Can you guess which 19th Century author loved to play cup and ball?

Believe it or not, ‘Bilbocatch’, more commonly known as ‘cup and ball’ was a very popular pastime during the 19th Century. Can you guess which famous 19th Century author loved to play cup and ball (and was very good at it)?

Jane Austen’s Cup and Ball


While ‘Bilbocatch’ may sound like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it is actually a game – more commonly known as ‘cup-and-ball’. It also happened to be a favourite pastime of Jane Austen, the famous English novelist and author of Pride and Prejudice. Apparently, she was so adept at landing the ivory ball on its turned post that she could easily achieve this over one hundred times in succession.

In 2008, expert Paul Viney was asked to assess some Jane Austen-related material at the Exmouth show. One of the objects was an ivory cup-and-ball game that, it transpired, was still owned by the direct descendants of Jane Austen. Suffice to say, the very idea of holding an item that had been so close to such an important historical figure was very exciting indeed. The name ‘bilbocatch’ is an Anglicism of the French name for the game ‘bilboquet’, popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, dated 29 October 1809, Jane Austen makes a clear reference to the game: ‘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; and we mean to avail ourselves of our kind papa’s consideration, by not returning to Winchester till quite the evening of Wednesday.

As was typical of such items during the Georgian era, Jane’s cup-and-ball was made from turned ivory. Her game consists of an ivory ball drilled with a hole and linked by a string to the turned handle or post. The idea is to flick the ball onto the slightly dished ‘cup’ at one end, or on to the slightly tapered point by means of the hole in the ball at the other. This should be simple enough, you may think, but it is actually far more difficult to do than it looks! Different versions of the game can be found in various parts of the world, including one named ‘Kendama’ in Japan.

Jane Austen’s game was not an easy item to value but, having come down through five generations of the family, its provenance was certainly in no doubt. Paul thought it was worth £20,000–25,000.

The family eventually decided to sell, entering the game for auction at a major London saleroom in 2016, with an estimate of £20,000–30,000. However, the game did not sell, and is now on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire. Interestingly, a letter from Jane to Cassandra, which was estimated at £40,000–60,000, made a staggering £150,000 in the same sale.

To find out about more fascinating objects, get your hands on a copy of Antiques Roadshow: 40 Years of Great Findsavailable now at all good bookstores.

Antiques Roadshow: 40 Years of Great Finds

Posted on November 29, 2017 by

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"Can you guess which 19th Century author loved to play cup and ball?"

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