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stoolball


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A bat-and-ball game with a rich and sustained history and cultural presence in England. Joseph Strutt's The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England noted the frequent mention of stoolball by writers throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and cited reports of its popularity ‘to this [1801] day in the northern parts of England’. The egalitarian basis of the sport lay in the elementary nature of the equipment: a stool, a ball, and the human hand with which to defend the stool from contact with the opponent's thrown ball. Strutt's description implied a one-a-side contest, but the more modern formalized version has replaced the hand with the bat, involves two teams of eleven players, and shares numerous features with cricket, some even claiming stoolball as cricket's predecessor. Critically, though, its surviving format has been prominent in southern counties of England, where it was played predominantly by women, from the working and labouring classes as well as the middle classes and the gentry, from the second half of the 19th century. It was this gender profile that particularly attracted anthropologist Shirley Prendergast to the sport in her fieldwork. In 1917 the sport was introduced to wounded World War I servicemen, as a gentler form of sport than tennis or cricket for their physical rehabilitation; the Stoolball Association for Great Britain was founded in 1923. (See M. S. Russell-Goggs, ‘Stoolball in Sussex’, The Sussex County Magazine, 11/7, July 1928).

In the counties of East and West Sussex in England the sport continued to be dominated by women: in the farming village studied by Prendergast in 1977 regular matches occurred between village teams, and these teams ‘acted as a focus for many women's activities over the Summer months and into Autumn’ (‘Stoolball: The Pursuit of Vertigo?’, Women's Studies International Quarterly, 1, 1978). Much physical display, jokiness, laughter, and distraction were expressed at regular practices, the emphasis being on this kind of sociability rather than performance improvement. Male responses sexualized the sporting women, and young male villagers would disrupt the women's games, riding motorbikes across playing areas. Male talk in the village pub alleged that stoolball players were ‘up for the tup’—a shepherding term implying ripe for sexual exploitation—as well as being neglectful parents, selfish spouses, and greedy for money. Talk of (men's) football and cricket was, on the contrary, suitably serious. Here, the physical—and in this case confidently vigorous—presence of sporting women in public was seen as threatening to the established male-dominated order. Despite such instances of male opposition, over the last third of the 20th century women's leagues prospered, more men have been drawn to the sport, and the sport could claim three or four thousand regular players, of both sexes, in 2008. In March of 2008 the national policy/developmental body, Sport England, recognized stoolball as a sport in a formal declaration that included recognition of its suitability for inclusion in school sport curricula.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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