There's much confusion about the origins of croquet. Various games were played in the Middle Ages, in which players used some sort of stick to hit a ball through an arch fixed in the ground. Because the sticks look a bit like mallets, and the arch looks a bit like a croquet hoop, casual observers often mistake these games for some sort of ancestor of the modern game.

The most widespread of these erroneous ancestors was the medieval French game, Jeu de Mail. The rules seem to have involved hitting a ball down a course in as few strokes as possible. The stick did, it's true, bear some similarity to a croquet mallet, but the 'hoop' was very different. It was positioned off the ground, and players would swap their mallet for a spoon-shaped stick, lift the ball into the air, and through the hoop. Clearly, this game has almost nothing in common with croquet, and much in common with golf.

The lineage of croquet became much more confusing over the subsequent years, with the development of a new game, Pall Mall (or Paille Maille, Pell Mell or various other spellings). Pall Mall became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was soon taken up by the aristocracy of both England and France. Being the favourite game of the British monarchy, a playing area - The Mall - was set aside in central London. The shops along its borders gave us our modern meaning of a shopping mall.

"To St. James's Park, where I saw the Duke of York [later King James II] playing at Pelemele, the first time that I ever saw the sport" - Samuel Pepys, 2 April 1661

It's still hard to see Pall Mall as a forbear of croquet. The ball, though it's made of the same sort of wood (boxwood) as an early croquet ball, is much smaller. There are two hoops, one at either end of a long lane (1000 yards), and the playing surface, far from being grass, is made of flat beaten earth, sprinkled with powdered cockle shells. The winner was the player who took the fewest strokes to get to the far end, through the hoop, and back. Like its parent, Jeu de Mail, the game contains none of the elements which define croquet.

The inadvertent blame for this confused ancestry lies with Dr Prior. In his 1872 book, Notes on Croquet and Some Other Bat and Ball Games, he describes Pall Mall in order to highlight the dissimilarity with croquet. Many later authors read his description, but failed to read as far as his conclusion. Thus was born the false connection between the two games.

Lawn Billiards

Meanwhile, another hoop-and-ball game - Lawn Billiards - had sprung up in Europe. There's some dispute over its beginnings; some claim it's an Italian game (Trucco), others that it originated in Belgium and the Netherlands.

There's clear evidence that the game was well established by about 1650. The collection of Liverpool's Walker Gallery includes Jan Steen's Country people playing a ball-game, which depicts a game in progress. [Steen worked as a brewer in Holland before he established himself as a professional painter, and this rowdy pub scene is typical of his output.]

Lawn Billiards seems to have died out at some point, though there's little documentation to say where, when or how. What we do know is that it still had a few devotees in England, well into the 20th century.

Click the image for a 1933 newsreel film on Lawn Billiards [opens in new window - includes sound]

Sadly, Lawn Billiards didn't survive beyond the 1960s at its only British stronghold, the Freemasons Arms in Hampstead, London. The pub remains, and now devotes its sporting attention to another traditional game, London Skittles. Lawn Billiards, in the UK at least, appears to be no more, though a couple of the hooped playing sticks remain, as does an old trophy, curiously bearing a pair of crossed croquet mallets.

Beugelen

Lawn Billiards is extinct throughout most of the world. It remains only in the province of Limburg, at the south-eastern tip of the Netherlands, where it's called beugelen. The equipment has evolved - the hoop is now fixed, and the sticks have been replaced with wooden paddles (though this clip shows an antique hooped stick on the far wall).

Despite its differences, there are some noticeable similarities to golf croquet. Players form pairs - pink versus white - and hit their opponents out of position in order to allow their partner to score.

Many ancient games falsely lay claim to the parentage of croquet. Could this be the starting point from which croquet originated?