Illustration from Punch

A Short history of Croquet

A quintessentially English game?

The game of Pall Mall
Pall mall illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes and Customs, published 1891

The Chambers dictionary lists croquet as a northern French dialect form of crochet, meaning a little crook. It is generally agreed that the game croquet emerged from Ireland around 1850 where it was known as crookey, a word with its root meaning as a hooked stick. A northern European origin for the game is possibly evidenced in the 17C. Dutch game of beugelen (played on an indoor clay court with football-sized wooden balls and one metal ring) and in the French game of pall mall (jeu de mail), played with smaller balls, hoops and mallets (mail, maillet) on a strip of land, as attested by Samuel Pepys in London in 1661.

Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace, site of the Great Exhibition

The game of croquet was introduced to Victorian England by John Jaques and marketed to the growing middle class via the manufacture of croquet sets, which were showcased at The Great Exhibition of 1851. Great Exhibition sets were reissued in the 21st century by Jaques of London to mark 150 years since the introduction of croquet to England.

Original Jaques croquet kit box

The Queen of Games

Alice plays croquet

Coloured plate from Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Margaret W. Tarrant

‘Can you play croquet?’
‘Yes!’ shouted Alice.
‘Get to your places!’ shouted the Queen… and the game began.
Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet ground in her life: it was all ridges and furrows; the croquet balls were live hedgehogs, and the mallets live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their hands and feet to make the arches.
Alice in Wonderland, Chapter VIII, by Lewis Carroll

With recalcitrant flamingoes, unrolling hedgehogs and soldiers who wandered about the ground, it was no wonder that Alice concluded that croquet ‘was a very difficult game indeed’. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 fantastical version of the game hints at some historical truths – the existence of the game in the popular consciousness and techniques of play current in Victorian England: the side-swing of the mallet, the layout of the lawn with wide hoops, players who wait for their turn in a sequence game, the sociable nature of mixed gender play. Indeed, much of the attraction of the game lay in the opportunities it afforded for flirting between the sexes in an otherwise strait-laced society.

1886 quilt depicting sports and pastimes

The popularity of the game in Victorian times engendered a wave of publications, including John Jaques’ Laws and Regulations, Walter James Whitmore’s guide to tactics in The Field magazine of 1886 and Mayne Reid’s Croquet. Each publication offered a different number of rules, ranging from 20 to 126! Consensus arrived in 1870 with the publication of The Conference Rules of Laws. The current Laws of Association Croquet number a modest 55, though that number climbs into the hundreds if you count the many sub-sections.

Edwardian England

book cover: 'Croquet' by Lord Tollemarche

As the world went to war in 1914, Stanley Paul & Co. published Lord Tollemache’s Croquet. The text describes the game of the Edwardian golden age, supported by photographs demonstrating the techniques of a sequence game (as golf croquet today), involving ‘tight croqueting’ where the striker put his foot on his ball and hit it to move the ball in contact over the lawn, sending it ‘up the country’. Croquet illustrates hoops run from circles rounding them on a square court with 4 baulks, 6 hoops and 2 pegs (1st below fifth hoop, 2nd above sixth hoop). The player was required to hit the 2nd peg (turning peg) with the striker’s ball, thus gaining one stroke before advancing to 1-back. The end game involved a peg-out at the peg below the fifth hoop.

Illustration: 'Addressing the ball'
An illustration from Tollemache's book

Lord Tollemache’s work focused attention on the mental approach to the game too, counselling ‘If you want to be first class, you must be content to lose game after game’ and advocating ‘absolute concentration of thought throughout the game, whether you are playing or not, the whole of the time’! These principles have stood the test of time, unlike Lord Tollemache’s 1914 publication which went to print just as the modern Association game was being born, hinted at by his references to ‘the either-ball game’.

a Sport of Croquet

Garden croquet 1861
Garden croquet photographed on a less-than-ideal
playing surface in 1861

As croquet grew in popularity, so clubs were formed. In 1860 the first club was established at Worthing in west Sussex, followed by the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon in 1868. A need to coordinate the activities of a growing number of clubs led to the formation of The Croquet Association (CA) in 1897; it remains today the national governing body for the sport in England and produces the Laws of Croquet for both Association and Golf. The introduction of lawn tennis in 1875 challenged the popularity of croquet, but croquet continued to be played and perhaps benefited from the higher standards of lawn care that tennis demanded. Lawn mowers, first invented in 1830, improved and evolved to suit the leisure market.

Croquet at the 1900 Paris Olympics
Croquet at the 1900 Paris Olympics Picture courtesy of IOC

The first official croquet competition was played in 1870. National, international and world championships continue to maintain the profile of the sport, while regional federations coordinate its development, including running croquet leagues. Croquet was an Olympic sport once. It featured at the summer Olympics in Paris in 1900, with just ten competitors, all French except for one Belgian. Croquet was the first Olympic sport to include women: Madame Brohy and Mademoiselle Ohnier. Croquet at the Olympics, held over three weeks, attracted no spectators beyond one elderly Englishman!

Note. The image at the top of the page is from Mr Punch’s Pocket Book for 1862, drawing by John Leech