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Child’s Play

From Folklore and Songs of the Black Country by Michael and Jon Raven

Children’s games are a rich source of otherwise lost or ignored folk material. Fragments of ballads, ritual dances and chants are consistently found when these games are analysed. An interesting aspect of children’s play is that they invaraibly combine play-acting, singing and dancing. They rarely sing without dancing and vice-versa.

A number of games have traceable origins (such as Blind Man’s Buff originating in mediaeval truth tests), but many are shrouded in antiquity and have lost much of their original directness with the coming of such institutions as the Christian Church which converted many pagan rituals and rhymes for its own use!

For example: Tang and Tick and Touch Wood are believed to have at least two sources, the Norse custom of fellow men at arms touching each other’s spear-shafts at Wapentake (Weapon Touch) before a battle, and the offender seeking the sanctuary of the Church, symbolised by the Wood of the Cross and altar rail.

Before the advent of computer games and television, here are some of the games that children would play:

Green Gravel

A girls’ singing game popular in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
Green gravel, green gravel, the grass is so green,
The fairest young lady as ever was seen,
We’ll wash you in milk and dress you in silk
And we’ll write down your name with gold pen and ink.
Oh Mary, Oh Mary your true love is dead,
He’s sent you a letter, so toss up your head.

Any number of girls join hands and form a ring, placing one of their number in the centre. They then circle round singing. At the end of the verse the circling girls stop and bow, while the centre girl curtsies. Another girl takes the centre and the singing and dancing recommences.

Stag Warning

In Northern Staffordshire there were 56 deer parks in Mediaeval times. King Canute was fond of hunting on Cannock Chase (Canute’s Wood) which was also the centre of the Druid religion in central England. It is not unlikely that the boys’ game Stag Warning has echoes of the ancient history of this area.
One boy is chosen as stag. He chases the other boys with his hands clasped in front of him, palms together. He has to catch the other players and touch or tick them. When ticked they join hands and run as one to catch others using their free hands. This goes on until all but one player are sweeping the area in search of the free players. When one is left the others break free at his call of “Stag warning, stag warning,


A local version of rounders, the bare hand taking the place of the bat. The name possibly derives from the town of Tutbury. In Norman times the Honour of Tutbury included the present counties of Stafford, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Warwick.

Counting Games

Counting-out is involved in many games. This process is to decide on a victim for some purpose. The most frequent form is the ring with a leader in the centre who chants a rhyme (Chantry) and touches each in turn on the accented syllables. One such Black Country rhyme goes thus:-

“Harley barley limber lock, three wires in the clock,
Sit and sing and pull the string, O-U-T spells out goes he (she)!”


A game of hide and seek in which the signal for the searcher to uncover his/her eyes and commence searching is the call Cuckoo.

Wind the Clock Up

A large number of children form a long line holding hands. At one end is a player called Jack O’ the Clock who remains stationary while the others slowly wind themselves round him, singing as they go “Wind the clock up, wind the clock up.” The winding completed, the whole group jumps up and down singing “Tags and jags, a bundle of rags.” In Shropshire this game is called Wind up Jack.

Village News April 2011