Stoolball Today -- The Rejuvenation of an Ancient Pastime

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by John and Kay Price, November 2013

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The Game Since 1900

This season has possibly been the busiest in terms of promoting the game of stoolball for nearly 100 years. Back in 1913 a world war was imminent and all too many were about to lose their lives or become severely injured as the young men of this country were drawn into many bloody battles. Seven years later England was learning to cope with many injured, some permanently, ex-soldiers and other military personnel.

Bit by bit, life was being breathed back into the rural villages and towns of England and at the helm of the stoolball revival was Major W.W. Grantham, a King’s Counsellor in London and a resident of Barcombe in Sussex. One of his sons had been injured during the fighting in World War I but with his excellent contacts in very high places, he was quickly organising stoolball matches, not only at the Lords Cricket Ground in London but also at Buckingham Palace where wounded ex-soldiers and his social dignitary friends would play matches in aid of the “not forgotten”. With this image, stoolball blossomed as villages all over the country resurrected their teams.

This happy, healthy state of affairs was to last undisturbed until the start of World War II in 1939. With the women working on the land, in the ammunition factories and helping to run buses, trains and ambulances, stoolball virtually came to a stop during this period and teams did not get back together until round about 1946-7. Also with the death of Major Grantham in 1942 and the fact that the national governing body of the game was not revived after the war, stoolball was slow to react to the new world and did not grasp the need to get themselves organised at the top level. County organisations in Kent, Surrey and Sussex were reformed and leagues and groups of friendly teams started playing again but it was not until 1979 that those running the sport and county level realised the need to re-establish a governing body to administer and promote the game on a national level. However the damage had been done and the fight to regain its favoured place in rural society was slow. Thirty years later and with recognition for both the sport and the governing body achieved, stoolball was ready to start the fight back.

2010 -- A New Phase of Rivival

In 2010 plans were put in place to start the revival of the game and in 2012 Stoolball England secured a small amount of funding from Sport England. However, during one of the worst summers on record, it meant that most of the planned promotional activities were wiped out by rain and this part of the project had to be carried over to the summer of 2013.

With their newly acquired inflatable batting cage, bowling machine and promotional banners all neatly packed away in their brand new trailer, Stoolball England, helped by a number of keen club supporters, has been providing stoolball “taster sessions” to members of the public in Brighton, Gloucester, Horsham, Chichester and Ditchling and providing sessions to schoolchildren in Hastings, Polegate, Uckfield, Hailsham, Crowborough and Heathfield – it has indeed been a very busy summer. In addition a stoolball academy has been started at the cricket ground in Broadbridge Heath, a village just outside Horsham.

Throughout the summer term, coaching has been carried out in primary schools at Powell Corduroy School in Dorking, Leechpool, All Saint’s and Kingslea in Horsham as well as schools from Southwater, Warnham and Broadbridge Heath. As usual following the coaching sessions, the primary schools’ festival took place at Horsham Cricket Club where 12 teams competed for the trophy which resulted in a win for All Saint’s School with Southwater coming second.

In East Sussex, Stoolball England also received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund in the form of an education package conceived by Anita Broad, a member of the Management Committee. The project involved four primary schools in the Uckfield area, Framfield, Harlands, Newick and St. Mark’s, Hadlow Down where, in addition to stoolball coaching, students learned about the heritage of the game; they interviewed older members of stoolball clubs to hear about their memories and visited a stoolball bat manufacturer. The project also involved art (all four schools created a superb banner from scratch) and music. The final event of this project was an all-day stoolball tournament which was organised by Anita and Stoolball England personnel which was held at The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton, near Chichester where their banners took pride of place. The Framfield school children wore Victorian costumes and the teams were joined later in the day by a team from the local Singleton primary school. It was a most successful day and the eventual winners Newick were presented with a cup and a stoolball bat from Gray-Nicolls and the runners-up were Harlands School who were also given a bat.

The Game in 2013

Stoolball is mainly played in the south east of England in the counties of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and the east of Hampshire. The season starts in April after the clocks have been moved forward and stoolball clubs will get together in the evenings to firstly practice and then as the evenings get progressively lighter they play friendly games of about 10 overs per innings against local opposition. League matches in all the counties start in May when clubs get down to serious competition.

In Kent, stoolball is mainly centred round Tunbridge Wells and in 2013 their league champions were Fordcombe with Bidborough in second place.

In Surrey, where they have two levels of competition with the winners and second team in Division 2 moving up for the next season and the two bottom teams in Division One dropping down to the lower Division Two. The Surrey champions in 2013 were Holmbury and tied in second place were Alfold and Oakwood Hill.

In Sussex, there are seven leagues, Coastal and Chanctonbury who are run independently and East Division, Central Division, Mid Division, North Division and West Division who come under the auspices of the Sussex County Stoolball Association.

On-field Results in 2013

The East Preston club were the dominant team in both the Coastal and Chanctonbury Leagues. East Division: Champions United Friends with Stone Cross in second place. Central Division: Champions Blackstone with Lindfield in second place. Mid Division: Champions Barcombe with Ringmer in second place. North Division: Champions Fletching with Newick in second place. West Division: Champions Angmering with Horsham in second place.

In addition to the clubs playing league matches, there are also two groups with about 12 teams each in East Sussex and on the Hampshire/Surrey/West Sussex border who play friendly games and do not get involved in league matches. They arrange fixtures between themselves and play tournaments (8 players per team and usually games of 4 overs) practically every week-end.

Whereas league games are played during the week in the summer months, at week-ends there are inter-county matches played annually between Kent, Surrey and Sussex and each county and division in Sussex selects representative teams for competition at Under 17, Under 21 level and over 50 levels. Surrey and Sussex also run season long Knock-out Cup competitions for their clubs and with Kent organise their own county tournaments.

At the end of the 2012 season, it was decided to raise the level of stoolball competition to a national level when all the 9 ladies leagues and the two friendly groups nominated players to play in a match England XI against the President’s XI which took place at Horsham Cricket Club. This was a ground-breaking event which was thoroughly enjoyed by all those who played in it and by the 300-400 spectators who watched it.

This year, it was decided to select teams for players who were Under 21 and Over 50 in addition to the England senior game and these matches were played on consecutive Sundays in September. Prior to these matches, a day long training camp was held for the 85 “nominated” players which included physical fitness training followed by a session of fielding, throwing and catching supervised by six cricket coaches. In the afternoon practice matches gave all players the opportunity to display their skill in front of a team of selectors.

These matches brought the very busy outdoor season to a close but it is clear that the spark and enthusiasm for playing in matches like these has done much to help bond players together, improve confidence and has created the desire to climb further up the pyramid of achievement.

The Expansion of Mixed-Team Stoolball

In 2014, a similar England match for mixed teams consisting of a maximum of 6 men and 5 women is planned and will be held in East Sussex and if this is successful, matches at U.21 and Over 50 will follow in 2015. Mixed stoolball is a valuable asset to the game of stoolball because there are very few sports in the world where a mixed format is played. It is mainly played in Sussex where are four leagues, the largest being the Eastbourne Red Triangle League which has five divisions and has been running for over 60 years. The other leagues are played in the Hailsham area in East Sussex, Mid Sussex and a newly formed Border league in West Sussex.