Marbles: A tradition that shouldn’t be lost

  • Concentration shows on this young boy's face during a game of marbles at Victor Scott field in this file photo.

    Concentration shows on this young boy's face during a game of marbles at Victor Scott field in this file photo.

  • Children playing 'allies' at Victor Scott field in this file photo by Tamell Simons.

    Children playing 'allies' at Victor Scott field in this file photo by Tamell Simons.

  • Children enjoy a game of marbles at Victor Scott School field in this file photo by Tamell Simons

    Children enjoy a game of marbles at Victor Scott School field in this file photo by Tamell Simons

  • Boys enjoy a game of marbles at Victor Scott Primary School field

    Boys enjoy a game of marbles at Victor Scott Primary School field


The kites will certainly be flying tomorrow but another Good Friday tradition from the past marbles has virtually disappeared.

‘Allies’, as they were called by older Bermudians, drew a crowd up and down the country as locals pulled out their private stash of marbles from a tin, bottle or sock and joined in for a competitive game on dirt land in their neighbourhoods. Like tops, skipping and jacks it’s a Good Friday tradition that is now dying off, much to the disappointment of author, historian and former Minister of Community and Cultural Affairs Dale Butler.

“At Christmas most kids got marbles and spinning tops and skipping ropes and after Christmas they used them and it would reach a crescendo around Good Friday when everybody, neighbours and family especially, would gather in one’s yard before we had lawns,” Mr Butler explained.

“Now people have lawns and nobody wants to dirty up the lawns. Back then there was always a little dirt space and on that space grandma, nephews and neighbours, would come and play marbles.”

Mr Butler, a former school principal, remembers children playing marbles at school. In fact he says he urged children to bring marbles to school when he was principal at Dellwood Primary. Nowadays, electronics are taking over and video games have replaced yard games.

“The school kids were playing marbles in school during recess, lunch and first thing in the morning and then after coming home from school,” said Mr Butler.

“Those were the good old days before electronics and once electronics came along children moved away from the outdoor games. What also happened environmentally is that the dirt yards became lawns and they had nowhere to play. At the same time parents didn’t give marbles and tops as Christmas gifts, they started to give more electronics to keep children inside.

“As a result, today it is rare to find large numbers of children playing marbles and virtually nobody is spinning tops or skipping rope on a regular basis. Now you will find some groups holding something at a community field trying to revive the tradition of spinning tops, marbles, skipping and hopscotch while eating fishcakes and hot cross buns. We have seen a major cultural shift from outdoor activity to indoor activity.”

In his book ‘The Legend of Codfish and Potatoes’, Mr Butler wrote about the history of marbles and tops, stating: “Marbles had numerous names ... smallies, pee-wee, bongy, pinky and the British originally brought them to Bermuda. Rules vary from parish to parish and include ‘banking’, ‘kill you’ and ‘rounding’, to name a few. All games start with a circle and links on a dirt surface. On Good Friday everybody would come out and play, including grandmothers.”

Bermuda has progressed and changed considerably since the 1960s and ‘70s and with so many other distractions Mr Butler wonders if the marble tradition will soon disappear completely.

“The hope is that clubs with members who appreciate history and appreciate tradition will ensure that on that day adults are out there playing and teaching children to play marbles,” he said.

“The thing the children need the most now is to be outside and we have them on the inside, or in more controlled programmes. We used to put the children in the yard and say don’t leave the yard and they were more creative in all their games, whether it was ‘chasing’ [or] ‘red light, blue light’. Now we give them a machine where the thinking is done for them and that makes them lazy. It started by being given the marbles at Christmas. We couldn’t afford all these fancy things we have now and children were excited to collect marbles.”

Added Mr Butler: ”We have a small group of people out there trying to keep it alive. When I was Minister of Culture I tried to instil those sort of things into programmes but I left and it died. There are teachers who last week would have taken the children out and talked about it, but it is not a part of our day-to-day life. It’s an event now, something that used to happen.

”Each generation comes along and establishes its own culture. So this generation, when they look back at their childhood, they’ll talk about electronic games that used to be and the new games that are there that you just talk to the screen and something happens. Or, you’ll find a generation that wants to go back to the old, old traditions and it may go around in a circle.”

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Published Apr 5, 2012 at 8:27 am (Updated Apr 5, 2012 at 8:26 am)

Marbles: A tradition that shouldn’t be lost

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