The National Croquet Center, built on ten lush acres in West Palm Beach, is the headquarters of the Croquet Foundation of America. It features a magnificently elegant 19,000 square foot Florida Keys style clubhouse that sits in the midst of a vast and near-perfect lawn divided into 12 full-size croquet lawns.
But what is croquet, and how did it originate?
It is a lawn game, played both as a recreational pastime and as a serious competitive sport. It involves hitting plastic or wooden balls with a mallet through hoops (often called “wickets” in the US) which are embedded into the grass playing court.
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. 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. The game swiftly took England by storm and then spread around the world.
The origins of the game, however, go way back before this – and are to some extent lost in the mists of time. One theory has it 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. It became a fashionable amusement in the reign of Charles II, and the walk in Saint James’s Park, now directly in front of Buckingham Palace, was where he liked to play with his courtiers. It is still called The Mall to this day.
A second theory suggests that 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 Dun Laoghaire where it was first spelt as “croquet”.
Regardless of when, and by what route, it reached England and the British colonies in its recognizable form, croquet is, like pall mall, trucco, jeu de mail and kolven, is clearly a derivative of ground billiards, which was popular in Western Europe in the 14th century, and can actually trace its roots back to classical antiquity.
The rapid rise in the game’s popularity, however, was short lived. By the late 1870s it had been eclipsed by 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 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 sort of five-a-side speed croquet, played mainly in Asia and the Americas, can also be regarded as a croquet variant.
Other strange facts about this oddball game include the fact that it was the first outdoor sport to embrace equality, allowing both sexes to play the game on an equal footing. It became a one-off Olympic sport in 1900 – although it was so poorly organised that one competitor went to his death without ever having known he was an Olympian. Sadly for croquet fans, there are not enough countries who play the game for it to be accepted for London 2012.
Rapper P Diddy held a croquet party in May to celebrate becoming the first rap performer to be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and croquet reached the South Pole in 2005 when American scientists became the first to play a game outside the South Pole Observatory.
Lewis Carroll featured a surreal version of the game in Alice in Wonderland. A hedgehog was used as the ball and a flamingo as the mallet, while soldiers doubled over to make the hoops.
So, there you have it. A wacky and eccentric sport of many variations that has firmly taken root in West Palm Beach!