Before the days of casinos and one-armed bandits in pubs people found many different ways to gamble. People would sometimes bet on two flies crawling up a wall; if someone’s wall was missing they’d bet on the number of raindrops falling on someone’s hat in their front room or the number of leaves that blew in from the surrounding garden.
In the Forest of Dean the locals hit upon a novel method of satisfying their gambling habit – use animals in a number of games and contests.
Snail racing was a particular favourite, especially with the heavy drinkers. People would place a bet on their selected snail and then go to the pub for four hours before returning to the snail course to see the climax of the one yard race.
Another favourite was ‘push the mouse.’ Ten people used to play this game at the same time. A cat was placed in a box that was turned on its side, so that the cat was facing the ‘push the mouse’ contraption, which comprised ten sticks, one yard in length. At the end of each stick a mouse had been painted that was a different colour from the others. Contestants selected a mouse and then tried to attract the cat’s attention by waving their mouse at the cat without touching it. Competitors who touched the cat with their mouse were disqualified. The winner was the person whose mouse was the first to be swatted by the cat. These contests could take many hours as some cats fell asleep and couldn’t be woken by any fair means. In 1813 a short-sighted cat called Vincent pounced on the contraption itself and all bets were declared null and void.
The village cats were also used as roulette wheels. Their beds were placed on the ground and sixteen different segments were drawn around the bed. Gamblers placed their money in the segment that they thought the cat’s nose would be pointing at. The tired cat was then placed in its bed – it would then turn round and round until it found a comfortable position and one lucky gambler would win the money. Cats whose owners read books on feng shui weren’t allowed to take part in this contest.
The local fish pond was the scene of more gambling. People baked their own bread using various recipes and then played “feed the fish”. People threw pieces of bread into the water and the first piece of bread eaten would win its baker the prize. In 1892, after ten years of overzealous competition the fish in the pond were so large that they could barely swim and so there was a five-year hiatus before the contest recommenced.
Another contest was ‘Attract the mouse,” which was played in the house of Martha Grable. She had a large mousehole in her skirting board. Gamblers placed their pieces of cheese around the hole and then crouched down behind the sofa to wait. The judge ensured that each piece was genuine cheese and hadn’t been doctored by a mouse attractant. The judge also ensured that each piece of cheese was exactly three feet from the hole. The winner was the person whose piece of cheese was first eaten by the mouse. A mouse sniffing at a piece of cheese didn’t count.
The most popular contest was “Guess the spots on the ladybird.” The ladybird judge would catch an insect and ask people to place bets on the number of spots. If the number of spots wasn’t guessed correctly all bets were carried over into the next guess. In 1763, an apparent plague of 10-spotted ladybirds was found to be a hoax perpetrated by Andrew Craig, the local painter, who was banned from all gambling events for two hundred years.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker