Battledore and shuttlecock

Battledore and shuttlecock was the forerunner of the game we now know as badminton; shuttlecock games go back around 2,000 years and are found in many different countries. Today, we are going to take a look at the game during the long eighteenth-century.

A game of battledore and shuttlecock can be seen in the bottom right hand corner of this scene of the Norman Gate and Deputy Governor's House, Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby
A game of battledore and shuttlecock can be seen in the bottom right-hand corner of this scene of the Norman Gate and Deputy Governor’s House, Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The battledores were small racquets, made of rows of gut or of parchment stretched across wooden frames. Shuttlecocks were made of cork, trimmed with feathers. The French botanist, zoologist and painter François Alexandre Pierre de Garsault described battledore and shuttlecock as it was played in France during the first half of the eighteenth-century (where it was known as jouer de volant) and he said feathers from pigeon’s wings were used in the shuttlecock.

Tin glazed earthenware tile depicting a game of battledore and shuttlecock, c.1760-1770.
Tin-glazed earthenware tile depicting a game of battledore and shuttlecock, c.1760-1770. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The game was perennially popular, especially with children but also adults too and could be played with just two people or with more; the premise was simple, you kept the shuttlecock in the air for as long as possible by batting it from one to another player. No net was used.

The diversion of battledore and shittlecock [sic] by Nathaniel Parr after Francis Hayman.
The diversion of battledore and shittlecock [sic] by Nathaniel Parr after Francis Hayman. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
As a cheap, easy and fun game, it was thought eminently suitable for children. It could be played anywhere, indoors or outdoors and developed hand to eye coordination while providing plenty of physical exercise too.  For more of a challenge, if a group of friends were playing, two shuttlecocks could be used.

Le Volant (battledore and shuttlecock) (1802), from Le Bon Genre.
Le Volant (battledore and shuttlecock) (1802), from Le Bon Genre. Bibliothèque Nationale de France

One contemporary account, somewhat disparagingly when talking of the game played by adults, says it was fit only for women to play; men required something more strenuous.

Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed that:

When a child plays shuttlecock he practices hand and eye co-ordination; but he learns nothing. You prefer the shuttlecock because it is harmless and less tiring? You are mistaken. The shuttlecock is a woman’s game; but there isn’t one who hits a moving ball. The white skins mustn’t be roughened by violence; but we, who are vigorous and robust, cannot be so without sweat and how do we expect to defend ourselves if we are never attacked?

Henry Stawell Bilson-Legge (1757-1820), Later 2nd Lord Stawell, as a Boy by Adriaen Carpentiers, 1764
Henry Stawell Bilson-Legge (1757-1820), Later 2nd Lord Stawell, as a Boy by Adriaen Carpentiers, 1764; National Trust, Lodge Park and Sherborne Estate

Rousseau compared it to ‘real tennis’, jeu de paume (palm game, a variant played initially without racquets, instead hitting a small ball back and forth with just the palm of your hand),  saying the latter, played mainly by men, required more skill and strength. (After a time, gloves began to be worn when playing jeu de paume and then racquets.)

La fillette au volant by Jean Siméon Chardin, 1740
La fillette au volant by Jean Siméon Chardin, 1740 (via wikiart).

The World newspaper, on the 13th January 1790, reported on Charles James Fox and his mistress (later his wife), the former courtesan Elizabeth Armistead (who had dallied with the Prince of Wales for a time). Ending their gossipy tidbit with a Latin motto, dulce est desipere in loco [it is pleasant to be frivolous at the appropriate time], they somewhat sarcastically reported on the pair leaving Bath, saying that:

Charles Fox and Mrs Armistead, set off for town yesterday, he, though in high health, has very rarely appeared abroad, and not once at any place of public resort. His mornings have been chiefly spent in sweet converse with his DULCINEA – occasionally, indeed, in the manly amusement of Battledore and Shuttlecock.

We’ll not get into arguments about it now, but we are pleased to say that Garsault, however, disagreed; his opinion was that more force not less was needed to propel a shuttlecock the same distance as the ball used in jeu de paume.

A later depiction of a eighteenth-century game of battledore and shuttlecock by Johan Friedrich Hennings. (Titled The Badminton Players.)
A later depiction of an eighteenth-century game of battledore and shuttlecock by Johan Friedrich Hennings. (Titled The Badminton Players.)

During the very early eighteenth-century, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (1674-1723), who was Regent for the young Louis XV of France at the time, reportedly played a version of battledore and shuttlecock but on a tennis court, instead of ‘real tennis’. Garsault, in The Art of Tennis Racket Maker, 1767, said that this version was particularly fashionable at the French court and it was the duke’s favourite game. Comparing it to jeu de paume, this account is interesting as it describes battledore and shuttlecock being played on a court and using a net, some 150 years before badminton as we know it developed. Up to eight people could play indoors, Garsault said, but the game was best with just four or six.

Large shuttlecocks, two inches in diameter at the base, and with feathers 2½ inches long are used. One serves with the racket as in the Jeu de paume. From the sidewall of the service-side is stretched a second cord and net, three feet from the real one and parallel with it. An attendant of the court serves; for this he stands at the door of the hazard-side. The service is given in two ways; the attendant either throws the shuttlecock into the air with his hands to the server, or else he uses the crank. It is forbidden to send the shuttlecock against the walls or throw it between the two cords.

Frances Delaval (1759-1839), Later Mrs Fenton, with Her Sister, Sarah Delaval (1763-1800), Later Countess of Tyrconnel, with a Shuttlecock and Battledore, in an Interior by William Bell, 1771
Frances Delaval (1759-1839), Later Mrs Fenton, with Her Sister, Sarah Delaval (1763-1800), Later Countess of Tyrconnel, with a Shuttlecock and Battledore, in an Interior by William Bell, 1771; National Trust, Seaton Delaval

The earliest reference we have found to the game being described as badminton and played using a net (or string) comes from The Cornhill Magazine, volume 8, 1863.

Life in a Country House: After lunch, everybody is expected to hold themselves at the disposal of the lady of the house, for a ride, drive, or walk, as the case may be. If the weather be such as to induce you to remain within doors, your co-operation will be sought for in a game at pool, badminton (which is battledore and shuttlecock played with sides, across a string suspended some five feet from the ground), and similar amusements.

Portrait of Two Boys by Francis Hayman, c.1740-1742
Portrait of Two Boys by Francis Hayman, c.1740-1742; Gainsborough’s House

Sources not mentioned above:

Badminton: An Illustrated History – From ancient pastime to Olympic Sport, Jean-Yves Guillain

Notionnaire ou mémorial raisonneé de ce qu’il y a d’utile et d’intéressant dans les connoisances acuises depuis la création du monde jusqu’ à present, François Alexandre Pierre de Garsault, 1761

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