the very first tournament was played 90 years ago today, in a London pub.

Darts as we know it was born at the Red Lion in Wandsworth on 1 June 1926. The Licensees Cup was the first competition anywhere in the world to be played under an agreed set of rules created by the newly formed National Darts Association.

The game itself goes back somewhat further, although its history is a little foggy. Anne Boleyn gave Henry V111 a set of 'dartes', and archers no doubt shortened their weapons to create indoor arrows. But today's game probably derived from a different pastime, popular in 19th century  taverns: 'puff and dart'.

'Puff' involved shooting tiny darts at targets using blowpipes, but too much sucking and not enough puffing led to a rethink, and by the turn of the century darts were being thrown rather than blown.

Via showmen, fairgrounds and, in particular, breweries, darts grew significantly in popularity in the next two decades, until the new darts association met in Holborn to 'codify' the game under an agreed set of rules — begin with 301 points (three times around a cribbage board), take three darts per throw, and start and finish with a double.

Most importantly, all matches would be played using the now familiar 'London' board, with its double and treble ring, and awkward numbering system pitching the higher values adjacent to the lower.

This particular decision kick-started the lengthy demise of the many regional variations of dart board. The Grimsby, Staffordshire and Irish are long gone, and sightings of the Yorkshire, Kent, and Manchester log-end (yes, the end of a log) are rare – although, to this day, some pubs in east London (including the Palm Tree in Mile End) still use the 'Fives' board.

Playing darts in a pub in the City of London, 1974. Photo by Klaus D Peter via Wikicommons

Under the new rules, the 1926 tournament was the catalyst for such growth in darts that a national newspaper sponsored a new London-wide competition. By the time this was opened up to the whole of the UK after the second world war, the News of the World darts tournament had roughly 300,000 entrants.

The Red Lion was demolished in the 1940s, making way for part of Wandsworth's one-way system, but the News of the World competition ran every year until 1990, with the original rules broadly intact. The finals — held variously at Wembley Arena (or Empire Hall), the Agricultural Halls in Islington or Alexandra Palace — were raucous affairs, won by darting greats such as Barry Twomlow, Bobby 'the King of Bling'  George, and the most famous London dartist of all, Eric Bristow.

Five times World Champion, the Crafty Cockney's peak coincided with the zenith of televised darts, and, in 1982 he earned twice as much as Kevin Keegan, recent European Football of the Year.

But just as quickly as the TV game had boomed, by the beginning of the 1990s it had generally disappeared from the public consciousness, and even Jim Bowen’s weekly promise of a new speedboat to contestants on darting quiz Bullseye couldn't resolve the acrimonious organisational split in 1993.

Enter Barry Hearn, sports promoter extraordinaire, the man who made Steve Davis interesting and fishing a TV sport. With Hearn at the reins the game shifted from cult to must-see status, and by the mid-noughties the World Championship found its way to north London.

Despite the fancy dress and faux glamour, modern darts is no laughing matter. When the Professional Darts Corporation celebrates a decade of its World Championship at Ally Pally this Christmas in front of a total of 60,000 paying customers, the winner will take home a tidy £350,000. The 1926 Licensees Cup contestants could never have imagined their legacy.

But while TV darts is flourishing once again, the pub game appears in terminal decline. Participation has been on the slide for decades, but with a third of central London’s dart boards disappearing in the last five years, at this rate the game will vanish entirely from central London before its 100th birthday.

So, if you fancy chucking some 'arrers', you might want to get on with it. Dressing up as a Flintstone is optional.

Find out where else to play darts in central London at capitalarrows.com

Last Updated 31 May 2016