The Game of British Empire (1925)

The Game of British Empire (1925)

From the Collection: The Game of British Empire, or Trading with the Colonies (1925).

During this period of enforced downtime across the globe, you might find yourself wondering what sort of games the children of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy would have played to pass the time?  We’re delighted to share a curious example from the Strokestown Park House extensive toy collection to give you an insight. In this long-forgotten piece of childhood Victoriana, you’ll see that for budding aristocrats like the Pakenham Mahon children, the ‘great game’ of global conquest could be mere child’s play.

First published in 1905 and reissued in this edition in 1925, this simple board game has players chart a steamship to take manufactured goods from Britain (such as cutlery, machinery and ‘Fancy Goods’) and exchange them in the empire’s colonies for a diverse array of raw materials, including everything from Nigerian palm oil to Barbadian onions and Guinean pearls. The players then race back along the dotted trade routes to London, with points awarded based on both speed and amount of goods collected.

Some of the details are interesting and very particular to their time; Brisbane exports Arrowroot, a form of starch made from tubers that was hugely popular in Victorian-era Europe. Dunedin exports refrigerated meat, a banal idea today but considered to be a scientific marvel when it was first shipped to Britain in 1881. Sierra Leone, prior to the first diamond finds in the 1930s, exports ‘Ostrich Feathers’. The Ascension Board Game British Empire zoom on Sierra Leone, Gambia, Nigeriaislands export turtles, still regularly hunted into the 1950s. The board also features some geographical oddities; the Irish Free State is still marked as part of the United Kingdom, the then Soviet Union is still labelled ‘Russian Empire’ (although in this 1925 edition St Petersburg has been updated as Leningrad), Pretoria is moved up so as to be almost in the Congo, and the Falkland islands, though not a stoppable port, are far too large.

The game was published by Glevum, a trade name used by Roberts Bros., once the largest game manufacturers in Britain. Glevum became famous in the 1890s for their parlour game Piladex, essentially an indoor tennis variant played with a balloon. The company ceased trading in 1956, and few of their games are remembered today. Trading with the Colonies can today be seen as a relic of an Empire in the midst of its decline; Ireland had already begun to break the connection, India, the African states and the Old Dominions would follow in the decades to come. It can also be related to the birth of the British post-colonial identity as a great facilitator of trade and a solely industrial rather than military power. In 2016 the game featured in an exhibition at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

The Game of British Empire is on display in the schoolroom here at Strokestown Park House and can be seen during the guided tour of the house. We hope to welcome you back to Strokestown Park in the foreseeable future when we re-open once again for visitors.

Oisín O’Driscoll
March 2020.