Let the games begin
Some of Jaques’ history sounds just too fanciful to be true. Over eight generations its family members have invented ping-pong, croquet, tiddlywinks, snakes and ladders and ludo to name just a few. The British secret service even stepped in to ensure its survival in its darkest hour. Yet all the evidence and artefacts from its 219-year history are displayed in glass cabinets in its showroom in its low-key headquarters in Kent, southeast England. There’s no denying it, there’s something in the Jaques family’s DNA that gives its members a powerful creative streak. Jaques remains 100% family owned and is currently run by three members of the eighth-generation; Joe, Ben and Emmett Jaques, who are marketing director, sales director and managing director respectively.
You might think old-fashioned, low-tech toys and games would struggle to compete in the digital age, but they are in fact seeing something of a revival, according to Joe (pictured right). “We’re in an anti-computer games revolution I think, and now we’re seeing this positivity towards history and heritage and proper family interaction and computer games are fuelling that, ironically.” Jaques doesn’t disclose its revenue figures, but Joe says business is on the up, and it has recently launched an online sales division in Salt Lake City, US, to meet international demand.
Jaques’ story began in the late 18th century, when Thomas Jaques moved to London to seek his fortune, becoming an apprentice to an ivory turner by the name of Ivey. Marrying his boss’s daughter in about 1780, Jaques convinced his new father-in-law to add his own name to the business, and for a while it went by Jaques & Ivey. Its future as a games maker was decided when the greatest chess player of the age, Howard Staunton, approached the business to revolutionise the game — played since the first century AD — by producing uniform playing pieces (previously chess pieces had been highly individualistic, confusing players as they switched between sets). The instantly recognisable pawns, rooks, knights and castles are still used today. “The Staunton design is the design by which every set is now made,” says Joe.
Two decades later Jaques delivered another bestseller. “The family went on holiday to Ireland in 1851 and saw people hitting, so the family story goes, balls with brooms, and saw it obviously as some kind of a game,” says Joe. According to the legend, after some hasty product development, Jaques launched croquet a year later. There are other theories of how croquet evolved, and Jaques’ rival toymakers were quick to seize upon the idea, but it is certain Jaques was among the first to make a commercial success of a game that has become synonymous with genteel English society.
“Our family seems to always flick between a creative generation and a business generation,” says Joe. “That’s part of the secret of the longevity of this family business, because you can survive if you are either very good at business, or if you’re very creative and can create things that will sell themselves,” says Joe.
Fourth generation John Jaques III (pictured right), who took the helm in around 1880, was certainly of the creative persuasion. He created the colourful card games Happy Families and Snap, and also the board games ludo, snakes and ladders, and tiddlywinks (originally called tiddledywinks). “He dreamed up more than 200 different board games, obviously the ones we know, but also all sorts of weird and wonderful things that were just total flops,” says Joe.
John Jaques III’s last hurrah might well have been another failure. Frustrated that tennis was steadily overtaking croquet as the game of choice for English high society, he experimented with a calfskin ball to make a miniature version of the game to be played over a table. The game, originally called “gossima”, didn’t take off, and would never have seen the light of day again if his son, the incoming family business leader, hadn’t re-branded the game “ping-pong” after the sound the ball makes, and aggressively marketed it to London’s leading toyshops. It is now one of the most widely played games in the world.
Not every generation of Jaques has “reinvented the wheel”, as Joe puts it, but each managed to keep the business intact for their heirs. It was the Second World War, however, that proved to be one of the greatest tests of the Jaques family’s creativity and craftsmanship.
War had always been a game with few rules, but in 1929 the Geneva Convention set out strict regulations to try and sanitise modern warfare. “By the Second World War if you were caught trying to escape your captivity, your punishment was 30 days solitary confinement, so everyone was up for trying to escape – you weren’t about to get hung or shot,” says Joe. MI9, a now defunct department of the British secret service, recruited Jaques to help it in its mission to aid resistance fighters and prisoners of war in occupied territories.
“We got involved in making a wooden games compendium that you took the back off and it had a radio in it with battery, wireless, speakers – everything. Or snakes and ladders boards that had a German passport hidden inside. All sorts of things. Folding chess sets with a hacksaw in. They used to load up little metal pins so that would point north when you put them down on a smooth surface. So if you had a German map, a hack saw blade, a compass and some German money, the theory was you could escape.”
MI9 then set up a number of fake charities to ship the packages and came up with ingenious ways of communicating to prisoners the real contents of the packages, such as hiding secret messages in tubes of toothpaste telling them to break open the games sets.
The Second World War also dealt Jaques one of the biggest blows in its history when a bomb flattened the factory it had occupied for decades in London’s Hatton Gardens. Fortunately, Jaques was considered too important to the war effort to be wiped out, and MI9 helped set it up in new headquarters outside the city.
As of 2012, the Hatton Gardens site is now the home of Bounce – a trendy “ping-pong” nightclub, where revellers can drink, dance and attempt to hit a few ping-pong balls. Jaques acted as an adviser to the venture, and made sure it was dubbed “The home of ping-pong”, rather than table tennis. Jaques also ensured it received the blue plaque that commemorates all historic sites in the UK.
At present Jaques is not trying to churn out loads of new ideas, rather it is in a streamlining phase. It has a handful of master craftspeople in the UK who produce items such as their high-end croquet and chess sets, but about half their range is produced in China. “Anyone can go to a trade fair in China now, buy something and get a container over. It’s as easy as that. Yes, the quality may be fairly rubbish, but skill in manufacture is no longer enough to sustain a business, so I very quickly focused on branding and marketing,” says Joe. Jaques’ classic looking logo is a recent idea, as well as the new emphasis on the company’s heritage.
There are a few in the next generation considering a future at the company, but at present the oldest are only in their mid-teens and nothing is decided yet. One thing is certain: family is the future for Jaques of London. Joe says: “I think the digital age has probably helped family businesses like ours, and I think to myself, ‘Is it me? Or are there more people aware of family businesses now?’” He adds: “When you are buying online from a picture, what is there tangible for you to grab and trust? And actually brand, and the history surrounding something is ever more important. Buying from a family business is a bit like buying from a friend, so there’s great trust in that thought process. The digital age, I think, has really helped our business.” Love of the craft has not waned over the years, and it looks like Jaques could be playing the family business game for generations