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April 13, 2024 27 mins

This 2020 episode looks at croquet's murky origins. Because of its relative ease of play and low barrier of entry, it went through a surge in popularity almost as soon as it was documented.

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
Happy Saturday. That mention of Milton Bradley's tabletop croquet set
from our episode on Him reminded me. We've done a
whole episode on croquet. I'm glad it reminded Tracy because
I didn't remember. This episode originally came out February seventeenth,
twenty twenty, and it is Today's Saturday Classic. So enjoy.

Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, a production
of iHeartRadio. Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Holly
Frye and I'm Tracy V. Wilson. Tracy, we recently had
a listener mail that requested long games as a topic. Yeah.
I think we read that on the air. Yeah, and

then I couldn't get it out of my head. Also,
Atlanta is having a freakishly warm winter so far. We
had snowed this past weekend, but today it's in the sixties. Yeah.
I was just very week for a quick visit and
was like, wow, it is sticky springtime right now, even
though it is at that point January. It was January. Now,

see it's all blurred together. It is. There are a
lot of confused plants trying to bloom at my house
and my lawn is having a pretty significant identity crisis
where it is also trying to grow, and then the
weeds are coming in up. So it actually kind of
does seem like a weird spring here, even though I
know a cold snap is coming anytime. But it does
put me in the mind of long games. I'm gonna

invent a new sport called like winter croquet, which is
what we're talking about today, because as I started looking
at long games, croquet kind of took the lead in
terms of available information. I still would love to do
a survey of other ones, but there was so much
interesting stuff about croquet that I wanted to talk about it.
Because while the origins of it are really really cloudy,

and we're going to talk about that, there have been
plenty of books written on a subject in the last
one hundred and fifty years, many of which are very
charming and sort of funny from the modern perspective. So
to start, let's cover just the basic rules of croquet
as it's played today. The regulation size for a court
is one hundred by fifty feet that's roughly thirty by
fifteen meters, although for casual play the dimensions can be

altered to suit the available space. I hang out with
a lot of casual but very dedicated croquet players, and boy,
oh boy, do we have some non standard play sizes
in my social circle. The space is usually marked out
with steaks or string, and wickets are placed in the
space to create a pointed figure eight shape with a

wicket at each point, and at the top and the
bottom of this figure eight there are two croquet wickets
placed close to one another with a steak at the
very top and bottom of the arrangement. This arrangement uses
a total of nine wickets. The play starts at the
bottom of this figure eight, and every ball needs to
move through each wicket, first along the right side of

the diamond, up through the double wicket at the top,
up hitting the stake that's there, and then turning and
moving back down the figure eight on the opposite side.
Two teams compete, taking turns to move all their croquet
balls through this configuration by tapping the balls with the
ends of the mallets, not the sides. The first team
to successfully get all the croque balls through the course wins.

And there are of course more rules than that, and
a lot of house rules. If you know a lot
of casual croquet players, but the basic layout is that's
how the game works today. However, there is another variation.
In the US. A version of croquet exists using only
six wickets. These are arranged so that they form two

triangles that point toward the center of the established court,
and that court can be just fifty by forty feet
that's roughly fifteen by twelve meters, so much smaller. Gameplay
in the six wicket arrangement has the balls played in
kind of a spiral that starts at the outside edge
to work inward for the first six points of play,
and then it restarts from another point on the exterior

of the wickets and moves inward for the last seven points.
In an eighteen ninety seven book on crow K's history,
author Arthur Lilly opens with a story about a friend
whose doctor told him that the crazy work, work, work
lifestyle of the eighteen sixties was making people ill. We
can have a moment of a side to just laugh
at how they would be terrified at the workload of

most people in twenty twenty. In this particular case, though,
the explanation was that quote work keeps the mucous membrane
of the brain in perpetual irritation. I'm going to use
that excuse all the time. Fresh air was the recommended treatment,
and after unsuccessfully trying out things like long walks, what
really helped the patient, who was a clergyman named dunbar

isidor Heath, was croquet. Lily went on in his writing
to proclaim quote Croque, according to many medical men, is
the healthiest game in the world, seeing that it furnishes
the great does bottom of the overworked nineteenth century the
maximum of daily fresh air and amusement with the minimum fatigue.

He also points out that the beauty of the game
is its accessibility to almost anyone to play. It can
be intellectually simulating, as the player has to strategize, but
it's not actually taxing. Thirty years prior to Arthur Lilly,
a man named Walter Jones Whitmore similarly extolled the virtues
and noted the appeal of croquet in his eighteen sixty

eight book Croquet Tactics, writing quote considered simply as an
outdoor amusement affording healthy exercise and excitement to a number
of people who only got their exercise formerly in the
dull round of a constitutional walk. We are bound to
confess that it has conferred an immense boon to society,
which boon society gratefully acknowledges by its attachment. Then it

is a game suited to every age and both sexes.
This was, of course, a great element of success from
the first. This same writing also mentions that croquet has
an edge over both billiards and cricket because the financial
barrier to entry is pretty low by comparison. It's not
a luxury sport, but it's one that during nice weather,

can be found almost anywhere. I mean, as long as
there's a spot of greenery that's large enough. Yeah, you
just need a little open, fairly flat piece of lawn.
Anybody can play. Arthur Lilly's book also quotes the Reverend J. G.
Woods explanation of the name of this game in his
work quote. The word croquet is derived from a French

word croquet to crunch with the teeth. This word is
used to describe the sound caused by eating anything very
hard and brittle. The word is used to distinguish the
game in consequence of the crackling sound of the mallets
against the ball. However, though that quote is very Charming
Lily then dismisses this entire explanation as complete nonsense and

explains that the proto mallets in the games pre date
croquet were themselves called croquets, and that that derived from
the Old French word croche, which translated to crooks. So
the origins of games are almost always a little bit
murky because a lot of these diversions start out pretty organically.
They evolve over time as people make up things to do. Historically,

people haven't just documented the moment when they came up
with a game for the most part. Yeah, it's not
like Cones of Duncher or any of the sort of
gaming trend of today where people are like, I'm going
to come up with a game and it is well documented.
This is definitely more of a casual we could hit
that thing with that thing to make some rules. While

there are variations in how the game spread and how
its rules were refined, it is generally believed to have
originated in Western France Brittany, specifically as early as the
thirteenth century. Players in this proto croquet entertainment, according to
the Croquet Foundation of America quote, used crudely fashioned mallets
to whack wooden balls through hoops made of willow branches.

In the mid sixteen hundreds, the English lexiconographer Thomas Blunt
described the game this way quote a game wherein a
round bowl is with a mallet struck through a high
arch of iron standing at either end of an alley,
which he can do at the fewest blows or at
the number agreed on wins. The game is heretofore used

in the long Alley near Saint James's and vulgarly called
pell Mell. On April second, sixteen sixty one, during the
restoration reign of Charles the Second, Samuel, Peeps recorded an
instance of watching the Duke of York play a game
that he calls pell mell. He spells it p e
l E d m e l E. The King himself

was said to love the game, and two years later
Peeps interviewed the man who looked after what Peeps is
by that time calling the pell mell. That's the yard
used to play the game, and it's spelled the way
it sounds e l And the area that's used for
playing was made up of a mix of earth covered
with powdered cockle shells and then the name Paul Mall

is another variation of the two that are already noted
in Peeps's writing, and there are others. It is possible
that the mall in this case is an anglicization of Maya,
which is a French word for mallet. We're going to
talk a little bit more about how pall Mall, pell
Mell or pie my was played, but first we're going
to pause for a quick sponsor break. So this game

with many names, but we'll go with Paul Mall or
pell Mell was played in essentially a long alley. It
is sometimes described as being something between golf and modern croquet,
and like croquet, it included a ball, mallets with curved heads,
and an arch that players tried to get the ball
through the arches. In seventeen seventeen, a book titled Jeu Demy,

written by Monsieur Lothier, offered instructive advice on playing technique. Quote,
the body ought not to be either too straight or
too much curved, but moderately incline, so that in striking
it may be supported by the strength of the loins
while we turn it gently back from the waist upwards,
raising the head without ever losing sight of the ball.

So use your course strength with this and not just
your arms. Yeah. Latier also shared a story of a
unique ball that was used for this game. So at
this point pell Mell balls were normally about six inches
in diameter. They are made from a substance called dudgeon,
and that is the root of the box tree, And
that dungeon was then beaten carefully into this ball shape. Quote.

There was a ball of great renown, the history of
which will perhaps not be useless or disagreeable, and will
show what importance in the game of mal is a
good ball. A ball merchant of Provence brought a large
back of them to Ikes. The players, who were in
great number in this town, bought them all at thirty
sous apiece, except one only, which, not being so pretty

as the others, was rejected. A good player named Bernard
came the last and bought this waste ball, for which
he would not give but fifteen suit. It weighed seven
ounces and two DRAMs, and was of ugly wood, and
half of it reddish. He played it a long time,
finished it, and it became so excellent that when he
had a long stroke to make it never failed. Him

at his need, and led infallibly to his winning the match.
This ball, which became famous, became known as the Bernard,
and it was so coveted and renowned that its next
owner refused numerous offers to purchase it, including a proposed
trade in which the would be buyer offered thirty pistols. Clearly,
it's a very valuable ball. It was, however, occasionally loaned

out to famous players for matches, though so. In addition
to this primary version of pall Mall, the Lothier text
also described two other variations. The first of these was
something called chakam paull Mall, which was a lot like golf.
It was played in an open field with specified targets,
usually naturally occurring obstacles like trees and rocks, and instead

of mallets they used crooks. And then the third version
was played a lot like billiards. Other accounts of these
games suggest that they were completely different sports. In his
eighteen ninety seven History of Croquet, Arthur Lilly made the
point that many sports, in addition to paul Mall, including
hockey and polo, had some version in their history which

was called chican or you'll see it sometimes called chicane,
so they may have all had some sort of commonality
from which they branched, evolved, and then in some cases
combined with other games. It makes the case that this
may be in part due to the changing seasons. In Brittany,
where the rudimentary game started, they would have played a
version of the game that evolved into hockey in the

winter and one more like golf in the spring, and
as the summer got hot and movement was a lot
more arduous, the limited range version that was played within
an alley or a court would have become the standard.
He also suggests that on the most uncomfortable days, the
players might have just simply practiced their putting so hot
I only want to put pal mall fell out of

favor in England over time, but as it declined there
it seems that some version of it was introduced to Ireland.
It's unclear exactly how this sport migrated from France, but
by the eighteen thirties it was popular in the areas
around Dublin and the rules had started to become more uniform.
In the early eighteen fifties, the game as it had
evolved in Ireland included the basic rules that were developed there.

They were exported to England, where the modern version of
the game was first played with the name Crookie. Yeah.
I am unclear on whether that is just an Englishman
writing a snooty phonetic of how he thinks Irish people speak,
because it's literally a crooky I don't know. The first

retail croquet sets were also introduced during this time, in
the eighteen fifties by Jean Jacques of London, which still
exists after some name shifting as Jacques of London. Their
croquet set offerings on their website, which they still offer,
include copy that states that the company invented the sport,
which is a matter of some debate. Sure. Even early

on in Croquet's modern era popularity, the origin of the
game was still debated, and a letter penned by a
doctor Pryor in the late eighteen hundreds on this matter,
he wrote, quote who invented croquet? Or who improved a
rustic game into one fit for polite society is a
question that has often been asked and has never been answered.

One thing only is certain. It is from Ireland that
it came to England, and it was on the lawn
of the late Lord Lonsdale, that was first played in
this country. How long it had been practiced in Ireland,
or in what year his lordship introduced it, nobody knows.
It may be presumed that it did not occur to
anyone in its perfect form as we have it now,

but was built up, so to say, bit by bit,
with hints and contributions from many different people, which is
exactly how most things evolve in history. Uh. Pryor's position, though,
was that croquet did not evolve from Paul Mall as
that game hadn't been played in so long that no
one probably even remembered it enough to revive it in
any sort of revised version. But one thing about croque

was entirely clear to Pryor. He wrote, quote, nothing but
tobacco smoking has ever spread as quickly. Croquet eventually made
its way to the US from Europe, and it quickly
became very popular here too. From the mid eighteen hundreds
up until the eighteen nineties, its state side appeal grew,
but in the last decade of the nineteenth century it

was lumped in with drinking and gamimbling due to its
popularity on Boston Common, where Tho's other entertainments were also popular.
After that, it's popularity declined for several decades. Yeah, I
had a little little smear on its identity. I'm trying
to think if I've ever seen people playing croquet on

Boston Common, And I'm like, I don't think i've seen
anyone do? Is it allowed? Right? It's because in the
eighteen nineties they knew it's too much trouble with the
croquet on Boston, right, they associated it with vices that
were not healthy. But beginning in the nineteen twenties, croque
in the US once again became popular as it was

embraced by various celebrities at their gatherings and it gained
a fresh wave of cachet. The United States Croquet Association
was founded in nineteen seventy seven, so it took a
little while by Jack Osborne, and he established the rules
for that six wicket kind of abbreviated style of play
that we mentioned at the top of the show. Show.
That association still exists today. In nineteen eighty seven, the

American Croque Association was born to support gameplay with the
international rules, so with more wickets. Though the USCA now
oversees most events that feature international rules gameplay, and there's
a pretty significant overlap in membership. That ven diagram has
a big middle section. Next, we're going to discuss two

interesting figures in Crok's history and one significant organization that
has shifted away from the sport of croque in favor
of another game. We'll get to that after a word
from our sponsors. One of the most prominent figures in

Croque's history is Walter Jones Whitmore, who we mentioned earlier.
Whitmore was born in eighteen thirty one and became acquainted
with crok in eighteen sixty when he was just a
young man of twenty nine. He was working at the
time as a government clerk and he picked up the
game casually playing with the people in his neighborhood of
Morton in Marsh in Gloucestershire, England. At this point, there

wasn't a standardized set of rules for the game beyond
a very friendly version. Different companies were producing croquet sets
for recreational use, and every company had its own version
of the rules that was included with the set. Whitmore
recognized that if the sport was going to be taken seriously.
There needed to be a clear, standardized rule set for
competitive play. So he wrote some Yeah, there were rules

that have been developed, but there's a lot of them.
There's a lot of house rules for everybody that played.
And as we said, different different companies that made sets
made their own shifts to the rules, and he thought, like,
this is a sport that could be like a pro sport,
but it's going to need some more structure. These rules
that he came up with were published by a periodical

called The Field and they came to be known as
the Field Rules, or you'll sometimes see them listed as
the Field Laws, and they did shift public thinking on
the sport to consider it as more than just a
backyard pastime. The same year that the Field Rules came out,
which was eighteen sixty six, Walter Jones Whitmore also published
a book which used a lot of the articles that

he had written to establish these rules, and that was
called The Science of Croque. In eighteen sixty seven, Whitmore
established England's first croque tournament, which he also won. That
championship status led to his book croqu Tactics. He explained
to the introduction quote, the present volume is a compilation
of my articles which appeared in that journal. The field,

although considerably enlarged and with the addition of several points
which have since occurred to me. He next established the
All England Croquet Club, and after failing to secure a
permanent home for the AECC, he next founded a second
All England Croque Club, which became the National Croque Club.
Both of these clubs worked together with Whitmore's leadership to

refine the sport rules further and sub years, and then
he died in eighteen seventy two at the age of
forty one. Women's involvement in the game of croquet has
been touted almost as long as the sport has existed
under that name. One of the selling points of croquet,
as we mentioned at the top of the episode, is
that it is something that many people can do because
it is not especially physically demanding. Caricaturist John Leech made

engravings in the eighteen sixties featuring ladies playing croquet alongside gentlemen.
In his eighteen sixty two etching a croquet match, a
large group of people is playing, including several women. As
the women are leaning forward playing the game, their large
cage crenlines lift their dresses so they slightly expose the
petticoats that are underneath. Leech's eighteen sixty five piece titled

A Nice Game for Two or More, shows a garden
party with a woman preparing a shot as she looks
at one of her male opponents. The caption for this
image reads, fixing her eyes on his and placing her
pretty little foot on the ball. She said, now then
I am going to croquet you and croquete. He was
completely Arthur Lily history. We've referenced several times, even mentions

and interpreting a poem about croquet that lists a number
of other sports. Quote, all these games are inferior to
croquet where they exclude ladies. And there was incidentally a
nickname for an adaptation of the game, which was called
crinoline croquet, But that didn't really have anything to do
with women, So I just want to clarify on that
in case you come across it. This was just the

game played on a smaller scale with smaller implements. This
version was apparently considered far less serious by more devoted
players of the game, but it was also the reason
that its popularity spread so quickly as it could be
played even on tiny backyard lawns. It was also where,
according to Lily's estimate, ninety percent of enthusiasts were playing.

This is again not the professional tournament version, but the
more casual version, and it's really that version that came
across the Atlantic and became popular in the US. There's
one woman in particular who had a surprising rise to
fame as a croquet player. Her name was Lily Gower
and she was Welsh. In eighteen ninety eight, at the
age of twenty one, the relatively inexperienced Gower entered a

tournament in Budley, which is a coastal town in East Devon, England.
Yeah she had never played in public before, and after
a fairly boring run of the beginning of the tournament,
it ended up that the newcomer Gower was up against
mister C. E. Willis, a champion player, for the finals.
The finals were a best of three situation. Lily had
been categorized as having beginner's luck by most people in attendance,

but in the first round of play against the veteran Willis,
she beat him and in the second game, which was
heavily attended, After Gower's success in the first game, Willis
came back and played incredibly well, beating the young woman easily.
So it appeared that Lily's luck had run out. But
in the third game she trounced Willis, winning in just
thirty five minutes with a twenty six point lead. So

while they were still detractors that chocked all this up
to just good luck on her part, that was really
the beginning of a successful career in the sport for her.
Lily Gower went on to win a lot of championships. Yeah,
she also ended up married to another croquet player, which
I love. There is also another name in croquet history
that I would bet is very familiar to most of

our listeners, which is Wimbledon. The sport that you probably
think of when you hear that name is tennis with
good reason, but Wimbledon was actually associated with croquet. First,
we're gonna jump back first to the Walter Jones Whitmore story.
He had, as we just mentioned, founded the All England
Croquet Club in eighteen sixty eight, four years before his death.

We mentioned that he had some difficulty finding a permanent
home for the club and once that was finally secured
it was near the Wimbledon train station. The station name
and the club became totally intertwined. In eighteen seventy five,
the club, in an effort to stay relevant and to
capitalize on another sport that was gaining in popularity, changed

its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.
By eighteen eighty, croquet had vanished from the name, as tennis,
which held a wider appeal because it was a little
bit more of a spectator sport, made use of the
club's lawns. It is no accident that two Wimbledon tennis
courts fit just about perfectly into one croquet court because

the space was converted from one to the other. But
croquet and Wimbledon's divorce did not stick. Croquet once again
became part of the All England Club in eighteen ninety nine,
although the order was reversed so that it became the
All England Lawn Tennis and Croquete Club, although All England
Club is commonly used. When the club moved in the

nineteen twenties, Croquete did not move with it, although it
stayed in the official name. In the nineteen fifties, the
club once again picked up croquet, but it has remained
a secondary aspect of Wimbledon. The club had only one
croquet court until two thousand and seven. That one was
removed and then three new ones were installed in two
thousand and eight. During high tennis season, the croquet players

have to play elsewhere they usually. I heard it described
they do like four kind of open tournaments in the
club each year and four away and the away wins
are scheduled when tennis is in its season because those
lawns that would be used for croquet are used as
practice areas for the more prevalent sports. It's a very

brief glimpse at croquet in our history. We'll talk about
the fact. Here's the thing. I know that if you
are in England, they do the accent differently, so it's
croquet rather than croquet. This is like whether it's Marriott
or Marriott right precisely. But yeah, it's a fun little

I'm thinking of spring already, so it was a fun
adventure to consider going outside and playing on the lawn. Yeah.
I as as I was reading through this outline, I
read a really interesting article about the spread of England
or the spread of croquet through like places that England

or Britain had colonized, and like its introduction into Egypt
and then Egypt becoming like the dominant home of croquet players.
So like it's a game that has had a whole
trajectory beyond its origins. Oh yes, yeah, I stuck to
the very European kind of developmental rules because once it

passed out of there, it exploded and became like a
worldwide sport. I definitely did not get into the more
competitive There are not very many, but there are professional
croquet players today that that is their full time thing,
which is just one of the many evolutions of any
sport that becomes popular, I think. Yeah, thanks so much

for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode is
out of the archive, if you heard an email address
or a Facebook RL or something similar over the course
of the show, that could be obsolete now. Our current
email address is History Podcast at iHeartRadio dot com. You
can find us all over social media at missed Dhistory,

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