Pall Mall ... and Croquet

The game known as pall mall was a precursor of croquet. The name had several variants, including 'pell–mell'. It comes from the Latin words palla (ball) and malleus (mallet), via the Italian pallamaglio.

According to Wikipedia the game originated in France, then became popular in Scotland, and was introduced to England by King James I (James VI of Scotland). His sons Henry and Charles were keen players.

At some time around 1630, a Frenchman named John Bonnealle was commissioned to lay out a court for playing the game on the south side of St. James's Square. The area later became known as Pall Mall Field. The street that we know as Pall Mall was built in 1661, and officially named Catherine Street – after Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II (who was then newly restored to the throne).

Samuel Pepys records watching the Duke of York (Charles II's younger brother, the future James II) playing "Pelemele" in St. James's Park, in his diary entry for 2 April 1661. He also recorded several later visits, and by 1665 he was using the name 'Pell Mell' to refer to the street as well as the game.

Pall Mall became known for high–class shopping in the 18th century, and gentlemen's clubs in the 19th. It was one of the first streets in London to be lit by gas after Frederick Albert Winsor set up experimental lighting on 4 June 1807 to celebrate the birthday of King George III. Permanent lighting was installed in 1820.

The Reform, Athenaeum and Travellers Clubs on Pall Mall have survived into the 21st century. The War Office was based on Pall Mall during the second half of the 19th century, and the Royal Automobile Club has had its headquarters there since 1908.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, defined "pall–mall" as "A play in which the ball is struck with a mallet through an iron ring". This hints at a similarity to the modern game of croquet, but there is no evidence that pall–mall involved the croquet stroke which is the distinguishing characteristic of the modern game.

The rules of the modern game of croquet are believed to have arrived from Ireland during the 1850s – possibly after being brought there from Brittany, where a similar game was played on the beaches. It became highly popular as a social pastime in England during the 1860s, but by the late 1870s it had been eclipsed by another fashion: lawn tennis. Many of the newly created croquet clubs, including the All England Club at Wimbledon, converted some or all of their lawns into tennis courts. There was a revival in the 1890s, but from then onwards, croquet was always a minority sport. Wimbledon still has a croquet lawn, but has not hosted any significant tournaments for many years. The game's English headquarters are now in Cheltenham.

© Haydn Thompson 2018