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Letters & Opinion

by a Committee of Croakers from
[with notes by David Drazin]
Posted June 11, 1999
 • Drazin's Croquet Bibliography
 • Rules for Backyard Croquet

In England and her dominions and former colonies in the 1860s and 70s, croquet was at the height of its popularity as a social pastime. The game provided a rare opportunity for the sexes to get together in something vaguely resembling a sport. The social environment of the parlour game was transferred to the out of doors and doubtless contributed to the enduring image of croquet as a game without rigid boundaries or set conventions of play or conduct - an image which persists to this day in "garden croquet", or "backyard croquet" as it is called in America. While the sport has been progressively codified with ever more exacting standards, the social game - including the double-diamond, two-stake setting - has remained little changed through out the 20th Century. The following article, from two successive issues of THE QUEEN, THE LADIES NEWSPAPER AND COURT CIRCULAR in 1868, though unrelentingly tongue-in-cheek and certainly overwritten, precisely describes the sporting ethic of the famous Algonquin Round Table in New York in the 30s and 40s, and of the Hollywood croquet elite of the postwar era that included such notorious croqueteers as Harpo Marx and Darryl Zanuck. There is still no uniformity in social croquet to this day, and the advice from THE QUEEN will be familiar to anyone who has played croquet in the backyard style. Collector and bibliographer David Drazin brought this article to our attention and provides further "Notes" at the end.

We have changed nothing of the original articles quoted here except for some small deletions and additions. Deleted are the French quotations which, in the custom of the times, were employed to legitimize the cliches and truisms the writer first committed to English, then repeated in French. Subheads were not customary in an age before electronic communication, when literacy was prized and editors felt no need to SHOUT at their readers and compel their attention to a page full of small, dense type. To serve our readers in this CyberAge, we have added subheads in modern vernacular.

The following hints have been drawn up in accordance with the practice of several successful players of our acquaintance. In considering them, and the morals and etiquette which should regulate this admirable game, we are constantly to bear in mind that it is one which owes the unexampled rapidity of its spread abroad as well as at home, to its being suited to the thoroughly self-seeking spirit of the age. This premised, we must abandon as antiquated and utterly abhorrent from its character the principles that obtain in other games - that is to say, all chivalrous feeling of gallantry towards the ladies, and of honour, fair play, and good faith towards the men. Indeed, the trickery allowable in croquet adds greatly to the amusement of the bystanders as well as the players:

Doubtless the pleasure is as great Of being cheated as to cheat; As lookers on feel most delight, That least perceive the juggler's sleight; And still the less they understand, They more admire his sleight of hand.

- Hudidbras, e iii., 1.1

In the game of chicane, according to Horace, "To cheat, and not be found out, is a grand triumph"

Mr. Albert Way has shown, in a most interesting article in the ARCHEOLOGICAL JOURNAL, the close resemblance of our modern game to the ancient and once very fashionable ones of chicane, as it was played in Languedoc in the 13th century....Now, the very name chicane implies that, from its earliest introduction, it was essentially a game of trickery, and such it is now - a game in which, to use the words of Horace, "to cheat, and not be found out, is a grand triumph."
The last croquet 
game of the season, from <I>Illustrated London News</I>, 28 September 1872.  The accompanying 
review of the Wimbledon season commented on the figure at left:
"The last croquet game of the season", from Illustrated London News, 28 September 1872. The accompanying review of the Wimbledon season commented on the figure at left: "Young Mr. Frank, cigar in hand, affects to be watching her [Miss Adeline] play in a careless manner; but, if we can interpret the look on his face, there is something else in his mind."

The croquet player has one single object to keep in view - namely, to win the game; and in the following "Hints" we shall endeavour to give him the means. He is not to blame us if some of these appear unworthy ones. The same might be said of rifle practice, as compared with bravely tilting at an enemy with spear and shield upon an open field of battle. We are not living in the middle ages, and if it is now allowable in war to skulk and shirk about behind trees and walls and stones, and bring down a noble fellow with a murderous rifle shot, the unhandsome practices that we have recommended are not to be condemned upon the croquet lawn. The illusions of romance have been dissipated forever. There are no Quixotes no roaming about the world to protect distressed ladies, and with impunity we may overbear their gentle remonstrances, and take any advantage of them that we can, and we not acting up to the principles of this game if we do not do so.

In short, we counsel you, in accordance with the true character of croquet as a game of chicane, not to enter upon it as you might upon a game of billiards, cricket, or tennis, for a fair and friendly and gentlemanly contest of skill, but to regard it as one in which you are justified in shaping, in taking every mean advantage of your competitors.

There are those who think that if all unfair practices were discountenanced it would add very much to the enjoyment of a country life. We leave these honest people to their opinions. For ourselves, we are no moralists - we are no Castiglioni. We take the game as we find it, and, admitting a principle, we carry it out to its logical conclusion.

Get a big mallet and eliminate the boundaries

First, then, of the tools. It is allowed a player to use his own mallet, and not considered essential to a fair competition that all should be armed alike. Be sure, therefore, when you go to a match, to provide yourself with as massive a one as you can wield. It will give you the advantage of being able to croquet an enemy's ball, a lady's more particularly, to a greater distance than he or she can croquet yours, and serve to balance a greater dexterity and better knowledge of the game on their part. You will of course object to boundaries, and drive their balls as far as you can.

When you arrive at the lawn look over the implements, and if there is a crooked or a crazy mallet among them, or a ball that is cracked or bruised, or not well turned, take care not to be on the side to which these belong. Perhaps they have been provided on purpose, and do not you be the victim.

Upon your own lawn, if anyone brings a heavier mallet than yours, either take him upon your side, or forbid his using it. Upon a strange lawn, under the same circumstances, refuse to play till it is laid aside.

Choose the best players for your side,
and put the children and invalids on the other team

Upon your own lawn you will, of course, place the best players upon the side that you join, or you will weight the opposite side with one who has never had a mallet in his hand before, or with one of peevish temper who will not be told what to do, or is inattentive to the game, or a little child, or an invalid, or you will give one of them a crooked mallet or a bruised ball; and, with these advantages, joined to that of knowing the ground, you ought to come off with some eclat.

If you meet strangers, deny all knowledge of the game, or at least that you have played it more than about twice before. It looks modest, and may get you a weak opponent instead of one who is your match.

Above all things, endeavor to come to the lawn in a perfectly tranquil state of mind, and, while others are merely amusing themselves, be you wide awake to your interests.

We will now suppose the parties to be made up, and the contest begun. In the course of it you will have opportunities for many tricks and delicate stratagems, or "dodges," and you may gain the character of a fine player by carrying them out adroitly. The more there are in the game, the better your chance; for while others are waiting for their turn they are tempted to get into conversation, and withdraw their attention from it. You will always therefore be in favour of the full number of eight.

Thus, you may say that your ball is in a hole, and pick it up and put it before your hoop, or unwire it, or bring it to where it is safe from an enemy's ball. You may miss a troublesome hoop altogether, and go to the next. You may safely say that your ball struck the turning stake and clicked, if it went at all near it. You may say that it is well through its hoop if it stops under it, and go on to the next. You may spoon if there is nobody looking. You may pick up your ball and carry it in your pocket-handkerchief to where you want it. You may hint to your lady partner to trail her dress over it.

In all these cases, and others such that we shall recommend you, and fifty besides that will occur to you if you have any genius for the game, be sure, if you have the ill luck to be found out, not to apoligise or say that it was done unintentionally, or for a joke, or to plead ignorance of the rules....Put a bold front upon it, and if your opponent says positively that you did so or so, answer him as positively that you did not; tell him that he is strangely mistaken; pledge your honour to what you say; tell him anything you will, but go on. People generally give way rather than have a disturbance. In any case, go on. We have known players extricate themselves from the greatest difficulties by that simple and decisive course of going on.

In croquet, courtesy is a weakness
The All England 
Croquet Club
"The All England Croquet Club" from Illustrated London News, 9 July 1870.

If you are asked your hoop by an enemy, refuse to tell it; or, if you think you can without discovery, tell your impertinent querist the wrong one.

In any dispute about a lady's ball, decide against the lady, unless she is your partner. Your doing otherwise would be imputed to courtesy; and at croquet, courtesy is a weakness.

Always have two codes of laws to appeal to, for, as they none of them agree, you may usually pit one against the other and carry your point. For instance, if after striking a ball your own rolls on through a hoop that it has to make, maintain that you are entitled to consider it made, and appeal to Jaques. But if an enemy has done so, oppose him upon the Field rules, by which your ball is "in hand," and its going through the hoop does not count.

If your best player or yourself should, upon becoming a rover, be knocked out by an enemy, protest against it, and declare knocking out to be mean, to be cowardly, to be most unhandsome, and no longer allowed; but if you have yourself put out an enemy, stand up for a rigid adherence to the laws of the game as laid down in the books.

If your ball has been croqueted beyond a gravel walk, it may prove very advantageous to you with a little good management. Nobody can say to the inch where it left the grass, and it would be arrant folly not to bring it back to a more convenient place.

If there is a bush on the lawn, or a shrubbery near it, you may use it to your advantage to drive your ball into the same, fetch it out, and place it beside your partner's. Maintain, in this case, that a ball shall be placed opposite to where it lay in the bush; and, as nobody else will have seen where it lay, nobody can contradict you, say what you will as to where you found it.

Your policy: to weaken the weakest link in their chain

If there is pitted against you a delicate lady, or a grandpapa whose hand is feeble and his sight failing, discard all generous feelings, whack away at their balls, send them into the farthest end of the lawn, follow them up unmercifully. The strength of a chain is the strength of its weakest link. It is your policy, therefore, to weaken the weakest.

If one of your partners should prove to be a bad player, and, in spite of all your endeavors to assist him or her, should be left behind, change balls. It is a chance if you are found out; and if you are, maintain that such exchange between partners is allowable.

If your ball is in a good position, but exposed to be croqueted out of it by the enemy, get a lady partner to stand over it and hide it; or stumble over the enemy's ball, and pick it up and place it so as to be wired from your own. Nobody can charge you with doing it willfully, and, at the worst, you have merely to put it back to where it was before.

It is often worth your while to kick down a hoop quite by accident, and set it up again a few inches to the side, or forwards, or backwards.

Ladies should be encouraged to stand over the balls and shuffle them along to more advantageous positions

Ladies have an easy and ready means of assisting their partners and themselves. They need only to stand over the balls, and shuffle them along with their feet - a very common practice, and a very effective one.

If your ball is lying so near a wire or a turning-stake that you cannot strike it with the end of your mallet, use the side of it, and overbear all objections by stating that at cricket you may strike the ball with any part of the bat, and even with the handle. Whatever privileges you claim for yourself, you will of course deny them to an enemy, unless you have already availed yourself of them.

Very good games have been thrown away by mistaken acts of courtesy to the ladies

If a lady's ball is in a good position, do not let any ill-timed feeling of gallantry prevail with you to spare it. Knock it away - send it to Jericho. If she has a pretty foot, she may like to display it as she trips over the grass. We have known very good games thrown away by mistaken acts of courtesy to the ladies.

If you are allowed to smoke a short pipe while you are playing, you may turn it to profit. A judicious puff of smoke will disconcert the best player, especially if the tobacco is bad.

Should your opponent be at all nervous, you may baffle him and cause him to make a bad stroke by suddenly exclaiming, as he is about to deliver it, that he has already croqueted that ball, or made that hoop, or that it is not his turn, or by distracting his attention in any way that occurs to you. With ladies there is none better than inquiring, just before they begin their turn, for the little dear baby or their eldest son, whom you may laud as the model of the growing generation, or asking for some one in whose welfare they are supposed to be particularly interested.

With either the one or the other there is nothing more likely to balk a good stroke than expressing a firm conviction that they will miss, and offering to bet upon it. Thus, at the end of a game, the rovers of the more successful side may often be prevented from hitting the stick till the other side comes up to them, and wrests the victory from their hands.

Talking to opponents in their turn helps your cause

Talking to people while they are playing is a very effective check to their progress, and leads them to make oversights from which you will derive advantage. A dispute upon some point of the game, or a good story, or a bit of scandal, or a mere joke, will sometimes secure you a victory.

There are those who see no harm in mixing up a little fun with a serious contest, and consider it an excellent joke to croquet a ball into a flower bed, or a pond, or a running stream, especially if the lady of the house is fond of her flowers and a little irritable, or the water deep. If this occurs, exclaim against it as inconsistent with good manners and the spirit of the game; but while the attention of others is diverted to the recovery of the ball, or they have got into conversation, you may avail yourself of the opportunity to change your position or that of your antagonists, or to move a hoop, or to do anything else that is advantageous to your party.

If there is a cage and bell in the middle, it will afford you many fine chances if you are quick to see them. For instance, if your ball should miss its hoop, hit the bell with your mallet, and say that the ball went through. If it has really gone through one, maintain that to be the right one, whichever it was.

Young ladies are of course inclined to collect into a group and chat over the approaching ball or wedding, or cricket match, or any other subject of interest to them. Let them do so. It is their captain's duty to call them when it is their turn to play, and to tell them their hoop and what they have to do. Ladies meet for an afternoon's amusement, and not as men meet for a drill; and it adds greatly to their enjoyment to see their captains lose temper. In the meanwhile you can carry out many clever sleights of hand with little fear of detection; and if you miss a ball or a hoop, say nothing about it, but go on. We have seen a clever player upon such occasions pull up a turning-stake and take his stroke, and put it in again.

When they ask, "Did you see the ball move?" you'll know exactly how to respond

If in making a loose croquet you fail to move the croqueted ball, say that it did move, and positive evidence is always stronger than negative. So again, if it does move in making a tight croquet, and is not observed by anyone near, go on as if it had not moved. We have known many a good game lost by superfluous honesty that might have been saved with a little common prudence. At the same time we would caution you not to venture these practices against a schoolboy; and as a general rule be very much on your guard before any of that class, for they have keen eyes, and a disagreeable habit of expressing their opinions without any respect of persons.

Cases now and then will occur for which there are no rules laid down in books. Upon your own lawn you will decide them in your own favour, and admit of no appeal. Upon a stranger's maintain your view, which of course is the one favourable to your party, as that of all the best players in England. Nobody can contradict you.

Avail yourself of every opportunity to carry out these maxims, even where the weakness of your enemy makes it unncessary to do so; but it is only by constant practice that you can hope to acquire any remarkable quickness of thought, and facility and dexterity of application.

Bystanders are allowed - nay, encouraged - to do or say just about anything they please

We have now merely to add the rights and privileges of those who do not take a part in the game.

As a bystander you are at liberty to make your remarks aloud; to tell the players what they should do, or should not do, and where their partners' or their enemies' balls are lying; to act as umpire in any dispute, whether appealed to or not; to applaud a good stroke, or censure a bad one; to countermand the captain's orders; to walk about among the hoops, and talk to the players; in short, to do just what you please, short of hitting a ball with a mallet.

Ladies are also allowed to show their sympathy with the lady players. They may bring a baby upon the lawn, and give them the opportunity in the intervals of their turns to nurse and caress it, and talk to it, and hand it from one to the other. The nursemaid's duty is to be in attendance, and she too may walk about among the hoops. As these are the acknowledged privileges of those who do not play, do not lose temper, but consider how you may improve your game. Let that be the one object of your thoughts.

We trust our object may not be mistaken. We are no advocates of lying and cheating; but we maintain that, if even the slightest dishonesty is allowed, we must act consistently, and carry out the principle to what your kinsmen over the ocean would call "its bitter end" - lie if it serve our purpose, "and cheat like any unhang'd blackguard."

by David Drazin

THE QUEEN, THE LADY'S NEWSPAPER AND COURT CIRCULAR, was a superb weekly journal first published in 1861 as the sister title to THE FIELD, THE COUNTRY GENTLEMAN'S NEWSPAPER. Though the contents were heavily slanted to women's interests, it had a considerable male readership during the early croquet years.

The two journals were issued by the same publishing house in which John Henry Walsh had a leading position. Walsh, a man of immense energy, erudition, and influence, wrote several editions of the definitive sports encyclopedia of the time, BRITISH RURAL SPORTS. He was the leading authority on sporting guns and gun dogs and one of the founding fathers of the All England Croquet Club, from which the beginning of croquet as a serious sport can be dated. The First Annual Grand Prize Meeting of the AECC was held at the Crystal Palace in June 1869.

Walsh recognized the early promise of the game and covered it thoroughly in THE FIELD. But on the demise in 1864 of Cartwright, his croquet correspondent, Walsh switched most of the croquet coverage to THE QUEEN. Within a few years, however, Walsh himself stepped in as chief croquet correspondent of THE FIELD and master-minded the preparation of the "Field Code" of laws in 1866 by Walter Jones Whitmore, which was intended to supplant the laws published with the croquet equipment produced by Jaques, the dominant manufacturer of croquet equipment. The "Field Code", with minor revisions, remained the chief authority on the rules for decades. THE QUEEN continued to cover the game quite seriously for many years, but with somewhat less intensity than THE FIELD.

I haven't a clue who "The Committee of Croakers" were. If a solo writer, perhaps he insisted that his anonymity be preserved.

At the time of this 1868 publication, serious players would then have played by the Field Code, based on nine hoops and two stakes (starting and turning), with a third stake or cage being optional variations to the central hoop. The balls - up to eight of them, four on a side - were played in sequence As can be inferred from the article, it was a team game, and usually a "captain" for each side was in charge of strategy and tactics. All told, it was very much like the nine-wicket game played today in America.

I say "serious" players advisedly, to observe that from the earliest days serious players took the laws, such as they could be determined, as seriously as serious association players do today. But in those days, when garden croquet was a highly fashionable entertainment among the upper and middle classes, croquet parties were the order of the day, and skill and experience in croquet must have been ranked lower than social attainments among the criteria for selecting invitees. So these events must have been fairly hilarious. Conscientious types might have done their best to observe house rules faithfully, but others would have derived more amusement from lying and cheating. That, in sum, is the background to this satirical piece.

Anyone who finds himself volunteered involuntarily to play a game in which 
he has little interest is going to formulate an alternative agenda.  It's 
called human nature.

When did lying and cheating begin to be frowned upon? Among serious players, right from the start. Among the less serious players, not even today, and surely never: Anyone who finds himself volunteered involuntarily to play a game in which he has little interest is going to formulate an alternative agenda. It's called human nature.

Readers might be puzzled by the references to "tight croquet" and "loose croquet" in THE QUEEN article. At this time - in the 1860's and 70's - a prolonged debate sought to determine exactly how the croquet stroke should be played: as a "tight croquet", by holding the striker ball in place withthe foot during the stroke; or as a "loose croquet," as the stroke isplayed today universally in serious association play. [The Chicago Croquet Convention of September 1879 produced two equal sets of rules - one for each style of play.] Eventually - perhaps because of the damage caused by footing the ball on lawns which increased in quality as the sport developed - "tight croquet" was outlawed by all the associations. Nevertheless, footing or "sending" the opponent ball into the rose bushes, across the road, or down the hill is among the most cherished features of garden or "backyard" croquet as it is played today by the millions - along with lying, cheating, and deceiving the enemy.

[THE ILLUSTRATIONS and two others are available in poster size from the English Croquet Association for 6.00 pounds each or 21 pounds for the set, plus 2.5 pounds for overseas surface mail.]

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