Friday, March 9, 2007

Milkmaids…? by Zephirine

At my all-girls’ secondary school, sport was dull and badly taught. We played netball - a version of basketball specifically invented for females, where you have to stand still when you get the ball, but not for too long, and physical contact is penalised. Pretty much everything which is great about basketball isn’t allowed in netball.

We also played a game called stoolball, which I remember as being good fun; we were taught that it was ‘the Sussex version of rounders’, and I always assumed that this was another genteel sport devised for the weaker sex by some Victorian educator.

Wrong, wrong. I’ve recently discovered that stoolball, which is still widely played in Sussex (predominantly, but not exclusively, by women) is one of the oldest known English sports. It was originally played by milkmaids (I kid you not) using a milking stool as a wicket, and is mentioned in documents going back at least 500 years. Historians believe it originated in the fourteenth century. It was a rough country game - there are records of it being played with stones instead of a ball - and matches were followed by rustic merrymaking with the village swains and ale-fuelled hanky-panky. It also made its way to America, and some Pilgrim Fathers (or their wives) were seen playing it in 1621 - on Christmas Day, and probably without the hanky-panky.

Nowadays there are also stoolball leagues in Kent and Surrey, and it’s played like village cricket, for competition and fun. It has always been played in Sussex, though East and West Sussex (typically) had different versions of the rules. After the First World War stoolball was ‘revived’ by a Major who felt it would be suitable for injured soldiers to play - he codified it and added rules from the men’s game of cricket which had, of course, been evolving separately for quite a while by then.

So, much of the terminology in today’s game comes from cricket, and the rules are roughly the same, but it looks more like rounders. The two wickets are square boards, at head-height, on stands, and the small leather ball is bowled underarm. The bat is weird. It’s round, like a heavyweight version of a table-tennis bat, made of wood, and hefty - you can take a good wallop at the ball with it. It, too, was probably originally a milking-stool, or the top of one, though there are also records of an early form of the game where the maids hit the ball with their hand, and in some areas they used a stick.

No one knows at what point the breakaway men’s version began to call itself cricket. The Stoolball Association firmly states that its game is the ancestor of cricket (though the MCC may not agree). Obviously the stick version of ancient stoolball developed into rounders, which is thought to be the origin of baseball. Or, given the 1621 eye-witness account, stoolball may be the direct ancestor of baseball.

So… cricket and, maybe, baseball were invented by….girls. Milkmaids. Not their boyfriends or their dads. Girlies in skirts.

Who is going to break this to Shane Warne?

18 comments:

mimi said...

Lovely Zeph, particularly the sly dig at the end! I'm having to stop myself going to google stoolball as I so want this to be a true story. I too hated netball - apart from rounders, it was probably the sport I despised most at school

Anonymous said...

Zeph -
wish I'd been to your school!
GG

Zephirine said...

Mimi - google away, it's all true! Though of course, short of time-travelling back to the day when that 14c milkmaid first said - "Oi, Ethelfrida, pop your milking stool down there and we'll chuck this ball at it" we shall never know. But think about it: cricket stumps = three bits of wood with a piece on top; milking stool = three bits of wood with a... I rest my case.

GG - no.. it was very very boring.

mimi said...

Nothing I could possibly find on google could beat your telling of the stoolball story. I can't believe you didn't win with this.

Zephirine said...

I didn't put this one in - I was afraid Aussie3Oi would drop dead of an apoplectic fit if it was published. I did put another one in for GU this week, though - another quite silly one - and apparently I'm an honorary mensch... so it'll be on here a bit later.

Anonymous said...

Zepherine -
I would like to believe I might have relieved some of that boredom.
gg

mimi said...

I too would be scared of Aussie3oi.
I'm looking forward to seeing your Hon Mention piece. I got nothing this week, but after a brief depression am resolved to try even harder next week.

MotM said...

Zeph - Congrats on the hon mensh and on this piece which I enjoyed on this beautiful spring day (hang on, I'm coming over a bit GGish).

mimi and Zeph - Don't worry about Aussieoi. I can tell now whether he's in readable mode (and he can be worth a read) or bluster, and just pass over it. I hope Lev and the Doc and others from the cricket bogs read this as I suspect they will enjoy it as much as mimi and I have.

Zephirine said...

Mouth, agree about AussieOi, though he did snap at Mimi one time, I noticed. The Aus lot were good fun over the Ashes tour. (I'm posting the same things twice on two threads now, must stop.)

andrewm said...

Very good Zeph, I wish you'd sent it in. Would have brought a bit of colour and life to a hopelessly dull and functional week on BB.

bluedaddy said...

This is a cracker, fair maiden. Will come back to this, as a crispy duck is calling my name.

levremance said...

I'm guessing the name Stoolball hasn't passed thru a marketing dept., so to speak.
You should have submitted this one Zephirine. BTW women invented overarm bowling so why not the game itself.

mimi said...

AussieOi may have snapped at me - quite honestly don't remember. When you've survived the sort of public humiliation I endured at the hands of Smyth when I admitted to flirting with the BBC, you have no fears of the Aussie chuckers. I had to truly GROVEL to get back on OBO!

Zeph said...

Levremance, nice to meet you here! I guess back in the fourteenth century, 'marketing' meant doing your shopping. Those were the days...

So maybe I should put this and/or my Panesar bit in for BB next week - or would they get rejected for being second-hand?!

olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...

Wow! Sport and History/Archeology, now, that's a brilliant combination.

Again, cricket is completely alien to me (I tried watching a game once, but fell asleep), so if you can keep someone like me reading all the way through, it's definitely a good sign.

And "there are records of it being played with stones instead of a ball" sounds really good. I'm sure that would keep me awake. That and the comely milkmaids, of course. Do the marketing executives at Sky Sports know anything?

Well done, Zeph.

Anonymous said...

fascinating history, I had no idea.

-munni
(posting anonymously because apparently I created a blogger identity at some point in the past, but I have no idea what my log in information might have been)

Tony Ellis said...

Great article, and how satisfying to have 'rediscovered' this piece of sporting history for us. I agree about the unfortunate name: I had visions of a game called 'freckles', a post-match entertainment a cricketing Maori friend once explained to me...

Zeph said...

Curiously, we never sniggered about it at school, though naturally we did about most things.

Back in the medieval day, of course, a stool was a seat for sitting on and they called a turd a turd.

Tweet it, digg it