KEVIN GORDON - Stoolball - a Sussex game for all

Major Grantham (left) with Sir William Bull (MP for Hammersmith) in bat.''Kevin Gordon 26-07-13
Major Grantham (left) with Sir William Bull (MP for Hammersmith) in bat.''Kevin Gordon 26-07-13

Glynde Place is always worth a visit, with its beautiful gardens and interesting sixteenth century house, now home of the Hampden Family, but once the home of the Trevor Family.

John Trevor (1637-1717) was speaker of the House of Commons from 1689 until he got the sack in 1695. He had a very pronounced squint and when he pointed to an MP to speak, it wasn’t clear who he was looking at and often more than one person thought he had ’caught the speaker’s eye’ and started to speak at the same time. Because of this subsequent speakers were expected to remember the faces and names of each MP.

I remember visiting Glynde Place a few years ago and being impressed with the Canaletto’s and other old-masters. Many of these fine paintings were sold in 2008 following the death of the 6th Viscount Hampden but strangely the paintings that I do recall were two pictures showing people playing the old Sussex age of stoolball. Apparently Glynde was once a centre of stoolball.

Stoolball is a game which, although once popular across the country, is now mainly played in the South-East, particularly in Sussex. It is possibly an ancestor of cricket although it can be played on any piece of land irrespective of how flat it is. Wickets are two white squares at about shoulder height and the ball is thrown under arm. Unusually the game can be played by men, women, children and even mixed teams. You don’t even need to be particularly fit to play. The ‘Stoolball England’ website reports that there are still some players in their 70s.

The game is played all over our area with teams from villages, pubs and businesses.

Home grounds are in cricket, school and recreation grounds. An annual stoolball tournament is held each year on the Salts in Seaford. (This year on Sunday, August 4).

The Glynde stoolball team was known as the Butterflies and they would regularly play against teams which includied the Firle Blues, Selmeston Harvest-Bugs, Waldron Bees and Eastbourne Seagulls. Players came from all walks of life with dairymaids, playing against vicars and farm labourers playing against MPs.

The Sussex Advertiser of August 10, 1867, reports a fair at Glynde Park when the local cricket team beat Seaford by ten wickets and where there was also a stoolball match between the village married women against the single ladies. The paper reports that the game was “on the way up” but there was a need for established rules to ensure ‘proper conduct’ during matches. The challenge was taken up by the vicar of Glynde, the Reverend William de St Croix (1819-1877) who wrote the first rule-book for the game in 1867. The following year Gertrude Brand (1844-1927) of Glynde Place and daughter of the local MP Henry Brand, scored the first recorded stoolball century when she scored 110 runs playing for the Butterflies against the Chailey Grasshoppers - all in a full length skirt!

The next revival of the game was during the Great War when Major William Wilson Grantham (1866-1942) thought that it would be an ideal game to be played by injured soldiers. He was an honorary Major in the Royal Sussex Regiment and realised that sports such as cricket and football were unsuitable for many of the badly injured men. In September 1917, he arranged an exhibition match at Lords Cricket Ground in London, when a team of ‘Ancient Lawyers’ beat a team from the London General Hospital by 22 runs. The next month he arranged an exhibition match with wounded officers in Eastbourne. He promoted the game extensively, indeed globally, and wrote a book called ‘Stoolball and How to Play It’.

In 1922 he organised an inter-county match between Sussex and Kent. Hundreds of people attended and our county won by just three runs. In September that month, he even managed to arrange a stoolball match in Buckingham Palace which was watched by George V and Queen Mary. The Kent and Sussex Courier of August 1923 reports on another inter-county match with a poem which includes the verse “Miss D Curtis of Herstmonceux, was skipper of the Sussex crew. She gallantly did wield the bat, till Kent suddenly cried “How’s That” (Is that the only time the word Herstmonceux has been used as a rhyme in a poem!?)

In 1925, stoolball went global when the good Major Grantham went on a 21,000 mile trip to promote the game (wearing a Sussex smock). He arranged games in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and even beside the Trans-Siberian Railway line at Vladivostok. The following year he even was recorded by the BBC for a radio programme about the game.

In 1928 the Sussex County Magazine published an article about the game with several pictures of Major Grantham wearing a Sussex smock. Apparently he learnt the game from his father who was a judge and in 1909 three generations of the family played in a match in Lewes when the ‘trousers’ of the family took on the ‘petticoats’. The item also has photographs of such diverse players as the Bishop of London, an MP and the Japanese Ambassador!Today, matches are still played regularly around this area.