Almost every boy in the town had a bag of marbles. Marbles were both a currency and status symbol costing four-a-penny for ordinary small clear glass ones with coloured twists in the middle. Then there were the two-a-penny white ones with marbled patterns through and through. The bigger totally clear glass marbles were a penny and for a penny halfpenny, you could get oversized 'clunkers' that were generally disapproved of by the marble playing fraternity as being overkill.

There were two different games played with marbles. You would be invited by another boy to a game of 'marlies' at which point it would be decided if it was to be 'in the ring' or 'up the side'.

'In the ring' required a circle to be drawn on the ground, usually on the roadside. This was done with a piece of chalk or simply scratched with a stick in the dust. Each player would put a 'stakey' into the ring and move off to the other side of the road. The 'throw-in' was the first move where another marble would be tossed this considerable distance, the object being to get as close as possible to the marbles in the ring. Turns were then taken based upon how close the marbles landed.

At this point, players were able to announce certain conditions for the subsequent play. "Last all needs and against you for rounds", doesn't make much sense if taken literally but meant that you were not allow to move your shooting position from where your marble landed. If this condition was not declared at the outset, it was permitted to move around the target maintaining the same distance. If you cheated by moving closer, you were chastised for taking a 'hand-in' and moved back to a more appropriate distance.

The rest of the game consisted of shooting, flicking the marbles between the thumb and forefinger to knock the 'stakies' out of the ring. Some boys could do this incredibly well even from one or two feet away. Everybody would have a 'lucky shooter', a marble endowed with almost magical accuracy. Mine was a little four-a-penny clear glass marble with a purple twist. This one would, magically, rarely miss. The principle was that you put your worst shooters in the ring as those were the ones that you were going to lose if the other boy knocked them out. Of course, if you had any chipped or otherwise worn marbles, they would become 'stakies' too. I still don't understand how one glass marble could possibly be shot more accurately than another but it was true. Yellow or green ones would go all over the place but my little purple shooter would win me all the marbles in the ring.

Where 'in the ring' could be played by any number of boys, 'up the sides' was an alternative game played by just two along the side of the road. The first boy would throw his marble along the gutter as far as he could. The second had to throw his after it. After that, they took alternating turns shooting at the other's marble. When you hit the opponent's marble three times, it was yours.

Marble that had been accumulated could be swapped for other things, toys or comics. This is where acute bargaining skills came into play. Marbles had a notional value based upon the original shop prices so you would have to pay eight four four-a-penny marbles for a twopenny comic. The Dandy and Beano cost 2d. The Eagle cost 4d but the much more desirable sixpenny cowboy and super-hero comics were six pence. If you had American comics, they were worth a shilling or more.

You could also swap comics without the involvement of marbles and it was not unusual to see two boys in the street, each with an armful of comics, going though the other's collection saying, "seen it, seen it, seen it, I'll swap you for that one!"

I wonder how modern kids get this grounding in bartering and economics?

Joe Gillespie

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Joe Gillespie
Joe Gillespie

Joe reminisces about his childhood in Larne in the 1940s and '50s.