The other day I came across The Boy’s Holiday Book, a gold-edged 500+ page book that I bought as a child for a couple of old pennies at a Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church ‘sale of work’ in King Edward Road. Dated 1876 and written by the Rev. T.E. Fuller, it entertained and educated boys home from boarding school for the summer holidays with instructions in games; legerdemain (sleight of hand); charades; scientific amusements; chemistry, including the making of laughing gas, carbonic acid gas and chlorine; photography; and home-made fireworks using steel, copper and zinc filings, brimstone, saltpetre, red sulphate of arsenic and sulphuretted antimony!

Around the same time, I noticed a double-page advertisement in Henry Williams 1884 History of Watford promoting Dingtun, Targatier, Archatelle, Ringolette, Cupolette, Battledore, Vingt-un and Puff & Dart. Though unfamiliar to us, those names would have been well known to our Victorian ancestors and those from Watford would have known exactly where to buy them. They were spoilt for choice at Gibbs & Son, established in 1810. Still thriving in the late 19th century at 103 High Street, the shop was opposite old St. Mary’s Vicarage and next to the West Herts. & Watford Observer office on the right-hand side of Loates Lane entrance.

Gibbs & Son, coopers and basket makers, sold an impressive range of goods. Founded by Bicester-born Robert Gibbs, a cooper and carpenter journeyman who settled in Sotheron Road, Watford, he was joined in later years by two of his sons, Francis and Walter. Also coopers and basket makers, they were no doubt taught the trade by their father. Francis, with a wife and 11 children, is likely to have been the ‘Son’ in the shop title.

Watford Observer: The Boy's Holiday Book, 1876The Boy's Holiday Book, 1876

Gibbs & Son manufactured boxes, trunks, turnery and general hardware, brushes, mats, mattings, ropes, lines, twines, mops, leathers, sponges and bird cages, picture frames and mouldings, mount cutters, room mouldings, back boards, fancy nails and glass, hen coops with runs, beehives and boards and re-bottomed wicker, rush and cane chairs.

They sold pier glasses. Nothing to do with peering into a telescope on a pier; simply decorative wall mirrors that camouflaged masonry between two large windows. Their swing dressing glasses were decorative pivoting mirrors on a base for dressing tables and their shaving glasses were for foam produced from soap and water in the days of cut-throat razors and sharpening straps.

Watford Observer: A wider view of a litter-strewn High Street. 103, with an angled roofline, is on the right. May 7, 1979.A wider view of a litter-strewn High Street. 103, with an angled roofline, is on the right. May 7, 1979.

Gibbs & Son supplied plain and fancy door mats, hearth rugs and skin rugs. pitch pine, fire wheels and bundled fire wood. They were agents for Hardeman’s Beetle Powder and Insect Exterminator. Their product list included horsehair sieves for sifting bran, cooks’ sieves, gravel sieves, potato sieves, and currant and raisin sieves. Every kind of wirework too.

They were sporting specialists, supplying and repairing cricket bats, wickets with bails, leg guards, batting gloves, gauntlets, cricket bags, covers and spikes and scoring books and boards, cricket nets, camp stools and carpet-seated chairs, and offered special terms for cricket clubs. Indian clubs, fencing goods, quoits, boxing gloves, rugby and association footballs, boundary sticks and goals completed their sports range.

Now, to return to those odd Victorian names mentioned earlier. They were popular parlour and outdoor games, although Dingtun seems to have been lost in the mists of time. Targatier or Targetta was played on a vertical oval wooden board on which pins held in place with springs were dislodged by a ball attached by a cord at the top of the target. Archatelle was a folding mahogany board on which ivory discs were pushed through central arches into recesses. Ringolette was similar to quoits. Cupolette was a board with sunken numbered cups and a ball in each cup. A heavier ball was attached by a cord to a vertical arm which, by swinging, dislodged numbered balls on the board. Battledore was played with wooden racquets or bats and feathered shuttlecocks without a net or court lines; a predecessor of badminton. Vingt-un was a card game. Puff and Dart was a form of drawing room archery. Players puffed into a tube and propelled small darts onto a board. A parents’ health and safety nightmare!

Watford Observer: Fireworks, from The Boy's Holiday Book.Fireworks, from The Boy's Holiday Book.

If you’re ready for more, Gibbs & Son also sold carpet croquet, cup and ball, solitaire and Knock ‘em Downs or skittles, chess, draughts, dominoes, cribbage boards, boxes, counters and pegs, all no doubt made from wood. Add to these wicker garden chairs and tables, puzzle money boxes, locking money boxes, egg cups, and powder boxes and puffs. They repaired concertinas, accordions and other musical instruments. The shop must have had goods piled to the ceiling. Now demolished, along with 105 next door, a five-floor red brick office building with shops and an archway below replaced them in the 1960s.

I wonder how many 19th century parents shopped at Gibbs & Son for games and other items recommended in The Boy’s Holiday Book in the hope of occupying their sons during the summer holidays, only to find them concocting laughing gas or fireworks!

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.