Primary History

Victorian Britain: Toys and games

  • Toys in rich homes

    During the 19th century, factory-made toys, including tin toys and clockwork toys, went on sale. Rich children had more toys to choose from: train sets, toy soldiers, rocking horses, dolls and doll's houses, tea-sets and toy shops with toy fruit, vegetables, meat, hats and medicines. Other popular toys were alphabet bricks, sailing boats, jigsaw puzzles and Noah's Arks. In many homes, children were not allowed toys on Sundays - except Noah's Ark, because that was in the bible.

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  • Toys in poor homes

    Most Victorian toys were made of wood, paper or metal. There were no plastic toys. Poor children usually played with home-made toys. A clothes peg might be turned into a doll, and a lump of wood become a toy boat. A piece of rope could be used for skipping, and rags stuffed with sawdust might become a ball or an animal to cuddle. As a treat, families sometimes bought cheap factory-made toys from a 'penny stall' in the market.

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  • Outdoor Games

    The Victorians were keen on outdoor games, such as football. The first FA Cup Final was played in 1872. Schools encouraged team games to 'build character'. The Victorians made up rules for many games we still play. An example is badminton, which developed from a old game called battledore and shuttlecock. If they did not have a proper football, poor children kicked around a blown-up pig's bladder, from the butcher's shop.

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  • Indoor Play

    Indoors, children played board games such as Snakes and Ladders (which became a popular toyshop game towards the end of the 19th century), Ludo and Draughts, and also card games. A popular card game was Happy Families, introduced in the middle of the Victorian period. There were also pencil and paper games, such as Noughts and Crosses, which we still play today. Children played table games, such as Tiddlywinks, a new craze in the 1890s, and Shove Halfpenny and Bagatelle. At parties, children played traditional 'ring' games like Oranges and Lemons and Kiss in the Ring. In quiet moments, they pasted pictures into Scrapbooks.

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Fun Facts
  • All Victorian rocking horses were grey with dappled markings. The horse's mane and tail were made from real horsehair.

  • Victorian children did not have teddy bears. The first teddy bear was made in 1903.

  • Children liked April Fools' Day tricks on 1 April. 'Your shoelace is undone' seldom caught anyone. But another, rather unkind trick, was to send a small child to the corner shop to ask for 'sparrow's milk'.

  • A popular Victorian toy was the diabolo - you tossed it in the air, using a string, and tried to catch it again.

  • Battledore and shuttlecock was a game played by families - today we call it badminton.

  • Many games had their own seasons - there was a time for conkers, hoops, tops, marbles and so on.

  • Well-off boys had toy soldiers, made from tin or lead, and painted in the uniforms of the British Army. Poor boys had home-made ones, made from wood or card.

  • Lucky rich boys played with toy trains pulled by miniature steam engines burning methylated spirit as fuel, and puffing out real steam.

  • Most mechanical toys had clockwork wind-up motors.

  • The animals in children's Noah's Arks were usually made from wood. There were always two of each animal.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
Child with no living parents.

P to S

Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

Workers' pay.
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.