The much-loved Sussex sport of stoolball

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The ancient game of stoolball enjoys a popularity that ebbs and flows in Sussex but still thankfully goes on.

Apparently there are written references to the sport dating back as far as 1540 though I haven’t seen them myself.

However, what is indisputable is an early 17th Century report made by a man destined to become second Governor of Massachusetts. William Bradford went to America aboard the ship the Mayflower and once there he kept a diary. On Christmas Day 1621 in the pioneer village of Plymouth he noted how he found the English settlers: “… in the streets at play openly, some pitching the bar, and some at stoole-ball and such like sports.” Bradford’s handwritten journal is preserved in the State Library in Boston.

Later in the same century, a wealthy naturalist called Francis Willughby decided to collect as much information as he could on the sports and games of England. He died aged just 36 in 1672 and his unfinished findings ended up in the library of the University of Nottingham. Amazingly they were at last published in 2003 as “Francis Willughby’s Book of Games”.

In it he describes stoolball as being “played by two teams using as a wicket a single stool … with the seat perpendicular to the ground”. Incidentally, it does seem to be unfortunately untrue that the game ever had anything to do with the milking stools of milkmaids serving as bats. I say unfortunately because I was always rather fond of this piece of folklore and it’s sad to have a Sussex myth punctured.

The Lewes Journal of June 1747 reports on a “fine match of stoolball” played by a total of 28 ladies at Warbleton.

In 1801 Joseph Strutt published “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England”. He recorded stoolball being played in two distinct forms. One game was peculiar to the northern part of the country and featured just two players who took it in turns to try and hit with a ball a stool laid on the ground while his or her opponent attempted to deflect the ball using just a hand. The other version seems to have been more akin to rounders or even American baseball.

In 1814 the well-known author Walter Scott published “A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts on the most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects”.

In it he observes: “No country but Great Britain can boast that after 12 hours hard work, its natives will, in the evening, go to foot-ball, stool-ball, cricket, prison-base, cudgel-playing or some other such vehement exercise for their recreation.”

England’s lady footballers deservedly became national heroes because of their unexpected success in the recent World Cup.

But arguably this country’s first female sports stars played in a Sussex stoolball team in the 19th Century. Local historian Andrew Lusted makes this assertion in a book published in 2011.

In it Andrew records the story of the trailblazing Glynde Butterflies Stoolball Team between the years 1866 and 1887 when their opponents were the likes of the Firle Blues, Chailey Grasshoppers, Selmeston Harvest Bugs. Waldron Bees, Eastbourne Seagulls,

Danny Daisies and Westmeston. This last team seems not to have bothered with a fancy addendum to their village name - or maybe they thought all the best ones had already been nabbed. Somewhat belatedly I would suggest Westmeston Earthworms as a name unlikely to be forgotten!

The first reported stoolball match between teams of named women representing Sussex villages featured the Glynde Butterflies taking on Firle Blues in 1866. Andrew writes: “In an age where class distinction ruled society the young women who played for the Butterflies came from all walks of life. The daughters of the vicar and the owner of Glynde Place played alongside those of the gamekeeper, farm labourer and clerk to the local chalk pits.”

Glynde Place’s owner was Henry Brand. He would later become Speaker of the House of Commons and receive the title of Viscount Hampden.

The Reverend William de St Croix, vicar of Glynde, compiled the first rules of stoolball in 1867 and had them published in the “East Sussex News”.

Inaugural captain of the Butterflies was Gertrude, daughter of Henry Brand. In 1868 she scored the first century at stoolball, making an impressive 110 in a game played in Glynde Park. Andrew believes Gertrude would have covered around a mile in the course of running up her score. Bear in mind that she was fully clad in the conventional dress of the day and into the bargain was wearing a hat as dictated by Victorian-era fashion.

For just a small village, the Glynde stoolball players punched well above their weight and built up a tremendous reputation. Stoolball stories made it into various national newspapers including ‘The Sunday Times”.

Local journals gave the sport extensive coverage. A typical report appeared in the “Sussex Express” of 3rd September 1867 and began: “The longed-for contest between Chailey Grasshoppers and Glynde Butterflies came off on Thursday week in the parsonage field. The two clubs met in the most determined spirit of resistance, each bent upon being the winner.”

As it happened, Chailey won the encounter but would lose the return match. Interestingly there were 15 ladies in each side so it would have made for quite a crowded field.

In more recent times, the village of Ditchling has been a notable source of stoolballing excellence. I’m told that the late Doreen Mayston’s record for the highest number of runs scored in a league game has never been beaten. Doreen captained Sussex Ladies for 21 years and was awarded the MBE for services to the community.

When she went to Buckingham Palace to receive the honour, the Queen asked her exactly what was the sport of stoolball. A question not easily answered in the mere minute or so one is allocated in the royal presence!

Stoolball continues as a Mayston family tradition; Doreen’s daughter Susie Harrison captains Ditchling and plays for England and Mid-Sussex.

Susie’s own daughter Georgina plays for all three teams as well. I’m not sure if her stoolball opponents would like to know this but Georgina has also represented England in a world karate championship held in Japan!

Even without karate, stoolball can be a dangerous game. Around 30 years ago I played in a match in Preston Park. While running between the wickets I crashed full tilt into my team-mate who was running the other way.

Both of us had been watching the flight of the ball. I fell to the ground pole-axed and ended up in Brighton Hospitality where my broken collar bone was strapped up. The evening ended on a brighter note as I was at least able to make it to the pub in time to enjoy the traditional post-match pint.