History of Darts

A lot has been written over the years about the history of darts, but finding good credible darts history information is a completely different story.

One fact no-one can dispute when it comes to the history of darts is that the game of darts originated in England. Darts has been played in pubs and taverns all over the UK for the past 100 years and more.

 History of Darts during Medieval Times

Much is speculated but if rumor holds true, the game of darts had its origin during the reign of King Henry VIII of England. It is believed that he told his archers to practice their arching skills all year round so they would be sharp and ready for battle at any time.

While practicing outside some archers, instead of shooting, started throwing their arrows as a means of fun. Maybe the thinking was, "anyone can shoot accurately lets see who can throw accurately".

Needless to say, everyone knows England’s unfavorable weather, and it wasn’t long before this outdoor past-time or game was taken indoors to the comfort of the local pub. To handle the arrows better and make the game easier to play while indoors, the arrows were shortened.

The bottom of an overturned wine or ale (beer) barrel was used as a “target”. An interesting fact about the word "target". The bottom of a wine / beer barrel was called a “butt”, which originated via archery from the French word “butte”, meaning “target”.

When these barrels became in short supply some innovative darter decided to use a cross-cut of a log (slice of a tree trunk) as the target. The age rings of the tree served as markers or areas where to throw. Later the wood started to crack, which further divided the target into different parts which evolved into the dartboard of today.

What probably just started as a means of fun quickly became a game of skill, and it wasn’t long before the soldiers started exhibiting their skills at the drinking establishments. Many started to make their own shortened arrows, which they would bring with them to the pub, to challenge their friends and to display the great skill they had developed.

News travelled fast, and it wasn’t long before the news reached the upper class, who also became interested and wanted to show-off their dart throwing skills.

Even the King, Henry the VIII, was impressed with this new game. Reports state that Henry VIII enjoyed the game so much in 1530 that Anne Boleyn, his wife to be, gave him a set of richly ornamented darts to win his favor.

The game didn’t just stay in England. It wasn’t long before people in other countries started to enjoy the game. Reports suggest that the Pilgrims who left England in 1620 aboard the Mayflower, played darts for fun and entertainment on their voyage across the sea to America.

Darts History – 1800’s

Puff 'n Dart

Many interesting stories exist with regard to darts. One such story was about a game which originated in 1844 called "Puff and Dart". It seems that while some people were throwing the darts others tried to start a new type of game by using a blowpipe to blow the dart into the board. Apparently the game was quickly banned because a London dart blower made the mistake of sucking the blowpipe instead of blowing. The dart went into his digestive system, which caused him to die a few days later.

From the 1800 to 1900’s, different versions of the game existed with not much of a standard or any rules. Different dartboard numbering configurations were used during this time and it was only at the end of the 19th century that the game developed into its modern day version.

In 1896, a carpenter from Lancashire in England, by the name of Brian Gamlin, invented the dartboard numbering layout of today.

The numbering system of modern day dartboards, has the number 20 at the top, followed by the number 1 in a clockwise direction, then the number 18 etc. Brian Gamlins numbering sequence layout, was specifically created with the intention to penalize inaccuracy. Although many papers were written about the billions of different dartboard numbering sequences that could be devised with 20 numbers, it is widely accepted, that Brian Gamlins numbering sequence layout, is the closest to perfect randomness you will ever find. (Brian Gamlin died in 1903 before he could patent his idea)

Doubles and trebles were not part of the dartboard’s make-up during this time. The highest score was the bullseye.

The dart, at this stage, consisted of a 4 inch long piece of wood called the barrel, with a metal point on the one side and feathers for the dart flight on the opposite side.

Darts History – 1900’s

The first paper folded dart flight was patented in 1898 by an American and in 1906 an Englishman patented the first metal barrel.

Much is also speculated about the distance from where the darts were thrown, commonly known as the “oche”. (“oche” is pronounced the same as “hockey without the “H”). Other words for "the oche" is the “Throw line” or “Toe Line”. The throwing line is a line that a dart player stands behind when throwing his or her darts.

Two theories exist about the origins of the term “oche”.

The first theory is that the word “oche” had its origin from a brewery in the West Country of England called “Hockey and Sons” or “S.Hockey and Sons”. The original throwing distance for darts was 9 feet. It is said that “Hockey & Sons” delivered bottled beer to pubs which came in wooden crates that were exactly 3 feet long. One English pub owner then made the 9 feet rule by placing three “Hockey & Sons” beer crates (3 x 3 feet) as a distance marker. Many people also believed this is how the phrase “toeing the hockey” came about, which added more validity to this theory.

Sadly it seems this theory is completely untrue, because no record exists anywhere when researching the history of darts in Britain about a brewery called ‘S. Hockey & Sons’ or ‘Hockey & Sons’ for that matter. This was apparently confirmed by the Brewery History Society in the early 1990’s as explained on the website of the darts historian Patrick Chaplin.

The second theory about the origin of the word “oche” also considers “oche” to be derived from the word “hockey”, but from a total different source. An English newspaper, News of the World, sponsored darts competitions in the 1920’s. They used the word “hockey” for the throwing line in their “tournament rules”.

The word “hockey” was derived from an old English word “hocken” which meant “to spit”. It is said that spitting competitions were held in public bars of English public houses, and that the “hockey line” was determined by the distance that a player, standing with his back to the dartboard, could spit from the dartboard

Talking of public houses. In the early 1900’s, legislation prohibited "games of chance" in public houses, and the game of darts was considered to fall in this category.

In 1908, a pub owner from Leeds, Yorkshire, by the name of Foot Anakin was taken to court for allowing people to play darts in his establishment. He decided to challenge this ruling, and offered to prove that darts was not a "game of chance", but a “game of skill”. A dartboard was set up in court and Foot Anakin proved his skill by throwing 3 darts in the number 20. He then challenged any court official to do the same. One of the court clerks decided to take up the challenge and failed. The judge then ruled that darts was in fact a "game of skill" and dismissed the case. This ruling boosted the game even more, which led to more competitions in public houses.

The National Darts Association (NDA) was founded in London during 1924, just as darts became more popular and more recognized as a sport. The NDA standardized the sport and introduced rules and regulations.

The game of darts was firmly established by the end of World War 1 and many pubs throughout the country had dart teams at that stage. Competitions with substantial prizes were being held on a regular basis and News of the World, a popular British Sunday newspaper, sponsored the first big competition in 1927/28, called the "News of the World Individual Darts Championship". This championship was an overnight hit, with around a 1,000 participants in the first event. News of the World sponsored all the prizes, while the organization was left to the National Darts Association (NDA).

The first competition was held in the metropolitan area of London, but within 3 years, in 1930, the championship expanded to cover most of England.

The game gained huge popularity with the females too, when, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, played a game of darts in a social center in Buckinghamshire, England in 1937.

Such was the popularity of the sport in England and Wales that the number of entrants (participants) for the 1938/39 News of the World competition was in excess of 280,000!. The final event between Jim Pike and Marmaduke Brecon which was held in the Royal Agricultural Hall in London, was attended by a record crowd of 14,534!

The first "People National Team Championships" event was held 1939, which was sponsored by "The People" another U.K. Sunday Newspaper.

Interesting Fact

There was no "News of the World Individual Darts Championship" event until after World War 2. The News of the World Individual Darts Championship title was the dream of every darts player and it wasn’t surprising when the competition was revived in 1947/48, but this time on a national level.

The People National Team Championships also returned after the war.

The NDA (National Darts Association) however, did not revive after World War 2. Although various attempts were made to setup another national controlling agency but nothing materialized until 1954, when through the support of "The People", The National Darts Association of Great Britain (NDAGB) was established.

The game of darts maintained a fairly low profile on a national level during the 1950 and 60’s, but through the excellent organization of the NDAGB, close to 4 million competitors in England alone entered the NODOR Fours competition, sponsored by the Nodor Dartboard Company.

The first darts television broadcast was by Westward Television in 1962 when the Westward TV Invitational was broadcasted to the people in the south-west of England.

During the 1970’s and early 1980’s darts coverage via television skyrocket with many major tournaments being broadcasted on ITV and BBC

The British Broadcaster, Independent Television (ITV), in 1970 broadcasted the News of the World Darts Championship and from 1972, Yorkshire TV (the ITV contractor for the Yorkshire franchise) broadcast the Indoor League darts tournaments.

1973 saw the establishment of the British Darts Organization (BDO) and also the introduction of split-screen technology in television broadcasts, which really boosted darts in Britain. From hereon the popularity of darts grew enormously worldwide.

With a multitude of sponsors and television companies on board, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the first darts household "celebrity" names like Leighton Rees, John Lowe, Alan Evans, Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson, Tony Brown, Bobby George and Keith Deller.

The Embassy World Darts Championship was promoted the first time on television in 1975. The BDO grew rapidly during this time and in the mid 1980’s had some 30,000 members already and organized over 800 tournaments in a single year.

First 9 Dart Checkout Fact

The World Darts Federation was founded in 1976 by representatives of 15 nations. All National Darts organizing bodies of all nations can become members of the WDF. The function of the WDF is to encourage the sport of darts amongst the different nations and to also gain international recognition for darts as a major sport.

The first World Professional Darts Championship was organized by the BDO in 1978. This championship was for many years known as "The Embassy" – due to its sponsorship by Imperial Tobacco. In 2003 the government banned all tobacco advertising and in 2004 "The Embassy World Dart Championship" became "The Lakeside World Darts Championship" – or Lakeside for short.

In the mid 1980’s the BBC television program “Not the 9’O Clock News” did a harsh sketch on darts about "heavy drinking" in the sport, which caused great damage to the image of the game and players.

Although attempts have been made by certain players to rectify the damage, by drinking water on stage during TV broadcasts etc., all ITV coverage of the game was stopped in 1988.

The BBC also cut back on their coverage to the extend that only one major event, the Embassy World Championship was still shown by the early 1990’s

The Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) was established in the United Kingdom during 1992, when a group of 16 leading professional dart players split from the officially-recognized British Darts Organization (BDO). Certain players apparently felt the BDO did not do enough to encourage more new sponsors into the sport, and they also wanted to see more than one major televised event per year.

Interesting Fact

Both the PDC and BDO have World Darts Championship events. The PDC normally have their championship mid December to early January and the BDO from early January onwards.

In 2001 the BBC decided to expand Darts coverage by adding the World Masters to their portfolio.Since 2005 viewers have been able to watch every dart thrown live at the World Championships. This was also the year that the BCC introduced interactive coverage via its BBCi service.

Darts are now been watched all over the world with several major tournaments being broadcast around the world.

In November of 2007 ITV also returned to darts after almost 20 years by showing the Grand Slam of Darts. A second PDC tournament was added in October of 2008 with the new European Championship.

Today the British Darts Organization (BDO) comprises of nearly 70 member counties, which organizes tournaments for players at all levels, from grass roots right up to professional level.

The game has also kept up with technology. Electronic dartboards are available with dozens of games build into them and keeping score automatically. Some will even talk to you. All these technological advancement has made the game more popular and much more accessible.

The primary Darts governing bodies are: 

  1. The WDFWorld Darts Federation
  2. The BDOBritish Darts Organization
  3. The PDCProfessional Darts Corporation