Cup and Ball

Text by Alex Flinn, former Site Manager at Jane Austen's House

After the death of their mother, Edward and George stayed with their Aunt, Jane Austen. In a letter to Cassandra, Jane describes her time spent with the boys and amongst various pursuits she mentions the following:

“We do not want amusement; Bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed”

But what was “Bilbocatch” that George so tirelessly played? Bilbocatch is an Anglicised version of the French name Bilboquet for the game of cup-and-ball. Variations of the game can be found throughout history in different parts of the World. Today Kendama is very popular in Japan and you can watch some impressive ‘Kendama skills’ online.

The main goal of Bilbocatch is to get the ball into the cup, whilst this sounds very easy it can take hours of practice to become proficient. The player holds the handle of the cup and lets the ball hang freely. The player then swings the ball upwards attempting to catch the ball in the cup. If they manage to catch the ball in the cup they get one point. They then repeat this again and again to see how many points they can get in a row.

The cup and ball at Jane Austen’s House is made of ivory and is beautifully turned. It dates from the time of George III and Jane Austen is reputed to have played with it at Chawton or Godmersham. You will see that the cup at the top of the handle is very shallow indeed so it would take a lot of practice to amass a number of points. According to James Edward Austen Leigh, Jane Austen was particularly adept at the game so maybe George did indeed need to practice tirelessly in order to best his Aunt Jane.