The Early Days

The precise origins of croquet remain a puzzle. Older games existed, but it's hard to see croquet having existed much appeal before 1830, when the newly invented lawnmower became available.

The first reference to a game called "croquet" was in Ireland in 1834. Stories of how it arrived there are garbled - a Miss Macnaghten (or Macausland) was said to have seen the game played by peasants (or nuns) in northern (or southern) France (or Italy). She (or maybe her sister, or her brother) took the game to Mr Spratt at 18 Brook Street in London.

That last point is verifiable. Spratt produced a book of rules in 1851, but failed to see much potential in the game, so passed it on to an ivory-turner, John Jaques of Hatton Garden. (Even that is disputed - Jaques later claimed to have been working on the development of croquet before his encounter with Spratt, after he saw the game on a business trip to Ireland.) Nevertheless, Jaques became the first manufacturer of equipment, and deserves the credit for popularising the game.

Croquet, incidentally, was just one of many successes for Jaques of London, who developed quite a reputation for the manufacture of games. The firm is also responsible for giving the world the Staunton Chess Set, as well as Snakes & Ladders, Ludo, Happy Families, Tiddlywinks and Table Tennis.

The Irresistible Rise

For the first few years, croquet spread gradually, but no one really knew how to play. Spratt's rulebook was practically useless, and many players had to make the game up as they went along.

But croquet proved a popular novelty, especially with women, who'd not had the chance to take part in other games. By 1858, puzzled letter writers were asking The Field magazine what this new game was all about. In 1864, John Jaques produced a comprehensive code of laws, and 65,000 had been distributed within three years.

Jaques had no exclusivity for selling croquet sets, and rival manufacturers continued to produce their own rules. Even now, 150 years later, there remain pockets of players who play games with subtle, and not so subtle, variations on the officially accepted rules. (Some of these variants have achieved widespread appeal, and exist within structured organisations - see the section on other forms of the game for more details.)

Walter Jones Whitmore

Those original rules might have faded from popularity, but for the influence of one man - Walter Jones Whitmore.

Whitmore was a man of undirected creativity. He tried his hand at inventing (his fishing reel for winding overlong shoelaces actually went into production), developing board games, and writing bad poetry (At the Opera: "From a crimson curtained box I languish'd / Making dim my eyes while the tenor anguish'd"). His one success was in seeing the potential of the Jaques rules, and developing croquet as a tactical game.

He realised, in 1867, that croquet needed a tournament to find the country's top player. He organised the event, albeit without giving competitors much notice, and won. Thus, he holds the accolade of being the game's first champion.

Wimbledon and the Birth of Tennis

Clubs began to spring up as early as 1865 (the earliest recorded was in Worthing, soon followed by Bedford). In 1868, Dr Prior proposed the establishment of an All England Croquet Club, to act as a governing body and to unify the mess of multiple rulebooks.

Whitmore was delegated to find a suitable ground, something which he failed to do. It was suggested that his priorities lay partly in turning a profit for himself, so the committee sacked him as secretary. Whitmore chose not to recognise the decision, and set up his own splinter organisation, also called the All England Croquet Club.

The "true" AECC found a ground at Wimbledon, and Whitmore's followers lost influence. Whitmore himself, at the age of just 41, died of throat cancer in 1872.

The Wimbledon club proved a great success, but by 1874, and new game threatened to take over. This was sphairistike, soon renamed as lawn tennis. The next year, the AECC committee agreed to set aside one croquet lawn for conversion to tennis courts. The club's name was changed in 1877 to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. By 1882, the tennis faction had become dominant. Reference to croquet was dropped from the club's name, prize tournaments were banned, and many disgruntled croquet players resigned in protest.

Croquet had served its purpose. It had enjoyed an extended period of popularity, in an age where other sports were unavailable within households. By the 1890s, it was threatened with extinction.

The Golden Age

A thin trickle of tournaments continued. Wimbledon set aside one croquet lawn, and took on 30 members. In 1896, Walter Peel proposed the formation of a new governing body, the United All England Croquet Association (later renamed the Croquet Association).

The early years of the 20th century saw a change in the game's circumstances. Croquet became popular with the wealthy upper classes, living in large country houses, with lots of money, lots of spare time, and armies of gardeners ready to maintain a perfect playing surface. Around the country, tennis courts reverted to their former use as croquet lawns. Both domestically and at club level, the game grew dramatically over the course of a decade.

The onset of the First World War stopped most croquet activity. By its end, around 20 clubs had folded. By and large, though, this interruption did little to suppress croquet's popularity. Most players had been too old for conscription, so missed the worst of the fighting. Croquet continued largely unabated during the 1920s.

Decline and Fall

The Second World War proved more of threat to the game. Most green space was commandeered for more productive use. By 1945, the generation who'd steered the game through the previous decades were becoming too old for active participation and progressive development.

The world of the 1950s and 1960s was a very different one. The leisured classes were no more. Country houses started to pass out of the hands of rich families. Croquet was seen as a game for a moneyed elite, and that didn't fit with the views or aspirations of the new society.

Modern Croquet

Croquet's negative image persisted for much of the postwar period. In the 1980s, a development programme led to the formation of several new clubs, and the recruitment of a new, younger group of players.

Many of the world's top players - among them Chris Clarke, Robert Fulford, Reg Bamford and David Maugham - started playing as teenagers, and remain at the pinnacle of the game. A new wave of clubs was formed, and existing clubs were strengthened.

The World Croquet Federation was formed in 1986, and organised the first World Championship in 1989. Its intent has been to promote the game - in all its variants - throughout the world, and it now has 27 member countries.