British Bulldog (game)
British Bulldog (also running red rovers, red rovers, rovers, octopus, seaweed, bullies, bullrush, Russian bulldog, bulldogs charge, or simply bulldogs) is a tag-based game, of which red rover and cocky laura are descendants.
Most commonly one or two players – though this number may be higher in large spaces – are selected to play the parts of the "bulldogs". The bulldogs stand in the middle of the play area. All remaining players stand at one end of the area (home). The aim of the game is to run from one end of the field of play to the other, without being caught by the bulldogs. When a player is caught, they become a bulldog themselves. The winner is the last player or players 'free'.
The play area is flexible—it can be played on a street, a playground, between cloisters, in a large hall or on an area of a playing field—though there is no definition of the size of the pitch nor the number of players as long as there is enough space for the players to manoeuvre and enough players to have fun.
It is played mainly in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand (as bullrush or kingasini), Canada and other Commonwealth countries by children at school. Variants of the game have been recorded from the nineteenth century. It originated in the United Kingdom. The game is characterised by its physicality, often being regarded as violent, leading it to be banned from many schools, although this trend is now being reversed.
- 1 Rules
- 2 Variants
- 3 Background
- 4 Controversy
- 5 See also
- 6 References
As is usual with games, the particular rules applied vary from location to location, but with the same principle. The playing area consists of a main playing area, with two 'home' areas on opposing sides (similar to the touchdown areas used in rugby or American football). The home areas are the width of the playing area and are usually marked by a line or some other marker.
Each game of bulldogs consists of a sequence of rounds, and it is usual to play a number of games back-to-back with different bulldogs each time. The game is initiated with a single player (or sometimes two or more players) as the "bulldog" or "catcher" between the home areas and the other players together in one of the home areas. The objective for the non-bulldog players is to run from one home area to the other whilst avoiding the bulldog(s) in the middle.
In the later stages of the game the bulldogs will outnumber the remaining non-bulldog players, which can make captures especially rough as many bulldogs attempt to capture individual players.
Selecting the bulldog
The method of choosing of the first bulldog(s) is subject to variation. In one version, the bulldog is selected by all players standing in a circle with their legs apart and a tennis ball being bounced in the centre; whoever's legs the ball goes through is "it". Sometimes, the players must run to a set target, the last one there becoming the bulldog. In later games, either the first or the last players caught in the previous game may become the bulldog(s) for the next game.
Each round is usually initiated by the bulldog(s) chanting and goading, often naming a player to be the first to attempt the run from one home area to the other. In some versions all of the non-bulldogs rush across at once, in others this rush is triggered, either by the bulldog(s) or by the named player. Once players are out of the home area the bulldog(s) can attempt to 'catch' them; caught players become bulldogs as well.
The round is then repeated in the opposite direction until all players have become bulldogs.
The method by which a runner is caught varies according to local custom. It is common for a player to be caught by the bulldog(s) either holding the non-bulldog off the ground, or by tackling the non-bulldog and holding them stationary, while the bulldog exclaims a phrase (such as "British bulldog; one, two, three!" or simply "British bulldog!"). If the non-bulldog player 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. This form of the game is sometimes known as "take down bulldog" or "bring down bulldog".
A simpler alternative is for the bulldog(s) to just touch the non-bulldog(s) head or back and exclaim the appropriate phrase.
Capture by tackling or lifting was popular in the twentieth century, although tackling has become more common than lifting in the modern version of the game. Earlier references to the game mention either unspecified "detaining" or touching the head.
In some versions, non-bulldogs 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 non-bulldog over the boundary.
If the non-bulldog player(s) successfully enter the opposing home area without being caught, they are considered 'safe' and may not be caught by the bulldog(s). Players are also safe while they remain in their original home area, although there are sometimes rules for how long they may remain there.
The rush (also known as the 'bullrush', 'open gates' or 'stampede') may be triggered by the bulldog or the single, named player shouting a phrase such as "Bulldog" or "Bullrush", or it may occur when the named player is either captured or safe in the other home area. In some versions of the game there is no named player and each non-bulldog may choose when to the attempt a run to the other home area, with the round only ending when all non-bulldogs are either safe in the opposite area or caught. The bulldog(s) may usually catch any number of players in a single rush, all of whom become bulldogs. However, in other versions only the first player caught in each round becomes a bulldog, catching other players is simply for fun and has no strategic advantage.
In some versions players may not re-enter the original home area once they have left.
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.
Many names are shared between recorded variants of British bulldog.
A variant called bacca (also known as action and fox and dowdy) was played in the nineteenth century at King Edward's School, Birmingham. 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.
In the variant black tom, from early twentieth century America, the catcher triggers the rush of players by shouting "Black Tom" three times. The catcher may attempt to trick 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.
Chinese wall (or hill, dill, come over the hill) is another variant, where the catcher is confined between two lines smaller than the larger field (the "wall") and players must cross the "wall" without being caught.
A 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. 
A variant recorded in the late nineteenth century is cock. In this game, the catcher is known as "cock" and there is no named, single player; all the non-catcher 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 their hand on the non-catcher player's head.
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.
A gentler variant popular in Britain is fishy fishy. The set up is the same as bulldog, with a group of runners on one side of the area and one or two catchers in the middle. The runners chant a phrase such as "Fishy, Fishy, may we cross your golden water?" or something similar. In The Midlands of England, the phrase "Please Mr[s] 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.
A variant in America similar to fishy fishy is sharks and minnows, in which the original selected player(s) are the sharks, who attempt to "eat" the minnows. Commonly used as a fun recess activity for elementary school students. If a "shark" tags a "minnow", they become "seaweed" and can't move from where they're tagged for the rest of the game.
Another "sharks and minnows" variant is played in swimming pools. One player is selected as the "shark" and starts on the opposite side of the pool from the rest of the "minnows" (i.e. runners). In each round, the "minnows" must swim from one side of the pool to the other without being touched/tagged by the "shark(s)" while above the surface of the water. Any "minnows" who are tagged above the water's surface while crossing the pool then join the "shark(s)" for the next round. The game finishes when only one, or zero depending on local variation, "minnow" is left.
Fox and Dowdy
In nineteenth century Warwickshire, a variant 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 the variant called hopping jinny (also known as hop the barger, hopping caesar, hop and dodge, hoppy bowfie, cock, cockaroosha, cockarusty, cockie duntie, cock heaving, and hopping cockerals) each player must hop at all times with their arms folded across their chests. The catcher captures players by barging into them and forcing them to put their other foot down. This game has been recorded across England in the early to mid twentieth century.
Another recorded hopping variant is known as hopping bases. In this version, 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. The King and soldiers capture other players by touching 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 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.
In the variant King Caesar (also known as King Senio, rushing bases, fox and geese, and blackthorn) from the early twentieth century, the catcher(s) are known as "king" and capture the other players by tapping them on the head and saying the phrase "I crown thee King". Once a player has placed both feet outside a home area, they may not re-enter it. 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 variant called octopus has been recorded in Belfast. In this version the catcher(s) is known as "seaweed" and, like in the game freeze tag, once caught by the first catcher, players are rooted to one spot; they then try to tag runners without moving.
A generally milder variant of British bulldog once commonly played since the 1920s in the American West and Midwest is pom-pom-pullaway (also known as pom-pom-pull-away, pom-pom-Pete-away, pump-pump-pullaway, pum-pum-pullaway, pull away, pullaway, rushing bases, crack the whip, dog and deer, and dare-goal). In this game the players start in one of the home areas, with the catcher (sometimes called the "stump" or "it" in this version) in the middle, as standard. There is no named player and the rush is triggered by the catcher calling out a phrase such as "pom-pom-pull-away; come away or I'll fetch you away", "pom-pom-pullaway", "pullaway" or something similar. Players are usually caught by being tagged or touched, although the rules differed among regional variants. The first player to be caught starts at 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 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 a rugby scrum which may explain the presence of the game amongst children in a nation beloved of the sport of rugby. The game when played in Australia tends to be particularly rough, with the version known as pile-ons or cocky laura being common.
"His neck was flexed forcibly while his head was against the floor, and immediately after the injury he had severe pain of the cervical spine ... [which] shows that games such as British bulldog can be as dangerous as rugby football."
|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 has resulted in at least one spinal injury, reported in the June 1985 BMJ, and 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.
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