Croquet was introduced in England in 1856. It was considered particularly suitable for women since it required considerable skills but not too much strength or technique. (Women were allegedly deficient in both). Although croquet was never popular men’s game, it had both social and economic advantages: men and women could play together, and it required little equipment and no special clothing.
No one knows the origin of croquet. It might descend from a 13th-century French game called pall - mall, which is perhaps an ancestor of modern golf. Aristocrats played pall - mall over long distances, with some courses being 1,000 yards in length. While similar to croquet, the game involved knocking balls through wickets set up in no regular design, but played through in absolute order. Every pall - mall game proved different, since players first arranged the wickets in whatever order seemed most fun or challenging. Players went pell-mell from one end of the course to the other, or half way, or diagonally, or in widening circles. Maybe they exhausted themselves.
Scholars think billiards evolved as a winter, diminutive, indoor offshoot of pall - mall in France around 1480. Golf probably evolved from pall - mall, too, with rougher courses but a regular order of holes. All anyone knows about croquet is that it arrived in England from Ireland in 1851 and took the nation by storm.
Even its name remains mysterious. Croquet might be a corruption of crockett, an old English word from a French root designating a crooked or hooked stick, perhaps one like a shepherd's crook. But the word explains nothing of the Irish origin of the game.
Croquet blossomed because Victorians decided that women might play it privately around men, and might even play it with men. As perhaps the first mixed-sex sport, it evidenced both restrictions and experiments. English men and women tended to play it behind houses, on private property, not in public parks. But even in private surroundings, teenagers pushed all sorts of social boundaries.
Girls and women routinely cheated. Long skirts masked the subtle kick that directed an opponent's ball away from a wicket or stick. Advice books counseled male players to ignore such behavior. Just playing a lawn game with women should delight them, and judging female morality according to sporting codes meant philosophical disaster.
Flirtation drove croquet rules. Knocking an opponent's ball into the shrubbery meant a chance to follow the opponent into the undergrowth to help him or her find the ball. Young Victorians loved the game.
Croquet has its roots in a game called "paille maille," played by French peasants in medieval times. From there it jumped across the channel to Ireland, where it came to be called "crooky." By the late 1800s, the game, now called croquet, was perhaps the most widely played sport in Victorian England, offering one of the few opportunities for men and women to compete against each other. To be sure, there had always been the appeal of a little sub-rosa romance in the game's possibilities; Tolstoy used a croquet game as the setting for Anna Karenina's trysting with the handsome Vronski.
Mallet and ball games are thought to have been first played in England and Europe during the middle ages. Games would normally involve only one ball which would be struck through very wide hoops. A Croquet-like game is believed to have been played by thirteenth century French peasants who used crudely fashioned mallets to whack wooden balls balls through hoops made of willow branches. A variety of equipment has been found indicating that, as was typical, there were no standards and a variety of rules and types of game were in existence for several centuries. One type of game which this author calls Ground Billiards' featured a hoop and a stick, a point being scored for each time your ball was first through the hoop and onto hit the stick. At some point in the 15th century someone chose to invent an indoor variation of this played on a table which led to Billiards and that whole family of games.
The modern game of Croquet probably is not an evolution of Paille Maille, contrary to what most text books state. It might be the descendent of the early Ground Billiards and/or Closh games but such an assertion would be conjecture because the ancestry of the game prior to its arrival in Ireland from Europe or Asia is completely unclear. It seems to be undisputed, however, that a game called Crookey was played in Ireland from the 1830's and that, in 1852, it was brought to England where it quickly became popular. It was particularly popular with women because it was the first outdoor sport which could be played by both sexes on an equal footing. Widespread popularity began when Croquet equipment became readily available due to London sporting goods manufacturer, John Jaques & Sons, who began selling complete croquet sets. Jaques remain the foremost manufacturer of croquet equipment today.
Over the next 30 years uniform rules were established and national competitions commenced, Croquet becoming a major sport of the day. The first national headquarters was the Wimbledon All England Croquet Club (later to become the Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club); the first national championships were held there in Victorian times.
Spearheaded by Australia and New Zealand, Croquet spread quickly to the British colonies. By 1870, the game had reached virtually all of the British colonies and its popularity grew, following the earlier trend of being especially popular with women. Around this time, the game was denounced from the pulpits of the day, and play was actually banned at some sporting clubs. Croquet was played at the 1900 Olympics but around this time, the up-and-coming sport of Tennis started to eclipse Croquet and this other game's ascension marked the end of Croquet's heyday.
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