War games: the presentation of war in 20th century board games by Hannah Wills

We are fortunate in the John Johnson Collection to have an intern from the History of Art Faculty. Hannah has been working on the iconographic indexing of the newly-acquired Ballam Collection of games (which will be the subject of a post in the New Year).  She has been particularly intrigued by games created in times of war. She writes: 

‘Dennis Wheatley’s Thrilling New Game Invasion: Attack and Defence by Land, Sea and Air’. This is taken from the front of a box of a board game made in the 1930s, part of the Ballam Collection of board games from the John Johnson Collection that I have been involved in looking at as part of my internship this term. When looking through the games, I noticed a variety of themes, but found the presentation of war one of the most interesting. At first I wondered why people should want to play games that simulated the progression of large-scale war, not only after the atrocities of the ‘War to end all wars’, but particularly in the face of further impending conflict, during the 1930s. Why exactly were such games produced? Let’s take a closer look at two examples from the collection, Invasion, c.1935, and G.H.Q., c.1930s.

Both of these games feature a map, with pieces to be moved like units across the board, with die to govern the distance travelled by pieces each turn. There is no iconography as such present on the boards themselves; players are invited to manoeuvre pieces across the board without any reference to actual fighting. What seems to be offered to the player is the chance to simulate the decision making of military strategists who govern battle from afar. And what does the use of a dice suggest? Obviously it is necessary to input an element of chance into the game to add excitement, but by extension this seems to imply the belief that warfare itself is governed by chance – an interesting notion.

When comparing G.H.Q. and Invasion, it is also interesting to note the different attitudes of the makers towards the inclusion of real places upon the map. Invasion is set in an imaginary continent, although quite clearly a parody of Europe, with countries such as ‘Angleland’, ‘Franken’ and ‘Ruslavia’. Town names are equally satirical, with the ‘Anglelish’(?!) coastal towns labelled ‘Dolittle’ and ‘Waitansea’. Is there an element of irony here? Since the names of the countries and places quite clearly point to England, France, Russia and Germany, it seems implausible to argue that the maker avoided place names in order to anonymise the coming war. It could be that the intention was to put a light-hearted and humorous spin on otherwise perturbing contemporary events.

G.H.Q., by contrast, presents the player with an actual map of Europe, roamed by counters topped with British, Nazi or French flags. It is important to note that the outcome of the war at this point would have yet been unknown. Does this game, and Invasion also, showcase contemporary anxieties about the very real prospect of an enemy invasion and potential defeat? This certainly chimes with the use of die to dictate the outcome of the game; war perhaps seemed an uncertain business, governed more by chance than skill, in which victory could quite easily go either way.

Rules of 1930s game G.H.Q.
Ballam Collection: Games 1930s (4.1)

On the other hand, could games such as these be considered propaganda or morale boosting tools? The level of skill required, Invasion includes rules for a simple or full game, implies that both adults and older children alike could have played. It might have been that the makers sought to alleviate anxiety, or at least reassure; presenting the complex and ambivalent concept of war reduced to the relative simplicity of a game of chance and skill might constitute an attempt at making war seem a more acceptable and untroubled occurrence. Such games might also have fostered a sense of national pride; just as one aims not to lose in a competitive board game, the player is encouraged to fully get behind and support their own country, rather than remaining apathetic. Of course this raises an interesting problem; in a game of G.H.Q., how is it chosen who will control the Nazi flagged counters? And is it the combined aim of everyone else to ensure his defeat?

Whilst such board games at first seem arresting, one might go as far as to say in poor taste, it can be noted that war games are still present even today. Perhaps the best-known modern example is Risk, a world domination game first released in 1957, that has endured through ever more inventive incarnations, such as Star Wars, Napoleon and even the Chronicles of Narnia. However, to find games that base themselves around current conflicts, it is perhaps best to turn to modern video games. The more recent games in the Medal of Honor series (EA Games) feature modern-day warfare against terrorism in the Middle-East, perhaps not too dissimilar to the way in which Invasion and G.H.Q. concern themselves with the conflicts of their own epoch, albeit based around actual first-hand combat rather than distanced strategizing over a map.

This raises an interesting question, what is being done to preserve digital ephemera? Video games have just as much a reason to be catalogued as well as board games; both are items enjoyed only for a short time. Moreover, such video games as discussed here attest the enduring appeal of games that concern themselves with current warfare – a topic that seems far from suited to play and leisure.

Dickens and his world

The new (free) Bodleian exhibition, Dickens and his world, curated by Clive Hurst, is opening tomorrow. It runs from June 2 to October 28. There are lots of ephemera, mostly from the John Johnson Collection. The accompanying book: The curious world of Dickens by Clive Hurst and Violet Moller is full of ephemera too.

As well as items directly related to the novels (playbills of dramatisations, miniature theatre sheets etc), there are many ephemera showing the world Dickens lived in and wrote about, linked by quotations from his works.

Miniature Theatre sheet for Oliver Twist

The Diamond Jubilee approaches

We are working hard to collect as much ephemera relating to the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee as possible. Gill is nobly emailing Oxfordshire town and parish clerks.  We are all scouring tourist offices, racks of brochures and shops for anything and everything Jubilee-related. Gill has three boxes so far, with much more to come.

Little Wittenham Jubilee Beacon Party flyer

All contributions of printed material in hard copy are very welcome. Please send them to: Librarian of the John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Libraries, Osney One Building, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX2 OEW.  This fine example is reproduced by kind permission of the Earth Trust.

I will be tweeting images from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee all next week: @jjcollephemera.

Exciting news at the Bodleian of the publication online today of Queen Victoria’s diaries, in a collaboration between the Royal Archives and ProQuest. This was announced by HM the Queen. Some of the images in the Timeline are from the John Johnson Collection.

Lottery puffs: a hieroglyphical enigma by Gill Short

The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera has an amazing number of lottery handbills from the 18th and 19th centuries. I have found them endlessly fascinating and love cataloguing them. There are humorous ones; beautiful ones, some coloured and embossed; others with grotesque caricatures or funny little stick figures in strip cartoons telling stories of how lives might be changed with a lottery win.

Mainly because of his popular and ingenious lottery handbills, Thomas Bish of Cornhill and Charing Cross, London, was one of the best known lottery-office keepers of his time, c.1790-1826 (when lotteries were banned). In fact there appear to have been two characters with this name, Thomas Bish the son having taken over the business quite seamlessly from his father. Certainly they were two of a kind, shrewd and successful entrepreneurs who between them built up a network of agents all over the country, but I like to imagine them with a wicked sense of humour taking a childish delight in the silly jingles and verses and the always eye catching images they produced. Every opportunity was taken to promote the name of Bish and their lucky lottery offices. All the high days and holidays, celebrities, royalty and political situations of the day were exploited to ‘big up’ Thomas Bish. Wouldn’t they have loved the pop up adverts of today with sound and vision!

JJ Coll Lotteries vol. 2 (20)



Their ‘enigmatical handbills.’  so called by John Ashton in his A history of English lotteries  (Leadenhall Press 1893), with their puzzle pictures, word puzzles, hieroglyphics or rebuses were very widely distributed.

This example has the answers provided.







But there are no answers on this bill.
















We have solved some of them but we hope you can spare a few minutes to puzzle out the locations of Bish’s agents – no prizes, not even one pipe of wine – we would just love to fill in the gaps.

We have already solved: 1) Cornhill, 3) Berwick, 4) Derby, 5) Edinburgh,  6) Glasgow, 7)  Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 8) Newgate Prison (?), 9) Newcastle. Can you solve no. 2)?

10) Derby, 11) Aberdeen, 13) Cork, 14) Chesterfield, 15) Edinburgh, 18) Norwich

Can you help with nos. 12), 16), 17), 19), 20)?

And finally, nos. 24), 27), and 30) have baffled usDetail of hieroglyphical Lottery bill

21) Norwich, 22) Gloucester, 23) Bristol, 25) Camberwell, 26) Edinburgh, 28) Penzance, 29) Wincanton, 31) York


Gill Short, Volunteer Cataloguer


Robinson Crusoe: an enigma by Ian Matzen

During my first visit to the John Johnson Collection, I had a peek at some Magic Lantern Slides for the first time in my life. I had never seen any before so they held some mystique for me. I knew that lanterns and slides were artefacts from a bygone era that would eventually lead to the development of the cinema. When I opened the first folder of the cinema collection, I was immediately drawn to a set of slides of the first Robinson Crusoe story. There he was building a canoe, exploring in his outfit of goat hides, finding footprints in the sand, etc. On arriving home that night I set out to find a copy of the book which I have been working my way through.

Sheet of transparencies for magic lantern show of Robinson Crusoe
Cinemas 1 (58)

I recently catalogued this set of images. There are twelve illustrated scenes that were transfer printed on paper by Theobald & Company, London. Lanternists would cut the transfers into squares and position each between two pieces of glass to form a magic lantern slide. These slides would then fitted into a slide holder which would eventually be placed into a magic lantern during a show.

Try as I might, my efforts to find the associated printed lecture have been unsuccessful. Therefore I used my knowledge of the story (reading Daniel Defoe’s novel was key) to help ascribe classification terms to the images.

Detail of Robinson Crusoe sheet showing slides 10 and 11
Cinemas 1 (58) detail

However, I had difficulty with one slide in particular. Slide number eleven was mysterious. What is happening there? Is Crusoe subjugating a human? The fact that the person is shirtless and is prostrate in front of the armed Crusoe leads me to think that it is Friday thanking Crusoe for saving him from cannibals. However, this idea does not fit with the chronology of the preceeding slide: number ten shows Friday helping Crusoe free his father and a Spanish Castaway from a group of armed men. By this time the two had already met and become friendly. Who could it be, then? Maybe it was Friday’s father, whom they saved in slide ten, but I could not corroborate this. Because of it’s vagueness, I have decided to avoid affixing a narrow classification term to the slide. Instead, I will use “lifesaving” and “rescue” to describe slides ten and eleven as a set. How would you have described this enigmatic slide?