History Of Darts

Darts is one of the oldest established English pub games which, since the late 1970s, has become one of the most popular sports in the world.


Darts is one of the oldest established English pub games which, since the late 1970s, has become one of the most popular sports in the world.

As far as the origins of the game are concerned, javelins, crossbow bolts and archery have all been considered. Of these the most likely scenario is that the game has its roots in archery. Glance back to the earliest type of dartboards and you will see that these were concentric targets – miniature forms of the archery target. Moreover, darts is most known as ‘arrows. Some would say that these two points alone are sufficient to confirm our sports’ heritage.

Up until the early part of the 20th century, darts existed in disparate forms across parts of England, the only matches taking place being either ‘in-house’ or friendly matches between pubs which were close to each other. (The cost of transport was prohibitive at that time.)

The legality of darts (whether it was a game of chance (illegal) or skill (legal)) was challenged in a Leeds court in 1908 when a publican, Jim Garside, was prosecuted for allowing darts to be played in his pub, the Adelphi Inn. Fortunately, Jim took along with him his best player William ‘Big Foot’ who by demonstrating the game so impressed the magistrates that the decision went in darts’ favour.

Shortly before The Great War the first brewery leagues appeared and after 1918 grew in popularity to such an extent that, by 1924, the demand for formal rules led in 1925 to the establishment of the National Darts Association (NDA). Even though the authority of the NDA was challenged by the short-lived British Darts Council (BDC) in 1938 that organisation was to remain in charge of the game until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The News of the World Individual Darts Championship was first contested in London in the 1927/28 season and covered only the Metropolitan Area around the capital. It was organised by the NDA (all volunteers) and a total of 1,010 darts players entered in that inaugural year. By the end of the 1930s the championship had expanded to cover, on a regional basis, most of England. In 1938/39 the total number of entrants was more than 280,000.

Such was the take up of darts by the public, licensees, and brewers during the interwar years that, by the 1930s, it had become a popular national recreation in England and parts of Wales, played by all classes, often ousting existing pubs games such as skittles and rings (indoor quoits). The development of darts found some resistance in places such as parts of Manchester (where the smaller Manchester/ Log-End) board held (and still to an extent holds) sway.

However, not everyone was allowed by law to play darts at this time. In the 1930s darts was banned in Huddersfield (on health grounds), Liverpool (on the grounds that it encouraged drunkenness) and Glasgow (as magistrates believed that this ‘new’ game would encourage young people to enter pubs). In the town of Huddersfield, a local publican tried to overcome the ban by inventing ‘Box Darts’ where rubber-nosed darts were thrown at a target. They entered holes in the board and were caught safely in a box behind. This did not prove very popular. Despite questions in Parliament these bans were not lifted until after the Second World War.

All sport was affected by the war with, amongst others, major football and cricket fixtures and competitions being either cancelled or suspended. In terms of darts, the News of the World individual competition was suspended for the duration. However, the newspaper maintained the high profile of the game by setting up a ‘team of darts champions’, which included famous English players such as John Ross and Jim Pike. The team played matches against all-comers in order to raise funds for the Red Cross and by the end of the war had raised £202,681, more than any other sport. Darts also played a crucial role in maintaining the morale of the British people both at home and abroad.

The game was taken into all theatres of war by English servicemen (including prisoner of war camps in Europe and the Far East) and thus many allies, particularly the Americans, Australian and New Zealanders learned about the game. This acted as a catalyst for interest in darts which servicemen and women took home with them when the war ended and assisted the gradual post-war worldwide expansion of the game. In addition, darts were included in NAAFI sports packs in the latter part of the war.

After 1945, darts returned to being a working-class pub pastime, played by working-class pub-goers in massive numbers for whom the game had originally been formally introduced and where the game’s enduring appeal lay.

The National Darts Association (formed in 1925 to control the game) did not survive the war but its rules remained in place through the News of the World competition and the numerous brewery and pub leagues which continued to spread across the country who adopted the ‘News of the World rules’. Subsequent organisations which sought to control the game left the basic NDA rules relatively unchanged and this remained the case even when the sport was taken over by the British Darts Organisation (BDO) in the 1970s.

From September 1954 until the 1970s, darts was controlled by the National Darts Association of Great Britain (NDAGB), an organisation formed by The People and London-based darts organisers ‘on a pyramidal basis, with its county associations at the base, the areas in the middle, and the executive council at the apex’. In addition to organising The People darts team competition (which had been originally contested in the 1938/39 season) the NDAGB also secured sponsorship from Guinness, who sponsored a national pairs competition, and the NODOR company for a four-a-side championship.

During the NDAGB’s period of control, darts remained very much a low-profile pub game of little or no national significance in terms of media coverage, except for The People team competition and the News of the World individual championship, the latter helping create the first ‘name’ players of the 1960s, including Tom Barrett of Hanworth, Middlesex who, sponsored by Unicorn Products Ltd., won the championship in 1963/64 and then became the first person to successfully defend his title when he retained it in the 1964/65 season.

When the British Darts Organisation (BDO) was established in 1973, the NDAGB found itself caught out by its own complacency. As the NDAGB slowly disintegrated, the BDO, led by Managing Director Olly Croft, found the sponsors, attracted massive television coverage, and turned darts into an international, professional sport. By 1979 it was estimated that two million people in Britain played darts competitively three or four times a week with another three million playing it regularly plus at least another two million who threw darts at least once a year.

In January 1979, eight million BBC television viewers watched Chesterfield’s John Lowe win the Embassy World Professional Darts Championship at Jollees Club, Stoke-on-Trent, defeating the previous year’s champion, Wales’s Leighton Rees, 5-0 in the Final. The 1970s and 1980s created the first household names, the first darts ‘stars’ such as Eric Bristow, John Lowe, Alan Evans, Jocky Wilson, Leighton Rees, Cliff Lazarenko, to name but a few.

In 1976, in a bid to achieve worldwide domination of the sport of darts, Olly Croft and representatives from fourteen nations met and established the World Darts Federation (WDF). By 1979 this had increased to forty-nine member countries and today stands at over sixty nations, one of the most recent to join being Nepal.

During the 1960s and 1970s the News of the World Individual Darts Championship (which had been reintroduced in 1947/48 as a national competition) remained the championship that everyone wanted to win. As years went by it gradually became international. However, in 1990 due to, amongst other things, lack of sponsorship, this historic championship was played for what was then believed to be the last time. However, it was revived for one year only in 1996/97. This was the first time that the News of the World finals had been held outside of London; at the Aston Villa Leisure Centre, Birmingham. Phil Taylor lifted the trophy and afterwards the tournament was suspended indefinitely.


The original darts thrown at English dartboards came from France and thus were popularly known as ‘French darts. Originally imported for use in fairgrounds, these darts were later shipped over to the UK in their hundreds of thousands as the popularity of the game gathered momentum in the traditional English (and then later Welsh, Scottish and Irish) pubs. In 1906 a metal barrel was apparently patented by an Englishman, but brass barrels were not mass-produced in the UK until the late 1920s.

In the 1930s and 1940s Jim Pike became a big star of the darts world and after the Second World War set up a company which manufactured his ‘im Pike’ name darts and those of his fellow darters Johnny Ross and Leo Newstead. Despite many other suppliers coming on to the scene ‘Jim Pike Darts’ remained popular for many years with their brass barrels, split cane shafts and paper flights.

Brass continued to be the favoured barrels for most darts’ players until the 1970s when tungsten was introduced. ‘Tungsten’s’ gave the weight without the need for a very thick brass barrel, which in turn gave players with ability a greater opportunity to hit more 180s.


When darts was first introduced into English pubs there were no hard and fast rules of play so the ‘house rules’ applied. Thus, travelling darts players could find themselves throwing from, say, 6ft in Cornwall and 9ft in London.

The line from behind which a darts player threw his or her darts was originally called the ‘hockey’ but this was changed in the 1970s to ‘oche’. Before the Second World War all News of the World finalists played from 9ft but this was changed to 8ft when the competition restarted in 1947/48. The ‘oche’ was renamed and resized in the 1970s; the world standard now being 7ft 9 ¼ins.

In order to lay at least one darts myth to rest, there is no truth whatsoever that the word ‘hockey’ had anything at all to do with a brewery called Hockey & Sons and the size of their beer crates. This is pure fantasy.

Although the derivation of the word ‘hockey’ is still subject to debate, one theory is that it was derived from an old English word ‘hocken’ which meant ‘to spit’. A darts player merely stood with his back to the dartboard and spat and where the spit landed determined the length of throw. The ‘hockey line’ is also known to previously exist in the rules of another old pub game, Aunt Sally (a form of skittles).


For decades the rules of darts were merely ‘house rules’; whatever rules a particular pub played to, visitors did too.

However, as darts increased in popularity and leagues were formed there was a demand for standardisation and in 1925 the National Darts Association (NDA) introduced formal rules of play.

In 1927 these rules were adopted for the News of the World competition and eventually became the rules governing all organised darts play in Britain. Although the rules were amended and expanded by both the NDAGB in the 1950s and the BDO in the 1970s the key rules are fundamentally the same as those drawn up in the 1920s.


The original dartboards were made of wood cut from a cross section of either an elm or a poplar tree although there is a theory that ale or wine casks were used. No evidence exists to support this latter theory except that the bull’s-eye is even today sometimes called the ‘bung hole’.

The first dartboards were ‘home-made’ by carpenters and wireworkers who provided dartboards to their local pubs for cash or beer. There was no major dartboard manufacturing industry in England until the 1920s.

The earliest dartboards resembled a miniature archery target but this was found to be relatively easy to play on, so the boards became larger and more complicated. The man generally acknowledged as inventing the modern standard order of numbers on a dartboard is Brian Gamlin. Gamlin from Bury, Lancashire was, apparently, both a carpenter and a showman and devised the numbering sequence in the late 1880s to make his darts targets more difficult to hit by punters (rewarding accuracy but punishing inaccuracy). However, no evidence can be found that Gamlin ever existed. (Darts historian Patrick Chaplin has an alternative theory. Patrick believes that the man responsible was a Leeds wireworker Thomas Buckle who came up with the sequence in about 1912.)

Many regional dartboards have been discovered over the years, the majority of which have now disappeared. They included the Tonbridge, Club, Yorkshire, and Black Irish boards. Surprisingly most of these boards shared the ‘standard’ numbering which suggests that the Gamlin/Buckle numbering was used to develop regional differences.

One regional variation which survives today is the Manchester (log-end board) introduced into that city in the nineteenth century by the Perrigo family. The Manchester board has no treble ring, no outer bull and is much smaller in diameter than the ‘standard’ board. Also, the numbering (apart from the position of the 19) is different. Other regional survivors are the Yorkshire Board (20 segments, same numbering but no trebles) and the London Fives board. The latter has only twelve segments and these are numbered 20,5,15,10,20,5,15,10,20,5,15,10.

In the standard game, the dartboard is hung so that the bull’s-eye is 5 ft 8 in (1.7 m) from the floor: eye-level for a six-foot person. The oche line behind which the throwing player must stand – is generally 7 ft 9¼ in (2.37 m) from the face of the dartboard measured horizontally. This is the recognised world standard and is played as such in most areas. Owing to measurement error, this may be incorrect in some places (such as measuring from the wall, rather than using a plumb line to measure from the board face). The diagonal distance from the bull’s eye to the oche will be 9 ft 7 in (2.93 m), when horizontal measurement from the dartboard face isn’t easily done.

The London Fives boards are set up is slightly different from the standard board. The height is set at 5 ft 6 ins to the centre of the bull and the oche is at 9 ft from the face of the board.

Modern day bristle dartboards were patented by Nodor in 1932 and introduced in 1934. The Nodor company had been established in the early 1920s by Edward Leggatt whose first contribution to darts was the creation of an odourless clay (thus ‘No Odour’ ‘Nodor’) which he used to construct dartboards which he hoped would replace both the clay dartboards made of the Plasticine® company and the more common wooden boards. (In the past dartboards have also been made out of compressed, coiled paper, cork and gum.)

Leggatt’s bristle dartboard was made of sisal fibres (like those used in the manufacture of ropes) and were very efficient and longer lasting than elm boards. The latter had to be soaked overnight to maintain their playability; the bristle dartboard did not. However, because the cost was prohibitive to the ordinary licensee and darts player the bristle board did not replace the elm or poplar board until the 1970s. Only at that time did a combination of Dutch elm disease and the darts organisations insisting that all major league matches, and major competitions should be contested on a bristle board result in the gradual phasing out of the wooden dartboards.

A regulation board today is 47.08 cm (17¾) in diameter and is divided into 20 sections. Each section is separated with metal wire or a thin band of sheet metal. The best dartboards have the thinnest wire separating sections so that the darts have less chance of hitting these wires and bouncing out. The numbers indicating the various scoring sections of the board are normally made of wire, especially on tournament-quality boards, but may be printed directly on the board instead.


It is a little-known fact that darts first appeared on television in 1937.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had introduced television in England to a limited number of subscribers in August 1936 transmitting test programmes from its London Television Station at Alexandra Palace, north London, until its formal launch on 2 November that year. On Saturday 29 May 1937, at 9.25 p.m. precisely, BBC ‘London Television’ broadcast the first televised darts programme from Alexandra Palace (ironically now the home of the PDC Ladbrokes.com World Championships). The programme was called ‘Darts and Shove Ha-penny’ and featured a competition between two rival teams from two well-known hostelries.

A few more matches were broadcast by the BBC during the late 1930s and occasionally through the war years but darts failed to be included regularly in TV schedules after 1945 until the early 1960s. In 1962 the regional independent provider Westward Television broadcast the Westward TV Invitational Darts Championship to viewers in the south-west of England. However, this was of course very localised coverage.

In April 1972, ITV broadcast the News of the World Individual Darts Championship from the Alexandra Palace, for the first time. In 1973 Yorkshire Television launched The Indoor League, based on pub games including shove ha-penny, arm wrestling and, of course, darts (played for the first series only on a Yorkshire Board). One of the producers of the series was a young Geordie darts enthusiast named Sid Waddell.

Over the next decade and into the early 1980s darts coverage expanded with many major tournaments appearing on both ITV and BBC and quiz shows such as Bullseye. But the cancellation of ITV’s programme World of Sport in 1985 and the general change of emphasis in televised sport away from darts led to a reduction in coverage that shook the darts world. Despite ITV’s cutbacks the company still covered the Winmau World Masters until 1988. (It was to return on BBC.) The BBC also cut back on their coverage to the extent that by 1988 that one major event still broadcast by them was the Embassy World Professional Darts Championship.

With the creation of the World Darts Council (WDC) (later the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC)) in 1992/93, darts gradually returned to television with events shown on local ITV networks, for example the Lada Classic (Anglia TV), the Samson Darts Classic (Tyne Tees), the Scottish Masters (SKY Scotland) and the UK Matchplay (Yorkshire TV).

From 1994 satellite TV, in the form of Sky Television, covered the new organisation’s World Championship and World Matchplay events. Sky’s coverage continued to increase throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium with more new events added. The PDC’s Premier League, UK Open, Las Vegas Desert Classic, World Matchplay and World Grand Prix are all televised live on Sky.

More recently more events have been added including The Grand Slam of Darts, European Championships and Players Championships Finals (ITV), Championship League Darts (Perform Media Internet) and the German Darts Championships (DSF).

Prize money on the PDC circuit now equates to well over £5m each year.

The PDC has also tried to break into the television market in the United States by introducing the World Series of Darts in 2006. It had a $1 million prize (which could only be won by an American player) to showcase professional darts in the States. The tournament was replaced with a US Open event in 2007 which was screened in the UK.

Darts has continued to grow again on television and there now several major tournaments broadcast in the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Dutch station RTL-7, with DSF in Germany and several of the other large TV stations across the globe, also broadcast most of the PDC darts events, with major coverage in all these areas.


In early 1993, fifteen of the top professional darts players were effectively banned by the BDO.

Just before this, in 1992, some darts manufacturers, players and managers decided that the sport of darts was in decline, in fact dying on its feet and something had to be done. At that time, there was only one TV event (the Embassy World Championship on BBC TV) whereas five years before there had been plenty of TV exposure and the future of the sport had looked good. That was no longer the case.

So the World Darts Council (WDC) was formed in 1992 to promote the professional game and secure more darts on TV. Some early televised events were a success and, where there had been stagnation before, things began to move forward again.

The BDO, who had run the sport since 1973, did not like this at all and so in 1993 that organisation banned all the fifteen darts players who had joined the WDC from playing in County darts, Super League, all BDO tournaments & internationals. That ban could only be lifted if those individuals pledged their loyalty to the BDO and returned to the fold.

The fifteen so-called ‘rebels’ were Bob Anderson, Keith Deller, Peter Evison, Ritchie Gardner, Mike Gregory, Rod Harrington, Jamie Harvey, Chris Johns, Cliff Lazarenko, John Lowe (World Champion), Denis Priestley, Kevin Spiolek, Phil Taylor, Alan Warriner (No 1 at the time) and Jocky Wilson.

Furthermore, the BDO even told other members of their own organisation that if they played a WDC player in any event or exhibition (even a charity night) they would also be banned. This put a lot of pressure on all the fifteen yet all, except two players (Mike Gregory and Chris Johns) stuck with the WDC. Apparently to return to the BDO they were both promised the world. They did so but ended up with nothing, except obscurity.

Eventually the WDC decided to take the BDO to court. A few years and a lot of money later the court case was won, and the Tomlin Order was in motion (preventing restraint of trade) so players could then play in any event they wanted. The only exception was that they could only play in one of the two World Championships.

All the top players chose the WDC (now the PDC) which has now proved to be the right move for darts.

For more information about the history and development of darts both in Britain and other parts of the world please visit the website of darts author and historian Patrick Chaplin (popularly known as ‘Doctor Darts’) at www.patrickchaplin.com