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Croquet...

Max Le Grand once played a spiteful and malicious game. Now tempers are tamed in Cheltenham.

When I was a lad, about the only games that girls and boys could play equally were five stones, shove ha’penny, tiddley-winks and postman’s knock! When the girls grew up, we saw them compete against the fellows on horse back in racing, show jumping and hockey. These days, few people even consider croquet as a game of absolute gender parity.

That was not the case in 1858. Miss Dorothea Beale became the Principal at Cheltenham Ladies College. In those days, Croquet was mainly played by high society. Sons and daughters were kept well away from the lawn when the sparks began to fly. Teenagers were not fools. Hence, second year students at the Ladies College, returned from the summer holidays with balls, wickets and mallets stashed away in their baggage. The head teacher eventually banned croquet from the lawns of the college in 1876. The obscure reason being, the game ‘created unladylike physical deformity and idleness’. Miss Beale sent the girls into the world, with a distinctly feminine sense of dress, along with poise, general good manners and a fine education.

Ironically, “Crookey” as croquet became known, was introduced to England and Ireland in 1852 as ‘the Queen of Games’. At this time, its origins were based at Hurlingham in London. The pastimes popularity mushroomed when London sporting goods manufacturer John Jaques, started to retail complete croquet sets across the United Kingdom.

Cheltenham Croquet Club was founded in 1869 at the Montpellier leisure park. The Queens Hotel was generally recognised as the club’s base. It is believed two Cheltenham residents, Mr W. Whitmore Jones and Mr J.H. Hale, met at the hotel. Between them, Mr Whitmore devised new field rules, while Mr Hale inspired the original tactics and the format of the game.

This probably explained why croquet gained a spicy reputation for incurring the wrath of some players. So as one port cullis was raised at the Ladies College, another was dropped when the first in Cheltenham was for ladies in 1899. That was when Miss G. Willes won the inaugural Ladies Championship Bowl. The oldest trophy in the cabinet.

When the club moved to its new headquarters off the Old Bath Road, everything was under one roof and new lawns were laid. From then onwards, Cheltenham’s reputation as the respected centre of croquet in the country, was second only to Hurlingham. Oddly enough, croquet’s popularity fluctuated around the turn of the twentieth century. Tennis became the socially acceptable game for the aristocracy. Even gentlemen cricket lovers found the first Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in the latter 1800’s became a temporary distraction. Especially when elegant young ladies participated.

For croquet, common sense prevailed in the early 1900’s when Cheltenham hosted several prestigious tournaments. Not even two World Wars staunched the enthusiasm of croquet players, who apparently oblivious, continued to play throughout both conflicts. The lawns were maintained with soot, the dried blood of cattle, farm yard manure and bone meal.

On occasions this recipe for ideal grass did not deter moles, which played havoc with hills on the turf. However, by 1928, Cheltenham’s croquet lawns were proclaimed the best in the country.

As if to endorse the town’s status within the game, the Croquet Association which covers England and Wales and other British colonies, moved in 2002 from Hurlingham to Cheltenham, thus providing the club with great kudos, nationally and internationally. In 2005 Cheltenham hosted the World Croquet Championship.

Crowds were not overwhelming, but croquet is not a mass spectator game. Besides, Cheltenham does not have the space to construct even temporary grandstands, when all eleven courts are employed.

These days Cheltenham Croquet Club has over 200 members, who with friends can play, even on dry days during mid-winter. Ages range from 9 years through 90 years of age. The game still prides itself upon total equality, the more so now, with Golf Croquet being played without any agitation between the sexes. A long time ago, I tried my hand at this game of spite and malice. I have cogitated for over 30 years before trying again. The petty griping of yore has stopped. Well, almost. In truth, I rediscovered that croquet is still highly competitive, but a real joy to play.