The Victorians loved a good parlor game. Charades and blindman’s bluff were popular enough in the 19th century to find their way into Charles Dickens’s novels, and there were always games like Are You There, Moriarty? and Reverend Crawley to help pass time on a rainy English afternoon. But when they weren’t trying to guess who was hiding a slipper behind their back or snatching some scalding-hot raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy, the Victorians also had an appetite for word games, riddles, and logic puzzles, countless anthologies of which were published at the time.
So how well would you do pitting your wits against these five classic Victorian riddles? The answers are at the foot of the page, but no cheating.
1. The Bishop of Winchester's Riddle
The son of abolitionist William Wilberforce, Samuel Wilberforce became Bishop of Oxford in 1845 before being elected Bishop of Winchester in 1869. Best known in his day for his opposition to Charles Darwin and for a slippery manner in debates that earned him the nickname “Soapy Sam," Wilberforce was also a prolific writer of riddles—arguably the best-known of which was as follows:
I have a large Box, with two lids, two caps, three established Measures, and a great number of articles a Carpenter cannot do without. Then I have always by me a couple of good Fish, and a number of a smaller tribe, beside two lofty Trees, fine Flowers, and the fruit of the indigenous Plant; a handsome Stag; two playful animals; and a number of smaller and less tame Herd. Also two Halls, or Places of Worship, some Weapons of warfare, and many Weathercocks. The Steps of an Hotel; The House of Commons on the eve of a Dissolution; Two Students or Scholars, and some Spanish Grandees, to wait upon me. All pronounce me a wonderful piece of Mechanism, but few have numbered up the strange medley of things which compose my whole.- Samuel Wilberforce
What is being described here?
2. "Captain of a Party Small"
A collection of puzzles entitled A New Riddle Book For The Amusement and Instruction of Little Misses and Masters was published in England sometime in the mid-19th century by an author known only as “Master Wiseman.” Among the dozens of puzzles contained in the collection was this classic riddle about “the captain of a party small,” the original version of which is thought to date back to the 18th century.
I’m captain of a party small, Whose number is but five; But yet do great exploits, for all, And ev’ry man alive. With Adam I was seen to live, Ere he knew what was evil; But no connexion have with Eve, The serpent or the devil. I on our Savior’s Laws attend, And fly deceit and vice; Patriot and Protestant befriend, But Infidels despise. Matthew and Mark both me have got; But to prevent vexation, St. Luke and John possess me not, Tho’ found in ev’ry nation.- Master Wiseman
What is being described?
3. Hallam's Riddle
First published in 1849, this famous riddle was at some point credited to just about every major 18th- and 19th-century writer from Richard Brinsley Sheridan to Lord Byron, but the name by which it became best known was that of the English historian and legal scholar Henry Hallam. Now, the puzzle is believed to have been the work of Dr. Edward Denison, Bishop of Salisbury from 1837 to 1854, and given its religious overtones is now also known as “the Bishop’s Riddle.”
I sit on a rock whilst I’m raising the wind, But, the storm once abated, I’m gentle and kind; I’ve kings at my feet who await but a nod, To kneel in the dust on the ground I have trod; Tho’ seen to the world, I’m known to but few, The Gentile deserts me, I’m pork to a Jew; I never have passed but one night in the dark, And that was with Noah alone in the Ark; My weight is three pounds, my length is a mile, And when I’m discovered, you’ll say with a smile— That my first and my last are the pride of this isle.
What is being described here?
4. Playing Chicken
Published around 1900, One Thousand And One Riddles With A Few Thrown In was an anonymous collection of poems and logic puzzles, many of which took the form of seemingly simple single-line questions. “Which of the feathered tribe would be supposed to lift the heaviest weight?” asked one such question—the answer to which, of course, was the crane.
One of the collection’s trickiest and least-obvious challenges, however, was this bizarre brainteaser. You’ll have to be well-versed in Shakespeare in order to work out:
Who killed the greatest number of chickens?
5. Rossetti's Problem
The poet Christina Rossetti is arguably best known for her sonnet "Remember," and for the lyrics to the Christmas carol "In the Bleak Midwinter." But besides her poetry Rossetti was also a prolific writer of riddles, many of which were published in children’s nursery books and anthologies in the mid-19th century. Among the dozens of riddles Rossetti published is this one:
There is one that has a head without an eye, An there’s one that has an eye without a head: You may find the answer if you try; And when all is said, Half the answer hangs upon a thread!- Christina Rossetti
What is being described here?
1. The human body. Each section (flagged by each capitalized word) in the Bishop’s description is a somewhat cryptic clue to a different part of the body. The “large box,” for instance, is the chest. The “lids” and “caps” are the eyelids and the kneecaps. The “three established measures” are the nails (which a carpenter also couldn’t do without), the hands, and the feet, each of which is the name of a unit of measurement. The “soles” of the feet and the “mussels” of the body are the “good fish” and the “smaller tribe” of creatures. The “two lofty trees” are the palms, while the “fine flowers” are the irises and the tulips (i.e. two lips). The “indigenous plant” is a clue to the hips (i.e. rosehips); the “handsome stag” is a clue to the heart (i.e. hart); and the “two playful animals” are the calves. Hares and hairs are played on in the reference to “a smaller and less tame herd” of animals, while the “two places of worship” are the temples. The arms and shoulder blades are the “weapons of warfare”; the weathercocks are veins (i.e. vanes); the “steps of an hotel” are the “inn-steps” of the feet; and the “ayes” and “noes” voted in the House of Commons are a reference to the eyes and nose. Lastly, the “two students” are the pupils, and “some Spanish grandees” might be known as the “ten dons.”
2. The letter A. The small party in question are the letters A, E, I, O, and U.
3. A raven. The original solution to this problem has been lost, and for many years debate raged as to what the correct answer was. One popular explanation was that the riddle was a clue to the Christian Church, with various Bible verses picked out to explain curious clues like “my weight is three pounds” and “my length is a mile.” But that explanation still left certain clues and parts of the verse unexplained. Finally, in 1923, the author and puzzle-setter Henry Dudeney proposed a solution that seemed to answer all parts of the problem: a raven. Ravens were once believed to forecast the weather; they were worshiped and revered by ancient peoples; they’re rarely seen, though familiar to most people; they are forbidden as food in the Old Testament; a pair accompanied Noah on his ark (where one was left alone after Noah released its mate); they weigh roughly three pounds, and can fly a mile with ease. The first and last letter of the word raven, finally, is RN: the abbreviation of the British Royal Navy, considered the “pride of the British Isles” in the 19th century.
4. Claudius. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father explains that Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, did “murder most foul.”
5. Pins and needles. One has an eye, the other does not—and only a needle can be threaded.