Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Frolicks and flirtation – the victorian game of croquet

“The cry is for more freedom, a wider field for flirting operations, multiplied opportunities for fascinating.” The Living Age, Volume 83 1864

A nice game for two or more - John Leech 1861

Originally this article was going to be about croquet dresses with a bit of Punch humour thrown in, and don't worry as always this blog post will be image heavy.  I love playing croquet in my crinoline at our local Dickens festival (though I rarely seem to get the chance nowadays) so I have a bit of a soft spot for the sport. However after looking up some original sources to pad out my photos I found that the early history of croquet was far more interesting than I thought. With all its social nuances I discovered that the way I love to play “Victorian” Croquet with all the fun, frolicks and occasional flirting not to mention the odd bending of the rules is much more in the spirit of early croquet than I realised. 
Me looking like something out of Punch way back in 2001.
Photograph courtesy of M. Ballard

 So what was croquet like in it's heyday of the 1860s and why was it so universally appealing during this period? Also as I researched this topic I wondered why such a popular game suddenly declined?

Croquet players, circa 1860 photographed by the Rev Charles Dodgson ('Lewis Carroll')

The origins of Croquet seem to be lost in the mist of time and subject to much conjecture. Some say that it started as the game of “crookey” and was brought over from Ireland in the early 1850s. Others that it originated from games like Pall Mall. One source from 1864 gives two theories: that the name comes from “Hockey” or that as one cynical old batchelor put forward that it is simply a slightly disguised version of the word “coquette” (The Reader October 1864).  Regardless of how it originated it arrived in England in the 1850s, possibly as a children's game(Family Herald 1858) and soon spread like wildfire across the British Empire and to America, hitting its height of popularity in the 1860s. It seeped into the arts, literature and became a mainstay of victorian middle class society. The London Review in 1865 states that “The knock of the mallet is heard everywhere”.

Croquet on the lawn c.1863 -  Girdwood, Gilbert Prout (1832-1917)

Up until the formation the All England Croquet Club in 1868 there was no hard and fast set of rules for croquet. Hoops were larger and wider than their modern counterparts and lawns generally smaller making the game easier to play.

Here you can see just how large the hoops were!
Ivy House, Wandsworth 1860s
Croquet Association Photo Library ©John Bevington

Games were not necessary played on grass either, as many enjoyed a croquet match on the beach. 

Croquet Under Difficulties - The Illustrated London News 1871 

A Game of Croquet -Louise Abbéma 1872

The number of players was unlimited though the recommended maximum was generally 8. Layout and number of the hoops varied greatly, as was the course taken through them. Pegging out was still the general method of ending the game, though there were alternatives including the use of a “cage” formed from two hoops crossed often with a bell tied in the middle. Other innovations included the Tunnel, smaller than the hoop and with flat sides it was trickier to navigate.  Croquet mallets came in all sorts of shapes and sizes and frequent players often had their own mallet sometimes designed to their own specification. 

Croquet Equipment - Chambers Encyclopedia 1870

There was no specific guidelines as to outfits to wear whilst playing croquet, though some of the more wealthy fashion conscious ladies did start wearing croquet dresses. These sometimes had shorter skirts and/or colourful decorative petticoats designed to be seen under looped up over-skirts. Due to its informal nature it also gave an opportunity for ladies to discard their bonnets in favour of hats. 

Le Monde Elegant August 1866 - Manchester City Galleries

1860s croquet skirt combined with a Garibaldi Jacket
Manchester City Galleries

Walking and croquet dress - Le Diable Rose c1863

Arthur's Illustrated Home Magazine 1868

Godey's Magazine April 1866
Figure 4. Croquet dress of black alpaca, trimmed round the edge of the skirt, up the front, and up each breadth, with bands of green silk cut out in points. The basque is made quite long, slit up to the waist at the back, and turned over with green silk both back and front.  The sleeves are trimmed with points of green silk to match the skirt, and the corsage is turned back, in revers, showing a fine worked chemisette. Hat of black straw, trimmed with a puffing of green silk, and a long white plume.

The same dress making an appearance in a French fashion plate c.1865

Most of all croquet was fun and flirtatious.  Trying to think of a modern day equivalent it was a bit like playing Wii Sports at a party.  The ultimate outcome for most was not to win the game, but taking part in a entertaining and accessible activity in an informal atmosphere.  

A croquet Match - John Leech 1862

When Croquet first arrived on British soil there were few past times that allowed groups of mixed age and gender to intermingle. Archery was a past time of the rich due to the equipment involved, and considered by some to be a little dull and formal, and a billiard table was also considered an “expensive luxury” (the living age – 1864). Chess was considered too intimate for mixed gender play unless the couple were already engaged. Other more social occupations also restricted the chance to mingle. Croquet however had it all. “Given a plot of grass, be it in a London square or in front of a seaside lodging, and the inevitable hoops and mallets follow. There is not a vicarage garden which does not resound with -the click of coloured balls” (The living age 1864). Sets were relatively inexpensive compared to other pursuits and if you had willing participants a game could be set up in minutes. It's open air nature also promoted it as a healthy activity the recommended it "to parents and guardians, whose object always is to combine health with economy”. (The living age 1864) Given the informal nature of the game and its relative ease in playing it allowed both genders to compete on equal terms - though at least one guide suggests that women should be allowed to play with smaller boundaries when in competition with men, or at the very least a gentleman should not send a ladies ball as far away as their power permits (The Gentleman's Magazine 1869)

Women and men playing croquet, Canterbury,New Zealand  1860s

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Croquet gave an unparalleled freedom for men and women to enjoy each others company in an informal atmosphere. Much was made about croquet being under the patronage of mothers using it as a means to exhibit their daughters. However it appears that croquet was also a liberating experience for young men and women, especially those who just happened to be single. For men it gave the chance to make small talk with ladies without the stress and expectations of formal situations. “There are young men who will not talk and who are shy of the society of ladies, because they dread not only having to speak when spoken to, but having perhaps to initiate a conversation themselves. The peculiar distress and solemnity which pervades an Englishman coated in black for an evening party, the grim face with which he walks quadrilles as though he were walking in hospital, his distracted questions and wild endeavours to escape embarrassment under cover of the weather or any other temporary shelter which, like the refuge of the ostrich, only conceals his head, may be cured by croquet. There is hope for him in a walking suit to whom a dress-coat is painful as the shirt of Nessns. The open air, and the general absence of restraint, or formality, helps him to throw off his bashfulness, and even if he cannot do so altogether, he can enter into croquet, and hide his failing by standing well to his mallet. ” (The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art, & Science, Volume 11 1865). 

Croquet Players late 1860s - Manchester City Galleries

Croquet was even more important for young ladies looking for a husband. According to “The Living Age” ladies were increasingly becoming the wooer, yet the opportunities for ladies to engage in courtship were far fewer than their male counterparts “young ladies of eighteen and more enjoyed but two opportunities for shining in society. They might dine out and they might dance out. Thus much the usage of the drawing-room allowed, and no more. This installment of liberty has proved, in course of time, miserably inadequate.....A man can choose his own times and opportunities for approaching the object of his admiration ; yet a young lady enjoys no such enviable discretion. She cannot of her own mere motion jump into a Hansom and take the train to Brighton, or Homburg, or whithersoever young love may bid her follow. A cruel edict of etiquette condemns her to inaction at the very moment when such a display of energy might secure her happiness”. Croquet not only gave ladies the opportunity to converse with menfolk on an equal footing, but also gave many opportunities for flirtation. “There is no mood which may not be shown in croquet, the verb " to flirt " may be conjugated in every tense, and the entire grammar of enchantment gone through. The postures of croquet, and the costumes of croquet are irresistible.” (The London Review 1865) 

A nice game for two or more - Punch 1861
"---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 Croquet'd he was completely."

Artists and authors alike loved to capture the idea of a flash of an ankle, a well formed foot it a kid boot, the banter, the thrill of a Croquet and the looks flashed across the croquet lawn. Opportunity was also given to judge the temperament of potential partners of either sex.  Women who took roquets in good humour were said to make good wifes who would stay calm with the rough knocks of life, but there was also said to be a certain allure to a lady who would firmly Croquet a gentleman's ball (read into that what you may!).   

So croquet gave men and women the chance to interact on an equal footing in an informal atmosphere. It opened up the possibility for women to charm men in a society where women were expected to find husbands but often had few opportunities to do so. It was considered appropriate for all ages and was increasingly becoming popular with most classes. It was easy and fun to play. So what changed to make this phenomenon suddenly fade into relative obscurity in just a few short years after it had reached its peak? 

Watch Hill House, by Prescott & White c.1867

Some modern sources lay the blame at the rise of Lawn Tennis. However looking more contemporary sources it appears that croquet was already on the way out when Lawn Tennis was in it's infancy "just at a time when the charms of croquet were beginning to pall upon the public, lawn-tennis, under its first uncouth name 'sphainstike' at once jumped into favour" (Household Words 1881). One article fortold the future and decline of Croquet a few years before it happened "There is some danger perhaps lest croquet should follow in the same brilliant path, and end by becoming a scientific contest for a few, instead of a popular amusement for the million. Captain Mayne Reid and the Earl of Essex are steering in this unpleasant direction. If codes of rules are to be mastered,—if volumes can be written, read, and fought over about croquet,— farewell to half its charms" (The London Review 1864).  

Croquet - Louis Hersent 1866

The movement towards creating croquet clubs and setting down fixed rules removed what made croquet so unique and appealing to the masses. Terms started being coined such as “croquet maniac” meaning a person who took croquet far to seriously or self styled experts. Instruction booklets of varying complexity were published including an increasing list of slang terms for different croquet shots, positions etc. Croquet gradually moved from a fun impromptu game where the emphasis was on socialization (the very thing that led to its rise), and more towards a complex competitive serious sport. 

The Croquet Party - George Elgar Hicks 1864

In 1868 the All-England Croquet Club was formed and the following year took premises at Wimbledon. Within ten years it had become the All-England Lawn Tennis Club (where the Wimbledon Tennis Championship is now held – they later added croquet back to the name as a link to their history) and had discontinued all croquet matches. The game was refined in with the introduction of the 6 hoop Hale setting in 1872 and the hoops considerably narrowed. Possibly the narrowing of the hoops also led to its downfall, but according to research by David Drazin croquet had difficulties turning a profit from the start at Wimbledon, unlike Lawn Tennis.

Group of Croquet players c.1864 - Spudart.org

So if you ever get the opportunity to play croquet in a mid-victorian setting remember most of all to have fun.  Maybe mix up the layout of the hoops a little, go crazy and add some tunnels, flirt a little with your opponent, if you're a lady remember that you now have a legitimate reason to request that your gentlemen opponents do not Croquet or roquet with great force and if you ever have some stuffed shirt like I once did come up to your group and ask in a deriding tone what type of croquet you are playing look them squarely in the eyes and say "Well Sir (or Madam), we are playing Victorian Croquet!".

To end with here are some photo's of my family having fun on the croquet lawn.

Whatcha gonna do, brother, when Croquetmania runs wild on you?

My husband and little girl having fun - I hope they haven't been tampering with those balls! :D

Rose stops play.

Rose thinks I need all the help I can get and kindly brings the opponents ball to me.

And finally this link http://youtu.be/IKYDv4E2b-8 shows us playing some good old fashioned Victorian Croquet on the lawn outside Dickens House Museum at Broadstairs, known as the piece of ground that Miss Mary Pearson Strong the muse for Charles Dickens famous creation Miss Betsey Trotwood used to chase the donkeys away from.   The video has rather a slow start but if you are in a hurry you can skip to 1:31 where the juicy bits really start :D

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