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Dr Ian Plummer

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Origins of Croquet

Norman Eatough (President, Swiss Croquet Association) has some thoughts about the orgins of croquet.

As an adjunct to the various contributions to this tricky problem, let me quote, in translation, the president of the Fédération Française de Croquet, Anthoine Ravez, in his brochure for the Coupe des Alpes (France, Switzerland, Italy) of 1992:

"Croquet is a very old game, widely known and practised in France since the XI century under the name of 'jeu de mail'. Borrowed by the British around 1300, it was modified over the centuries: the Scots made golf out of it, the Irish turned it into croquet. Louis XIV, suffering from being unable to play mail during the winter, miniturised it on an indoor table and laid the basis of billiards....."

While I think Anthoine's statements are open to debate, I personally think it is highly probable that the origins of the French-sounding name 'croquet' in fact were French: - the medieval 'jeu de mail' mentioned by Anthoine consisted of hitting a ball with a stick through gateways; it became 'pell-mell' or 'pall mall' in England and is also mentioned in Prichard's 'History of croquet'.

Kate and Robert C. Johnson with friends, playing croquet at Heartsease,1880 Chambers dictionary ascribes 'croquet' to the Northern French dialect form of 'crochet', which is itself a diminutive of 'croc, croch', a crook - which could easily have been the shape of the stick later evolving into a mallet. This also reminds me of one attempt I have read of to explain golf: bored Scottish shepherds hit a pebble with their crook to while away the journey from the distant fields back home, later to make a game out of it. The Irish connection mentioned by Ant almost certainly less based on independent fact, more like a nod in the direction of Prichard's explanation of the origin of the English game as 'emerging from the mists of Ireland around 1850' - which for me is a somewhat dubious refusal to acknowledge a really foreign source.

Switzerland's other Coupe des Alpes partner, Italy, has also laid claim to having invented croquet, played allegedly by some of their medieval monks. While I would accept the origin of real (or royal) tennis as having been invented in a (possibly Italian) cloister, with its 45° roof, boarded-up window, etc., their claim to croquet remains pretty short on substantiation.

Meanwhile, let me tell you that in its search for new croquet adherents, the Swiss Croquet Association has unearthed a remote Swiss hill tribe, which plays croquet to 'anciennes règles' left behind by visiting British tourists around the 1880-90s: - there are 8 hoops, in the original hoop-shape for ease of passage on the rough mountain pasture at 1400 metres (Ben Nevis is some 1344m), plus a double crossed hoop in the centre and a peg at each end. Curiously, they don't hang a (cow)bell from the double hoop, unlike in the 19th century circuits shown in Prichard. Play starts one foot in front of hoop 1, and hoop 2 is some two feet directly behind - all very easy and encouraging, especially as a two-hoops-in-one gives the striker two further strokes. Balls are played in strict colour order, often up to eight players chasing round one after the other. When a roquet is made, options include taking croquet then a continuation stroke, playing the striker's ball from where it comes to rest, and playing from a mallet-head's distance from the roqueted ball (World Laws Bodies: anyone bold enough to suggest some of this for the next Revision?!). Several of us have played in their annual tournament, and great fun it is, too: all very good-natured and fair-play, involving everyone from 6 year-olds to an assortment of grandmothers, quite refreshing. Their better players have descended from the alp to taste golf and Association croquet in Geneva and are planning to form a club in Sion, with our encouragement.

Norman Eatough (President, Swiss C.A.)

The History of Croquet, [Col.] D. M. C. Prichard, London : Cassell, 1981
Includes index, Bibliography: p. [233]-234
ISBN 0304307599

Author: Norman Eatough
All rights reserved © 2004

Updated 28.i.16
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