Croquet is a sport and also a recreational lawn game. It involves hitting ceramic, plastic or wooden balls with a mallet through hoops (often called ‘wickets’ in the United States) embedded into the grass playing court.
There are several variations of croquet currently played, differing in the scoring systems, order of shots, and layout (particularly in social games where play must be adapted to smaller-than-standard playing courts). Two forms of the game, association croquet and golf croquet, have rules that are agreed internationally and are played in many countries around the world. The United States has its own set of rules for domestic games.
More unusual variations of the game include mondo croquet, extreme croquet, and bicycle croquet (perhaps influenced by polo). Gateball, a sport originated in Japan under the influence of croquet, is played mainly in East and South-east Asia and the Americas, it can also be regarded as a croquet variant.
The History of Croquet
The oldest document to bear the word “croquet” with a description of the modern game is the set of rules registered by Isaac Spratt in November 1856 with the Stationers’ Company in London. This record is now in the English Public Records Office. In 1868 the first croquet all-comers’ meeting was held at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire and in the same year the All England Croquet Club was formed at Wimbledon, London.
In the book ‘Queen of Games: The History of Croquet’, Nicky Smith presents two theories of the origin of the modern game that took England by storm in the 1860s and then spread overseas.
The first explanation is that the ancestral game was introduced to Britain from France during the reign of Charles II of England, and was played under the name of paille-maille or pall mall, derived ultimately from Latin words for “ball and mallet”. This was the explanation given in the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, dated 1877.
In his 1810 book entitled The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Joseph Strutt describes the way pall mall was played in England in the early 17th century:
“Pale-maille is a game wherein a round box ball is struck with a mallet through a high arch of iron, which he that can do at the fewest blows, or at the number agreed upon, wins. It is to be observed, that there are two of these arches, that is one at either end of the alley. The game of mall was a fashionable amusement in the reign of Charles the Second, and the walk in Saint James’s Park, now called the Mall, received its name from having been appropriated to the purpose of playing at mall, where Charles himself and his courtiers frequently exercised themselves in the practice of this pastime.”
Whilst the name pall mall and various games bearing this name may have been played elsewhere (France and Italy) the description above suggests that the croquet-like games were certainly popular in England as early as 1611. Some early sources refer to pall mall being played over a large distance (as in golf), however an image in Strutt’s 1801 book clearly shows a croquet-like ground billiards game (balls on ground, hoop, bats and peg) being played over a short, garden-sized distance. Interestingly, this image’s caption describes the game as “a curious ancient pastime”, confirming that croquet games were not new in early nineteenth century England.
In Samuel Johnson’s 1828 dictionary, his definition of “pall mall” clearly describes a game with similarities to modern croquet: “A play in which the ball is struck with a mallet through an iron ring”. However, there is no evidence that pall mall involved the croquet stroke which is the distinguishing characteristic of the modern game.
The second theory is that the rules of the modern game of croquet arrived from Ireland during the 1850s, perhaps after being brought there from Brittany where a similar game was played on the beaches. Records show the similar game of “crookey” being played at Castlebellingham in 1834, which was introduced to Galway in 1835 and played on the bishop’s palace garden, and in the same year to the genteel Dublin suburb of Kingstown where it was first spelt as “croquet”. There is, however, no pre-1858 Irish document that describes the way game was played, and there is no reference to the distinctive croquet stroke.
John Jaques apparently claimed in a letter to Arthur Lillie in 1873 that he had himself seen the game played in Ireland and, “I made the implements and published directions (such as they were) before Spratt introduced the subject to me”. Whatever the truth of the matter, Jaques certainly played an important role in popularising the game, producing editions of the rules in 1857, 1860, and 1864.
Regardless of when and by what route it reached England and the British colonies in its recognisable form, croquet is clearly a derivative of ground billiards, which was popular in Western Europe back to at least the 14th century, with roots in classical antiquity.
Croquet became highly popular as a social pastime in England during the 1860s; by 1867, Jaques had printed 65,000 copies of his Laws and Regulations of the game. It quickly spread to other Anglophone countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. No doubt one of the attractions was that the game could be played by both sexes; this also ensured a certain amount of adverse comment.
By the late 1870s, however, croquet had been eclipsed by another fashionable game, tennis, and many of the newly-created croquet clubs, including the All England club at Wimbledon, converted some or all of their lawns into tennis courts. There was a revival in the 1890s, but from then onwards, croquet was always a minority sport, with national individual participation amounting to a few thousand players. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club still has a croquet lawn, but has not hosted any significant tournaments. The English headquarters for the game is now in Cheltenham.
As well as club-level games, there are regular world championships and international matches between croquet-playing countries. The sport has particularly strong followings in the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia; every four years, these countries contest the MacRobertson Shield tournament.
Many other countries also play. The current world rankings show England in top place for association croquet, followed by Australia and New Zealand sharing second place, with the United States in fourth position; the same four countries appear in the top six of the golf croquet league table, below Egypt in top position and South Africa at number five.
Croquet is popularly believed to be viciously competitive. This may derive from the fact that (unlike in golf) players will often attempt to move their opponents’ balls to unfavourable positions. However, purely negative play is rarely a winning strategy: successful players (in all versions other than golf croquet) will use all four balls to set up a break for themselves, rather than simply making the game as difficult as possible for their opponents. At championship-standard association croquet, players can often make all 26 points (13 for each ball) in two turns.
Croquet was an event at the 1900 Summer Olympics and roque, an American variation of croquet, an event at the 1904 Summer Olympics.