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Croquet: Lore and Legend

Extract from: "Croquet: The Complete Guide to History, Strategy, Rules and Records" by James Charlton & William Thompson

The origin of croquet, like that of many other sports, is obscure. Although the game has been played in roughly its present form for about one hundred years, its antecedents extend back many centuries. As long ago as the fourteenth century, peasants in Brittany and Southern France amused themselves playing a game called Paille Maille, in which crude mallets were used to knock balls through hoops made of bent willow branches. This ancestral version of croquet persisted, and by the seventeenth century, Pele Mele, as it was called in England, had become popular with Charles II and his court. Diarist Samuel Pepys, in his entry of April 2, 1661, wrote that "I went into St. James Parke, where I saw the Duke of Yorke playing at Pesle Mesle - the first time that I ever saw that sport." Pall Mall, as the game came finally to be called, was played with a curved club, a wooden ball, and two hoops. The court was often made of powdered cockleshells, and the hoops were decorated with flowers. The game lost favor in the 18th and 19th centuries, and little was heard of it until the 1850's.

In 1852 or 1853, croquet was introduced into England from Ireland, where a game called crooky, which used implements similar to the modern ones, had been played in Portarlington, Queen's County, Kilkee, in County Clare, and Kingstown, near Dublin, since the 1830's. No one knows how the game reached Ireland, although it has been suggested that it was introduced by French nuns or possibly by French refugees. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "croquet" is a form of the word croche, an old North French word used to mean "shepherd's crook". The word is found in more modem French dialects, where it is used to mean 'hockey stock'. Although most agree that croquet's origin is French, it has been proposed by A.G. Ross that the game was actually born in Ireland. He claims that "croquet" came from the Irish word cluiche, which means 'play', and is pronounced roughly like 'crooky'. According to Ross, the phrase "to take croquet" might be a translation of the Irish 'gabail do cluiche' which means, literally, to take to playing, or to begin to play.

Wherever its origins lie, croquet was introduced into England from Ireland in the early 1850's by one Mr. Spratt, who had been given a set of croquet implements by a Miss McNaughten around 1840. Miss McNaughten informed Mr. Spratt that the game had been introduced into Ireland but that she had seen it in its primitive state in either Southern France or Italy. The crude and rustic game observed by Miss McNaughten was played with hoops made of willow rods. The villagers constructed the mallets by boring a hole in a hard, knotty piece of wood and inserting a broomstick for the handle. Mr. Spratt kept the croquet equipment for several years before selling it to Mr. Jaques, an enterprising young man, whose family is the foremost manufacturer of croquet equipment today. It was Mr. Jaques who brought the game to notice. Incidentally, the unfortunate Miss McNaughten perished in a fire soon after giving the equipment to Mr. Spratt.

By 1865, croquet had achieved wide acceptance and had spread throughout England and its colonies. One gentleman of the time, noting in a letter to a friend that the game was introduced into India "during the hot weather of 1864 at Simla," observed that "the Viceroy played with an entire mallet of ivory-as became his position." During these early days of popularity in England, croquet was primarily an after-dinner recreation. It was played with ten large hoops, two pegs, and odd-sized mallets, on a lawn that measured 50 by 30 yards. The game was played as a sequence game, which meant that the turns and the balls were played sequentially according to the color of the ball. It is usually still played this way in the United States, though in Great Britain, in singles, while the turns alternate, the balls may be played in any order.

Croquet's great popularity in England continued through the 1860's and into the 1870's. In 1861, Routledge's Handbook of Croquet appeared. This book, probably the sport's first rule book, still basically governs the game. Another important and influential publication of the time was Croquet: A Treatise and Commentary, by Captain Mayne Reid, a hero of the Mexican War and the author of several books for boys. Captain Reid, whose book appeared in England in 1863 and in New York in 1869, saw croquet as a healthy, and presumably safer, substitute for war, and warned his readers of the dangers of encountering women on the croquet court. The 1860's also saw the appearance of the game's first recorded champions. In 1867 Walter Jones-Whitmore won a tournament at Evesham and became, according to some, croquet's first champion. Jones-Whitmore was also the first to attempt to devise a system of strategy and tactics, which he published in a book called Croquet Tactics in 1868. One year after Jones-Whitmore's victory at Evesham, Walter Peel, one of the major figures in the history of croquet, became the game's first true champion, and by 1869, the All-England Croquet Club was founded at Wimbledon. When Peel won his championship, the hoops were six inches wide, five inches wide for the final two rounds. In the game's early days the hoops had been as wide as eight inches, but they were gradually reduced in size to four inches by 1872. Early in the 1870's lawn tennis was introduced in England, and, for a while, the controversy over which was the best game, tennis or croquet, became quite intense. Soon, however, lawn tennis eclipsed croquet in popularity, and English croquet entered a period of decline that lasted through the 1880's.

Croquet was introduced to the United States in the early 1870's [Footnote 1]. The sport was first taken up by high society in the New York area, but it soon achieved general popularity throughout the country. Lawn tennis was introduced here at about the same time, but from the 1870's through the 1890's, croquet enthusiasts far outnumbered the tennis players. A croquet set was mandatory equipment for every estate, and civic leaders provided sets for public parks, which previously had not had facilities for any sport played on grass. Croquet was quite popular with women and was one of the first games played in the United States by both sexes. To this day, it is the only sport in which men and women compete with a similar handicap. Women players are more prominent today in Australia than in any other country (the current singles champion of that country is Mrs. V. Crane of Victoria). In 1882, the National Croquet Association was formed to help supervise the game. The association was active into the 1890's when lawn tennis suddenly surged in popularity, and croquet enthusiasm began to wane. The ebb in croquet's popularity was due, in part, to the game's surprisingly unsavory reputation. It had become associated with gambling, drinking, and philandering to such an extent that it was banned in Boston by one Reverend Skinner, and several articles of the time called upon both clergy and laity to suppress "the immoral practice of croquet."

It wasn't until the mid-1890's that interest in croquet began to revive in England, and several years later the sport's popularity began to return in the United States. Although croquet was played in a few places, tournaments had all but disappeared. The game was still played as a sequence game, with hoops whose dimensions had been reduced from four inches to three and one quarter inches in 1871. One year later, the Hale setting of six hoops and two pegs was introduced, and this setting continued in use for the next fifty years, although the hoop dimensions were again enlarged. The croquet renaissance began in 1896 when Walter Peel and Captain Drummond founded the United All-England Croquet Association at Roehampton, England. This organization, with typical British understatement, is called the Croquet Association and is still the ruling body of British and Commonwealth croquet. The final rounds of the All-England Handicap, one of croquet's most important championships, are played annually at Roehampton. Croquet's resurgence was aided by the arrival of Cyril Corbally, who, along with other great Irish players such as Duff Matthews and Leslie O'Callaghan, introduced new skills and tactics to the game. Croquet's popularity continued undiminished until the outbreak of World War I.

An ocean away, croquet's revival began in the United States. In 1899, a small group of players from the United States met in Norwich, Connecticut to revise the old Routledge Rules and revitalize the game. The new rules provided for standardized court size, reduced hoop dimensions, and the use of only four balls instead of the cumbersome eight. Two balls were used by each player, or two per team for doubles.

Croquet's popularity in the United States has been increasing since the end of World War I. In the 1930's the WPA and the National Recreation Association added croquet sets to their inventory of standard playground equipment. The sport also became a status favorite of literary and entertainment people in the '30's and '40's. East Coast players, such as George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, and Dorothy Parker, developed a fierce and unsportsmanlike rivalry with West Coast players such as Harpo Marx, Darryl Zanuck, and George Sanders.

In 1922, the Willis setting of six hoops and one peg was introduced in England. This layout is still the one most used today. During the mid-20's, the first test matches for the MacRobertson Shield, croquet's international trophy, were held when Australia sent a team to England in 1925. This trophy is still competed for every few years, with the next competition scheduled for 1979 in New Zealand. England, winner of the 1974 test matches held there, is the defending champion.

"Croquet: The Complete Guide to History, Strategy, Rules and Records" by James Charlton & William Thompson, Copyright © 1977 by Turtle Press, Inc, New York, New York. ISBN 0-916844-00-5 pbk.

1. Daniel Buck comments (Dec 2015):

The Charlton & Thompson essay, "Croquet: Lore and Legend," contains an error in paragraph six, perhaps a typo. Croquet came to the United States in the early 1860s, not as they wrote, the "early 1870s."

Per newspaper articles and advertisements on various digitized newspaper websites, sets were being sold America in the very early 1860s, and the game was soon popular coast-to-coast.

For example, in 1862 The Press (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) carried an ad for "CROQUET GAME for Ladies and Gentlemen." In 1863, the New York Herald had an ad titled, "Base Ball, Cricket, Archery, and the New Game of Croquet," and out West that same year, the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado) ran an ad for "Croquet and Outdoor Games."

In 1866, the Daily Alta California (San Francisco, California) declared "the two national amusements of the day are croquet and base ball."

Thus the "early 1870s" date in the Charlton and Thomson essay is incorrect.


Author: James Charlton & William Thompson
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Updated 28.i.16
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