The history of croquet at Cassiobury Park in Watford

In the early 1950s, my father attended an auction at Oxhey Place in Oxhey Lane, a mansion then owned by the well-known Blackwell family of Crosse & Blackwell.

The original house on the site, built by Sir James Altham after his purchase of the land in 1604, was known as Sinklees, Sinklets, Saintclers, Saint Clowes, St Cleers – the pronunciation and spelling have evolved over the years. The house and the then large estate were so important that its name appeared on early 17th-century maps of Hertfordshire, such as those of the English cartographer John Speed ​​and the Dutch cartographer brothers Willem and Johannes Blaeu.

Part of John Speed’s Herts from the early 17th century. county map with Sinklees

The Blackwell family sold many lots at their auction and my local historian father came up with an eclectic selection, including a Georgian rosewood writing desk that had belonged to an early Duchess of Sutherland, a Maori Taiaha (spear), a military swagger and many garden games. The games were a metal clock golf set with Roman numerals and a croquet set in a wooden box. The clock golf set was released every summer and family and friends were invited to play in the backyard of our house at 27 Wilcot Avenue, Oxhey, but the croquet set remained forgotten, in a dark corner of the dry shed.

The decades passed and in 1986 my father came across the dusty box and opened it. While cleaning the contents, he saw ‘Cassiobury Croquet’ stamped on a hammer. He had read about the history of the ‘Cassiobury Set’ in the Watford Observer the year before, when photos from the Essex family album were published; an album composed by Lady Essex.

My father’s first thought was to talk to David Setford, curator of Watford Museum. The museum was seeking information on items made at the Cassiobury Saw Mills and planned to hold an exhibit entitled “Herts. at Play’, to run between March 26 and May 1, 1987. It was intended to cover the period from 1800 to 1987. David gave my father information about the ‘Cassiobury Set’ and he offered in response two hammers, two balls, three hoops and a bell for the museum exhibition. A bell, I hear you ask. Why a bell at a game of croquet?

Watford observer:

David Setford and Lesley’s father, Ted Parrish, playing with the ‘Cassiobury Set’, 1986. Photo: Watford Observer

Croquet was extremely popular in the 1860s. Arthur Algernon Capell, the 6th Earl of Essex of Cassiobury House and an avid supporter of the sport, began inventing new rules and equipment for what he called the ‘Cassiobury Set’, an early ‘cradle’ of the game. The equipment included a bell, similar to a cowbell, that hung from a hoop through which players had to pass the balls, causing the bell to ring and the changes in the game. The Earl also designed the ‘Eglinton Castle Set’ at Cassiobury, named after his father-in-law’s seat at Eglinton Castle in Kilwinning, Ayrshire.

The Earl commissioned Thomas Turner, his estate manager and a carpenter by trade, to produce the croquet sets at his Cassiobury Saw Mills, which traded as Messrs. Turner & Company. Close to the railway line beyond the St Albans Road bridge, the large chimney rose from the substantial gabled brick building in which about 100 workers sawed and shaped wood with large circular and band saws, planers and lathes. In its heyday, 3,000 croquet sets were produced annually at prices from eight shillings to princely sums of a few guineas. The mill also produced wagons, carts, ladders, fencing, barrels, cricket stumps, dumbbells and even chess sets.

Watford observer:

19th century illustration of Cassiobury Saw Mills

For the first time, ladies were encouraged to participate in an outdoor game with the gentlemen, and the count held extravagant croquet parties that attracted many prominent figures. In 1869 Lady Essex took part in the first women’s croquet championship on the lawn of Bushey Hall, a then newly built property owned by Edward Marjoribanks.

Paradoxically, several decades later, the Earl’s son, the Hon. Arthur Algernon Capell, actively discouraged ladies on the croquet lawn and wrote letters of condemnation on the subject to The times and The Croquet Gazette. His arguments were that their heels were ruining the lawn, that they were taking too long on their games, that they lacked the guts and strength and only paid half price subscriptions!

Watford (Cassiobury) Croquet Club was founded in 1936 and continues the tradition of the game on four ‘courts’ in Cassiobury Park, close to where the ‘Cassiobury Set’ was first conceived by the 6th Earl of Essex. Lady members enjoy the game just as the 6th Earl intended.

Lesley is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a noted local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83, which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at www.pastdayspublishing.com and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion book exploring the lives and wartime experiences of her father and grandfather, which will see the histories of Watford, Bushey and Oxhey reappear on the scene.

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