From Pall Mall to the Treasure Hunt Riots: how games have shaped our cities

Boys play football in the streets of the Garden Gloria neighborhood of Praia Grande, Brazil, in 2014. Image: Getty.

The games people play in a city are shaped by that city – and they shape the city in turn.

Most people, if you ask them, can remember a game they played as a kid that depended on the very precise shape of a very particular part of their home town – steps that were the perfect height for jumping into a flowerbed, or a basketball hoop you could just about chuck something through from the library window.

Play isn't just fun, or important for its own sake: it's also one of the key ways that we understand and interact with the world around us, and the games we invent depend on tiny precise details of what that world is like.

So, naturally enough, a hundred or more years ago, the games you could play in London were different to the games you can play there today. Streets were lit by gas, and lamp-posts had crossbars, so that the people who lit them had somewhere to rest their ladder.

That meant that children could throw ropes over the crossbars and use the lamps as makeshift swings. Look back a hundred years before that – or a hundred years before that – and everything was different again.

But the traces of these past games don't just vanish. Take Pell-Mell, a game played in the 1500s and 1600s. Pell-Mell is a bit like croquet, but a lot simpler – there's just one big hoop on a stick at the end of a long alley, and your aim is to get a ball through this hoop in as few hits as possible.

The name comes from the Italian word “pallamaglio”, which means “mallet ball”, and that's pretty much all the game is: you take a mallet and use it to hit a ball. In some versions, when you near the end of the course you're allowed to swap the mallet for a giant spoon so that you can flick the ball into the air.

Pall mall illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes & Customs, published 1891. Image: Project Guttenberg.

It was never that all popular as a game, at least in England. But it was still popular enough that there were a few purpose-built courts, and in London, the fancy place to play was a specific alley near St James's Park – just about where Pall Mall is now. Yep, Pall Mall is named after this mallet-ball game; in the 1660s, the road was built on the site of what had previously been a Pell-Mell court.

Sometimes games have a more fleeting effect on their landscape. For example, there's the 1904 Treasure Hunt Riots, which cause a good few ruined gardens but no ongoing changes to city infrastructure.

The Riots – written about at length by Paul Slade here – came about as a result of a promotion by a newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch. The Dispatch decided it would be a good idea to hide medallions all around the country (but particularly in London), and award cash prizes to the people who found them. They printed clues to medallion locations in the paper – keeping it all quite vague, of course; it'd be no fun if people solved the puzzles too quickly. 


The obvious-in-retrospect downside to this was that the huge array of really vague clues turned every paving stone, garden or pathway into a potential treasure trove. Hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiastic puzzle-solvers dug up front gardens, parks, museum grounds, and pavements all across the city.

Rival solvers got into fights, sometimes – with each other, or with the owners of the land they were digging up. There were arrests. There were grave warnings to the paper from the Department of Public Prosecutions. (Nowadays the hundred-year-old damage is, of course, all gone, though we might be down a couple of delicate trees.)

In 18th century Wandsworth, a tiny public common gave rise to enormous fake elections in which – on the day of the general election – 80,000 participants would vote for candidates running, under made-up names like Squire Blowmedown and Lady Twankum, for the almost entirely imaginary role of mayor of Garratt. We make up games to play in the places that we live.

But the places that we live change in response to the games that we invent, too. Sometimes the changes help us to play. Sometimes they hinder us – “NO BALL GAMES” signs, say, or tiny obstructions bolted to street furniture to deter skateboarders (in the nineteenth century, the equivalent was the “hoop nuisance” – angry pedestrians across London complained about children rolling hoops along the pavement).

But either way, the changes happen; and our games, shaped by the city, shape it in turn.

Holly Gramazio is a game designer and half of Matheson Marcault.

The Now Play This festival, a part of the London GamesFestival, takes place at Somerset House from 1-3 April.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.