Fashions in games wax and wane and, frankly, with the benefit of hindsight, you wonder what all the fuss was about. A classic example is Piladex which was as much a household name in its heyday, the 1890s and the early 20th century, as Scrabble is today. It even benefited from royal patronage, Princess, later to become Queen, Alexandra bought it for her household in 1898.
Retailing at just one shilling, Piladex came in a red box with an illustration of people of all ages enjoying what it had to offer. The lid announced that it was “a new game for winter or summer” and assured any would-be purchaser that it was “amusing” and “exciting”. It could even be played indoors or outside. So, what was it all about?
The clue was given in the game’s subtitle – Hand Ball. Although the box was accompanied by a set of rules which filled two columns of tightly packed print, it was simplicity itself and therein probably lay some of its charm. As few as two could play, but there was no upper restriction. To ensure fairness, it was probably advisable to have an even number of players in each team.
Members of one team would stand opposite their opponents, the two sets of foes divided by a net, in reality a piece of string strung tightly across two sticks, which was placed in the middle of a table or on a lawn. The Piladex, which had to be inflated, was little more than a balloon, banana shaped, and the object of the exercise was to hit the balloon over the net in such a way as to force your opponents to either miss it or in returning it, fail to clear the net. The first team to force their opponents to fail to clear the net ten times were the winners. In essence, it was an early form of volleyball or table tennis.
Participants were promised “the jolliest fun” as doubtless it did. What probably cemented its appeal to Victorians was that it was a boisterous, energetic game which both sexes could play, and was not restricted to any particular age group. For those with an amorous eye there was even the possibility of coming into physical contact with your heart throb, accidentally, of course.
The game was the brainchild of Harry Owen Roberts, who wanted something that would burn up some energy amongst the youngsters at a club he attended at a Gloucester church. It proved popular and Roberts, encouraged, patented it in 1890 and started to sell it via mail order, making the sets on his kitchen table with his brother. Piladex caught the attention of Thomas Ordish of London, who offered to wholesale the game for him. The rub was that Harry and his brother, John, still had to make the games. There was nothing for it but to create their own company, Glevum Games, which they did in 1894 and it went on to employ 700 people in their hometown of Gloucester.
Despite having a patent on the game, Harry found that an American manufacturer was selling his game as Pillow Dex and doing rather nicely out of it. Harry never saw a penny from the American sales but his invention enabled him to extend the range of games his company manufactured. Eventually, though, Piladex’s bubble burst and the game sank into obscurity. Glevum Games was eventually sold in 1954 to Chad Valley Toys and the factory closed for good in 1956.
What a shame.