(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Croquet is a game where players hit balls through hoops with a mallet. The origins of croquet may go all the way back to ancient times. In the Roman game of “paganica”, a small leather ball was hit with a curved stick. The aim was to hit all the designated trees in a field in the least number of shots. Another early possibility is that it developed from a field hockey game played by the ancient Greeks.
A game called “palle malle” or “palle maille” or “pallemaile” was played in France as early as the 13th century in the former province of Languedoc. A 1717 Paris publication has a picture from this era of a player hitting a small ball through an arch. The French name derives from an Italian word “pallamaglio,” with “palla” meaning “ball” and “maglio” meaning “mallet”.
When Charles II and other political exiles returned to England from France in 1660, they brought the game back with them and it soon became very popular. Wooden hammers with long handles were used to hit boxwood balls through metal rings just under a foot in diameter. In 1663, Samuel Pepys described in his diary how he spoke with the keeper of an area called Pall Mall who was sweeping some ground that had powdered cockle shells mixed with the earth. The game was played on this surface.
It seems the spot had recently been named Pall Mall, after the game that was now played there. Indeed the street in London where the king and his court played the game was called Catherine Street after Catherine of Braganza but was renamed in the early 1660s to its present name of Pall Mall.
The game all but disappeared as quickly as it had been introduced and was not revived until the early 1850s. It returned with the new name of croquet, from the French word “croc”, meaning “hook”. A croc was a stick used by French peasants that was shaped like a hockey stick.
Just as the forerunner “palle malle” came from France, so did croquet. It was introduced into Ireland in about 1852 and soon reached England. A Miss Macpherson may have brought the game from Ireland, although it seems more likely that John Jacques should be credited with its introduction. He had watched games in Ireland. When he returned to England, he promoted the game and was soon manufacturing the game’s equipment. Jacques of London is still a major supplier of croquet equipment.
Once again, the game became very popular with matches played across the country, but a lack of rules led to much arguing on the lawn. Leading player Walter Whitmore, who won the world’s first Croquet Open championship in 1867, stepped in and produced a standard set of rules. He published his book Croquet Tactics in 1868 and played an instrumental part in establishing the All England Croquet Club in the same year.
The club acquired four acres at Wimbledon and the pastime was soon second only to cricket in popularity. But the invention of lawn tennis, credited to Major Walter Wingfield in 1873, resulted in tennis courts replacing croquet lawns around the country. In 1877, the croquet club was forced to link up with tennis, resulting in the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Association. By 1882, the name croquet was no longer included.
Croquet languished and was soon regarded as a game only for elderly ladies. It made a comeback of sorts in 1889 when the tennis association renamed itself as the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club but, as the new name suggests, croquet was now taking second place to tennis. The Croquet Association was formed in 1897 and moved its headquarters from Wimbledon to Roehampton in 1900 and later to Hurlingham and then Cheltenham.
The game regained its popularity. In 1903, it was described as more popular than golf. But croquet declined again, particularly between the two world wars, and it only had a few thousand players. In the post-war period, rules were changed and other steps taken to make the game more attractive, and the game revived.
It soon expanded its presence in other countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Japan and Egypt. In the US, the number of clubs grew from six to 600 between 1974 and 1994.
Several types of croquet have developed in recent decades. Association croquet and golf croquet are the two main forms, with international rules and both played in a number of countries. Other variations include American six-wicket croquet, mondo croquet, bicycle croquet, gateball, and eXtreme croquet often set in rugged terrain. It is no longer a game only for little old ladies.