by Robert Veitch
Stoolball is the game that Sussex gave to the world, and with 100 teams in the county it’s a sociable sport for all – give it a go!
Stoolball is a bat and ball game that originated in Sussex around 1450. It predates cricket, rounders and baseball, all sports that retain a few Stoolball genes in their rules.
Stoolball is also played in Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and the Midlands. Once upon a time it was played at Lords and in the back garden of Buckingham Palace. It travelled overseas during the expansive days of the British Empire. It’s still played in some parts of the Commonwealth today, but with Sussex being home to the vast majority of teams, it’s safe to assume our county contains a majority of global talent.
Historically, it was a game of courtship, popular around Easter. The name derives from milkmaids’ stools, which were used as wickets, either resting on the ground or hung from a tree. Early balls had a wooden centre, surrounded with fleece and wrapped in a bladder.
Sussex has five divisions, comprising 40 ladies and 60 mixed teams, scattered all across the county, with a smattering of junior teams too. Teams are 11 a-side with mixed teams containing no more than six males. Games can vary from 4 overs each side in a tournament to 45 over a side in divisional matches, and league matches usually consist of 15 overs.
Rules dictate a 15m (16 yard) pitch is set at the centre of an 82m (90 yard) circular boundary. Wickets are square wooden boards secured to a post. Bowling is underarm, with 8 balls constituting an over. Bats are long-handled, made of willow and spruce. The aim of the game is to score more runs than the opposing team.
Geraldine Miller joined Bolney in 1955 aged eight, and her friend Linda Foster signed up the following year as a nine year old. It’s been a lifelong passion for both of them with an obvious enthusiasm that fizzes up and over the top of the glass.
“When we were kids it was the joy of being part of a team. Tuesdays and Thursdays were always Stoolball evenings during summer,” Geraldine told me. Then Linda continued, “for children, there was less to do and the game was very popular. As well as Tuesdays and Thursdays, we played other matches on Saturdays and Sundays.” Geraldine played for Central Sussex in divisional matches, as Central was not part of the Sussex Association then. Now players can be selected to play for the England team.
Today a Bolney subscription is £15 for the season plus a £2 match fee. “There is a lot of help available to get a team started from Stoolball England,” said Linda. “They are the national governing body and are trying to grow the game in schools.”
According to Geraldine, “Stoolball is a very welcoming and sociable game, good exercise, lovely to be out in the fresh air of summer.” Linda added, “we enjoy tea and biscuits after games, sometimes heading to the pub after that.”
A little further south lives Karen Packham, who has played for Hurstpierpoint for 49 years. She told me, “I love playing, its such good fun and a great team game. Some take it very seriously, but most just enjoy a friendly rivalry. Karen continued, “most games are in the evening, starting around 6:45pm and finishing at about 8:15pm.”
“Having a good game is the main thing,” according to Karen. “It’s good to have an active outdoor game that mothers can play with their daughters.”
The outdoor season runs from the end of April until August and Karen was keen to point out, “it’s a lovely way to spend a summer evening.”
With 174 years of Stoolball experience between them, Karen, Geraldine and Linda won’t continue to play ad infinitum, but summers in Sussex will go on in perpetuity. So… why not take a look at the Stoolball England website, find a team and give the game a go this year. It will help keep Sussex’s sporting gift to the world alive.