Isaac Spratt

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This paper is about a pioneer of croquet who has been almost forgotten. Isaac Spratt published the first printed laws of croquet and was the first person to make croquet equipment for retail sale, but he is barely mentioned in books on croquet history. A lot of information about him survives, but it is scattered in many places and this is the first attempt to bring it together. I must thank David Drazin for drawing my attention to some of the articles that I quote.

Mr. Spratt was a toy maker, who worked and lived in Brook St., London, close to Bond St. He is listed in many directories from 1840 onward as a toy maker, toy dealer, turner and also a maker of brushes and sieves. At first his address was 1 Brook St., but later 18 Brook St. The street may have been renumbered.

The 1851 census report says that he was 52 and was born in Ibsley, Hampshire. He was married with four children. He died in 1876.

Early in the 1850's, he had a customer who has gone down in croquet history as Miss McNaghten or Macnaghten. Her full name was Mary Workman-Macnaghten. Her father was a baronet; so a lot is known about her family from works of Debrett and Burke. Their family seat was in Co. Antrim, Ireland, but they had a London home in Upper Brook St, a few blocks from Mr. Spratt's place.

We learn more from a letter from her younger sister, Octavia, which was published in a book by Lillie in 1897 ("Croquet, its history rules and secrets", p 27). She wrote that croquet had been played in her family long before her childhood, using mallets made by country carpenters. Perhaps Mary went to Mr. Spratt to see if he could make better equipment, but Mr. Spratt thought he could find a wider market.

He asked for a set of laws. We know from Octavia that the game had previously been played from tradition, but her brother, Fergus, wrote out a set of laws. He was born in 1836; so he must have been the youngest member of a laws committee in the history of the game.

Mr. Spratt made some sets and printed the rules, and put the game on sale. In November 1856, he registered the rules with the Stationers' Company. This would have helped him in any dispute about copyright. The record is now in the Public Records Office, and is important as the oldest known piece of paper bearing the word "croquet".

In about 1856 John Jaques Junior took an interest in croquet, and it may have been this that led Mr. Spratt to protect his copyright. However it was not long before Mr. Spratt sold his interest in the game to Mr. Jaques. According to an article in "London Society"  (Vol 8, 1865, p 62), Jaques at first charged prices suited to wealthy players, but later cut his prices and found a huge demand.

So much is clear enough, but some of the details are in dispute. First, the dates. Years later, several writers said that Miss Macnaghten first went to Mr. Spratt in 1851 or 1852. But the date was more likely 1853, because the copyright form gives the date of first publication as 2 August 1853. It was lodged in 1856 when Mr. Spratt's memory should have been fresh. Also he would hardly have brought out a summer game so late in the year if he had started work on it the year before.

There is also dispute about which of the Macnaghten family approached Mr. Spratt. He would later say it was Mary, but perhaps she caught his eye - she was just over twenty. In any case she would have gone into his records as the customer, because Fergus was a minor. However Octavia was sure that Fergus took the initiative (She repeated this in a second hand report in another book by Lillie, "Croquet up to date", 1900, p 210). So he was another underrated pioneer. When he died in 1867 his gift to croquet was already forgotten. Mr. Spratt did better. Someone known only as L.H. of Bucks wrote in "The Field" (21-8-1858) that Mr. Spratt had invented the game.

The most serious confusion was caused by Dr. R.C.A.Prior in his book ("Notes on croquet and some ancient bat and ball games related to it", 1872). He wrote: "I learn from Mr. Spratt, of 18 Brook Street, Hanover Square, that more than twenty years ago a Miss Macnaghten brought it to him as a game that had been lately introduced into Ireland, but which she had first seen on the continent in its primitive state - in the South of France, or in Italy, for he forgets which she said - and described as of the simplest and most rustic character. The people of the village chose a hard, knotty piece of wood, bored a hole through it with an auger, and drove a broomstick into it for a mallet. The hoops they made of willow rods. Mr. Spratt has still in his possession her letter in which she had drawn up the rules as observed by the peasantry of that country, and will show it to any one who is curious upon the subject... Mr. Spratt kept the implements in his shop for some years, and finding no demand for them, sold the game to Mr. Jaques..."

The story is so colourful that it is often quoted, but it is hard to believe. (Historians learn that this applies to most stories that seem too good to be true.) Mary might have seen pall mall being played in the south of France, but would she have bothered with the technical details of mallet making? The same details appear in an account of pall mall in "L'Academie des Jeux" (1805), and that may be where Prior found them. One may also doubt if she would have taken so much interest if she had not already been a keen croquet player. In any case, her sister tells us that they had played the game from childhood.
There are other things wrong with Prior's tale. Spratt's rules, as far as we can tell, are typical of rules published in England in the late 1850s. They may seem primitive to us, but would not have seemed so in 1860. They are quite different from the known rules of pall mall.

It is routine for writers to say that Mr. Spratt had no success with the game, but this cannot be proved. He did not have the huge sales that Mr. Jaques had when he cut prices, but he may not have wanted to if he made the sets by hand and sold them to wealthy people. We do know that he marketed the game for at least three years and then made Mr. Jaques pay him to quit.

This should be the place to reprint the rules of Fergus and Mr. Spratt, but there is a difficulty. No original copy of the rules is known to have survived. Three publications in the 1800s claim to give them in full or in part, but they are all different.

The most plausible is a copy in "Land and Water" in December 1869, page 390, which you can find by clicking here. If you think the latest laws are difficult, try to make sense of the earliest ones.

Lillie, in his 1897 book, published what he said were the first rules of croquet. They are similar, but clearly by a different writer. They might possibly be the first rules of John Jaques, which have also disappeared

The third source is a puzzling letter in "The Queen and Court Chronicle" (21-9-1864, page 197) signed by "un vieux croquetier". He criticised several laws which he said were by Spratt, but they do not appear in either of the above sets of laws.

David Drazin discussed these three sources (in Croquet Gazette, January 1996, p 15), and debated which was genuine, but I see no reason to doubt the version in "Land and Water". The only way to be sure is for someone to find an original copy of Spratt's or Jaques' laws. They would probably be printed on a single sheet of paper or card. Several years ago, David Drazin made an appeal for readers to help, but no one came forward. May I repeat the appeal?

Max Hooper