If your family pulls out a board game this winter, there’s a good chance that it’s the world’s most popular board game, Monopoly.  The game has sold more than a quarter of a billion sets, and half a billion people have played it.

If Monopoly makes your blood boil, then you’ll know how its designer once felt.

The inventor of Monopoly was a feminist writer and actor, Lizzie Magie.  Born in Illinois in 1866, Magie grew up in the aftermath of the US Civil War, when the ‘robber barons’ dominated her country.

It was an era where monopolists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John .D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie controlled huge chunks of the US economy.

Angered by the gap between extreme wealth and dire poverty in US cities, Magie created The Landlord’s Game, the very first version of Monopoly.

The game was supposed to serve as an interactive critique of monopoly power. Magie’s motive was clear: show players how land grabbing enriched property owners and impoverished tenants.

Magie filed a patent for her game (at a time when less than 1 percent of patents were filed by women), but never earned more than $500 from it.

Not long afterwards, game manufacturer Parker Brothers released Monopoly, a game with surprising similarities to Magie’s original invention. Despite her protestations, Magie was never really acknowledged as the game’s creator during her lifetime.

Monopoly – More than Just a Game?

The game of monopoly has been around since the early 1900s. And it’s still popular now. It was made by Waddingtons in Leeds. 

But did you know that during WW2 monopoly boards helped thousands of Allied soldiers escape from German prison camps? This is a story of intrigue, deception, invention, bravery and adventure.

The story starts with someone called Christopher Clayton Hutton and the famous game company Waddington’s, which was based in Leeds.

Hutton was a soldier, journalist and inventor and had always been fascinated by escapology, having met Harry Houdini when he was young.

In 1939 Hutton was employed by the British Secret Service MI9 to help prisoners of war escape from German prison camps across Europe. During the war, large numbers of British airmen crashed over enemy airspace and were then held as prisoners behind enemy lines. MI9’s role was to get as many back to safety as possible and Hutton’s role was very similar to James Bond’s Q.

Hutton experimented with lots of different escape ideas including cloth maps sewn into uniforms, compasses so small they could be hidden on the back of a button, blankets with clothing patterns on them, which could be cut and sewn together by POWs and shoe heels with knives hidden in them. German prison guards discovered many of these and so Hutton was always thinking of new ideas.

 In 1941 Hutton worked with Waddingtons on an ingenious plan to create escape kits hidden inside Monopoly boards. Waddington’s had been producing games like Monopoly for years.

The escape kits included silk maps of European countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, and Italy. Other tools like knives, metal files, miniature compasses, rope and real money were also hidden in the boards.

Hutton was careful to make sure ‘escape boards’ were the same weight and depth as the original Monopoly boards. Why do you think this was important? Silk was the best material for the maps because it wouldn’t tear or dissolve in water as easily as paper and was light enough to crumple up into a small space. Silk maps also wouldn’t rustle and attract the attention of prison guards.

The next challenge was to smuggle the ‘escape boards’ into the Nazi prison camps. That turned out to be easy. As part of the Geneva Convention Germany allowed charities to send POWs games to play. The Germans thought that playing games would distract the POWs from trying to escape and make them easier to control.

The ‘escape boards’ were given to fake charities to send out to German prison camps for the POWs. Every soldier that was about to be sent on a mission was told about the escape kits in case they were captured.

A special mark was used on each escape board to show which map was hidden in it. This made sure that the right escape maps were sent to the right POWs.

A full stop mark after Marylebone Station meant an Italian map; a full stop after Mayfair meant maps for Norway, Sweden and Germany, and one after Free Parking meant maps of Northern France and Germany.

The German soldiers were never suspicious of the monopoly games and they never discovered the hidden escape kits.

Fascinating Facts

There were two prisoner-of-war camps holding British enemy soldiers in Leeds. Prison Camp No 244 was on Butcher Hill, West Park and Prison Camp No 91 was on Post Hill at Farnley.

It is thought that up to 35,000 prisoners of war managed to escape prison camps in Nazi-occupied Europe. Nearly 20,000 of them had silk maps, compasses, and other supplies that had been hidden inside Monopoly boxes.

Many Monopoly games produced during WW2 had spinners made of card rather than dice, and playing pieces made of card and wood rather than metal, to save on rationed and scarce materials.


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