Skipping games were once the most popular games in Britain but have recently been in decline, Julia Bishop explores the rise and fall of skipping games.
The heyday of the longrope
Longrope skipping was one of the most popular games in Britain in the mid to late twentieth century. Played by girls, it was a group activity for three or more. The ends of the rope were turned by two non-skippers while one or more girls skipped to the beat of a sung verse or chant, generally performed by all the players except those who were actually in the rope at the time.
A recording of a groups of girls in 2010 playing at skipping
Skipping chants and games
The sound recordings made by Iona Opie exemplify the rich variety of chants and songs associated with this form of skipping at the time. The chants and songs derived from sources as diverse as singing games, divination rhymes, taunts, Victorian and post-war popular songs, and advertising jingles. Other have had a parallel existence as campfire songs in the scour and guide movement. What they have in common is their clearly defined, march-like beat, with four stresses per line. The strong beats coincide with the moments at which the skipper’s feet impact the ground, the rope whipping against the ground a split second prior to this, as can be heard in many of the recordings.
Chants could be elongated by stringing two rhymes together, one after the other. 'Down in the Valley' tacks on ‘Pump, pump, here comes a taxi-cab’, sung to the tune of the well-known nursery rhyme and popular song, 'Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?' Careful listening reveals that this tune is itself a variation on the melody sung for 'Down in the Valley'.
This footage was filmed in Edinburgh in 1951.
The process of variation can sometimes make rhymes seem recent when their roots may be several hundred years old. 'Bluebells, Cockleshells' in recording below leads into a song beginning ‘Charlie Chaplin went to France, To teach the ladies how to dance’. Charlie Chaplin has been a popular figure in children’s rhymes since the First World War, but a similar verse referred to the polka in the 19th century and has turned up in a 17th century source as ‘Samuel was sent to France, To learn to Sing and Dance’.
This footage was captured in Edinburgh in 1957.
The skill of the skipper did not end with the coordination of jumping to the rope and chant. A whole repertoire of actions, movements and methods of turning the rope increased the challenge – and the fun. 'Down in the Valley' exemplifies ‘French ropes’ (also known as 'Double Dutch') where two ropes are turned, one following the other ‘like the loops of a rotary egg whisk’, as the Opies rather charmingly put it.
'I’m a Little Orphan Girl' shows another use of two ropes, one stretched out in a line along the ground, the other turning above it. The skipper must avoid touching the rope on the ground as well as that being swung over her head. The Edinburgh girls in this film called this ‘German ropes’.
This footage was filmed in Edinburgh in 1951 and shows girls performing the skipping game ‘I’m a Little Orphan Girl’.
The words of many chants cued the movements to be performed. ‘I’m a little bumper car’ combined skipping in the rope with running around the ender (‘round the corner’), re-entering the rope, and finishing with the feet straddling the rope (‘brakes’). It could be played with the rope swayed to make it easier. A number of chants associated with a swaying rope, however, contain a prompt to change from swaying to turning partway through, such as the well-known ‘Blue bells, cockle shells, eevy, ivy, over’.
This recording of a skipping rhyme was made by Iona Opie in Stepney Green, London, 1976.
The speed at which the rope was turned was another variable, often indicated by a formula, such as ‘salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper’, with pepper being the fastest. Other words for fast skipping were also prevalent, but it is interesting to note that ‘pepper’ was the widespread term in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Britain, while ‘vinegar’ had the same meaning in France and the United States, and ‘spirit’ in German. The ‘bumps’ was when the rope was twisted so fast that it passed under the skipper’s feet twice in the course of one jump, as shown at the end of 'Up Down'.
This footage was recorded in Edinburgh in 1951 and shows girl performing the skipping rhyme 'Up and Down'
‘Single’ skipping and more
The Opies also found a flourishing tradition of ‘single skipping’, done individually or in pairs, together with other types too, such as ankle skipping, and Elastics or Chinese Jumprope. The slightly earlier research of James Ritchie, and his colleagues at Norton Park School in Edinburgh, records the nimbleness and skill of skipping done in pairs at the same time as traveling down the street, the rope sometimes being swung alternately over one girl and then the other.
This footage was recorded in Edinburgh in 1951
The decline of skipping?
Nowadays, it is clear to even the casual observer that longrope skipping and skipping chants are far less popular than at the time of the Opies’ research. In the early twenty-first century, skipping is often found as a game for younger children, confined to the school playground and organised by adults (who turn the rope). The sheer variety of games and rhymes has also dwindled, along with the range of skills they once called on. An internationally widespread skipping game, ‘Teddy bear, teddy bear’ is one of the survivors, and has developed a parallel life as an early years action song (without the skipping). It probably grew out of the game ‘Lady, lady, turn right round’, which was known in various forms from the late nineteenth century.
Yes, single skipping still appears to be felt a desirable, if not essential, childhood skill by both boys and girls – and still takes just as much practice.
Footage of a boy playing with a skipping rope
Significant changes in children’s play environments, leisure time and social lives have nonetheless affected the practice of skipping, and indeed other forms of play. Roads and pavements, formerly favourite skipping territories, have become busier and noisier, and so are at best less conducive and at worst too dangerous for skipping. Children’s leisure time is more adult-controlled, and their opportunities to play out more confined to pre-arranged play dates with peers at home in the yard or garden, or with carers at the park or indoor play area. Although they may play with older and younger siblings, there is also a trend towards more age-stratified play, which has reduced the opportunity for transmission of games and chants between older and younger children. At the same time, concerns about children’s physical health have led to the promotion of skipping as a form of exercise, and it is gathering worldwide recognition as a competitive sport which combines elements of single and longrope skipping with dance and gymnastics to create an athletic display performed to pop music.
The bigger picture?
To put these changes in perspective, it is worth considering what we know about skipping prior to the twentieth century. Despite the scope for improvising a skipping rope with natural materials or clothing, the evidence suggests that skipping as we think of it today is no more than 500 years old. The earliest European references are to single skipping with a hoop rather than a rope, and these date from the sixteenth century [use woodcut illustration?]. The first description of rope jumping as such is found in a delightful verse of 1618, by the Dutch poet Jacob Cats, in which he compares children’s skipping to good time management:
Het coorde springhen leert den vont
Om wel te vatten ty ten stont
Soo ghy cont springhen op de maet
Niet at te vroech, niet al te laet
Niet al te traech, niet al te snel
Soo sydy meester van het spel.
[Rope-jumping teaches the art Of rightly grasping time and hour, If you can skip in time, Not too early, not too late, Not too slowly, not too quickly, Then you are master of the game.]
It is clear from two contemporary illustrations associated with Cats’ poem that both longrope and single skipping were in vogue among children by this time.
In Britain, the first evidence of skipping dates only from the eighteenth century, when the activity was called ‘ropes’, or ‘jumping rope’ (similar to ‘jumprope’ as it is still known in US English today). It was during this same period that skipping ropes for children began to be manufactured. Contrary to a widespread view held today, skipping was a pastime of both boys and girls, and appears to have remained so until the late nineteenth century.
The use of chants in longrope skipping is an even more recent development. None were documented in association with skipping earlier than the late nineteenth century from which time they began to proliferate. This coincided with, and perhaps helped to bring about, the shift towards skipping as a gender-marked activity. As the Opies comment, boys were being drawn into the increasing organised sports of football and cricket during this period, and ‘it may be that girls more or less appropriated the game when they began skipping to songs, for what boy [given the social construction of gender at the time] could involve himself in divinations of his sweetheart’s name, or declare that he was a “a little Girl Guide dressed in blue”?
 Jacob Cats, ‘Kindspel’, in his Silenus Alcibiadis [commonly known as Emblemata] (1618).
Banner: © Raymond Townsend
Banner credit: Raymond Townsend