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Stoolball – A Sussex Tradition

Stoolball is believed to have originated in Sussex and has been played since the 15th Century. Popular in Sussex, Surrey and the Midlands, it has been played at Lord’s cricket ground and the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

Traditionally, the sport was played by milkmaids who used their milking stools as a wicket. Medieval references describe it as a game which is played during Easter celebrations, more typically as a courtship pastime rather than a competitive game. The game’s association with romance is referenced by Shakespeare’s comedy, The Two Noble Kinsmen, where the phrase playing stoolball was used as a euphemism for sexual behaviour.

When I first moved to Sussex 12 years ago, I had never heard of the sport but was soon updated by some female farmer friends from Balcombe. East Grinstead has a strong and long-standing team, which was originally named Queen Victoria. It was common for the burns victims from the Canadian wing at the Queen Victoria Hospital to watch from the side-lines. Two stalwarts of the East Grinstead club, Doris Younger and Betty Budgen have been playing for the team for more than 50 years! Doris and her late husband Keith being the backbone of the club, while also running East Grinstead juniors. Doris left the club this summer to be closer to her sons and will be greatly missed by her team members and friends.

According to the Stoolball UK website, stoolball is described as an exciting team sport, similar to Twenty20 cricket. Two teams compete to score the most runs with two wickets standing at shoulder height, about 14 metres apart. The bats are willow, with a round face and a long, sprung handle. The ball is bowled underarm towards one wicket. Just like cricket, batsmen score by hitting the ball into the field and running between the two wickets. They can also hit the ball beyond a boundary line to score four or six. Batsmen can be bowled, caught or run-out, or even body-before-wicket.

Anyone can play stoolball, and the upside is that you do not need to be super fit to do so. Children start playing around the ages of 8 or 9 and some people are still playing stoolball into their 70’s. It is a way to make friends, and it costs little. It is usual for clubs to provide all the equipment and it typically cost between £1.00 and £3.00 a match, with many clubs offering an annual membership, which works out cheaper. There are lots of ladies’ teams only, as well as mixed teams. In the mixed games, there are rules to ensure everyone gets a fair chance, women must bowl half the overs, and half by men, and usually there is a man and a woman batting together.

Games are played on large grassy areas in the summer and, in winter, the play takes place in a sports hall. A perfect pitch is not needed, and it is quick to set up, which is great for schools wanting to encourage this local tradition. It is also possible to use a school playground. East Grinstead Ladies Stoolball Club now plays at East Court, playing away games in West and East Sussex. They play on Monday and Wednesday, from May to August. A team needs 11 players, and it is open to anyone, including those with no experience.

By Rachel Whitlam

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