Personal Time

How to avoid boredom

Sailors, Submariners, Royal Marines and even members of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm have all had to find ways of entertaining themselves aboard the Navy's vessels.

As a result, board games and card games as well as handicrafts became an important part of personal time aboard ship. Accounts from the diaries of seaman EJF Records provide us with an insight into the lives of those who served at sea.

To learn more about life on board, read EJF Records' Naval Life.

The crew of a submarine playing uckers on the casing
The crew of a submarine playing uckers on the casing. (RNSM)

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"Uckers" or "huckers" is the most famous naval game. An ultimate form of ludo, Uckers grew in popularity during the 1920s.

The term "Huckers" comes from the days of wooden ships - to 'huck', or 'hog', the vessel was to scrub the barnacles and other birch twigs whilst she was in dock.

The different branches of the Navy play by different rules.

Photograph of sailors playing Uckers onboard
Uckers onboard (RN FPU)

Uckers was so popular that in 1937 the HMS Ark Royal launched with a readymade deck covering in the design of a giant ludo board.

EJF Records writes in his diary in 1934 -

'The "hucca" boards are out again. A civilian would think the fellows mad if he could see some of the antics while a game is in progress. Fellows playing sit on the floor and if by chance the thrower has a chance of "Hucking" an opponent he does a ceremonial shake. Twists the cup various ways and speaks to the dice, and then when the dice is thrown 4 sterns [bottoms]are cocked in the air and 4 noses very nearly rub the deck as they count the spots on the dice. Could see it just as well if they sat still but rubbing noses on the dice almost, seems part of the game.'

A larger version of uckers named "grand uckers" helped its popularity as a spectator sport. Oversize players dressed in grotesque outfits and with helpers to assist in throwing the dice now begun to represent ships and even squadrons at uckers.

Uckers rule being read out by man in fancy dress for competition
Reading the rules out. Grand uckers. (RNM)

In 1954 the Royal Navy staged its largest and most colourful version of the game at Wembley. No fewer than 64 players participated with two volunteer bands and the Band of the Coldstream Guards as further entertainment to the fans.

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Cards and board Games

Traditional games such as cards have always been prevalent in the services. Individual games have spells of popularity such as Chase the Maid, Cribbage and Tombola.

Royal Marines playing cards on mess deck
Royal Marines playing cards on mess deck (RMM)

EJF Records, serving in the Far East, wrote in his diary for Tuesday 1 January 1935 -

'Fellows crowded in the Stokers mess playing tombola with cards. One pack is served out and the other is places face downwards and a fellow turns each card up and his corresponding card held by the player is thrown in. The first player to throw his cards in wins the pool. In this case roughly 2 dollars. Cries of swindle, cheers, groans, and waiting, keeps the whole mess deck interested.'

Board Games on HMS Cachalot
Board Games on HMS Cachalot (RNM)

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Handicrafts and letters

Long periods away from home were often made harder by long periods on duty with little to do.

On board ships, letter writing and handicrafts were prevalent. If enough people were interested some ships were able to put on handicraft shows but most were very personal pieces.

HMS Duke of York Handicraft Exhibition (1943)
HMS Duke of York Handicraft Exhibition (1943) (RNM)

A World War Two sailor named Saunders made this walking stick from love letters received from his wife whilst away on service.

He cut the letters into small discs and compressed them into a cane before putting lacquer around the edges. It is a lovely example of the ingenuity displayed by men with very little resources.

Love letter walking stick
Walking Stick made from love letters (RNM)

Find out more about correspondance in the Navy, follow the link to our Letters Home section.