Very Early English Playing-cards

from The Ancient House, Thetford




Court cards at the Ancient House in Thetford.  

This scanned image was provided by the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service,
and is reproduced with their kind permission.

Article written for the EPCS magazine:

The Ancient House is a fine grade I listed Tudor building in the centre of Thetford.  The building has recently been fully and sympathetically restored and houses a museum illustrating history and life in the surrounding area.  The author is grateful for the help of the curator, Oliver Bone, both on the day and in providing the scanned images afterwards.

In 1926, the Reverend W. Farrer donated some playing-cards which had first been found in 1910 in the wall of a building in Hinderclay – a tiny village in Suffolk, 10 miles or so southeast of Thetford.  (Interestingly the Guildhall Museum has a single 17th century card which was also found tucked away in a wall; whether hiding cards in this way was a superstitious practice or whether it was done to conceal untaxed cards or illegal gambling, we do not know.)

I was interested to see these cards, particularly as they do not seem to be familiar to experts and collectors, and I went with John Sings and Ann Smith who were also keen to see them.

The cards number 15 in all and vary in condition from fairly well preserved to worn or somewhat damaged.  There are four courts present which would seem to be KC, QD, KH and JD – for these, please see the illustration..  The remaining 11 pip cards contain a duplicate 3H.  The cards measure 90mm by 50mm, in other words a standard height but about 10 mm more slender than the more familiar standard English cards from the early Eighteenth century and later. For comparison The Hewson sheet P7 is also thinner than the later standard.

As you will see from the illustration at the top of this page, the frame borders of the court cards match the overall card size well, so the size is an original characteristic (and not evidence of  a wider card with rough edges trimmed down.)   The technology is clearly early stencil and wood block.  The colours have remained on several examples, showing black, some blue, red and pink and a hint of faded yellow where you would expect to find it.  The pips are in the bolder English style rather than the more refined French.  These features and the appearance of the cards suggests a mid to late seventeenth century date, and presumably a design copied from (perhaps I should defend my countrymen and say “inspired by”?) a similar French, Rouen, pack.  Of course the date is fairly uncertain and we also recognise that production could have continued for some years after its design.

Given the rarity of examples this close to the emergence of an English design, and that some of the examples have survived well, these were certainly very interesting and worthwhile to see.

Those wanting to visit should telephone in advance for an appointment.