A Rare "Cassiobury" Croquet Set
Retailed by John Piggott Ltd of Cheapside and Milk Street, London
English Circa 1870's
Contained within its original box
An extensive and largely complete set formed of eight mallets (one being for a child), eight lignum-vitae balls, two 'sticks'(for starting/turning/winning), nine hoops, hoop drill, hoop mallet, flags etc. Contained within a pine box with an original lithographed "Cassiobury Croquet" label to the top, depicting fashionable Victorian men and women playing croquet in front of Cassiobury House, motifs to the corners of the label with Earl's coronets with "SX" monogram beneath (i.e. the monogram of the "Earl of Essex"). Blue retailers labels to the underside of the lid for John Piggott of Cheapside and Milk Street, London.
Although various antecedents of the game of croquet had existed for centuries, "modern" croquet was introduced to England and Scotland from country houses in Ireland in the 1850's. Arthur Algernon Capell, 6th Earl of Essex (1803-1892), was an early convert to and promoter of the game; the gardens of Cassiobury House, his stately home in Watford, Herfordshire, became one of places where croquet made its English debut. Lord Essex was a leading high-society socialite, famous for his lavish weekend country-house-parties which included champagne-lunches followed by games of croquet. It was on one weakend here that Lord Beaconsfield (the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli) first recalled seeing the game played1 and on another such weekend Edith Wharton arrived to find Arthur Balfour, Lady Desborough, Lady Elcho, John Singer Sargent, Henry James and many others from a "shining galaxy" out on the Cassiobury House lawns.2
By the 1860's, with no overarching consensus on the rules of the game, a number of variants of croquet had developed. In 1863 the Irish-born soldier, adventurer and novelist Captain Thomas Mayne Reid (1818-1883) endeavoured to codify the rules of croquet through his well-researched book "Croquet" (published simultaneously by Houlston & Wright in London and by James Redpath in Boston). Around the same time Lord Essex "being a croquet player and also a proprietor of timber"3 instructed his estate's sawmills at the Cassiobury Timber Yard, which were run by Thomas Turner4, to begin manufacturing high-quality croquet sets. These sets were to be of a quality to surpass those offered by the main rival sporting goods manufacturers John Jaques of London and F. H. Ayres Ltd (Slazenger's Ltd were not founded till 18881). To ensure that the "Cassiobury Croquet" sets were as complete as possible, Lord Essex commissioned a rule-book which was to be included with them. This book was written by "An Old Hand" and published as "The Rules of Croquet, Revised and Corrected". Unfortunately, whoever the "Old Hand" was, they had largely plagiarized their text from Captain Mayne Reid's work. The Captain demanded an explanation as to why his work had been copied without any reference to him. Having initially rejected the claim of plagiarism, Lord Essex was taken to court: the result was widely reported in the general press with headlines such as "The Game of Croquet - Literary Piracy"5 and officially as Captain Mayne Reid v. The Earl of Essex and Miss Emily Faithfull (the latter being the extremely distinguished publisher who had innocently printed the book on behalf of the Earl). The resut of the judgement being that a publisher can still be responsible for an infringement, even if it is unwittingly so. Mayne Reid was awared his costs, £125 of compensation and all copies of the Cassiobury "Old Hand" rules were ordered to be withdrawn from circulation and destroyed.
Two early alternative versions of croquet were very strongly connected: "Cassiobury Croquet" (with nine hoops and two "sticks", laid out in a double-diamond formation which up to eight people could play at once (each with their own ball), either individually or in two teams) and "Eglinton Croquet", originating at Eglinton Castle (the seat of the Earl of Eglinton) (which had eight hoops, two "tunnels" (flat hoops passed through in one direction), two "posts"/"sticks" and a central "cage" (or double hoop), from which a bell was suspended which rang during the course of play when balls passed beneath).6 Lord Essex had a daugher, Adela Caroline Harriet Capell (1828-1860), who married the Earl of Eglinton in 1858. Lord Essex (as father-in-law to one Earl of Eglinton and step-grandfather to the next two) therefore forms the link between Eglinton Castle and Cassiobury Croquet. The "Rules of the Eglinton Castle and Cassiobury Croquet" were published in 1865 and it seems quite likely that the novelty elements of the Eglinton game were developed from the Cassiobury version as an amusing diversion for Lord Essex's young relatives. Certainly, the wooden implements required for the Eglinton game were made out of Cassiobury timber.7
The craze for croquet burgeoned during the 1860's until no respectable property was without its "croquet lawn" and any estate agent's listing worth its salt had to mention a "croquet lawn" or "croquet ground" in the particulars. The game became so fashionable that special "Croquet Suits" were marketed to men and "white alpaca Croquet Capes" for women.8 As a mark of the popularity of the game the All England Croquet Club was founded at Wimbledon in 1868. In 1874 a rival summer game was invented, which came to be known as Lawn Tennis; in the following year a single croquet lawn at the All England Croquet Club was set aside for the new game but it was soon tennis which came to dominate. In April, 1877 the club name was changed to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. At one point during the next decade "Croquet" was actually dropped from the Club's title before, in 1899, it was finally restyled The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which it officially remains to this day.
Croquet still remained popular enough during the Belle Époque and Fin de siècle, for it to be included as a sport at the 1900 Olympics in Paris (the Games of the II Olympiad). It was amonst the first Olympic sports in which women were allowed to compete and one of a very few sports where women and men competed alongside one another on equal terms.
When this set was new it would have retailed at around 3-Guineas (the equivalent of around £400 in today's money).9 By the 1870's the Earl of Essex's sawmills were also producing "Cassiobury" Badminton and Garden Tennis sets (the tennis raquets branded "Turner, Cassiobury" were made on the Earl of Essex's estate). John Piggott & Co of Cheapside (founded by John Piggott (1847-1922)) was a leading City of London-based "general outfitter". The shop sold the paraphernalia required for many modern sports and pastimes, with a range which included equipment required for photography and later even motoring items.
Though neither Eglinton Castle nor Cassiobury became dominant forms of the game they still effectively survive as Nine-Wicket Croquet, sometimes called "Backyard Croquet", which is a very popular form of the game in the U.S.A. and Canada. The death of the Earl of Essex in 1892 brought the heyday of Cassiobury to an end. His grandson, who succeeded him to the Earldom, found that the upkeep of Cassiobury was increasingly costly. The manufacture of "Cassiobury" branded croquet sets had probably already ceased well before this time. Cassiobury House was vacated by the Capell family at the begining of the 20th Century, some of the grounds becoming a public park. The mansion itself was finally demolished in 1927. This fascinating set, dating from around 130 years ago, is a rare survival. The additional elements provided with it allow "Cassiobury Croquet" to be played but, of course, in addition to this, the set can also be used to play the more conventional modern standard forms of Association Croquet and Golf Croquet (which only require six hoops/wickets, one post and four balls).
A similar Cassiobury Croquet set from a private collection is illustrated and described on p. 34/35 of Simon Inglis, "Played in Britain: A Load of Old Balls", English Heritage, London, 2005
1. p.8 Arthur Lillie "Croquet : its history, rules, and secrets", Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1897
2. p.261 Richard Warrington Baldwin Lewis, "Edith Wharton: a biography", Harper & Row, New York, 1977
3. p. 1014, "The Spectator", London, September 3, 1864,
4. The 1882 "Kelly’s Directory of Hertfordshire" lists Thomas Turner as a timber merchant and “general wood turner and manufacturer of the Cassiobury games of croquet, garden tennis, etc.”
5. see p.3 "The Aberystwith Observer & Cardiganshire General Advertiser", Saturday 10 September, 1864
6. "Rules of the Eglinton Castle and Cassiobury Croquet", Edmund Routledge, London, Circa 1865
7. see. p.8 Arthur Lillie "Croquet : its history, rules, and secrets", Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1897
8. "Exchange & Mart" p. 410 on Oct 11, 1871 and p.125 on Aug 2, 1871
9. p. 236 "Exchange & Mart" Aug 30, 1871
"Croquet in Court", pps. 1014-1015, "The Spectator", London, September 3, 1864,
Anon, "Croquet, its implements and laws, drawn up by a committee of players appointed by the Editor of 'The Field'", Horace Cox, London, 1866
Arthur Lillie "Croquet : its history, rules, and secrets", Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1897
Simon Inglis, "Played in Britain: A Load of Old Balls", English Heritage, London, 2005
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