Playing Bingo

Bingo Number Names History And Meanings Part 2: Calls 1 - 45

Part two of Dr Carolyn Downs history of bingo number calls, their importance and their origins.

Author: Carolyn Downs

The Calls - Part 1

This list is by no means conclusive; bingo calls vary between towns, between settings and between callers; similarly, some that appear to be either rhymes or visual puns may have other meanings too, that have not yet been tracked down.

1. Kelly's eye, Buttered Scone, At the Beginning, Nelson’s Column, Little Jimmy.

There is no agreement about the origin of Kelly’s eye, but this is the most common of the calls for number one. A possible origin is the popular music hall song, ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ (1907) by C.W. Murphy and Will Letters. The original version included a line about Kelly being from the Isle of Man and was popularised in England by Florrie Forde who recorded the song. William J. McKenna altered the lyrics in 1909 to make the song more suitable for the Irish Americans who frequented the American vaudeville. [1]

Has anybody here seen Kelly?
K E double L Y
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Have you seen him smile?
Sure his hair is red
His eyes are blue
And He’s Irish thru and thru
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Kelly from the Emerald Isle.[2]

The lyrics are now associated with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States of America and are mentioned in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as a popular working class song. Valiant comic adopted the term Kelly’s Eye in its first edition, published at the height of the commercial bingo boom in 1962, indicating that press reports of the games popularity amongst the young when it was first commercialised were not necessarily exaggerated. Tim Kelly (the hero) found the good eye (a big diamond which he wore round his neck) and had to find the evil eye and destroy it to save the world; Fleetway comics published Valiant as a companion comic to Hurricane. While an origin for the term Kelly’s Eye, cannot be traced, as dictionaries of slang all give the origin as military, used in bingo. ‘Little Jimmy’ is a later call, and relates to Little Jimmy Osmond who had a string of hits (the first in 1972) popular with middle aged ladies.

2. One Little Duck, Me an' you, Dirty Old Jew, Baby’s Done It, Doctor Who.

‘One Little Duck’ is the first of the visual puns that are a common feature of many calls. The other calls used to represent the number two reflect a clear progression over time. The oldest two are ‘Me an' you’, (cockney) ‘Dirty Old Jew’, (acceptable terminology in pre-World War Two England). ‘Baby’s Done It’ refers back to the euphemism for defecation ‘doing a number two’, while ‘Dr. Who’ cannot have been adopted into the lexicography of the game until after 1963.

3. Goodness me! I’m Free, Debbie McGee, One Little Flea.

While ‘Goodness me!’ appears to have no particular context other than a simple rhyme, ‘I’m Free’ and ‘Debbie McGee’ are both television related, and refer to extremely popular BBC1 programmes. ‘I’m free!’ was the catchphrase of John Inman who played the character Mr. Humphries in the sitcom ‘Are you Being Served?’ the feed line was ‘Are you free Mr. Humphries?’ the series ran from 1972. ‘Debbie McGee’ was the assistant to the television magician Paul Daniels, whose show run from 1979. As with all of the other television related bingo calls, the popularity of the programme with a mass audience seems to be essential for an element from the show to enter into popular use. ‘One Little Flea’ is a visual pun; close inspection of the body of a flea reveals it to have a shape not dissimilar to a figure ‘3’ rotated 180o anti-clockwise.

4. Knock at the Door.

This call may have been adopted because it is part of a popular children’s nursery rhyme, ‘One two, buckle my shoe, three four, knock at the door’.

5. Jack's Alive, Dead Alive, Man Alive.

‘Man Alive’ was the BBC documentary strand that pioneered modern techniques of reportage, first broadcast in 1965. The inclusion of this BBC2 programme suggests that it had a wide popular base, and certainly, its reporters did establish a degree of celebrity not usually accorded to those working on the channel.

6. Tom Mix, Spot Below, Chopsticks.

‘Spot Below’ was a common call in military games, because numbers that could be mis-read had a spot underneath to prevent confusion. The survival of ‘Tom Mix’ as a call (heard on Margate seafront as recently as summer 2003) is surprising. He was one of the original cowboy heroes, starring in silent movies and never really making it in talkies. His career lasted from 1909 to 1935, during which period he made 336 feature films of which only nine were talkies. The films were noted for fast action and daredevil stunts performed by Tom Mix himself.[3]

7. One Little Crutch, God's in Heaven, Lucky Seven.

‘One Little Crutch’ is another visual pun, and may perhaps date the First World War when there were many injured men using crutches to aid their mobility. All of these calls appear in accounts of games held in the 1950s, and may very well date back to the First World War. Seven has been considered a lucky number since at least the time of Pythagoras, when the number was considered to be the perfect number, 3 and 4, the triangle and the square, while in ancient times there were seven visible planets and seven days of the week. God’s in Heaven is a simple rhyme for seven, but may also link to the popular poem by Robert Browning that was learned in classrooms up and down the Empire, The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven--
All's right with the world!

8. One fat lady, Garden Gate, Harry Tate, Gareth Gates.

‘One fat lady’ is a visual pun and garden gate is a simple rhyme that appears in counting and skipping games linked with the number 8. Harry Tate is an interesting call that appears to derive from the music hall in the early twentieth century and have been widely adopted by the military as a slang phrase that could cover a multitude of purposes. Harry Tate (1872-1940) was the stage name of Ronald Hutchison [4]. First as a solo performer and then as part of a double act with his son he was a top-of-the-bill act with a range of sketches that generated many popular catchphrases. These included ‘Goodbye-ee’, (the source of the popular World War One song) ‘How’s your father?’ and ‘I don’t think!’ The popularity of Harry Tate led to his name being adopted as a nickname for Major-General (Thomas) Herbert Shoubridge (1871-1923), who bore a remarkable facial resemblance to the comedian and the 1916 aircraft the RE8, not generally considered one of the best of those developed by Duxbridge [5]. However, the military did not stop applying his name to other purposes, including any Royal Naval Mate plus a type of slide rule, sugar (Tate and Lyle) and any chaotic situation that arose (the link with chaotic situations was because Harry Tate’s comic sketches always involved a large element of chaos). In the Second World War the name was adopted by The Royal Naval Patrol Service or Harry Tate's Navy, a unit whose fleet was made up of hundreds of trawlers, whalers, drifters, paddle steamers, yachts, tugs and other sea-going craft, designated ‘Minor War Vessels’ by the Admiralty. It seems likely that the use of Harry Tate as a call in housey-housey dates back to the First World War.

harr tate

Harry Tate (1872-1940)
University Of Birmingham Centre
for First World War Studies.

Gareth Gates is a recent addition to the canon; he was the runner up in a popular television talent competition in 2002.

9. Doctor's Orders or Doctors Joy.

Doctor’s Joy was the nickname for a purgative pill issued in the Royal Navy.

10. Cock an’ ‘en, Downing Street, Maggie’s Den, Tony’s Den, Uncle Ben’s ‘Cockle Cock and Hen’.

This claimed as cockney rhyming slang for number 10. [6] Interestingly, ‘John’s Den’ (for John Major), never took off, while the various prime ministers before Margaret Thatcher were not honoured by a bingo call, the address had a greater impact on mass consciousness than the incumbent before 1979. Uncle Ben’s is a brand of long-grain rice

11. Legs Eleven, Legs - they're lovely.

The reference to legs in this call is another visual pun. Popular artist Jack Vettriano, himself brought up in a seaside resort, used the phrase as a title for one of his pictures – featuring a pair of elegant female legs. The Valiant did not restrict its adoption of popular bingo phrases into the ‘Kelly’s Eye’ strip, the comic also included ‘Legge's Eleven’, about a football team of social outcasts. [7]
From here on, the double numbers, with the exceptions listed, are called with ‘and’ between the tens and digits.

12. One and two, a dozen, Monkey’s Cousin.

This is cockney rhyming slang, and rhymes with dozen

13. Unlucky For Some or Lucky For Some.

This number is considered unlucky in most Western cultures, although in Italy it is thought to be a lucky number. [8] In Christianity the number is considered significant as a portent of the crucifixion, since there were thirteen present at the Last Supper.

14. Valentine’s Day.

This falls on February 14th.

15. Rugby team, Young and Keen, Stroppy Teen.

Rugby teams have fifteen players; the other calls for fifteen are both rhyming and linked to age.

16. Sweet Sixteen.

This seems to be one of the earliest calls still in use and can be dated to an extremely popular song ‘When you were Sweet Sixteen’ written by James Thornton and first published in 1898. The sheet music and the pianola rolls were hugely popular, the chorus goes

‘I love you as I never loved before
Since first I met you on the village green
Come to me or my dream of love is O'er
I love you as I loved you,
When you were sweet
When you were sweet sixteen’ [9]
The song was first recorded by Jere Mahoney in 1900 and was regularly a commercial success in the period 1900 - 1981. Notable recordings include Al Jolson – 1929, Perry Como,1947, Bing Crosby 1947, Shirley Temple, Josef Locke; Bobby Darin; Val Doonican; The Ink Spots, and in 1981 The Fureys with Davy Arthur. [10]

17. Never Been Kissed, Old Ireland, Dancing Queen.

The never been kissed reference also follows on from ‘Sweet sixteen, never been kissed’. The ‘Old Ireland’ reference is to 17 March being St Patrick’s Day. A more modern call is ‘Dancing Queen’ an Abba hit in 1975.

18. Key of the Door, Now you can Vote.

The reduction of the age of majority in Great Britain from 21 to 18 took place on the 1 January 1970. The phrase to have the ‘key of the door’ refers to the tradition that children living at home with their parents would have a set time to return home, before their parents went to bed, but once they reached the age of majority they were allowed to decide for themselves when to return and could let themselves in with their own key.

19. Goodbye Teens.

Again an age related call.

20. Blind twenty, Getting Plenty.

The prefix ‘blind’ is used for the numbers 10-90 and is possibly a visual reference to zero looking like a single eye.

21. Coming of Age 21. Key of the Door, Royal Salute. ‘Bank Bang Bang'.

Until 1 January 1970 the age of majority in Great Britain was twenty-one ‘Royal Salute’ and ‘Bank bang-bang’, are naval calls referring to a twenty-one-gun salute.

22. PC Parker, All the Twos, Dinkie Doo, Ducks on a Pond.

Two Little Ducks PC Parker is another call (like ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Tom Mix’) that is still in use and is datable to the very early development of the British game. It refers to a very popular music hall character (c1910) created by Charles Austin (died 1944). The constable’s number may have been 22, but this is not clear. The character was immortalised by the cartoonist Will Spurrier for the magazine 'Funny Cuts'. [11]

A popular aspect of the British seaside holiday was the end-of-the-pier concert party. ‘Dinkie Doo’ was a generic name for such concert parties, and was immortalised in the Ealing Comedy, starring George Formby ‘Let George Do It’ (1940). The film was the first Ealing comedy set in wartime Europe. George Formby was cast as a member of the Dinkie Doo Concert Party, and in typical Ealing style ended up in Norway acting as a British spy. [12]

23. Thee and Me, The Lords my Shepherd, A Duck with a Flea.

The inclusion of ‘The Lords my Shepherd’ (Psalm 23) in lists of calls is surprising, although it may have originated in the Catholic social clubs that did so much to popularise bingo in the 1950s. ‘A Duck with a Flea’ is a visual call.

24. Two Dozen, Pompey Whore. [13]

Despite listening to a number of games called at various ex-services club I have not heard the call ‘Pompey Whore’. However, it is claimed as a call on a website listing military calls and would relate to the navel town of Portsmouth, nicknamed Pompey by generations of sailors. That the call is not heard in ex-services clubs does not mean it was not used on naval vessels, simply that it is not considered suitable for use in mixed company.

25. Duck and Dive.

This phrase may originally have come from boxing, as it is used in accounts of boxing matches reported in the early nineteenth century.[14] However, the phrase has come to mean slippery or sneaky behaviour of any type in popular idiom.

26. Bed and Breakfast, Half a Crown, Pick and Mix.

All of the calls still in use for 26 refer back to pre-decimal coinage. The most common call still used is ‘Bed and Breakfast’ and seems to be the cost of a night in a guesthouse in old money, ‘Pick and Mix’ refers to the pre-decimal cost of half a pound of sweets from Woolworth’s.

27. Little Duck with a Crutch

Another visual pun.

28. The Old Brags, In a State, Over Weight.

‘The Old Brags’ is a nickname for the British regiment of 1/28th Foot The North Gloucestershire Regiment (later the 28 / 61st Gloucestershire Regiment) The nickname was in honour of Colonel Philip Bragg, who commanded the 28th Foot from 1734 to his death in 1759. ‘Overweight’ is a visual pun referring to the numeral ‘8’ also referred to as ‘Fat Lady’.

29. Rise and Shine, You’re Doing Fine, In Your Prime.

‘Rise and Shine’ is idiomatic use of language, with the phrase often used facetiously in the armed forces to encourage the troops to get out of bed. ‘In Your Prime’ is a reference to age, while ‘You’re Doing Fine’ is a simple rhyme.

30. Blind Thirty, Burlington Bertie, Speed Limit, Dirty Gertie, Flirty Thirty, Blind 3.

One of the oldest of this collection; and a surviving call that can still be heard in seaside arcades is ‘Burlington Bertie’. This is another popular music hall number first published in 1900 (music and lyrics by Harry B Norris) and made famous by Vesta Tilley. Ella Shields, also a male impersonator, sang a parody, ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’, with words and tune by William Hargreaves, published in 1914, this was also vary popular. ‘Speed Limit’, the thirty mph speed limit is perhaps older than many people think, as it was established in built-up areas in 1935. ‘Dirty Gertie’, may be taken from the 1946 film of that name, although it may just have been an attractive rhyme. [15]

31. Get up and Run.

This may be linked to the services; Sergeants might well have shouted it at squaddies, but it may just be a simple rhyming phrase that has been adopted.

32. Buckle my Shoe. Jimmy Choo.

See children’s song at ‘4’, this has been updated with the call ‘Jimmy Choo’, an upmarket shoe designer made famous in Britain by the tabloid press as a result of his association with Princess Diana.

33. All the Threes, Three Feathers, Gertie Lee, Dirty Knees, ‘Sherwood Forest’, Two Little Fleas, Blind Thirty.

‘Three Feathers’ indicates the Prince of Wales, and although it may derive from the current Prince of Wales, it seems more likely to refer back to the period (1911-1936) when Edward VIII was Prince of Wales.. ‘Sherwood Forest’ is an interesting play on words; ‘all the threes’ could be pronounced ‘all the trees’ especially by callers with an Irish accent, and there are a lot of trees in Sherwood Forest. ‘Two Little Fleas’ is a visual reference to the shape of the insects.

34. Ask for More.

This is a rhyming phrase and perhaps refers to the Lionel Bart musical ‘Oliver’ that popularised the Dickens novel ‘Oliver Twist’ when it was first produced in 1963.

35. Jump and Jive.

The Jive was popularised in the 1940s, as a European version of the US Jitterbug.

36. Three Dozen


37. More than Eleven.

The origins of this call have eluded efforts to track them down, so it is categorised as a simple rhyme with the caveat that the actual origin is as yet unknown.

38. Christmas Cake.

Again a simple rhyme.

39. Steps, Those Famous Steps, All the steps.

The John Buchan book (1914) was a best seller in the Edwardian period, but is unlikely to be the inspiration for the bingo call. The Hitchcock film (1935) of the book was a huge success and is a more likely inspiration. The call may have been kept in the public imagination as it was re-made in 1959 and 1978.

40. Blind forty, Life Begins, Life begins at Forty, Naughty Forty, Two Score.

These calls are all age related, with forty being considered a milestone birthday in Britain. Eric Partridge gives the origin of the phrase ‘Life begins at 40’ to the book by W.B. Pitkin (1932) and the title of the self-help book is said to have become a catch-phrase in America within a year of the book’s publication.[16] The book was considered a ‘publishing phenomenon and generated popular songs and films with the same title. [17]

41. Time for Fun, Life’s Begun.

These link back to the call for forty.

42. Famous Street in Manhattan, Winnie the Pooh.

42nd Street was a hit movie in 1933, later becoming hugely popular as a musical. The two calls commonly used are almost certainly post 1960. Interestingly, the Douglas Adams Restaurant at the End of the Universe (part 2 of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), which features the number 42, does not appear in any calls. This is probably because whilst it is very well known amongst the chattering classes and of no relevance at all to those who play bingo. ‘Winnie the Pooh’ first appeared in the House at Pooh Corner in 1928, but the mass popularisation of the character really dates to the Disney adaptations, the first of which was released in 1966.

43. Down on your Knees.

Most likely just a simple rhyme, as there does not seem to be a religion or cleaning-related link here.

44. All the fours, Droopy Drawers, Open Two Doors. Aldershot Ladies, Diana Dors.

These calls offer a flavour of the various types of calls associated with the game. ‘Aldershot Ladies’ is another call claimed to be of military origin, and relies on the use of whores, which rhymes with four being replaced by the euphemism ‘ladies’.[18] Diana Dors rhymes with ‘All the Fours’, but in addition, Diana Dors was a regular on the cash bingo circuit, opening new clubs and calling celebrity games to attract large audiences. She was reputedly paid £300 cash for appearances in bingo halls.[19] ‘Open Two Doors’ is a visual pun while ‘Droopy Drawers’ is probably a simple rhyme.

45. Halfway house, Halfway There.

Bingo uses the numbers one to ninety.


[1]Tim Gracyk, Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925, (Birmingham NY, 2000)

[2]The English Music Hall

[3]Tom Mix Museum.

[4]Harry Tate was killed in a German air raid in 1940. He was the grandfather of the entertainer Hughie (‘Opportunity Knocks’) Green (1920-1997).

[5] University of Birmingham Centre for First World War Studies and British Library

[6]Cockney Rhyming Slang Dictionary.

[7]‘Chubby Mann the overweight goalie, who was colour blind so they had to wear zigzag stripped shirts so he would recognise who his team mates were, Pierre Gaspard the French acrobat who used to run down the pitch on his hands with the ball on his feet, the psychic Tearaway twins from Australia who knew what the other was thinking & Algernon Simms who knew every single rule in the football rule book and sorry I can't remember the other 5, but they won the cup!’ Visit Web Page

[8]Numerology Facts

[9]The English Music Hall

[10]Hits in Music updated 23/12/2003.

[11]Lambiek.Net – Home of the Lambiek Comic Shop

[12]George Perry, Forever Ealing, (London, Chrysalis Books 1981), p.101

[13]The Bingo Code Last revised on 20 October 2003

[14]Peter Radford, The Celebrated Captain Barclay: sport, money and fame in Regency Britain (London, 2001), p. 246

[15]The film was a race film, with black stars, and may very well not have been released in the UK.

[16]Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases. British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day, 2nd Edition, (London, 1985) American National Biography Online

[17]American National Biography Online

[18]The Bingo Code Last revised on 20 October 2003

[19]Who Got Diana Dors Millions?’ from Channel 4 (Page no longer exists).

To cite this article: Carolyn Downs, Bingo Number Names History And Meanings, April 2012, viewed on

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