Croquet with an Australian twist
A book of English croquet poems reveals an Australian connection
21 April 2016
While most people love the feeling of opening a brand new book for the first time, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is uncovering the unexpected inside the covers of a well-thumbed ‘pre-loved’ book. You never know what you might find, including a connection between English croquet poetry and Australia!
The Library’s copy of Some croquet verses by G.D.R. Tucker; illustrated by H.F. Crowther-Smith, attracted my interest because of a note in the catalogue record ‘Author's ms. poem concerning Moffett-Potts on front paste-down endpaper.’ So, the Library interestingly had a copy of the book that was personally given by the author Tucker to his friend Moffett-Potts, and which had found its way to Australia and the Library.
The book was part of a collection of 2,100 items purchased by the Library from C.R. Johnson Rare Book Collections in 1979, described as ‘Minor Verse 1921-1940 printed in Great Britain, including over 425 items that are either inscribed presentation copies from the author or contain autograph material’.
I was curious to see what Tucker had written to Moffett-Potts and why he might have composed a poem to him. Little did I suspect that this humble collection of verses about croquet would lead me to discover a myriad of Australian links.
Firstly, the little poem pasted inside the front cover is dated Sept. 1937, signed G.D.R. Tucker, and reads:
Were ours those enviable shots
Displayed by Captain Moffett-Potts
Our tails would be distinctly up,
We, too would win a Rydal Cup
I assumed this must be a reference to success at croquet, and indeed found G.D.R. Tucker’s tournament results in the English Open championships in 1936, 1937 and 1939, proving he was himself a player. Unfortunately he was beaten in all of these matches – hence perhaps his slightly envious reference to the success of his friend. But what was the Rydal Cup?
A quick Internet search didn’t turn up anything promising, and the Library doesn’t hold much on the subject of English croquet, so as every librarian knows the best way to find out is to ask another librarian/archivist! Chris Williams, the Archivist at the English Croquet Association was happy to assist and found there was a croquet tournament played in Rydal during that period. Rydal is a small village in the middle of the English Lake District, and the records of the Association show that there was a croquet club there until the 1950s. Chris checked the Croquet Gazette for 14 September 1935 and found that a tournament was played there between 2 and 7 September. In the results of the event Capt Moffett-Potts was listed as playing off a handicap of 12, which was apparently a fairly high handicap at the time. The 1936 event shows that Capt T Moffett-Potts won the Handicap Singles for 5 bisques or over for the Rydal Cup beating Miss A Dixon by 21. He also won the Handicap Singles for 10 bisques or over. The report of the tournament includes the following:
Mrs Apps was obviously the winner of the Grasmere Bowl from the start and the cheery voice of Captain Moffett-Potts made one realise that it is possible to win two cups and still enjoy the game.
What a lovely comment. Obviously Moffett-Potts was a true sporting gentleman and played the game with both skill, generosity and good-humour. No wonder his friend Tucker sent Moffett-Potts a personal copy of his book of amusing croquet ditties – I can imagine the chuckles of Moffett-Potts as I hold the book in my hands.
Now that the mystery of Moffett-Potts was solved, I wanted to know more about the author of the book G.D.R. Tucker. Here I encountered an unforeseen Australian connection that made the eventual location of this book in the National Library seem perfect. I discovered that Tucker studied classics, French and German at Cambridge University, resided in Magdalene College and won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1901 for a poem about Australia!
This of course sent me on a hunt to find a copy of that prize-winning poem. After some delving in library catalogues, I found a record in Cambridge University Library for the publication Prolusiones Academicae: or Exercises which ... were recited in the Senate House. Not something that would immediately suggest it as my goal, but that’s where the work of the cataloguer in describing an item proves such a boon for researchers. The catalogue record included a note ‘Each annual issue contains the exercises for which were awarded the Chancellor's Medal for English verse, the Browne Medals, the Porson Prize, and the prize for Latin hexameters.’ Eureka! This looked promising and a very helpful librarian at Cambridge University Library looked at the volume for 1901 and confirmed that Tucker’s poem was reproduced there in full and I was able to obtain a copy from them. Another library networking success.
The poem is quite lengthy at 6 pages, couched in formal language as you would expect given its intended audience, and very much something of its time showing a British perspective in seeing Australia as a child now united as one of the ‘Nations over which the British flag is spread beneath the canopy of heaven’. Quite a contrast to Tucker’s later fun croquet verse.
I was also delighted to discover that after graduation in 1902, Tucker took a position at the British Museum as Assistant Keeper in the Printed Books Department and remained there until his retirement in 1943. So a library connection that made me feel I had encountered a kindred spirit. I naturally contacted the British Museum, and yes they do still have his personnel file including his original application and referee letters.
So my next step was some research into the illustrator of Tucker’s book, H.F. Crowther-Smith. Little did I suspect that yet another Australian link would emerge. Crowther-Smith was an author and cartoonist. He edited several sports magazines, including Horse and the Croquet Gazette and made drawings and cartoons of a range of sports including rugby and tennis as well as croquet.
Crowther-Smith was a keen croquet player himself, so it’s no wonder that Tucker knew him and asked him to illustrate his book of croquet verses. Crowther-Smith had already produced several books of his own, including A croquet nonsense book which the Library also holds. I couldn’t believe it when I opened that book and chanced upon a lovely caricature of an Australian, Macpherson Robertson, who seems to be showing off a bit of an Aussie Rules kicking style here rather than a refined croquet stroke.
Sir Macpherson Robertson KBE was the founder of the Australian confectionary company MacRobertson’s. In 1925 he presented a silver mounted shield to establish the MacRobertson International Croquet Shield, an event played every three or four years in rotation between Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
However despite his witty caricatures and illustrations, and unlike Captain Moffett-Potts, Crowther-Smith seems to have taken the game of croquet a little more seriously and competitively. In The History of Croquet, (London, 1981) Col D M C Prichard, states that Crowther Smith:
was a competent player who won the Championship Cup in 1914. Unfortunately he created bad feeling by keeping the Cup until he had the opportunity to defend his title, and was forced to return it in 1918. He had resigned as an associate during the War and the Council, incensed at the trouble and expense about the Cup, refused to reinstate him until he apologised, which was not until 1924.
Oh dear! An article by Crowther-Smith in the Daily Mercury from 1938, reproduced from the original in the Daily Mail, also shows this more serious side, calling for a recognition of the skill and tactics involved in the game.
Could there possibly be any further Australian strands to this web? Yes indeed. Another of the sporting illustrations drawn by Crowther-Smith is held by the Library and depicts M.B. (Mervyn Bourne) Higgins, a member of the 1910 Oxford rowing crew who won the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race that year. M.B. Higgins was an Australian, who later served in the Australian Light Horse in WWI and was killed in action in 1916. The Library’s copy of the illustration includes a handwritten annotation detailing some of Higgins’ rowing successes.
Mervyn’s father, Justice H.B. Higgins of the High Court founded the Mervyn Bournes Higgins Memorial Trophy at the University of Melbourne in 1918 in memory of his son.
So, finally the fascinating journey inspired by Tucker’s little book and the inscription it contains is at an end. I know a little more about croquet (including what a bisque is), have laughed over some entertaining verses and cartoons, and have reached across both time and space to meet some interesting, warm-hearted characters. Coincidentally just a few minutes’ walk from the Library next to the Hyatt Hotel is the croquet lawn and clubhouse of the Canberra Croquet Club. I now feel compelled to go and watch a game.
What a joy it is to work in the Library and have the opportunity to uncover some of the stories that lie quietly hidden in the tomes on our shelves.