London’s Canals


London is known for its tourist attractions, tall buildings and river; however, a short walk from King’s Cross Station in a former ice warehouse, is a museum that tells a little known history of the city. The London Canal Museum, established in 1992, displays information about the history of London’s canals. Today, these canals are a peaceful area away from the busy roads, but they were not always like that. Once vital for industrial London, these canals had a significant part to play, a role that is gradually disappearing from memory in an increasingly technological world.


On entering the museum, the first thing visitors see is the remains of an unpowered narrowboat named (rather unfortunately) Coronis. Built in 1935 by Harland and Wolff, an offshore construction company, Coronis accompanied a motorboat known by the (even more unfortunate) name, Corona, on the Grand Union Canal. Carrying goods, such as wood, metal, fruit and grain, Coronis regularly travelled from London to Birmingham and back again.

Narrowboats are unique to the United Kindom and were built to fit the narrow canals and locks that had a much shorter width than the canals in Europe. The average narrowboat is 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m) wide and no longer than 72 feet (21.95 m). Despite the lack of space, narrowboats were also used as floating homes for many people. The rear portion of the boat, known as the boatman’s cabin, was designed to make use of every bit of space. Although rather cramped, the cabin contained a stove, a folding table and a couple of folding beds. These would fold out of cupboards meaning the floor space could be kept clear during the day.


What inhabited narrowboats lacked, however, were bathroom facilities. Instead, families had to use rather primitive methods, such as going to the toilet in a bucket and washing with rainwater collected in a “Bucky” can on the roof of the cabin. These cans were usually decorated, as was the rest of the narrowboat.

By the end of the 19th century, it was common practice to either decorate a narrowboat with painted flowers or with images of castles. The origin of these designs is unknown but may have been influenced by Romani communities.

Today, narrowboats are motorised, however, during the 19th and early 20th century, they were powered by horses. Running alongside the canals is a towpath, which the horses used to walk, pulling the narrowboats behind them by rope. Some people regarded this as cruel, however, bargemen maintained it was far easier than dragging a carriage through the street. The hardest part for the horse was to get the boat moving, but once this had been achieved, the narrowboat would move easily across the water. The horses were regularly changed, rested and fed throughout the day.

The main danger for the horses was losing their footing and falling into the canal. This was most likely to occur during thick fogs when it was impossible to see anything in front of you. Whilst this problem could not always be avoided, horse slips or ramps were built into the canal walls so they could easily climb back out. Passing trains often spooked the horses, which also caused many to fall into the canal. As a result, it was made certain there were horse ramps within 100 yards of train bridges.

By the 1950s, horses were replaced by tractors. Of course, many faced the same fate as the horses and found themselves in the canals. To prevent this from happening, railings were added in areas where the towpath was harder to navigate.

Legging in Islington Canal Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal, c.1916

As roads and railways were developed, more bridges were built over the canal. This, however, caused problems for horses and tractors because, unless a towpath had been built into the construction, they could not go through the tunnel. Therefore, bargemen had to “leg” the boats through. This involved a couple of men lying on planks hooked at right angles to the front of the boat who would use their legs to “walk” along the tunnel wall, gradually inching the narrowboats through.

For some years, the main canal in London was the Grand Junction Canal, which was built between 1793 and 1805 to connect the River Thames to the Midlands. Since 1929, this canal has become a part of of the Grand Union Canal, which the narrowboat Coronis used to sail. Today, London’s most famous canal is Regent’s Canal, which joins the Grand Union Canal at Paddington and stretches across the north of London to Limehouse Basin and the River Thames, a total of 8.6 miles (13.8 km).


Regent’s Canal was first proposed in 1802 by Thomas Homer, although it was not constructed until after 1812 when it was agreed by Parliament. Designs for the canal were drawn out by John Nash (1752-1853), who is better known for designing Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Most of Nash’s architectural work was financed by the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830), which is why the canal was named Regent’s Canal.

Nash appointed his assistant James Morgan (1776-1856) as the chief engineer of the canal company and construction began on 14th October 1812. The first section, Paddington to Camden, was completed by 1816 and the rest was opened in 1820. There were, however, a couple of problems along the way.

The first problem was the hydropneumatic locking system invented by William Congreve (1772-1828), which did not work when first installed. A lock is a device used to raise or lower boats between different water levels in a canal. Usually consisting of two gates, the boats enter through one, which is then sealed shut while the other gate gradually lets water in or out until the water inside the two gates is level with the outside. Once this has been achieved, the other gate opens and the boat continues on its journey.

Operation of caisson lock

The most common type of lock is known as the mitre lock and is based on designs by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), which he produced to show how improvements could be made to the canal system in Milan. This type of lock was first used in England on the River Lee in 1577, however, Congreve wished to impress the Prince Regent with a more impressive design.

In 1813, Congreve patented a “hydro-pneumatic double balance lock”, which involved a boat entering a box or caisson submerged in a cistern. The cistern would then either descend or ascend and release the boat onto the new water level. Unfortunately, there was not enough water for this to work in Regent’s Canal, which was only discovered after its construction. Various alterations were made to the lock, however, it was soon replaced by a more conventional design.

Camden Lock

Today, there are nine locks on Regent’s Canal between Islington Tunnel and the Thames: City Road, Sturts, Acton’s, Old Ford, Mile End, Johnson’s, Salmon Lane, Commercial Road and Regent’s Canal Dock. These were initially manned by lock keepers who would open and close the gates for the passing boats for a small toll fee. Today, narrowboat owners each have their own Windlass Handle, which opens the majority of the locks around the UK, therefore, lock keepers are no longer needed.

The second problem faced during the construction of Regent’s Canal involved money. It cost a total of £772,000 to build the canal, which was twice the amount predicted. Getting an adequate water supply was a big issue, therefore, further digging needed to be done to create dams, make reservoirs and build basins. This, however, was not the main money problem.

Thomas Homer, the man who first proposed Regent’s Canal, became known as the Villain of the Regent’s Canal after embezzling funds in 1815. Homer was born on 27th March 1761 and was one of seventeen children born to the Rector Henry Sacheverell Homer, who was considered to be the finest classical scholar of his day. Out of the twelve sons, Thomas Homer was the only one not to go on to become a clergyman. Instead, he followed his father’s passion for canals.

After completing an apprenticeship in Coventry in 1782, Thomas Homer was qualified as a solicitor. By 1795, Homer had become the Auditor of the Grand Junction Canal Company and began making plans for what would become Regent’s Canal. All seemed to be going well until 1815 when the canal construction ran into some difficulties. The company was also facing financial problems caused by shareholders not paying up or, if they had paid, not paying directly to the treasurer but Thomas Homer.

Suspicions about Homer’s actions began to arise after he repeatedly failed to produce records when requested by the company’s chairman, Charles Monro. Homer soon fled the country and it came to light he had been declared bankrupt. It also became clear he had been syphoning off money from the company in an attempt to cover his debts. The company immediately reported Homer and offered an award for his arrest.

Thomas Homer was arrested and brought back to London where he was placed in debtors’ prison. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. It appears, however, that he never went and there are no records about how he spent the rest of his life. Despite his arrest and admission, the Grand Junction Canal Company was unable to claim any money back as there was no knowledge of how much money Homer had stolen.

Fortunately, funds were found to complete the construction of Regent’s Canal and it officially opened in 1820. Yet, within two decades of its completion, the canal was already under threat from the increase in railways. Several attempts were made to turn the canal into a railway and the idea to run a track alongside the water was also rejected. As a result, rail construction companies built bridges over the canal, however, these caused their fair share of problems, such as scaring the horses and making it difficult for narrowboats to pass under the bridge.

Bridges were also built over the canal for cars to pass over the water. One famous incident involving one of the bridges occurred in the early hours of 2nd October 1874 when a barge called The Tilbury exploded underneath Macclesfield Bridge. The barge was carrying a couple of barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder when it caught light passing under the bridge at the north of Regent’s Park. The resulting explosion destroyed Macclesfield Bridge and killed all three men on board.

The explosion was heard up to 25 miles away and many people mistook it for an earthquake. Animals in the zoo were frightened and debris flew in all directions, damaging nearby buildings and shattering windows. Eyewitnesses claimed that dead fish from the canal “rained from the sky”.

Fortunately, the majority of the iron legs of Macclesfield Bridge were salvaged and the bridge was successfully reconstructed. The explosion caused the government to amend the laws about selling and buying explosive substances to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Although explosive substances had been limited on canals, barges became vital during the World Wars for transporting munitions and equipment across the city. On one occasion, Londoners were surprised to see a tank being sailed along the canal. After the Second World War, the usual trade resumed upon the canals, delivering goods and materials that could not easily be reached by ships and cars. Horses continued to be used to tow the crafts until 1956 when they were replaced by tractors. By the late 1960s, however, commercial traffic on the canals had almost disappeared and it was opened to the public. Today, Regent’s Canal has become a leisure facility, used by those who own narrowboats for fun rather than for work or domestic living. The towpaths are also opened to the public and have become a popular place for cyclists.

Before canal boats were motorised, the most difficult sections to pass through were the tunnels. In London, there are three tunnels, all of them on Regent’s Canal. Getting a barge or narrowboat under a bridge without a horse or tractor was difficult enough but a tunnel required far more strength.

Two of the tunnels were opened as early as 1816 before the full extent of Regent’s Canal was completed. One of these is the Maida Hill Tunnel, which lies to the west of Camden Locks. It was not a part of the original plan but, due to protests about the route of the canal, it was agreed a tunnel would be constructed.

It took a while to complete the Maida Hill Tunnel, not least due to damage caused by the water. Eventually, the 272 yards (249 m) long tunnel was completed, however, due to its narrow width, there was no towpath. The only way for narrowboats to get through was to manually “leg” it through. This required much more energy than walking a boat under a bridge and, in 1825, two people lost their lives in the process. Three men were legging a boat through Maida Hill Tunnel when the boards they were lying on slipped. One man was seriously injured and another was crushed to death. The body of the third man was never found.

The other tunnel constructed in 1816 was Eyre’s Tunnel, also known as Lisson Grove Tunnel, near St John’s Wood. It was originally called Eyre’s Tunnel because it went through land belonging to Richard Eyre. Today, more people refer to it as Lisson Grove after the name of the road that passes above. Often mistaken for a bridge, Eyre’s Tunnel is only 52 yards (48 metres) and has a towpath that was once used by horses and tractors.

The third tunnel on Regent’s Canal was Islington Tunnel, which was completed in 1818. At 960 yards (878 m), the tunnel, which travels under Angel, Islington, was built by the canal’s engineer, James Morgan. When Morgan began the project, he had little knowledge of locks and tunnels, so the Grand Junction Canal Company decided to hold a design competition.

Advertisements were placed in August 1812 for the competition with a 50-guinea (£52.50) prize for the winner. William Jessop (1745-1814), who had designed the Grand Canal of Ireland, was invited to judge the entries along with two engineers, Ralph Walker (1749-1824) and Nicholson. Unfortunately, the competition was not as successful as they had hoped and they only received a handful of entries. Although the prize was awarded, the designs were not considered suitable, therefore, the project fell to Morgan once again.

By 1816, the company were low on funds, so work had to temporarily cease on the tunnel. Before then, Morgan had also discovered the construction of the tunnel was not as easy as he had hoped. To begin with, there were protests from landowners to overcome before work could commence. To dig the tunnel, men had to be lowered down on shafts with their equipment, which added to the cost of the project. The tunnel also needed to be straight for boats to pass through easily, which was a difficult thing to achieve. Although slow, progress was going well until they neared the other side where the earth was a lot less stable than Morgan had anticipated. It was at this point the company’s money ran out.

The company needed at least a further £200,000 to complete the tunnel and canal but had no means of raising the money. Fortunately, a chance meeting with the Society for the Relieving of the Manufacturing Poor resulted in talks about government loans and providing opportunities for poor people to work on the canal’s construction. Following this discussion, the Poor Employment Act was passed in 1817 followed by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission. On behalf of the commissioners, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who had built canals in Shropshire, was sent to survey the canal’s construction progress. After reading his report, the commissioners agreed to provide the company with a loan of £200,000 if they could raise at least £100,000 in match funding.

Finally, work on the tunnel and canal was able to continue and was opened on 1st August 1820. Islington Tunnel alone had cost £40,000 to build, making it the most expensive section of Regent’s Canal.

Islington Tunnel has no towpath, so before motors were added to the boats, they had to be legged through. This was extremely hard work due to the length of the tunnel and people were grateful when the steam chain tug was invented in 1826 to pull the narrowboats along – although some complained of almost being gassed out in the tunnel!

Islington Tunnel Waymarker

Due to the length of the tunnel, it was not as simple for the horses, and later tractors, to meet the boat at the other end. To help people find their way, towpath link waymarkers were placed on the pavements for people to follow. By following the waymarkers, people are taken up Duncan Street, through Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road into Chapel Market, then through Penton Street, Maygood Street and Muriel Street where they finally rejoin the towpath.

Today, the canal is less busy than it was in its early years and is no longer used for commercial purposes, except for short boat trips near Camden. Whereas narrowboats tended to be owned and worked by the poorer people of London, it is the richer citizens that own them now for pleasure. Yet, the history of the canal will not be forgotten thanks to the London Canal Museum, which has collected personal records and memories of those who used to live by and work on the canal. There are plenty of happy memories but also stories about the dangers of the canal.

For a small fee, visitors can explore the London Canal Museum and learn about the background of England’s canals and the introduction of canals to London, including information about locks and horses. As well as this there are exhibits of painted items belonging to narrowboats and decorative pottery, a history of the life on the canal and examples of narrowboats and barges, including Coronis, which visitors are welcome to enter. Also, there is a history of Carlo Gatti’s icehouse that once stood on the site.

Of course, there is no better way to explore the canals than by walking along the towpath. If you do, look at the architecture of the bridges and tunnels, marvel at the engineering of the locks and enjoy seeing the narrowboats going past, all the while remembering the work that went into the canal’s construction.

The London Canal Museum is usually open Tuesdays to Sunday (Friday – Sunday at the moment due to Covid-19) from 10 am-4:30 pm. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £4 concessions and £2.50 for children between 5-15 years old.

Dealing With Cards

playing cards

Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.


Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).


Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).


Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.


Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.


Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.


German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.


French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.


Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.


De la Rue, 1860


De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.


Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.


The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?

Rowntree’s® of York

When people hear or say the brand name Rowntree’s, it is difficult not to add the words “Fruit Pastilles”. Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were introduced in 1881 and fast became the confectionery company’s most associated product. Yet, there are several well-loved chocolates and sweets brands that began their lives in the Rowntree’s factory in York. The company itself has a long and varied history and, thanks to York’s Chocolate Story museum, the Rowntree’s founders have been immortalised forever.

Rowntree’s history begins with Joseph Rowntree Senior (1801-59), a Quaker from Scarborough, who moved to York in 1822 to open a grocery shop. Unlike today where many products are sold pre-packaged, Rowntree usually had to measure out his goods for each customer. Unlike other grocers who cheated their customers by adding sawdust to increase the weight, Rowntree’s Quaker morals prevented him from doing such a thing and he quickly developed a reputation for good quality.


Rowntree Senior was not personally involved with the confectionery or chocolate trade, however, he would likely have sold products by the Tuke family, who produced “Rock Cocoa” drinking powder. One of Rowntree’s sons, Henry Isaac Rowntree (1837-83), went to work for the Tukes after his father’s death in 1860.

Two years later, in 1862, Henry Isaac Rowntree bought out the Tuke family who were focusing on other things, such as mental health retreats, and established a confectionery business in Castlegate, York. Following in his father’s footsteps, Henry insisted on quality above anything else. In 1864, for £1,000, he purchased an old iron foundry at Tanners Moat by the River Ouse and set up a factory. His chocolate business suffered somewhat, however, due to his devotion to the Yorkshire Weekly Press, of which he was both editor and printer.

By 1869, the business, which was staffed by 12 men, was beginning to struggle, so Henry invited his older brother Joseph (1836-1925) to become a partner, thus renaming the company H. I. Rowntree & Co. With Joseph Rowntree in control, the factory was transformed. Under his expertise book-keeping and stock control, the business went from strength to strength. He also helped to found one of the first Occupational Pension Schemes.

Whilst the company was beginning to do well with their chocolate sales, it was the launch of Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles in 1881 that truly saved the company. The sweets, which are still produced today, are small and round with a diameter of approximately 1.5cm. They have a jelly consistency and are coated in sugar. Each pack contains a mixture of lemon (yellow), lime (green), strawberry (red), blackcurrant (purple) and orange (orange).

Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were an immediate success and, by 1887, were responsible for at least 25% of the company’s profit. In 1893, H. I. Rowntree & Co introduced Rowntree’s Clear Gums, later rebranded as Fruit Gums. These were similar to Fruit Pastilles but without the coating of sugar. Although they never became as popular as the original sweets, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums were marketed as “The nation’s favourite sweet”.

Sadly, Henry Isaac Rowntree died suddenly in 1883 before he could see the extent of the company’s profits. Fortunately, Joseph Rowntree had everything in hand and used the company’s success to invest in a Van Houten press, which enabled them to produce chocolate with the cocoa butter removed. In other words, it allowed them to make their own cocoa powder.

The Van Houten press was developed by a Dutch chocolate factory owner, Casparus van Houten (1770–1858), in 1828, although it is his son, Coenraad Johannes van Houten (1801-87) who usually takes the credit. This hydraulic press could reduce the cocoa butter content by nearly half so that it could be pulverised into cocoa powder. Ten years later, the patent for the machine expired, allowing other factories to use it. As a result, British chocolate maker J. S. Fry & Sons were able to use this technology to produce the world’s first chocolate bar.

With the Van Houten press, H. I. Rowntree & Co were able to make products to rival other chocolate companies. By then, the company had far surpassed its small family business status and was developing into a large-scale manufacturer. Between 1880 and 1890, sales had more than quadrupled, yet, they felt they were still a step behind their strongest competitor, Cadbury.

In 1889, Joseph Rowntree hired his son, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), to research into rival company products and run a small research laboratory for analysing ingredients. Seebohm’s task inspired his future career as a sociological researcher, social reformer and business magnate. In 1899, 1935 and 1951, he conducted studies in his home city, analysing the living conditions of the poor in York and argued for a national minimum wage.

Whilst Seebohm was conducting his research, H. I. Rowntree & Co was struggling to keep up with consumer demands and needed a much bigger factory. In 1890, Joseph Rowntree purchased a 20-acre site at Haxby Road on the outskirts of York upon which he began to construct a modern industrial complex. In 1899, a further 31 acres were purchased to expand the factory further. Over the following century, developments and expansions were made to the site, including the addition of a school building to train their workers. Today, the factory is being repurposed as a housing estate.

The move to Haxby Road, however, resulted in a shortage of funds, which prompted them into becoming a public limited liability company and renaming themselves Rowntree & Co in 1897. In 1899, Rowntree & Co finally produced their first milk chocolate bar. Unfortunately, the chocolate bar was not as successful as they hoped and failed to match the quality of their rivals, Cadbury and Lindt. At first Joseph Rowntree was undeterred and believed milk chocolate bars to be a passing fad, however, he was soon proved wrong.

When Seebohm Rowntree inherited the company in 1923, it was bordering on bankruptcy; something needed to change. Although Joseph Rowntree was against the idea, Rowntree’s had begun using advertising methods in the 1890s, such as a nine-foot replica tin of Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa that was driven around the city or sailed along the river. John’s nephew, Arnold Rowntree (1872-1951), insisted they put a greater emphasis on marketing, which George Harris, John’s brother-in-law, became responsible for as marketing manager.

Seebohm’s son, Peter Rowntree (1904-85), discovered the importance of market research, which helped Rowntree’s produce what the consumers wanted rather than trying to replicate what other brands were making. Using this approach, Rowntree’s launched its first successful selection box, Black Magic.

Marketed as a courtship gift, Black Magic, was an affordable selection of small samples of different chocolates that would otherwise be expensive to buy. Although Rowntree’s had been spending considerable resources on developing milk chocolate, the selection box reverted to dark chocolate. Each box contained chocolates with a variety of fillings, including fudge, caramel, raspberry and orange.


Putting their rivalry with Cadbury to one side, Rowntree’s began to release chocolates and sweets that they hoped would appeal to the nation. In May 1935, they launched the Aero Chocolate Bar, which they initially marketed as the “new chocolate bar”. Their first advertising slogan for the new bubbly product was “You get a lift”, however, after the Second World War, the marketing team commissioned paintings of “ordinary” women to use on their advertisements along with the slogan “Different… For her, Aero – the milk chocolate that’s different!”

Aero was an instant success, which boosted the morale of the company. Later the same year, Rowntree’s launched the Chocolate Crisp, which is now better known as KitKat. The renaming of the chocolate-wafer bar occurred in 1937 and was a name Rowntree’s had previously used for a selection box that had not done as well as Black Magic. KitKat was an odd choice as it was the name of an 18th-century mutton pie that was served at what became the political Kit-Kat Club in London.


The original advertising of the four-fingered chocolate bar claimed it was a snack “a man could take to work in his pack”, which he could eat on his lunch break. This developed into the much more familiar slogan, “Have a break … Have a Kit Kat!”

The milk chocolate KitKat was sold in red packaging, however, lack of ingredients during the war years made it difficult to produce the chocolate. In 1942, Rowntree’s changed the packaging to blue and announced, “This product is made with plain chocolate. Our standard Chocolate Crisp will be re-introduced as soon as milk is available.” As soon as rationing allowed, the red-packaged milk chocolate KitKats returned.

Today, KitKat is one of the most produced chocolate bars in the world and is made in 16 different countries across all continents. Each country produces a variety of different flavours. In the United Kingdom, the milk chocolate variety is the most popular, however, there are also dark chocolate, white chocolate, orange, mint, and cookies and cream versions. This year (2020), two new flavours were launched in the United States: Lemon Crisp and Rasberry Creme.

In Japan, on the other hand, there are over 200 different flavours. KitKat is a highly popular and respected brand due to its similarity to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katsu”, which translates as “you will surely win”. Different regions of Japan are associated with distinct flavours, which they incorporate into KitKats and gift to people from other areas. Flavours range from fruity (apple, banana, cherry, pear, pumpkin, watermelon) and sweet (blueberry cheesecake, brown sugar syrup, creme brulee, strawberry cheesecake, sweet pudding) to the downright bizarre (cough drop, European cheese, green bean, melon and cheese, red potato, sake, soy sauce, vegetable juice, wasabi).

In 1937, Rowntree’s, who were still using the market research Peter Rowntree had conducted, launched a Dairy Box of assorted chocolates. This was a milk chocolate version of Black Magic and contained several different fillings, such as almond crispy cluster, Aero, burnt almond toffee, cracknel and praline sandwich, nougat de Montelimar, hazelnut log, and coffee creme.

The following year, Rowntree’s began selling Chocolate Beans. Initially, these were sold loose or in small cardboard packets until they were rebranded as Smarties and sold in the distinctive cardboard tube. The chocolates, which are coated in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, mauve, pink or brown sugar casings, remain a firm favourite, particularly with children. From the 1980s, the colourful plastic lid of the tube was appropriated as a teaching aid, each featuring a different letter of the alphabet. The purpose was to encourage young children to recognise and learn letters, which in turn would help them to read. Approximately, five billion Smarties lids were produced and some are considered collector’s items. Production of the round tube ceased in 2005 when it was replaced with a hexagonal design. Although they no longer have plastic tops, they still feature a letter and also a quiz question.


Rowntree’s next launch was “the mint with the hole”. The famous Polo was originally developed in York in 1939, however, the outbreak of the Second World War meant production had to be put on hold. Finally, in 1948, the breath mint was released to the world. This peppermint flavoured confectionery was named Polo due to its similarity to the word “polar”, which would subliminally suggest to consumers a hint of coolness.

When the rationing of sweets ended at the beginning of the 1950s, Rowntree’s launched Polo Fruit, a fruity version of the popular mint. Since then, several flavours of Polo have been launched, some more successful than others. These include spearmint, sugar-free, strong mint, citrus, buttermint (mint flavoured butterscotch), and gummy versions. During the 1990s, they also sold “Polo holes”, i.e. the holes that had supposedly been punched out of the original Polo.


Continuing along the mint theme, Rowntree’s launched After Eight Mint Chocolate Thins in 1962. These originally dairy-free mints are coated in dark chocolate and presented in individual paper sleeves in a dark green box. An estimated one billion After Eight chocolates are made each year. Since its launch, After Eight has become a family name for a selection of products, including biscuits, desserts and special editions.

The chocolate industry was and still is very competitive, therefore, it is not unusual for other companies to try and buy each other out or merge to create a bigger corporation. In 1969, Rowntree’s merged with John Mackintosh and Co to become Rowntree Mackintosh. Founded by John Mackintosh (1868-1920), Mackintosh’s was a confectionery company from Halifax, West Yorkshire, known particularly for their toffees. They are also famed for brands such as Quality Street, Rolo, Caramac, Munchies and Toffee Crisp.

Although Rowntree’s had been a successful company, they had failed to produce a solid milk chocolate bar to rival Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Under the merger of Rowntree Mackintosh, they were ready to make another attempt. The result was a chunky chocolate bar that was launched in 1976 under the title Yorkie, so named after the city of its birth. These chocolate bars were promoted as manlier versions of the Dairy Milk bar, therefore, advertisements often featured images of men doing “manly” work. As a result, the slogan “It’s Not For Girls!” developed, which was finally dropped in 2011. For some time, on arriving at York Railway Station, passengers were greeted with a billboard that stated: “Welcome to York where the men are hunky and the chocolate’s chunky”.

There was an attempt to make a female version of Yorkie, which was wrapped in pink packaging, however, it did not prove overly successful. Other variants of the chocolate bar include Yorkie biscuits, biscuit and raisin flavour, and honeycomb flavour.


The same year, Rowntree Mackintosh released the Lion Bar. It was originally an experiment and consisted of wafers, caramel, puffed rice and peanuts covered in chocolate. After trialling the chocolate bar in Dorset, it was deemed a success and launched on a wider scale. Since 1988, the recipe has been changed to remove peanuts from the ingredients.

In the 1980s, Rowntree Mackintosh focused more on expanding the company than on producing new chocolates and confectionery. That decade, they spent almost £400 million upgrading their factories and a further £400 million on purchasing other companies. This included the American peanut company Tom’s Snacks, the Canadian company Laura Secord Chocolates, and the UK’s Gale’s honey.

There had been many attempts from competitors to purchase or merge with Rowntree Mackintosh, which the company had thus far avoided. By the 1980s, Rowntree Mackintosh was the fourth-largest chocolate manufacturer in the world, coming after Mars, Hershey and Cadbury.

By the 1980s, Nestlé, a Swiss food and drink company that dates back to the 1860s, was the largest company of its kind in the world and had expressed interest in Rowntree Mackintosh but had been rebuffed. On 13th April 1988, however, Rowntree Mackintosh found themselves in danger of a hostile take over by a German coffee brand Jacobs, who had purchased shares in the company, giving them a 14.9% stake.

Out of fear that Rowntree Mackintosh would fall into the hands of their competitors, Nestlé made contact with Kenneth Dixon, the chairman of Rowntree Mackintosh and offered to buy them out for £2.55 billion. Naturally, Dixon refused the offer, however, as the situation worsened he began to see the benefits of joining with Nestlé. Very soon they were operating under the name Nestlé Rowntree.

Before long, however, Nestlé dropped the name Rowntree from their branding except for Fruit Pastille and other fruit gum lines. The name Mackintosh was all but forgotten and was only mentioned on Mackintosh’s Toffee, for which they had initially gained fame.

The Nestlé takeover almost erased Rowntree’s history by removing its name from the majority of its products. Now only associated with fruit and gummy products, many people are surprised to hear Rowntree’s referred to as a chocolate company. Thankfully, the people of York refuse to let Rowntree’s history be forgotten and its story and chocolate are talked about several times a day at York’s Chocolate Story.

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s is the nations favourite fruity sweet brand. Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles are enjoyed by an estimated 15 million people per year and other favourites include Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, Jelly Tots, and Rowntree’s Randoms. Jelly Tots were launched in 1969 as a children’s alternative to Fruit Pastilles. Rowntree’s Randoms, however, is a Nestlé, product introduced in 2009. Being a fruit flavoured product, they respectfully kept the original manufacturer’s name.


From a small Quaker family in the Victorian-era, Rowntree’s grew into a major corporation and, although it was eventually taken over, it is responsible for so many of the sweets and chocolate sold today. For that, every person with a sweet tooth is eternally grateful.