Here’s a brainteaser for my readers and especially for those who reenact during the Georgian Era. What game, dating back to at least the 15th century, do some researchers credit as a possible origin for Cricket, Rounders and Baseball? I’ll give you a couple more clues. In the early periods, it was often associated with Easter time. It also would be a great game for demonstrating at a living history event, and even involving the public, since both men and women played it. Give up? Well, the answer is Stoolball! Never heard of Stoolball? Well, it is not a game involving cow patties but you can read on to learn about this historic game that is still played today.
Stoolball is one of the best-documented of the early ballgames, with more than sixty possible references to its play between 1086 and 1861. (The Protoball Project, 2015) A manuscript from 1344 in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (No. 264) reflects a game of club and ball. “One player throws that ball to another who holds a vicious-looking club. He defends a round object which resembles a stool but with a base instead of legs. . .” David Block cites John Myrc’s work, “early poetic instruction of priests,” as “How thow schalt thy paresche preche,” London. It warns “Bal and bares and suche play/ Out of chyrcheyorde put a-way.” A note reportedly inserted by another author included among the banned games “tenessyng handball, fott ball stoil ball (stoolball) and all manner other games out churchyard.” (Block, 2005) In 1564, complaints were made to the justices sitting at the midsummer session, at Malden, Surrey, that the constable (himself possibly an enthusiast with the stool and ball) suffered stoolball to be played on Sunday. (Russell-Goggs, 1928)
Stoolball did not stay solely in England however, but came to America with the Massachusetts Colony. Governor Bradford describes Christmas Day 1621 at Plymouth Plantation, MA;
“most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye street at play, openly; some at pitching ye barr, and some at stoole-ball and shuch like sport. . . . Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.” (The Protoball Project, 2015)
Finally, to bring stoolball history up to just before the Georgian era there is Edward Chamberlayne, who wrote:
“The growth of a commercial London failed to raise the tone of sporting tastes. While the countryman exercised vehemently at football, stool-ball, cricket, pins-on-base, wrestling, or cudgel-playing, there was fiercer and more blood-stirring excitement for the Londoner. Particularly at Hockley-in-the-Hole, one could find bear-baiting, bull-baiting and cock-fighting to his heart’s content.” (The Protoball Project, 2015)
The in reading through all the pre-1700 citations on the Protoball website, the general picture that emerges from those sources is that stoolball was easily the most often cited English ball game of the era and an adult pastime. It was played as often by women as men, and not infrequently cited as a lusty game that led to somewhat unchaste interactions between the lads and lasses involved.
Diarist Nicholas Blondell, Esq. brings us into the Georgian era, and shows both men and women playing, with his diary entry of May 14, 1715 where he wrote:
“The Young Folks of this Town had a Merry-Night . . . . The Young Weomen treated the Men with a Tandsey as they lost to them at a Game at Stoole Balle.”
We also see, from a poem, ‘Stool-ball or the Easter Diversion’ published in the December 1733 issue of The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer that Stoolball is still closely associated with religious activities, and in this case with Easter.
By the latter part of the 18th Century, the widespread play of stoolball was a thing of the past. It was played in Brighton to celebrate a royal birthday in the 1780s, but by the early 19th century, it seems to be limited mainly to Kent and Sussex.
Playing the Game
Evidence on the game’s actual playing rules in the pre-Georgian era is very thin. Reviewing the scattered pre-1700 evidence, we can deduce that stoolball involved:
- propulsion of the ball by a member of the “in” team to a team of fielders who could register a score by catching it in the air;
- fielded balls being thrown toward the stool;
- score being kept and a winning side thereby determined;
- an all-out-side-out format for exchanging sides at the end of what we would now call innings.
Missing from all of these pre-1700 accounts are any concrete depictions of:
- the presence of two or more bases (stools) on the playing field;
- running among stools by the “in” players as the way to score “notches” (runs);
- the use of a bat to put a ball in play;
- the idea that “in” players protected a stool or other target from being hit by the balls thrown toward the stool by the “out” side.
At some point, between 1700 and the late 1800s, which is the earliest comprehensive set of rules I can find, the game changed and adopted the items listed above as missing.
Rules of Stoolball
- The wickets to be boards one foot square, mounted on a stake, which, when fixed in the ground, must be four feet nine inches from the ground.
- The wickets to be sixteen yards apart, the bowling crease to be eight yards from the wicket.
- The bowler to stand with one foot behind the crease.
- The ball to be of that kind known as ” Best Tennis,” No. 3.
- The bats to be of wood, and made the same size and shape as battledores.
- The striker to be out if the ball when bowled hits the wicket, or if the ball be caught in the hands of any of the opposing side, or if in running, preparing to run, or pretending to run, the ball be thrown or touch the wicket before the striker reaches it, and the ball in all cases must strike the face of the wicket, and in running the striker must at each run strike the wicket with her bat.
- There should be eleven players on each side.
- Overs to consist of eight balls. (Gomme, 1898)
While Stoolball play continued to decline throughout the 19th Century, it continued to be played in certain areas of England and was a subject of serious study by at least one Anthropologist, Edward Burnett Tylor, the first Professor of Anthropology at Oxford. Tylor was very interested in the study of the game and he gave a number of public lectures and published papers on this subject during the late 1870s and early 1880s.
Major W.W. Grantham is credited with the revival of the game during the First World War. Grantham, an army officer, introduced the game to soldiers in Brighton, who were there while recovering from their injuries. The game, which is not as vigorous as cricket, proved popular and in 1917, he organized a public match at the County Cricket Ground at Hove, near Brighton in Sussex. Later that year he even organized a match at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London.
The game remained popular until the Second World War when social changes meant a decline in its popularity. There are, however, a number of teams still playing stoolball. These teams are concentrated around the City of Birmingham, Buckingham County, and Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, and Kent Counties south of London.
© 2015 Chuck Hudson
Block, D. (2005). Baseball Before We Knew It. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Gomme, A. B. (1898). The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland Vol. II. London: David Nutt.
Russell-Goggs, M. S. (1928, July). Stoolball in Sussex. The Sussex County Magazine, p. 318.
The London Magazine. (1733). The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 2. London: J. Wilford.
The Protoball Project. (2015, 09 18). Chronology: Stoolball. Retrieved from Protoball: http://protoball.org/Chronology:Stoolball