Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

The Lost Game Of Snap-Dragon

Those who bemoan the influence of ‘Elf and Safety on the way we conduct ourselves may lament the disappearance of the wacky game of Snap-dragon which was particularly popular around Christmas. It is fascinating to speculate how many hosts sent their guests to bed on Christmas Eve nursing blistered hands and scorched tongues. The game, which one contemporary noted “provided a considerable amount of laughter and merriment at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors”, was simple enough and even merited a definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.

All you needed was a bowl, some brandy, and raisins. First you placed the raisins in the bowl and then poured the brandy in. Your guests, trembling in anticipation of the excitement and perils ahead of them, would be commanded to stand around the bowl, which was strategically positioned in the centre of the table to protect the players from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. The brandy would then be set alight and the object of the game was to plunge your hand into the fiery liquid, extract a raisin and eat it.

Johnson defined it more eloquently; “a play in which they catch raisins out of branding brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. Richard Steele game some colour in his piece for Tatler, commenting “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit”. To jolly things along and heighten the tension even more, you could chant a rhyme at the start of the proceedings; “with the blue and lapping tongue/ many of you will be stung/ Snip! Snap! Dragon!/ For he snaps at all that comes/ snatching at his feast of plums/ Snip!, Snap! Dragon!

The game’s origins date back to at least the sixteenth century, gaining name checks in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Henry IV Part II (1598). The 18th and 19th centuries saw it at its height of popularity. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Austen Knight, wrote in 1806 “different amusements every night? We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon and…we danced or played cards”. The game of Snap-Dragon is mentioned in such disparate literary sources as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. Indeed, the game was part of the Yuletide tradition until its popularity was extinguished early in the 20th century when people became a little more attuned to thinking that singeing guests was not playing cricket.

So popular was the game that the distinguished scientist, Michael Faraday, was moved to give a chemical explanation of the Snap-Dragon phenomenon in his The Chemical History of the Candle, published in 1860. His thesis was that the raisins acted like miniature wicks, and rather like when you pour brandy on a Christmas pudding, it is hot but not hot enough to incinerate the fruit. Even so, for the unwary there was a nasty treat in store.

If you did not have any raisins to hand, almonds would do and any flammable drink could replace brandy. A variant of the game involved the placing of a lighted candle in a cup of ale or cider and the player was invited to drink without singeing their face. A beard or moustache would be a distinct handicap. In the United States the game was associated with Halloween as much as Christmas.

To add extra spice to the proceedings, one of the raisins had a gold button attached to it or, failing that, was designated as the lucky fruit. Whoever succeeded in extracting the special raisin was given a favour or treat of their choosing. In another variant, whoever extracted the most raisins was predicted to meet the love of their life within the next twelve months. I wonder if they did.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Five


One of the favourite nursery rhymes of all times is Humpty Dumpty which, as I’m sure you don’t need reminding, goes like this, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./ All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again”. The quatrain is another example of the trochaic metre which is commonly used in nursery rhymes because it is easy to remember.

Humpty Dumpty was characterised by Lewis Carroll in his book, Alice Through The Looking Glass, as an anthropomorphic egg and this is the image most of us have of the character. Eggs, of course, are fragile things and it is easy to associate the fate that befell Humpty with what can happen to an egg. But Carroll was not the inventor of the rhyme. It was first published in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements of 1797 but its antecedents almost certainly go back earlier than that.

And who was Humpty Dumpty?

As usual there is no definitive answer but there are a number of suspects. First up is Charles I who, of course, lost his head at the hands of the Parliamentarians, despite the best efforts of his supporters, the cavaliers. Another suspect is Richard III who ended up under a car park in Leicester after being killed at the battle of Bosworth, again despite the best efforts of his supporters.

But Humpty Dumpty was a sobriquet given to fat or large people as far back as the 15th century and there is no conclusive evidence that either Richard III who was famous for his hunchback or Charles I were porkers.

The theory I like best owes its origins to the English Civil War. Cannons were used with greater frequency during the campaign and were cumbersome, requiring several people to move them.  Colchester, a major town in Essex, was protected by a city wall at the time and came under siege from the Parliamentarians in 1648. A large cannon was stationed on the roof of St Mary’s By The Wall and the gunner named One-Eyed Jack Thompson – would love to know how he got his nickname. So effective was our Royalist Cyclops and so much damage did he cause to Lord Fairfax’s troops that he and his cannon were singled out for special treatment. Some time on the 14th or 15th July 1648 Thompson and his gun came tumbling down and the damaged cannon couldn’t be hauled back into place. On August 28th 1648 the Royalists laid down their arms and surrendered to the Parliamentarians.

Sounds plausible and makes for a great story.

What Is The Origin Of (32)…?



As mad as a hatter

This phrase is used to indicate that someone is completely mad.

Mercury was often used to cure felts which were then used to make some types of hats. The process involved in curing the felt made it virtually impossible for the hatter to avoid inhaling the fumes given off by the chemical. Prolonged exposure to mercury resulted in the poison attacking the nervous system, causing the poor victim to appear confused – attacking their speech and causing them to suffer from distorted vision – and making them tremble, rather like a sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease. Prolonged exposure to mercury can also make the victim aggressive and cause mood swings and anti-social behaviour. Victims of mercury poisoning to this day are said to be suffering from Mad Hatter’s disease. So it seems a hatter could be mad in both senses of the word – in a foul mood as well as being mentally imbalanced.

The most famous mad hatter appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass. Carroll’s hatter, whilst playing upon the stereotypical image of the hatter, was actually based on a real person, Theophilus Carter, who, interestingly wasn’t a hatter but rather an eccentric cabinet-maker who was well-known in Oxford. Carter was a mad inventor type and came up with the alarm-clock bed which woke people up by tipping them out of bed – now why did that not catch on? He was a distinctive character on the Oxford streets dressed in a top hat, standing in front of his shop on the High Street.

The first reference to hatters being mad predates Carroll by some thirty years or so. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of 1829 records the following fictional conversation, “NORTH: Many years – I was Sultan of Bello for a long period, until dethroned by an act of the grossest injustice ; but I intend to expose the traitorous conspirators to the indignation of an outraged world. TICKLER (aside to SHEPHERD.): He’s raving. SHEPHERD (to TICKLER.): Dementit. ODOHERTY (to both.): Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.

In New Zealand a hatter is a name ascribed to a miner who works alone. Wakefield’s New Zealand After 50 Years of 1889 records the following explanation, “Miners who work alone are called ‘hatters’, one explanation of the term being that they frequently go mad from the solitude of their claim away in the bush, exemplifying the proverb ‘As mad as a hatter”. This use of the phrase clearly denotes that the connection between hatters and madness was well established, rather than suggesting that the solitary Antipodean miner was the origin of the phrase.

So, conclusively, the phrase owes its origin to the unfortunate side-effects of making hats. So now we know!