Built in 1612, Chastleton House is known today for being a rare example of a virtually untouched Jacobean country residence. Yet many visitors are unaware of its role in the history of games and leisure. The house’s lawns were where the rules of croquet were first codified by its eccentric owner.
The owner, Walter Whitmore Jones, had worked for the U.K. Government’s War Office but resigned in order to concentrate on a game he had invented, called Frogs and Toads. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the venture lost money and Whitmore Jones moved on to invent several machines that nobody needed, such as his 1864 bootlace winder. At this time he also dabbled in seldom-read poetry.
His next obsession, however, was to prove more fruitful. He took up the game of croquet, which was soon to become his abiding passion. Croquet involves hitting wooden balls through hoops with a mallet. The first recorded mention of the game is in 1856, but it is thought to have precursors that date much further back in time.
Frustratingly though, each manufacturer of croquet sets issued their own rules for game-play. With no single set of rules, leagues or tournaments could not be held, and the pastime could only be viewed as a game at best and not a sport. Whitmore Jones became determined to rectify the situation.
First published in the magazine The Field in 1866, his standardized rules were quickly embraced, and led to the establishment of the All England Croquet Club in 1868, with the first competitive match held two years later. The club’s premises were at Wimbledon, where a small space was also set aside for the then lesser-known and less-popular sport of tennis. Even today, the official name of the organization that runs the tennis Grand Slam at Wimbledon is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Whitmore Jones himself, however, was dismissed as secretary of the club in 1869, following a disagreement. Undaunted, he set up his own organization, the National Croquet Club, and in following years both clubs went on to refine his rules. Croquet was even played at the summer Olympics of 1900 and 1904 (the latter as Roque, an American variant).
Whitmore Jones died of throat cancer aged just 41, but his legacy lives on in the sport he did so much to advance. A croquet lawn is still retained at Wimbledon, despite its eclipse by tennis as the main attraction. Today, croquet is played competitively in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other countries, and the MacRobertson Shield is awarded every four years.
Know Before You Go
The house is located in Chastleton, next to the town of Moreton-in-Marsh in Oxfordshire. Opening hours depend on the season, so check the website for details. Private tours are also available on request.