The origins of the game of darts in England can never be firmly established, but it dates back to at least the Middle Ages. One traditionally offered explanation is that bored soldiers took to hurling arrows at the upturned covers of wine barrels, perhaps seeing who could come closest to the cork bung.
As the pastime grew in popularity, some bright soul decided that a cross-section of a tree would offer a better target. The natural growth rings of the tree provided a built-in means of determining who was closest to the centre, and as the tree dried out the cracks provided radial divisions within the target (the current system of numbers was standardised around 1900).
When winter came and the soldiers spent more time inside, they couldn't hurl full-sized arrows about, so shortened versions of the arrows were used.
The game maintained a strong military appeal, and the worldwide spread of darts is credited to the British army who brought the game with them to every corner of the Empire as it grew.
An apocryphal tale that really ought to be true (but isn't) says that employees at the brewery firm of S. Hockey & Sons are credited with establishing the standard throwing distance (there are actually multiple standards - more on that in a moment). According to the story, the brewers placed three of their beer crates end to end, drew a line, and threw from there.
Since each crate was 3 feet long, the throwing line was set at 9 feet from the board. Later, the standard Hockey & Sons beer crate was shortened to 2 feet, so 4 crates were lined up, which set the line at 8 feet. The throwing line was called the "hockey" after the company, though later the name was shortened to "oche" (pronounced "ockee").
Though it makes a good story, there is no historical record of a Hockey & Sons brewery. Other possible origins of the term 'oche' have been suggested, including the Old English term 'hocken', meaning to spit, and the Turkish word 'ok', meaning a dart or arrow.
The 8 feet standard is still in use in many places, though local variations exist. The general international standard is 7 feet 9 and 1/4 inches.
Most dartboards today are made from highly compressed bunches of sisal - the same material used to make heavy ropes.
The survival of darts as a pub game can be pretty accurately dated. Throughout the Victorian period legislation prohibited "games of chance" (i.e. gambling) in pubs. In 1908 a pub owner named Anakin in Leeds, Yorkshire, was taken to court for permitting darts to be played in his establishment. He offered to prove that darts was a game of skill.
A board was set up in the courtroom, and there Anakin threw 3 darts in the 20. He challenged any of the magistrates to duplicate his feat. When they could not (darts is, after all, not as easy as it looks!), the court was forced to accept that darts was indeed a game of skill, not chance, and the laws were eventually changed.
From the turn of the century to WWII darts grew in popularity as a pub game. Regular leagues were organised, and competitions took place on a regular basis. The most prestigious of these competitions was that organised by the News of the World newspaper in 1927. A National Darts Association was formed in 1954, and national championships organised. Today it would be hard to find a traditional pub in Britain without a dartboard.