Articles

Croquet: A History

By: Peter Jay, June 22, 2007
Croquet is a classic yard game that has been played for centuries all over Europe. A game similar to croquet is believed to have been played in Ancient Rome. The current version of croquet, however, originated in about the 14th century by French peasants who used wooden mallets to hit wooden balls through wickets made from willow branches. Croquet became popular in Ireland in the early eighteen hundreds and transferred to England around 1851. It quickly became popular and spread throughout the colonial empire, reaching virtually every area of British colonial rule by the year 1870.

Traditionally, croquet was played on a professional playing field, with the grass trimmed, similar to a golf course. At the turn of the century, however, Americans, disagreeing with new English rules outlawing mallets with rubber heads, and introducing a six-wicket court, maintained their own version of nine-wicket croquet. Many Americans also developed a more simple and rugged version of nine-wicket croquet, which could be played casually in their own backyards. This is the version of croquet that many Americans know and play today. The well trimmed croquet field is still used in professional play, both in America and at the international level.

Croquet was a popular game among the youth of the British Empire, who could use it to socialize and flirt without their parents constantly peering over their shoulders. It was initially more popular among women, but in 1874 there was a decline in the popularity of the game among women, because it was becoming too scientific. The game also decreased in popularity as lawn tennis began to replace it, bringing in more money than croquet.

As the games popularity declined in England, it increased in America. In 1865, the Newport Croquet Club in Rhode Island was formed. In 1871, Milton Bradley published “Croquet – Its Principles and rules.” In New York, in 1882, twenty-five clubs from the National American Croquet Association. The game met with some setbacks in America, when in the 1890’s, the game was condemned by the Boston clergy, who spoke against it because of its association with drinking, gambling, and licentious behavior. Croquet was played as an Olympic sport in the 1900 and 1904 Olympic Games.

Croquet is more popular as a competitive sport outside of the United States. It began to catch on more in the United States again, in the 1960’s. In 1969, the first six wicket croquet tournament was held in at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach between the New York Croquet Club and the Palm Beach Croquet Club. Several other clubs eventually joined in, and once creating a uniformed code of rules, they established the United States Croquet Association, under Jack Osborn. Since 1980, croquet professionals in North America have grown from about fifty to around 4000. Croquet is now played in over twenty countries as a competitive sport. National tournaments are held often within these countries, and international tournaments are held at the international level.

Many association and clubs have now been established in the United States and the international standards of croquet are being played more often by American croquet players. Most Americans, however, still play the more simple and casual backyard, nine-wicket version of croquet. Many Americans also play “poison croquet,” which is similar to nine wicket croquet, but is not played in teams. Instead, each player competes for him/herself to see who can hit their ball through all of the wickets first, making their ball “poison” and then eliminating the other players by hitting their balls with the poison ball.

Peter Jay is a yard game enthusiast with Yard Game Central and a manager and web administrator with Play Croquet. For information about a croquet set, visit http://www.PlayCroquet.com.

Hooked on hoops, mad about mallets

Shirley Tart takes to the lawn and finds that croquet is a dignified – and highly addictive – way to spend a summer afternoon.

For people like me who in their time have variously played tennis, table tennis, netball, squash and hockey, and enjoyed skiing, riding a bike, running a bit and dabbling in golf, the time comes when a bridge course seems more sensible. Do not give in to it.

Play cards by all means if you must. But if you have enjoyed not only the physical exercise – I still get that from gardening a hillside acre and dog-walking – but also the competitive edge and challenge of sport, you really miss it. Welcome, then, to the croquet lawn.

Yes, the pastime of kings and the Mad Hatter, the national game of Egypt – and even ex-deputy PM John Prescott was known to wield the mallet – is alive and well. But to play it properly calls for much skill and experience.

Don’t mess about with true aficionados or make jokes about their beloved game. And do not confuse garden- or golf croquet with association croquet, the full international version of the sport.

Garden croquet is what you may play at the back of your friend’s house or in hotel grounds. My coach Brian Christmas suggests that as far as he and the Shrewsbury Association Club are concerned, that might be fun but is not real croquet at all.

This likeable and skilful player modestly admits that he is one of five Shrewsbury club members who have world ranking. Brian dismisses the statistic by pointing out “I’m only about 690th.” But in the world, Brian, that’s brilliant.

Fellow member, Graham Colclough, from Wem, is a relative newcomer to the game but totally hooked. He says: “What we need is proper recognition without people thinking we are all toffee-nosed. It’s a marvellous sport and we would love more people, especially younger ones, to come and enjoy it. We really are ordinary people.”

The uninitiated may know more about Lewis Carroll outrageously having Alice coming across a croquet game with flamingos and hedgehogs used as mallets and balls. In my research, I also came across something called Mondo Croquet which uses bowling balls amd sledgehammers, and stages an annual world championship. The object of this one is “to get your ball through all the hoops in the proper order, hit the flags, become a zombie, and knock out all your opponents.” It will not impress serious association players.

With all of this in mind, I hardly dared ask whether Brian Christmas thought John Prescott’s antics on the lawns at Chequers had been good or bad for croquet, so I didn’t bother. But what I did quickly decide, after realising that the elegant game was not just a matter of banging a ball through a hoop, was that I would like Brian to teach me the rudiments.

Was it invented around 1066 in England for entertainment in the Royal Court? Or in Ireland during the 1830s and brought to England, becoming a favorite pastime of the aristocracy?
There is international dispute over the origins of the game. Was it invented around 1066 in England for entertainment in the Royal Court? Or in Ireland during the 1830s and brought to England, becoming a favorite pastime of the aristocracy? You will find claims for both and many more conflicting suggestions.
The basic object is to move around a circuit of hoops, with the blue and black balls playing against the red and yellow.

But far better than just reading about it, do it. So Brian got me with the red and yellow balls and a mallet to hit one towards the first hoop, with the other soaring ahead nearer to the next one. Then Barbara Edwards from Cound stepped in to show me the art of pegging out – hitting the peg at the end of the circuit. Between Brian’s introduction and Barbara’s conclusion, there is quite a lot more!

The advice is that while you do need to learn the rules and take them seriously, progress really is made by playing. But prepare to get hooked.

Helen Hudson, who now lives on the Welsh border and works in Shrewsbury, discovered croquet when she and her husband were living in Bath and bought a garden set. She chuckles: “We couldn’t understand the rules so phoned the nearest club.” And that was that!

The Shrewsbury Club – based at the Monkmoor Recreation Centre – is marking its 25th anniversary and its founders are still among the most active members. Brian Christmas and his dad Henry – known as ‘Happy’ since he first started work as a lad – were simply inspired all those years ago when an experienced player gave a series of croquet sessions.

Happy says: “I still enjoy it but my handicap was once 12 and is now about 18, which doesn’t matter.”
Son Brian’s handicap is five, while secretary Robert Dodds, who has only been playing for about four years, plays off three-and-a-half and improving.

The club – the other Shropshire one is at Church Stretton – has about 40 members but would love more. It happily hosts evenings or weekends for other organisations – the WI and Rotary club were recently entertained on the Shrewsbury lawns.

Members enter and stage competitions and to a man and woman thoroughly enjoy the game of croquet and everything around it.

Their traditional wooden pavilion has lots of information, copies of the Croquet Gazette, and lists of who is playing when and where. The £35-a-year subscription fee keeps the club up and running. The lawn is rented from the council who also mow it, which is a great help.

“Clubs with private lawns would have to pay much more to maintain them and their subscriptions would have to be higher,” Brian says.

The Shrewsbury members seem to have the perfect balance of taking the game seriously, playing it socially and thoroughly enjoying it.

Barbara Edwards sums up: “I still play tennis which I love. But if I had to give up tennis or croquet, it would be tennis.”

As a total novice with a book of rules and an eye on a hoop, croquet just may become my next great sporting passion as well!

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