Cricket, Quoits and Fives: Sporting Prints of the 18th Century

In an earlier blog, we looked at the first three in a series of six prints by Robert Dighton, held in the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, which illustrate a selection of the sports played during the latter half of the eighteenth-century, some now better known than others. Today, we turn our attention to the remaining prints, depicting fives, quoits and cricket.

Fives, a racquet sport, was played at the Tennis Court, Leicester Fields and elsewhere (there are many different variations of the game). It is believed that the name signifies that it was played with five competitors on either side.

The custom of playing fives in churchyards continued in many a country district until quite recent years, notably in Somersetshire and Staffordshire. Ball-playing in such a place no doubt prevailed because the church tower often afforded so suitable a wall for fives. It was usually practised on the north side, because there were generally no graves on that side, and the sport created less scandal. A painted line for the game still remains on some of our church towers, but a string-course of suitable elevation more usually sufficed. Fives used to be played at Eton between the buttresses on the north wall of the college chapel, and the “pepper box” peculiar to Eton fives courts had its origin in a natural angle in one of these buttresses.

Fives played at The Tennis Court, Leicester Fields by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Fives played at The Tennis Court, Leicester Fields by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The players are represented as using tennis rackets and playing against only one wall of the tennis court, on which is chalked out a certain area within which the balls had to be driven. Mr Marshall has thus clearly defined the sequence of the game:–“First came fives, played with the hand against any available wall. Then came bat-fives, in which a wooden instrument, roughly imitated from the tennis racket, was employed. That was a good game; and it is still played in many places, and notably at some of our great schools, Rugby, Westminster, Cheltenham, and others. Not content with the wooden bat, players acquainted with the tennis racket seem to have adopted that instrument about 1749, or a little earlier . . . so it continued to be played until 1788, the date of the print mentioned above, which the players still called the game fives.”

With the introduction of the racket, the change in the name gradually followed. It used to be popular in the prisons of the Fleet and King’s Bench, and afterwards in the gardens of some of the great London taverns. A special form of the real game became localised at Harrow about 1822. With its later history we are not here concerned, nor with the various developments of the present game of fives, which is essentially a pastime for boys.

The next print depicts a group of men contesting a game of quoits at The Horn on Kennington Common. The game was possibly first played with horseshoes, but by the eighteenth-century a metal ring was used, which was thrown to land over on near a spike set into the ground.

The game of quoits, or coits, as an amusement, is superior to any of the foregoing pastimes; the exertion required is more moderate, because this exercise does not depend so much upon superior strength as upon superior skill. The quoit seems evidently to have derived its origin from the ancient discus, and with us in the present day it is a circular plate of iron perforated in the middle, not always of one size, but larger or smaller to suit the strength or conveniency of the several candidates. It is further to be observed, that quoits are not only made of different magnitudes to suit the poise of the players, but sometimes the marks are placed at extravagant distances, so as to require great strength to throw the quoit home; this, however, is contrary to the general rule, and depends upon the caprice of the parties engaged in the contest.

Coits played at The Horn, Kennington Common by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Coits played at The Horn, Kennington Common by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Because the quoits were made of iron, there are not infrequent reports in the newspapers of injuries incurred to the incautious who, for whatever reason, wandered into the field of play.

And while, like all sports, various wagers were placed on the outcome of the game, on one occasion in Chester things went a little too far.

A game of quoits was played last week by two persons, for no less a stake than the leg of the one against the arm of the other – but there was nothing very sanguinary in the case, as they were wooden ones. The contest ended in the loss of the leg.

(Chester Chronicle, 26th May 1797)

And so we come to the sixth and last print which shows a cricket match. In the eighteenth-century, cricket was the country’s most popular sport, not least because of the wagers placed upon the games. Even royalty were fans, with Frederick, Prince of Wales (the eldest son of George II) a keen player and patron. The following is the first reference to a trophy (other than cash) being contested in a game of cricket.

On Tuesday last a silver cup, given by his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, was play’d for at cricket on Moulsey Hurst near Hampton Court, by eleven men on a side; eleven were pitch’d on one side by Mr Stede of Kent, and the other eleven were pick’d out of the twenty-two that play;d at the same place about three weeks ago (and were call’d the Prince’s Men) which latter won, tho’ not with so much east as was expected, the odds being against Mr Stede’s men at the beginning.

(Derby Mercury, 23rd August 1733)

In 1745, the young women of two Surrey villages picked up their bats and faced each other in a game of cricket.

The greatest Cricket Match that ever was played in the south part of England, was on Friday the 26th of last month, on Golden Common near Guildford in Surrey, between eleven maids of Bramley, and eleven maids of Hambleton, all dressed in white, the Bramley Maids had blue ribbons, and the Hambleton Maids red ribbons on their heads, the Bramley Girls got 119 notches, and the Hambleton Girls 127; there was of both sexes the greatest number that ever was seen on such an occasion, the girls bowled, batted, ran, and catched, as well as any man could do in that game.

(Derby Mercury, 9th August 1745)

Cricket played by the Gentleman's Club, Whiteconduit House by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Cricket played by the Gentleman’s Club, Whiteconduit House by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

While the Gentleman’s Club at White Conduit House might have witnessed scenes similar to the one above, earlier matches played there were not quite so sporting or peaceful.

Thursday last, a cricket match was played behind White-Conduit House, between 11 Master Butchers of Newgate Market, and 11 of Clare Market, for 50l. When the Clare Market Butchers found that the Newgate ones had so few to get the last innings, they began to wrangle, when both parties came to blows, and the Newgate Men came off victorious.

(Derby Mercury 21st August 1772)

Six sporting prints by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Six sporting prints by Robert Dighton, c.1784. The London Illustrated News, 1931.

Sources not mentioned above:

Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt [2nd ed., 1903]

Illustrated London News, 22nd August 1931


One thought on “Cricket, Quoits and Fives: Sporting Prints of the 18th Century

Comments are closed.