British Bulldog (game)
British Bulldog is a tag-based playground and sporting game, regularly played in schoolyards and on athletic fields. Early descriptions appeared in the 1940s, e. g. in 1941 in the Canadian journal The School. Secondary Edition, published by the Ontario College of Education, University of Toronto, and in 1944 in Boys' Life magazine in an article by William "Bill" Hillcourt (Boy Scouts of America). The game is a descendant of chasing games that have been recorded from the 18th and 19th century and is played mainly in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries.
It is characterised by its physicality and is often being regarded as violent, leading it to be banned from many schools in the 1960s–'90s due to injuries to the participants, although this trend is now being reversed. Several British schools in the 21st century still do not allow children to play it, but some schools allow it as long as it is non-contact (i.e., instead of the bulldogs restraining a person to the ground to capture them, they just tap them as they would in a game of tag).
In a sport's historical context, like its predecessors, British Bulldog has been used as a skill-and-drill device to reinforce and further develop locomotion skills fundamentally vital to American football, rugby, soccer, hockey and related team sports.
Name and regular use
While the game of British Bulldog is a conglomerate of different sources and pre-existing rules, the origin of the name is still unclear. According to Cambridge District Scouts the tag-and-tackle game has been practiced under that name since the late 1930s at several British Scout meetings, and in the first half of the 1940s, it became well-known in Canada and the U.S., probably during the turmoil of World War II. At that time, the name British Bulldog also has been applied to Winston Churchill, characterizing a person of sheer will and fortitude. Apart from that, regular game descriptions in connection with the name British Bulldog did not appear before the 1940s.
Basic game description
Most commonly one or two players – though this number may be higher in large spaces – are selected to be the "bulldogs". The bulldogs stand in the middle of the playing field. All remaining players stand at one end of the area (home). The aim of the game is to run from one end of the playing field to the other, without being caught by the bulldogs. When the players are caught, they become bulldogs themselves. The last player is the winner and starts the next game as bulldog.
The play area is flexible—it can be played on a street, a playground, between cloisters, in a large sports hall or on an area of a playing field—though there is no set size of the pitch nor set number of players as long as there is enough space for the participants. The selected location consists of one main playing area, with two 'home' areas on opposing sides (similar to the try-zone areas used in rugby or American football). The home areas are usually marked by a line or some other marker.
Each game of British Bulldog consists of a sequence of rounds, and it is usual to play a number of games one after another with different players as bulldogs each time. The game is initiated with a single player (or sometimes two) chosen as bulldog, standing between the home areas. The rush (also known as 'open gates' or 'stampede') is started by the bulldog shouting the phrase "British Bulldog!". The other players run across the field simultaneously, and once they left their home area the bulldog(s) must attempt to catch them. The players caught become bulldogs as well. The round is then repeated in the opposite direction until all players have become bulldogs.
In the later stages of the game the bulldogs will outnumber the remaining players, which can make captures especially rough as many bulldogs attempt to capture individual players.
The method by which a runner is caught varies according to local custom. Commonly, a player is caught by either being held off the ground by the bulldog or being tackled and held stationary, while the bulldog exclaims a phrase (e.g. "British Bulldog!" or "British Bulldog; one, two, three!"). If the runner can escape before the phrase is complete, or if they are able to continue moving (if being held stationary is required), then they are not considered to be caught. The tackle variant is sometimes called "Take-down Bulldog" or "Bring-down Bulldog".
Capture by tackling or lifting was popular in the 20th century, although tackling has become more common than lifting in the modern version of the game. A direct predecessor of the Take-down Bulldog variant was described in 1935 by Elmer Dayton Mitchell and Bernard Sterling Mason in the widely received publication Active Games and Contests under the name Tackling Pom-Pom-Pull-away. The book is primarily concerned with tag, running and combat games and provides further instructions of exercises solely connected to sports such as soccer and rugby football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. In this context, Take-down Bulldog can be considered a football version of traditional chasing games.
"Tagging is a characteristic feature of many games—even games of high organization such as baseball or football. Tagging and escape from being tagged is either the sole or at least the primary object of the game."— Elmer Dayton Mitchell, Bernard Sterling Mason: Active Games and Contests, 1935.
Alternatively, the runners also become bulldogs if they cross a boundary equivalent to a touch-line. It can be a valid method of capture for a bulldog to force a runner over the boundary.
If the runners successfully enter the opposing home area without being captured, they are considered 'safe'. The bulldog(s) may usually catch any number of players in a single rush, all of whom become bulldogs.
The aim of the game for the bulldogs is to catch all the players as quickly as possible, whilst the aim for the other players is to stay uncaught for as long as possible. The last player to be caught is usually considered the winner.
Traditional predecessors (18th and 19th century)
British Bulldog is a descendant of a range of games from the 18th and 19th centuries, which were widespread in Western and Central Europe (UK and Germany in particular) and later – in the course of emigration – in North America and Australia.
Before British Bulldog became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, Black Man, Black Tom, Pom-Pom-Pull-away, Chinese Wall, and Crows and Cranes were the favorite schoolyard and sporting games. Those games also used to be part of the physical education programs for boy scouts, football players and in public schools across the United States.
Black Man (Der schwarze Mann), sometimes called Bogey Man, is a traditional German game and one of the oldest games in the line of Western European chasing games that had been described already in 1796 by Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths. It draws on ancient "plague games" in which the catcher epitomizes the Black Death. Everyone he touches becomes a bearer of the plague. The Black Man spread across the globe by the rise of the German Turner movement with Friedrich Ludwig Jahn as its iconic figure.
In the UK and Canada, Black Man was partly known as Black Peter (not to be confused with the card game) and has been regarded as a "primary rugby game". According to figures such as Steve Owen and Chet Grant, Black Man was an integral component of American football exercises.
The playground is divided into three fields, two small opposite goals and one long middle field for the chasing process. The distance between the goals can be increased according to the ability and the number of players. The players choose their goals, one of which the Black Man takes, while all the other players go to the opposite goal. The Black Man calls out: "Who is afraid of the Black Man?", whereupon the other players yell: "No one!" and start for the opposite goal without being caught by the Black Man who is leaving his goal at the same time for chasing the players. With three slaps on the shoulder or back the Black Man must try to tag as many of the players as possible while on their way to the opposite goal. Every player tagged joins the Black Man and helps him tag the others. The Black Man and his helpers may join hands to catch the remaining players. Anyone who runs beyond the boundaries of the playing field to avoid the approaching Black Man is considered caught. The game continues until all have been caught. The last (sometimes the first) one caught becomes the Black Man in the new game.
Only the Black Man asks the questions. The advanced dialogues are:
|Variant 1||Variant 2|
Question: Who is afraid of the Black Man?
Answer: No one!
Question: What will you do when the Black Man comes?
Answer: Run through like we ought to do!
Question: Are you afraid of the Black Man?
Answer: No! (Not of you!)
Question: What will you do when the Black Man comes?
Answer: Rush through like we always do!
Due to the risk of significant injuries Black Man was intended to be played by boys only. It was not until the late 19th century (over hundred years later) that the game became a part of the physical education of girls in public schools, although it remained highly controversial.
"At the beginning of the school the only outdoor game that the children played was "black man," a game that stimulated vulgarity, called out roughness and brutality, and allowed too much mauling of one another."
Comparable games and derivatives from the 19th century were Black Tom, Blackthorn, Pom-Pom-Pull-away, Rushing Bases (also known as King Cæsar) and Hill Dill, mostly with different dialogues and with the catcher placed in the middle of the field.
Black Tom is a street game from the New York area. It was described in 1891 in Stewart Culin's publication Street Games of Boys in Brooklyn, New York. The game has also been mentioned in 1899 in Kate Upson Clark's book Bringing up Boys. A Study.
In the game the player chosen as Black Tom stands in the middle of the street, and the others on the pavement on one side. When the catcher calls "Black Tom" three times, the other players run across, and may be caught, in which case they must join Black Tom in capturing the others.
Unlike the other chasing games the catcher may attempt to confuse and trick the players by shouting a false signal, such as "Black Tim" or "Red Tom". Any players who attempt to run on such a signal are automatically caught and join the catcher. The first one caught is Black Tom for the next game.
The method of confusion became later the basic element in the British early 20th century team game of Crows and Cranes.
In Daniel Carter Beard's work The American Boy’s Book of Sport from 1896 the main character Black Tom is described as a malicious fiend, an "ogre" – possibly related to the game of the Black Man. In several game and education handbooks of the late 1920s, both Black Man and Black Tom appeared temporarily in the form of hybridized game descriptions.'
Blackthorn, a game from the region of Lancashire, Derbyshire and Sheffield similar to Black Man and Pom-Pom-Pull-away, was played in the 19th and 20th century. It is named in 1837 in the book An Historical and Descriptive Account of Blackpool and its Neighbourhood by William Thornber.
One child stands opposite a row of children, and the row run over to the opposite side, when the one child tries to catch them. The prisoners made, join the one child, and assist her in the new game.
In another variant one set of children stands behind a line, another set stands opposite, facing them. The following dialogue then takes place:
Blue milk and barley-corn.
How many sheep have you today?
More than you can catch and carry away!
The players then run towards each other's marks, and if any one be caught before he gets home to the opposite mark, he has to carry the one who catches him to the mark, where he takes his place as an additional catcher. In this way the game goes on till all are caught.
The Chinese wall is marked off by two parallel lines straight across the center of the playground, leaving a space between them of about ten feet in width, which represents the wall. On each side of the wall, at a distance of from fifteen to thirty feet, a parallel line is drawn across the ground. This marks the safety point or home goal for the besiegers. One player is chosen to defend the wall, and takes his place upon it. All of the other players stand in one of the home goals. The defender calls “Start!” when all of the players must cross the wall to the goal beyond, the defender trying to tag as many as he can as they cross; but he may not overstep the boundaries of the wall himself. All so tagged join the defender in trying to secure the rest of the players during future sorties. The game ends when all have been caught, the last player taken being defender for the next game.
Fox and Dowdy
In 19th century Warwickshire, a catch-and-hold game called Fox and Dowdy (or Fox-a'-Dowdy) was played across a lane or similar area. In this version, the catcher catches players by holding them and reciting the phrase "Fox a' dowdy—catch a candle".
In King Edward's School, Birmingham the same game was known as Bacca (or Action!). In this version, the home areas were either end of the cloisters. A catcher must hold another player and say the phrase "One, two, three, caught, tobacco" to capture them. The phrase was the source of the game's name. In a similarly titled version called Baccare, the rush is triggered by the leader of the non-catcher players calling "Baccare" or by any of the players being tricked into saying it by the catcher(s). An example given is a catcher asking "What does your father smoke?", to which a players might answer "bacca" (as a short form of "tobacco"), thus triggering the rush.
Another local variant recorded in Marlborough, Wiltshire was called Click. In this game, being the catcher was known as going Click. The catcher(s) caught other players by holding them while saying the phrase "One, two, three, I catch thee; help me catch another." If the last remaining non-catcher player successfully made the run between home areas three times without being caught, they could nominate the person to go Click in the next game; if they failed then they had to do it themselves. 
In the game there is an area in the centre between the two home areas called the "castle". The catcher is known as the "king" and starts in the castle; anyone caught by the King becomes one of the king's "soldiers". The non-catcher players must hop between the home areas with their arms folded across their chests. The king and soldiers capture other players by barging into them or forcing them to put both feet down. If the king puts both feet down, they have to return to the castle before they can capture any more players.
There is also a team version of Hopping bases, related to Prisoner's Base and Cops and Robbers, in which players split into teams and each own one of the home areas. Players who are forced to put both legs down are captured by the other side and become "prisoners". Prisoners are placed in home area of the capturing team and can be rescued by a teammate hopping across the playing area and touching them; after which both the rescuer and rescuee are allowed to walk or run back to their own home area. The team with the most prisoners wins.
King Cæsar (also known as King Senio and Rushing bases) dates back to the mid-19th century. It was described in 1844 in the London book The Boy's Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations. In the game the catcher is known as "king" and is placed midway between two goals. He captures the other players by tapping them on the head and saying the phrase "Crown thee, King Cæsar" (or "I crown thee King"). When the kings outnumber the other players they can approach the home area and attempt to physically pull the players out to capture them.
A similar game was played in Scotland called Rexa-boxa-king. In this game, the catcher is called "king" or "queen" and triggers the rush with the phrase "Rexa-boxa-king" or "Rexa-boxa". The last player captured becomes king in the next game.
Another local variant played in the Scottish Highlands that had been recorded in the late 19th century is Cock. In this game, the catcher is known as "cock"; all the other players run from one home area to the other at once. The cock attempts to capture (or "croon" in this version) the other players by putting his hand on the player's head.
A game once commonly played in the 1860s and 1870s at the Northeastern Seaboard is Pom-Pom-Pull-away (also known as Pom-Pom-Peel-away or Pump-Pump-Pull-away). Like Black Man in this game the players start in one of the home areas but with the catcher in the middle of the playground, as standard. There is no named player and the rush starts with the catcher calling out the phrase "Pom-Pom-Pull-away; come away or I'll fetch you away!". The players are usually caught by being touched on the back or shoulder, although the rules differed among regional variants. The first player to be caught starts as the catcher in the next game.
A variant of this game called Hill Dill has also been recorded. In one version the only difference is the phrase used; in this case it is "Hill Dill, come over the hill; or else I'll catch you standing still." In another recorded version, the phrase is similarly "Hill Dill, come over the hill" but non-catchers are split equally between both home areas, so that they run in opposite directions during the rush.
The catcher stands in the middle of the street, while the others form a line on the pavement on one side. The Red Rover calls any boy he wants by name ("Red Rover, Red Rover, let XY come over!"), and that boy must then run to the opposite sidewalk. If he is caught as he runs across, he must help the Red Rover to catch the others. When the Red Rover catches a player, he must call "Red Rover!" three times or he cannot hold his captive. Only the Red Rover has authority to call out for the others by name, and if any of the boys start when one of the captives who is aiding the Red Rover calls him, that boy is considered caught. The game is continued until all are caught. The first one caught is Red Rover for the next game.
In the 20th century, the game changed into a team game, incorporating rules similar to the ones of Forcing the City Gates, a Chinese game that has been described in 1901 by Isaac Taylor Headland of the Peking University. In his article Children's Games and Game Rhymes from March 1949 Warren E. Roberts of the Indiana University tried to delineate the particularities of the traditional Red Rover and the team game of the same name and line. In the latter, a group of players split into two even-numbered teams on both sides of the playing field. The teams face each other at about 15–20 yards apart. Then the players within each team join hands. One team picks out a player they want to come over. The selected player runs to the opposite team and tries to break through the human chain. If successful, he can choose one of the defeated team members and bring him into his own group. If he can't break the chain, he becomes a member of the opposite team.
Two parallel goal lines are drawn about 20–30 metres apart. One chosen person, the catcher, stands between the goals; the other players line up behind one of the goal lines in front of the catcher. The latter calls a person by name who must run from one goal to another. The person who is touched or tackled has to call out the next runner. The person who safely reaches the other side has the choice to call out "Bullrush!" and everyone else starts running across the open space without being tagged (or tackled) by the catcher who must then try to tag as many players as possible. Everyone caught becomes a helper of the catcher and has to take place in the middle of the field. The first (or last) one caught is the catcher for the next game.
Both the catcher and the successful runner are authorized to call out "Bullrush!" for starting the run. The runners caught are tackled to the ground by the catcher who calls "1–2–3 – You’re in the middle with me!".
A tackle variant played in some suburbs of Wellington during the 1970s was called "Downhill Bullrush". Runners begin at the top of a steep, heavily forested hill and catchers are positioned about half-way down the hill.
Crows and Cranes
Crows and Cranes, also known as Black and Blue, is an early 20th century chasing game brought from England to the States by American soldiers. It was described in November 1918 in The Youth's Companion magazine.
In the middle of the playground two groups of players of equal numbers are formed in parallel lines about one yard apart. A player, chosen as instructor, designates one line as the "Crows" and the other as the "Cranes". All players stand facing the instructor, who takes his place apart from the game (e. g. about two yards from one end of the lines). The goals are located thirty feet back of each line. The instructor starts the game by calling (and drawling) the consonants of each group's name: "K – r – r – r – r...", and then suddenly runs it off into either "Crows!" or "Cranes!". The aim of the game is to think ahead and react immediately to the possible situation of being the chaser or being chased. The players of one group, whose name the instructor calls, turn quickly and run towards their goal while the other players cross over the middle of the playground and chase them, tagging as many as possible. Those tagged must join the opposite group (in another variant they have to leave the game). The instructor can switch the call while the chasing process to reverse the action. If the Crows were chasing the Cranes and the instructor calls "Crows!", all the players must switch roles and directions. After the first round the players go back to the starting point and build new lines. The game continues until one group is successful by retaining a larger number of players at a given time.
A gentler variant popular in Britain is Farmer, Farmer!, also known as Please, Jack! or Please, Mr. Crocodile!. A group of runners take place on one side of the area and one or two catchers in the middle. The runners chant a phrase such as "Farmer, Farmer, may we cross your golden water?" or something similar. In The Midlands of England, the phrase "Please Mr. Crocodile, can we cross the water in a cup and saucer, upside down?" is more common; in America, children often chant "Oh Captain, my Captain, may we cross your ship?" instead.
The catchers respond with a specific stipulation; "Only if you're wearing blue/have blonde hair/have an S in your name!" etc. This means the runners run across in smaller groups, instead of one large group, and the catchers only typically need to tag the runners to turn them into catchers, rather than tackle them to the ground.
In this version one (or two) player(s) are chosen as "octopus(es)" and stand in the middle while all the other players line up as "fishes" at one side of the playing area. The catcher calls out "Octopus!" and all the players must run across the field to the other side of the boundary without being caught. If they are caught, they are rooted to one spot and become tentacles. Within the next round they then try to tag the other players, using only one foot and waving their arms without leaving their tagging spot.
Any person who runs across the boundary of the playing field is considered caught and the catcher can decide where that person has to take place. The last person to be tagged is the winner.
Sharks and Minnows
Another variant of Pom-Pom-Pull-away (Swimming Pom-Pom-Pull-away) called Sharks and Minnows is played in swimming pools (in Annette Kellermann's book How to Swim referred to as Water Blackman). One player is selected as the "shark" and starts at one side (or alternatively in the middle) of the pool while the "minnows" (i.e. runners) take place on the opposite area. In each round, the minnows must swim from one side of the pool to the other without being "eaten" (touched or tagged) by the shark(s). All the minnows who are tagged above the water's surface while crossing the pool then join the shark for the next round. The game finishes when only one, or zero depending on local variation, "minnow" is left.
In the traditional variant of Swimming Pom-Pom-Pull-away, already mentioned in the early 20th century, the catcher calls out Pom-Pom-Pull-away! (Let the fishes swim away!) to start the game.
The game is normally played by children and offers an interesting means of letting off energy and involves rugged physical contact. It appeals to competitive spirits but at the same time produces ad-hoc team activity with all the "losers" endeavouring to bring the "non-losers" to the ground. The strongest, most athletic competitors will find it extremely difficult to win British bulldog as the number of bulldogs grows. Parents tend to deplore the game since it results in muddied and even torn clothes, bruises, bloody noses, knees and elbows and sometimes tears (when played on tarmac) but both boys and girls participate in it.
As a game of physical contact that results in a mêlée of people attempting to drag others down to the ground, British bulldog bears some similarity to rugby. The game when played in Australia tends to be particularly rough, with the version known as pile-ons or cocky laura being common.
British Medical Journal, June 1985
In England and Wales, despite the Local Government Association's 2008 encouragement of traditional playground games such as British bulldog, more than a quarter of teachers surveyed in 2011 said the game had been banned at their schools. Its rough-and-tumble nature resulted in numerous broken bones when it was popular in the 1970's and at least one spinal injury was reported in the June 1985 British Medical Journal, as well as the death of an eight-year-old child in Twickenham in 2013, who collided with a player of British bulldog while playing a different game.
- British Bulldog
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- Black Man
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