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Tag Archives: Regency Sports

When I posted “Part 1” of this article a month ago, I promised we’d talk about curling, bandy, and skiing as additional winter sports. Because Regency romance fiction tends to focus on the elegant upper class and aristocracy, particularly in England, we seldom find these sports depicted in the pages. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t being practiced somewhere, especially among the working classes. Despite the fact that they had little free time, we’ve seen throughout history that working people and the poor were inventive and also made the most of whatever free time they had to enjoy. But curling in Scotland was a sport of all classes.

Curlers, 1835 painting by Scottish artist Sir George Harvey

Curling was practically a national game in Scotland by the Regency period. The records of Paisley Abbey, Renfrewshire, contain the first-known written record of the sport (as a contest using stones on the ice), in an entry from February,1541. Although other early names for it in Scotland included quoiting, kuting, or coiling, most sources seem to agree that the first published use of the term “curling” as a name for it comes from a 1620 poem by Henry Adamson, where his mention of it is made in listing a gentleman’s favored activities. The name comes from the verb curl (Scottish and English), which describes the way the stone moves. The game is sometimes called “the roaring game” after the noise the stones make sliding over the moistened playing surface of the ice.

Whether curling first originated in Flanders or Scotland is still debated. The first publication specifically devoted to the game, by the Rev John Ramsey in 1811 (Edinburgh) opined that terminology used in the game had roots in German and Dutch language and so attributed it to Flemish immigrants to Scotland. But others have made equally strong cases against his logic.

Either way, the sport’s antiquity can be traced by the evolution of the stones used for it. A museum in Scotland has a curling stone marked 1511, the oldest “dated” example known, found at Stirling, and another dated 1551 from the bottom of a pond in Dunblane, Scotland (although the etched dates were probably added at a later time). Known as a finger stone, “kuting-stone”, or even, in some locales, a kutystane, piltycock or “loofie”, the primitive smoothed stones feature indentations cut for thumb and fingers and were probably thrown into motion on the ice. By the Regency, some people were already collecting these old ones and interested in the history of the sport.

One is described as whinstone 8 ½ inches in diameter and weighing some 14lbs. Later the stones grew much larger and heavier, known as “rough blocks” and prized ones often were given individual names as a reflection of their character and effectiveness along with personal regard by their owners. (An account of this can be found in an 1890 book on curling history.) Some had a hole bored in the center to allow the attachment of wood or iron handles, and others had double or even triple handles set in. At weights ranging from 30 pounds to over a hundred pounds, the handles are understandable. By the late 18th century and early Regency, these stones began to develop into the round, finely streamlined and scientifically weighted “stones” used in the sport today. Imagining the brawn required to handle those old stones might be enough to make a young lady swoon!

Curling stone with handle from 1700

The growth of curling’s popularity in Scotland is attested by the formation of the Kilsyth Curling Club in 1716, a club still extent and claiming to be the oldest of its kind. By the Regency period there’d been a proliferation of clubs in Scotland. The game also went to Canada, likely with Scottish immigrants, where the Royal Montreal Curling Club was formed in 1807, the oldest sports club still active in North America and founded firmly in the Regency period. The first “official” rules for the modern version of the sport were drawn up in 1838. Old curling stones have been found serving as doorstops and bootscrapers, weights for thatch roofs, and embedded in old building walls as well as in museums!

This picture is a painting by Bruegel, from 1565, showing Flemish peasants “curling” by hand (no brooms). Scotland and the “Low Countries” did lots of trading, so it’s no surprise they would pass along the sport as well. (Note there’s a child on a sledge in the center foreground!)

When “sweeping” with brooms began to be used as part of the game (and not just to clear the ice) I am not sure –possibly during the 18th century. You can clearly see them in the Scottish picture from 1835 at the top of this blogpost. Below is a second picture by Bruegel that depicts people curling, also from 1565. Perhaps the ice was particularly good that year?

Weather is absolutely one of the main factors that determined where all of these winter sports developed. References are made to the “Little Ice Age” from 1500-1700 related to some of these sports developing. For much of the Regency, there was little snow in December/January in most of England (Scotland and other areas would be different, of course). Scotland always had dependably sturdy ice in winter for winter sports like curling, unlike her southern neighbor. But famously, the winter of 1813-14 in England had terrible weather at the end of December and frigid cold right through until early February.

Known as “the Great Frost of 1813–14” (because besides snow there was a lot of freezing fog), these weeks spawned the last-ever Frost Fair held on the River Thames in London and also give us the first records of “bandy” being played as an organized team contest in the fens area where winter skating was common. Bandy is a precursor/variant of ice hockey which uses a ball and seems to date (in England) from at least 1801, but probably dates back into the 18th century. The shallow washes and flooded meadows in the fens area provided large open areas of ice where chasing a ball with sticks while on skates was not only feasible but seems a natural invention for young boys.

The sport derives from an earlier 17th century Irish version similar to field hockey, which used curved sticks also called bandies. The name probably derives from a Middle French verb, bander, which means “to strike back and forth.” The names shinty or shinney were also sometimes used for it in English in the earlier times, perhaps a Scottish influence as the name in Scottish Gaelic is “ice shinty” (camanachd-deighe). In modern times shinty has come to refer only to the game played on land and bandy to mean specifically the ice version. The lack of extensive historical record on this game prior to 1813-14 does not, to my mind, mean no one was playing at it, just that due to the specifically limited geographical area, no one was paying attention, and also I believe it was primarily a working class entertainment.

Skiing has the most ancient pedigree of any of the winter activities I’ve covered here, although its arrival as a “sport” is actually later than any of the others I’ve discussed. Skis dating back to 6,000 BCE have been discovered in Russian peat bogs and there’s evidence of equally or even more ancient ones in China. Rock paintings and carvings from 3,000 BC and 2,500 BC have been found depicting skiers in Scandinavian countries. Norse mythology dating back to writings in 1300 BC introduced Ullr and Skade, the god and goddess of skiing.

Early Norse figure of Ullr

In 1206 AD a war-time skiing rescue spawned a famous Norwegian legend when military Norwegian skiers carried the 2 year-old heir to the throne across mountains to safety. By the 17th century accounts of skiing in other countries appear, and in 1716 a war between Russia, Sweden and Norway was fought primarily on skis. The need for improving ski speed in this century led to advances in both technique and construction, and military exercises and training led to the first types of competitions.

By 1800 in Norway skis were shaped to be narrower in the middle and wider at the ends, which improved maneuverability. Further into the early part of the 19th century, the cambered ski was invented. Lighter and concave at the center, this new type of ski distributed the skier’s weight better and also improved the shock absorbing capabilities of the skis. Norwegians emigrating to other parts of the world introduced skiing to other cultures.

But skis were still a mode of transportation, not recreation. One of the first recorded instances of skis used for recreation happened in 1841 in Beloit, Wisconsin, USA. In 1843, the first recreational skiing race was held in Norway. Twenty years later, alpine ski racing began as an organized sport in both Norway and the U.S. Downhill racing, as we know it today, really was not begun until the 1920’s, in the Swiss Alps. Today the UK has 77 ski resorts, not all in Scotland, but in the Regency, in the relatively flat British Isles, skiing was not a winter activity pursued for pleasure.

Do you enjoy winter sports? Do you participate in any, or are you a spectator like me? Frankly, I must admit that I prefer to watch them from the comfort of a warm chair in a cozily heated room. But perhaps if a sinfully handsome Regency buck were to entice me, I might be willing to go out and play in the snow. Happy New Year to everyone!

Detail from a Scottish painting (anonymous) showing curling, c. 1700 (Traquair Charitable Trust)

Can you identify which of the following games (all of them ways of hitting a ball) would have been activities for Regency people and which would not?  Tennis, baseball, rounders, nine pins, croquet, ground billiards, golf, cricket. Let’s take look at these and see how you did. Have you ever played any of these sports, or enjoyed Regency fictional characters who did?

A group of young ladies in Regency era gowns play at ninepins and bowling in an outdoor court enclosed by walls with a wide double gate behind them.
Playing bowls and ninepins in a courtyard, 1822

TENNIS: “Tennis” is a catch-all term that actually covers two types of the game with separate but related histories. While our modern sport of “tennis” has roots that go as far back as medieval times, it actually developed from “lawn tennis,” a later offshoot of the form of the game known as “royal” or “real” tennis.

Royal tennis evolved from a 12th century monastic French game, “jeu de paume” (“game of the palm”), where the ball was hit with hands. Eventually, gloves were used, and by the 16th century when the game was at peak popularity, racquets were introduced and the game was being played on enclosed courts. But as we have already seen with lawn bowling, only the very wealthy could afford to build and maintain special venues for games—hence the name “royal” tennis. The intertwined history of royalty between England and France easily explains how the game arrived in England and gained popularity there.

Wikipedia dates the game in England to Henry V (1413–22). Sports enthusiast Henry VIII added sporting venues to his palaces, including tennis courts. Whitehall was said to include four indoor tennis courts, and the tennis court at Hampton Court Palace still exists. Mary Queen of Scots played tennis on a court at Falkland Palace in Fife which also still stands. But during the 18th century in England with the German-based House of Hanover on the throne, tennis fell out of royal favor, and in France the royal sport was doomed by the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic wars.

Young lady dressed in late Victorian style clothing and large rbimmed straw hat, one hand holding it against a breeze and a tennis racquet clutched under her arm.

Although a reference to “field tennis, an invented game” is made by a memoirist from 1767, it was not until the 1870’s that “lawn tennis” came along, a version of the game that the general populace could play on smooth grass. As we have previously seen, the invention of the lawn mower no doubt played a key role in that evolution. So, tennis was played both before and after the Regency, but during the 18th and early 19th centuries it declined in popularity and is not a sport Regency folks would likely have played. They did, however, play racquets and squash racquets in very similar form to those games as known today.

CROQUET/Ground Billiards: Croquet is another game with ancient roots. Since croquet lawns in the 1870’s were venues for the first games of lawn tennis, let’s look at that quintessential summer game next. Croquet seems to have origins in either, or both, of two other games using balls, mallets and wickets. One is an earlier popular English game that, like tennis, has French origins—the game of pall mall (“paille-maille” in French), dating to the 13th century in France (using wickets made of wicker) and introduced in England in the 16th or 17th century (sources vary). The other root is the Irish game of “crooky” which by the earliest record dates from the 1830’s.

Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656) described pall mall as a game played in a long alley with wickets at either end, where the object is to drive a ball through the “high arch of iron” in as few mallet strokes as possible, or a number agreed on. Blount adds: “This game was heretofore used in the long alley near St. James’s and vulgarly called Pell-Mell.” (This is where the name of the famous London Street comes from.) The length of the alley varied, the one at St. James being close to 800 yards long. In 1854 an old ball and mallets were discovered, now in the British Museum, described thus: “the mallets resemble those used in croquet, but the heads are curved; the ball is of boxwood and about six inches in circumference.”

But how did pall mall evolve into croquet, a game with six or more wickets set in a pattern and spread over a much larger area than an alley? Or did it? An entire family of individually unidentified lawn games played in medieval times, collectively known today as “ground billiards,” were played with a long-handled mallet or mace, wooden balls, a hoop (the pass), and an upright skittle or pin (the king).” Any one of these games could have led to the development of “crooky” in Ireland, which locals are known to have played in 1834 at Castlebellingham. As with the earlier games, there is no record of the rules or method of playing.

However, a form of “crooky” was introduced in England in 1852. Isaac Spratt registered a set of rules for “croquet,” from a game he saw played in Ireland, around 1856. John Jaques published official rules and editions of croquet in 1857, 1860, and 1864 and manufactured sets. At first, croquet was played rarely, mostly by affluent or upper-class people. But the All England Croquet Club was formed at Wimbledon, London, in 1868. That same year the first all-comers croquet meet was held in Gloucestershire, England. Croquet became all the rage and spread quickly to all corners of the British Empire by 1870. Sad to say, croquet is thoroughly Victorian.

Victorian croquet match

Baseball/Rounders: The earliest reference to rounders, which may actually date back to Tudor times, was made in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) and included an illustration of “base-ball,” depicting a batter, a bowler, and several rounders posts. The rhyme refers to the ball being hit, the boy running to the next post, and then home to score.  

In 1828, William Clarke in London published the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, which included the rules of rounders and also the first printed description in English of a bat and ball base-running game played on a diamond.

Rounders is very similar to the American game of baseball and is surely the ancestor of that game, evolved once brought across the pond. Clarke’s book including the rules and description was published in the U.S. in 1829, but English emigrants would have brought the game over with them far earlier. Rounders has been played by British children right up until modern times, so Regency children given the opportunity (most likely in the country or at school) would very likely have played the game. Would adults have played? Less likely, unless they were being particularly playful in re-enacting their childhood pursuits.

Ninepins/Skittles: Differing from lawn bowling, many lawn games involved rolling a bowl and hitting a pin or cone, or multiples of these. These games are the true ancestors of our modern day bowling. An early form of bowling was called “cones,” in which two small cone-shaped objects were placed on two opposite ends, and players would try to roll their bowl as close as possible to the opponent’s cone. The very old game of “kayles”—later called nine-pins, or skittles, after another name for the pins—usually involved throwing a stick at a series of nine pins set up in a square formation, although in some variations the players would roll a bowl instead. The object was to knock down all the pins with the least number of throws. Sometimes, the game would feature a larger “king pin” in the center of the square which, if knocked down, automatically granted a win.

Ninepins, 18th century “Modern Exercise”

Ninepins (1570s) or skittles (1630s) was generally played in an alley, like pall mall, and an arrangement of pins might stand at each end, or only at one. But it did not really require much more than a flat space of ground and became popular among all the classes, especially by the 18th century. Public houses with grounds often offered skittles accompanied by gambling, of course, leading the poor to become even poorer. Press gangs, too, found the pub-side ninepin alleys a fruitful place to gather men to serve the king.

Instructions to jurors from a Portsmouth magistrate, 1800

In the late 18th century, the moral outrage over the destructive effect of such gaming led to a movement to level the skittle grounds to counteract the problem. This merely led to the resurgence of another game, nine-holes (1570s), also known as “bumble puppy” later on. In this game, instead of pins to knock down, the object became to throw balls into nine holes (in a board or dug into the ground) arranged with successive number values and the player with the highest points won. Since this game wasn’t banned in the statutes against skittles or ninepins, the authorities could not stop the games. Eventually during the Regency, skittles reclaimed its popularity. (see illustration at top, from an 1822 book on exercise and sports for young women)

Cricket: There’s a theory that cricket, another “bats and ball game,” may have derived from a game like pall mall or bowling, by the intervention of a batsman stopping the ball from reaching its target by hitting it away. The game is so old it probably dates back to Saxon or Norman times in the southeast of England, but written references go back at least to 1590. The name comes from either Old French (criquet “goal post, stick”), Middle Dutch/Flemish (cricke “stick, staff”) or Anglo-Saxon (cricc “shepherd’s staff”).

A Village Game of Cricket

By the early 18th century cricket had become a leading sport in London as well as the south-eastern counties of England with organized clubs and some professional county teams, and continued to spread slowly. The switch to throwing the ball instead of rolling it along the ground came sometime around mid-century along with the change to straight bats instead of bent ones. Boys played cricket at schools, children played cricket in their villages, and adults of both genders apparently played as well. The first known women’s cricket match was played in Surrey in 1745. The famous Lord’s Cricket Ground opened in 1787 with the formation of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Interest in cricket has not waned from that time to the present day, so it was certainly being played during the Regency.

GOLF: Golf is another stick-and-ball game with roots in those early and unknown ancient lawn games. While the specifics of golf were developed by the Scots, the roots of the game (and even some of the early wooden balls used to play the game) came to them from the Dutch. The name “golf” is derived from the Dutch word “kolf” which means club. A Dutchman first described the game of golf in 1545, while it first appeared in Scottish literature in 1636, but there are other references to the Dutch game as early as the 13th and 14th centuries.

It was the Scots, however, who had the idea of making holes in the ground, laid out over a course, and made the object of the game to get the ball into each of those holes.

“The MacDonald boys playing golf,” portrait by 18th-century artist Jeremiah Davison

Golf has an interesting history, but it evolved quite steadily over time in Scotland with the exception of being banned by James II (1457), James III (1471) and James IV (1491) for distracting the military from training. James IV reversed his ruling by 1502, however. It seems the Scottish king was fond of the sport himself. Later in that century, King Charles I brought the game to England and Mary Queen of Scots introduced the game to France.

The Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland is one of the oldest courses dating to 1574 or possibly earlier. Diarist Thomas Kinkaid mentioned some rules in 1687, but the first “official” rules were not issued until 1744. James VI played golf at Blackheath near London in 1603 when he became James I of England, where the Royal Blackheath Golf Club was later established (1745 or earlier). Two English courtiers played against James VII of Scotland in 1681 at Leith for a wager, but there is little evidence the English took to the game until the Victorian era. But if you had a Scottish character in Regency London, he might be happy indeed to play at Blackheath if he were accepted as a member or knew someone else who was.

A group of 18th century gentlemen wearing tailcoats, breeches, boots and tricorn hats surround a putting green and hole watching as one man with a golf club prepares to sink his ball. In the background can be seen building of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Golf at St. Andrews, 18th century

“Golf is an exercise which is much used by a gentleman in Scotland……A man would live 10 years the longer for using this exercise once or twice a week.”–Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745 – 1813)

(illustrations in this post are public domain, as vintage art)

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