Croquet During the Interregnum Years: Additional Evidence
by Ian Bond
Prichard's History of Croquet designates the decade or so from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as the interregnum years - years during which there was no central authority for the game, in the wake of the All-England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club' (AECLTC) abandonment of croquet, and in which (he claims) tournament croquet effectively ceased. He dates the start of the revival to the Maidstone tournament of September 1894, an event repeated the following year, and accords Walter Peel's United All England Croquet Association (UAECA ) a key role in the revival of organised tournament croquet. Walter Peel was, he states, elected secretary of the fledgling UAECA at the Maidstone tournament of August 1896, and it staged the Gold Medals tournament at Wimbledon the following year. The Croquet Association into which the UAECA evolved therefore celebrated its centenary in 1997.
Prichard acknowledges that croquet continued to be played in this lost decade and he notes the reporting in The Field of two club tournaments, in 1893 (at Chipping Norton) and 1894 (at Worthing), but Prichard's account - particularly of the role of the UAECA - has always seemed to me somewhat puzzling and possibly incomplete. Prichard himself expresses the feeling that Peel was rather indolent, and it seems odd that a single tournament in Maidstone and the formation there of a new national Association with an indolent secretary could spark a revival.
One might even wonder about the true significance of the Open and Women's Championships in the years leading up to the interregnum: the entry for the Open averaged only seven or eight in the nine years from 1874, and the Women had mustered an average of only three entries in the five years from 1878. That scarcely seems like a successful sport 'killed off' by a perverse decision of the All-England Club. Indeed, the decision at its AGM in July 1882 to 'abolish public competitions for croquet prizes at Wimbledon' could be regarded as little more than a belated recognition of a decline which was already well-entrenched and even, perhaps, as a financial necessity.1
While there is no doubt that tournament croquet largely disappeared from public view after that decision, and that tennis had already supplanted croquet as a private amusement, it is possible that the sources on which Prichard relied paint rather too bleak a picture of the lost decade and that, as a result, the contrast between that decade and the years preceding and following it is too starkly drawn. If so, the effects of the lack of a central authority - be it AECLTC or UAECA - are perhaps overstated and that lack simply reflected the fluctuating fortunes of serious croquet.
Though Prichard provides only limited information on his sources, his introduction refers to research at Colindale 'into early issues of The Field, Land and Water and The Ladies Field'. This is plainly a very limited segment of the press, and so may be both unrepresentative and incomplete: after all, publications tend to write about what their readership wants to read, and it is undoubtedly true that croquet was no longer the 'game of the moment' by the late 1870s. Once public enthusiasm had switched to tennis, it is scarcely surprising that the reporting of croquet disappeared from these publications. That may not accurately reflect the fate of croquet itself.
One test of this proposition is what is revealed by the British Library's online database of nineteenth century newspapers, a source not available in this accessible form at the time Prichard was writing. This too is selective: it includes only a representative sample of the more important regional newspapers. But a search on some basic croquet terms quickly reveals a rather different picture than that presented by The Field. For example, a tournament held at Budleigh Salterton (apparently as an adjunct to a tennis tournament) is reported in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post of 26 August 1889; The Isle of Wight Observer reports an open croquet tournament at Ryde in 1893 and 18942; The Yorkshire Herald reports tournaments in Thirsk and nearby Pickering in 1894, and The Belfast News-Letter events in Belfast and Ballymena in 1895 (which are referred to as annual tournaments, implying that they had been held in previous years). More tellingly, perhaps, a speaker at the annual dinner of the Oxford Cricket Club in October 1892 is reported to have observed: "Why, lawn tennis was not able to kill croquet, let alone cricket, for a croquet tournament was held only the other day".3 Prichard records Arthur Lillee recalling that he had played in a tournament at Oxford in 1891 (though Prichard refers to this dismissively as 'a donnish backwater') so, again, it seems likely that the 1892 tournament was not an isolated event but the continuation of a regular annual fixture.
We cannot tell from these reports whether the tournaments were simply local affairs or open to outsiders, nor of the seriousness with which they were played. But that they were reported at all suggests that they were at least thought worthy of comment and that they might be of interest beyond the circle of participants. By September 1896, one newspaper went so far as to say that "The scientific game seems to have more than recovered its hold on the affections of a certain section of the game loving public, which it certainly possessed some 20 years ago, if we may judge from the numerous tournaments held during the present summer".4
As already noted, the British Library online database is selective and it seems likely that many more reports would be found in less noteworthy quarters of the regional and local press. The Surbiton Times, for example, reported tournaments organised by the Surbiton Croquet Club in 1897 and 1898 at the Berrylands Tennis Club, and in the following two years at the Surbiton Cricket Club5. None of these feature in Prichard's account, his first record of croquet tournaments in Surbiton dating to 1904. It seems improbable that this is an isolated omission.
Evidence about croquet clubs themselves is harder to find. Prichard himself mentions The Field's report of the formation of a new club, on the Essex county cricket ground at Brentford, in 1885, but croquet seems to have been played mainly not at dedicated clubs but alongside other games - particularly tennis - and so to have escaped specific notice. The lack of press attention also suggests that the clubs did not need or want publicity to attract members, but did so by personal contact in an appropriate local social circle. Croquet may simply have continued and/or re-emerged at these clubs as tennis outlived its 'fad' phase.6
An exception is the Essex County Standard's report in May 1893 of the formation of a lawn tennis and croquet club in Walton on the Naze 'in place of the small affair hitherto existing', which suggests not only renewed interest in the game but also that it was already being played at a club there.
In the case of Surbiton, it was not until 1912 that a dedicated croquet club with its own ground was established. But its origins lay in a group of enthusiasts active from at least 1897 as the Surbiton Croquet Club, who leased lawns by the season from other clubs in the area and may also have taken advantage of members' private lawns. Active 'scientific' croquet plainly did not necessarily require clubs to have their own permanent grounds, which may also help explain the scarcity of press reporting of clubs as such (rather than the tournaments they held).
Formation of the UAECA
What of the United All England Croquet Association? Prichard dates the formation of this Association to August 1896, when a Committee was elected (with Walter Peel as secretary) at the Maidstone tournament, Peel having circularised the best players in June. He also notes the tournaments at Bristol and Budleigh Salterton in July and at Bath and Devonshire Park, Eastbourne in September 1896. The present Croquet Association, which evolved from the UAECA, celebrated its centenary in 1997, presumably regarding 1897 as the UAECA's first full year of operation.
Again, the British Library newspaper database allows us to add to this account and to suggest that the UAECA was in fact a functional body during the 1896 season. A letter to the Editor of The Morning Post on 4 June 1896 by a writer identified only as 'one of the Committee' (belying the notion that no committee existed until August) states that
A report in Trewmans' Exeter Flying Post of 9 April 1898 reinforces this view that the UAECA came into being somewhat earlier than Prichard suggests:
A letter to The Standard printed on the same day, and signed 'M R B', contains much the same information and phraseology (suggesting either common authorship or a concerted publicity drive) and adds:
The tournaments at Bristol and Bath in 1896 were both reported by The Bristol Mercury as UAECA events.7 The elections in August 1896 were presumably therefore simply to confirm or to formalise a Committee which had already been in existence for much of the season. It seems likely that Peel was the writer of the 1896 letter to The Morning Post, and his success in organising four UAECA tournaments during 1896 seems (to anyone with experience of having set up and run a croquet tournament on a virgin site) far from indolent. Either he had been very busy, as the Trewman's report asserts, or he was taking advantage of tournaments which in fact already existed or were being contemplated and bringing them under the UAECA umbrella - maybe both.
Col the Hon H C Needham, who succeeded Peel as UAECA secretary after Peel's death at the age of 50 in October 1897, lived in Ascot, and so was presumably instrumental in the addition of an Ascot tournament to the 1897 calendar. A tournament not mentioned in the letter to The Standard, but reported by The Hampshire Advertiser to have had 100 entries for five events8, was held at the County Cricket Ground, Southampton in July 1897 and another - reported as 'an annual lawn tennis and croquet tournament' was held in Foxlease Park, Lyndhurst towards the end of August 1897. Neither is reported as having been organised by the UAECA, so the addition of Southampton to the 1898 calendar tends to support the view that the UAECA was to some extent taking advantage of tournaments which were already established in order to advance its goals. Perhaps, indeed, the UAECA was less the essential driving force which Prichard seems (notwithstanding Peel's supposed 'indolence') to represent it as being, and more a reflection of a revival which was already gathering pace amongst devotees of the game.9
What emerges clearly from the wider press commentary is that - as with tennis - there were two distinct groups of players. The first (and always by far the largest, as remains true today) played for entertainment and amusement. The landed and wealthier members of this group played at country house parties on properly-maintained lawns; the middle class members played in large suburban gardens and at clubs. The second group - probably spanning both these social classes - took the game more seriously, and became markedly more skilful: they are often referred to at the time as 'scientific' players. Social play was dictated as much by fashion as by the intrinsic merit of the game, and it is clear that the novelty of lawn tennis in the mid-1870s made tennis particularly attractive to those looking merely for amusement and who were probably put off by the growing sophistication of 'scientific' croquet. Ten years later, though, the emergence of serious tennis players made tennis too - no longer a novelty - somewhat less attractive to the social players and allowed croquet to re-emerge as an interesting and acceptable social diversion. It may also have re-energised the more serious players. No longer was croquet merely yesterday's fad: a degree of social acceptability was returning and it could be enjoyed on its own terms.
The academic literature does not appear to have given much attention specifically to croquet, but there is a large general literature on play, games, sport and leisure.10 Croquet would seem to fall somewhere in the spectrum between a game (more carefully structured than mere play and governed by more rigid rules) and a sport (a thoroughly institutionalised game, involving a complex network of clubs, leagues, governing bodies, managers, coaches, owners and spectators). The interregnum years could perhaps be characterised as ones in which croquet edged back somewhat towards being simply a game, but then recovered more of the elements of a sport. It has never gained a substantial spectator following, however, and so lacks the funding and other well-developed coaching and management structures typical of mainstream modern sports.
The more difficult question is where more formally organised play - in clubs and at tournaments - fitted in to the development of croquet. For those late Victorians with the means and property to maintain private lawns, clubs were functionally redundant: they could entertain their friends at home and, if they were of a more competitive bent, private challenge matches could be arranged. But for others, either with more limited means or living where space for private facilities was too limited, clubs would have provided the natural solution.11 Membership of a club would naturally foster play with a wider (though still socially acceptable) group of like-minded people and provide the basis for a more openly competitive approach.
For many, of course, play within a club would satisfy their competitive instincts (as indeed it does today) and there might have been only limited demand for formal tournaments - particularly if there were few new players entering the game. Despite the existence of the railways, whose network was already fully developed by the 1850s, travel to other clubs would by no means have been easy and so would not have been undertaken lightly. The advent of the modern safety bicycle fitted with John Boyd Dunlop's pneumatic tyres (invented in 1888) would, however, have materially increased local ease of movement and so widened the catchment area of clubs.12 It is even possible that the bicycle played a so far unrecognised part in the expansion of club croquet during the 1890s revival.
1st July 2016
1. The Royal Archery and Croquet Club at nearby Richmond had dropped ‘croquet’ from its name three years earlier, in April 1879. There had been a widespread financial crisis in the latter part of the previous year, including not only the notorious failure of the City of Glasgow Bank – one of the most costly individual banking failures of the century – in October 1878 but also of the West of England and South Wales District Bank, based in Bristol but with branches all over that region, in December. Despite a brief recovery in 1880, the economy remained depressed for some years. Croquet was anyway losing its followers to tennis by this date but its decline may have been hastened by the financial retrenchment which followed the crisis.
2. An open tournament in Ryde was also advertised in 1892 'if there be sufficient entries', but it does not seem to have been reported and so may not in fact have been held. The venue for these events was the Ryde Tennis and Gardens Club, which introduced an explicit croquet membership fee for its 1894 season.
3. Jackson's Oxford Journal, 15 October 1892. Lawn tennis and croquet were played on a ground in The Parks between the University Observatory and the Museum from 1884 (see John Steane, The Oxford University Parks: The First Fifty Years, in Garden History, Vol 32 No 1 (Spring 2004)).
4. The Bristol Mercury of Wednesday 9 September. 'The scientific game' was a common turn of phrase used at the time to differentiate between serious competitive play and garden party or social croquet. We may safely infer that 'numerous' means more than just the UAECA's Bristol and Bath events.
5. Cricket grounds seem to have been a quite common alternative to tennis clubs as locations for tournaments – the 1896 Bath tournament was held on a cricket ground, as was that (reported by The Hampshire Advertiser in July 1897) at Southampton the following year. A more recent example of this practice is of the – now sadly discontinued – modern Oxford tournament, which used the cricket outfield in The Parks to supplement its two permanent lawns nearby. Hurlingham has regularly brought its cricket outfield into service to provide four additional lawns for its major tournaments. They can provide a more than acceptable playing surface.
6. There is some interesting contemporary press commentary on this issue, suggesting that – as was said to have been the case with croquet – the emergence of skilled and competitive players undermined the 'social' game and that (as tennis in turn reached a degree of maturity) this widening competitive expertise at tennis encouraged a resumption of croquet amongst those looking for some less challenging outlet. John Lowerson, Sport and the English Middle Classes 1870-1914 provides a useful survey of the broader social context for sport in this period. His historical facts about croquet (pages 101 and 102) follow Prichard's account, though he does not reference it as his source.
7. It is interesting, incidentally, that no UAECA event was held at Cheltenham – a well-established croquet club only 25 miles away – that summer. This might suggest that tournaments were already held there, and that the UAECA was seeking to break new ground (though it is equally possible that the Cheltenham Club did not want to cede control of its events to the fledgling Association).
8. The figure of 100 entries probably overstates the number of players, as it was a common practice to count their entries for each event separately. Each player probably played in two or three events.
9. It cannot be ruled out that, despite its avowed promotional aims, the formation of the UAECA was also in part a (successful) attempt by the old croquet elite to reassert control over the local autonomy which had characterised the game's post-AECC years.
11. Clubs also provided an important element of social insulation for the middle classes, as well as reinforcing the validity of this use of their leisure time – see Peter Bailey, The Victorian Middle Class and the Problem of Leisure, Victorian Studies, Vol 21 No 1 (1977)
12. David Rubinstein, Cycling in the 1890s, Victorian Studies Vol 21 No 1 (1977) provides a good general account of the impact of this technology shift on Victorian enthusiasm for cycling. "It was in 1894 that cycling first became widespread among both sexes in Britain and in 1895 that popularity became passion."
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