Between 1800 and 1815 during the campaign waged against Napoleon, many tens of thousands of French soldiers and sailors were taken prisoner and held captive in England. They were held in prisons, camps and in prison ships moored around the coast and estuaries. As the war dragged on, these prisoners - many of whom were not professional soldiers – were allowed to use the skills they had developed before the war and any materials which came to hand to set up their own industry in producing small items that could be sold to the public at weekly markets. There was a ready supply of animal bones from the kitchens and these were used in what was to prove one of the most popular items – games boxes. They were small boxes, seldom more than six inches in length containing sets of dominoes also made from the bones. The lids were commonly fashioned to form a board for scoring at cribbage, one of the most popular card games of the time and a game that has survived into the twenty-first century.
There was no single design for these boxes as each one was constructed according to the materials available. Many had a wooden carcass onto which the bone was pinned; the bone was decorated in rather primitive styles with circles and floral designs being carved into the bone and often stained with natural dyes. One of the great pleasures of these boxes is that they are all different and varied according to the skill of the maker. Some have intricately constructed joints; others are much more basic. The dominoes vary in finesse; some boxes contained dice and even bone sets of playing cards. I have chosen a selection of eight boxes to illustrate various types.
Box 1 measures five inches and is decorated with red and green circles and dots inscribed into the bone.. It has a wooden base and the sliding lid reveals a very coarsely made set of double-nine dominoes. The sides are held in place by metal pins and great care has been taken to ensure even spacing of the cribbage holes on the lid (pictures 1 &2).
Box 2 is raised on four feet and has similar decoration to box 1 but contains much finer dominoes (pictures 3, 4 & 5).
Box 3 measures five inches by one and a quarter inches and has a rather more sombre colour scheme (pictures 6 & 7).
Box 4 shows a very different style with card suits pierced into the bone panels and more ornate work. There is however no room for a cribbage scorer on this box (pictures 8 & 9).
Box 5 is even more intricate and measures six inches in length. There is a cribbage scorer of sorts incorporated into the top which also forma sort of handle and the box has an inner lid holding the dominoes in place (pictures 10, 11 & 12).
Box 6 has the added refinement of a hinged lid with the cribbage scorer to the sides. This box also has a compartment to hold dice and scoring pegs (pictures 13, 14 & 15).
Box 7 (pictures 16 – 20) is among my favourites. It has a triangular section sliding wooden lid with charming illustrations of people in period dress under glass panels.
Box 8 is the largest at nine inches in length. It has a very plain lid – I suspect that it would originally have been decorated to match the panels to the sides. It contains a set of double-nine dominoes, a spinning dice and has the rare feature of a full set of 52 bone playing cards with the court cards copied from the single-ended cards of the day (pictures 21 -24).
There are hundreds more styles and variations to these boxes but I find them utterly intriguing: each one has its own individual charm.