Jan 052017

twelfth-night-2Nowadays there is little to be said for Twelfth Night other than that you should take down your Christmas decorations. But if you live in Spain, 5th January is Three Kings  – an excuse for much celebration, and men on horse-back handing out sweets and other treats.

In Britain in bygone days Twelfth Night was celebrated with parties – much more so than New Year’s Eve. It was an occasion for much merriment, wassailing,  and consumption of cider – and a special cake. The cake would be a rich fruit cake, often made with exotic spices and maybe soaked in rum or brandy and flamed before being served. Nowadays it has been taken over by the Christmas pudding served on Christmas Day – which is a bit of a shame because let’s face it, by then you have already eaten more than enough….

Twelfth Night, by Thomas Tegg, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum: A party of men and women round a table look at caricatures of themselves.

Twelfth Night, by Thomas Tegg, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum: A party of men and women round a table look at caricatures of themselves.

Checking through the dairies of ancestor Richard Hall I cannot see any particular celebration for 5th January – 1st January always started with a comment along the lines of “Praise be to the Lord that I have been spared to see another year” and then was followed by a reference to the fact that he was suffering from indigestion and was confined to bed! By the fifth January Richard Hall was usually back to taking tea with neighbours, but nothing in any way celebratory. But then, my ancestor always was a miserable old blighter….

By the time we got to Richard’s great great grand daughter (in other words, my gran) I remember  it was a tradition in the family sixty years ago that we would play parlour games – and none were more typical than The Old Family Coach. I imagine that it was Victorian rather than Georgian in its origin, and I have come across a printed account of the “rules” of the game dating from the 1870s.

old-family-coachI suspect that each family had its own version. My grandmother said that the game very popular when she was a youngster in the latter years of the 19th Century. Each person was allocated a word associated with a trip to the seaside by coach – someone would be ‘the wheels’ another ‘the horses’ another the ‘whip’ ‘the dog’ and so on. A story was then read out by the narrator, along the lines of “The coach set off, the wheels spun round, the horses galloped, the dog barked and the driver spared the whip” and as each word was mentioned that particular person had to get up and turn a circle clockwise. If I remember right the trip to the seaside involved a wheel coming off the ‘old family coach’, so it had to be repaired before the assembled company could complete the journey.

Whenever the words ‘The Old Family Coach’ were mentioned the entire assembled company had to stand up and revolve anti-clockwise. Of course no-one could remember who they were supposed to be, or which way they should be turning, and great fun was had by all….when I tried to reprise this game with my own family they refused to have anything to do with it. I suspect if it had involved karaoke, or money, it might have been better received! As it is, I cannot see the tradition ever being revived, which is a shame. So, on this Twelfth Night, let me raise a toast to the Old Family Coach!


  4 Responses to “Twelfth Night parties, parlour games, cake – and the Old Family Coach.”


    Sounds like a great game. I was on a train recently and was surprised to see young people in their early twenties playing a game whereby they chose a topic and then went through the alphabet with each person naming an item with the specific letter and each also had to repeat all the items everyone in the game had said. I am sure these young people would have loved your Grandmother’s game. Would not be suitable for a train journey though!


      Hi, very interested in your mention of the old family coach. My wife is one of six brothers and sisters, and once a year we have a reunion, and this year it will be in Stratford on Avon. No reunion would be complete without the family coach. We play it exactly as described, and was a favourite of their father. He would make up the story, and since his passing, the reigns have been taken up by the second to eldest brother. When the gathering is particularly large extra parts are included such as the Hi-way man and the picnic basket. The parents came from inner London and Norwich. They moved to Chipping Norton, and then to Oxford. The family had always thought that Dad had invented it himself, and are thrilled to think that the game is alive in other groups. Many thanks for your article. Colin Kenward. (the family name is Haney).


    This is a bittersweet moment for our family. We have been playing Family Coach for the past 45 years with the story progressing to suit our ages. Needless to say the poor old family coach has had a rather flamboyant life. My mother and her silblings all remember playimg this game as children back in Hinderwell, Yorkshire. My great, great grandfather also played at the turn of the century. We also assumed our family invented this game and passed it on through the generations. In fact we have just made the unanimous decision that the Wilson’s did actually do this.


    My Mum passed away in 2016 but this was her game. I always thought she made it up but I see now she didn’t. When we had birthday parties Mum always organised this party game, giving everyone their parts and telling the story. She was always a special guest at her grandchildren’s parties to take on this role. As yet my daughter’s do not have children but when they do, I think I will have to continue this family tradition. My Mum was born and bred in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

 Leave a Reply



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.