STEEL QUOITS IN SUFFOLK by VIC HARRUP
Although there is evidence of clubs coming into being in the last two decades of the 19 th century, the various leagues do not appear to have been formed until the early years of the new century. However, the first edition of Wisden’s, the cricketer’s almanac, contained the rules of games in addition to those of cricket, including “Quoiting”.
It seems clear that, in 1864, quoits was played on grass with the pins visible above the ground. They were placed 21 paces apart, and the quoits were pitched ‘from one to the other’. Should the pin ‘threat the quoit’, it counted two. Players selected a pair of quoits of any weight at the outset, which they had to persist with during the game. Play was between individuals (up to 11 points) or in pairs (up to 15 points). The likelihood of the pins being above ground is indicated by the rule that, ‘if the pin be struck from the perpendicular, the ground line of the pin to the nearest edge of the quoit is to be considered equitable measurement’. This is confirmed within the section on quoits in Joseph Strutt’s ‘Sports and Pastimes of the People of England’, published in 1876. He said that the iron pins were driven into the ground ‘within a few inches of the top’. Distance apart was 18, 20 or more yards, and quoits could be of any weight. However, within a few years rules had been devised to standardize the game in Suffolk and Essex, with the introduction of clay beds among other things.
The Woodbridge Reporter recorded in 1879 that a ‘conference of quoitists’ was held in Birmingham ten years previously to draw up rules for the game. A West-End Club (in Ipswich) existed, and had done so for some years, but the game was more popular in the North of England. That year Lancashire played Cheshire for a side bet of £25. There is little doubt that the writer regarded the game as a ‘gentleman’s’ game, saying that players could indulge in the ‘fragrant cigar or more homely pipe’, whilst playing, and it could be enjoyed both young and old, and there was no reason why ‘ladies with gloved hands’ should not take to it!
A small amount of correspondence survives in the Ipswich Record Office concerning the formation of the Bramford and Great Blakenham Clubs, which may indicate how others came into being. Bramford is a large village near Ipswich, population 1200 at the 1901 census, and at that time men were employed at the artificial fertiliser and cement works. Letters between the incumbent, Arthur Payne, and the landowner, Rear Admiral Sir Lambton Lorraine, reveal something of the background of the quoits club. In 1906, members of the club wanted to move the club to the Angel Inn. Thus the vicar wrote to Sir Lambton seeking his support in preserving the original club ‘that has had such a successful career in the past’. A Bramford Village Club had been in existence from 1887, and vicars always supported it, the game being played on the glebe land adjoining the vicarage garden. The club preceded the village football and cricket clubs, founded in 1903 and 1904 respectively.
The vicar advised Sir Lambton that the club had 30 to 40 members and had reached the final round of the Suffolk County Quoit Club Competition, and won the Challenge Cup against 66 other clubs. The club contained members who wanted to meet ‘at our village inns’ which they were perfectly at liberty to do’, but the club would be better without them. Indeed the club had been a ’real influence for good’ in the parish, and its officers were prepared to continue even with a reduced membership. The Angel Club would have ‘a very short career’ and the perpetrator of the split was, according to the officers and to use their own phraseology ‘a waster’. He did no regular work, lived upon his sister, and had been cleared out of the army.
Sir Lambton’s reply was to the effect that he liked village people to conduct their own affairs and the new club members must answer their critics. ‘Let us hope that peace may prevail anyhow’, he concluded. Four years later, in December 1910, the AGM of the club was held in the Schoolroom, so the original club seems to have survived, and Sir Lambton was thanked for providing a pair of quoits.
Doubtless proponents of ‘muscular Christianity’ supported quoits along with other manly games, and believed sport would keep men away from pubs. Adult education was also an aim, and a team called Friend’s Adult School competed in early tournaments. The first competitions for the Suffolk Challenge Cup took place in the grounds of Stoke Rectory, now within Ipswich, the home of Canon Bulstrode. He was also president of the Eastern Counties Association and, along with Lord John Hervey, attended a tournament in July 1888 won by Stour Wanderers of Harwich, against and entry of 34 clubs, represented by two players each. The newspaper report of the previous year’s tournament revealed that ‘the game has recently received great impetus in Ipswich and its neighbourhood’. If possible, tournaments were completed whatever the conditions, even if ‘rain fell copiously’ or ‘the feather was scarcely distinguishable’ in poor light.
The Great Blakenham Club was not formed until 1920, as an offshoot of the village Men’s Club. Part of Hall Meadow was fenced off with posts and wire, and a bedmaker and a custodian of quoits appointed. Members paid 2s 6d per annum, reduced to 1s 6d in 1922, presumably due to the post war recession. Accounts for the period 1920 to 1926 reveal that the club won the Challenge Cup in the latter year, and paid 5 shillings to have it repaired and ‘straightened’, suggesting that it had suffered from over-enthusiastic celebrations in one of those public houses deplored by the Reverend Arthur Payne twenty years before!
A groundsman was paid a pound a year, rising to 30 shillings, and the club paid 10 shillings a year to the District Association, and 6 shillings for members to enter the Lord Rendlesham Cup and the Challenge Cup. New quoits cost £1 16s 0d (quantity not given), a pair of compasses cost 6 shillings, hubs and pins 10 shillings. Compasses and pins needing repair, cost a shilling and 2s 6d respectively. It seems likely that quoits belonged to clubs, and were usually not owned by individual players at this time, reflecting the low pay of working men, relative to the cost of quoits.
The Suffolk Chronicle, Star of the East and the Woodbridge Reporter printed the results of friendly matches played before the leagues came into existence. It is clear that teams from as far north as Lowestoft and down into Essex, around Colchester, played each other regularly. None travelled far in those days, thus Chillesford went no further than Orford, some three miles, in June 1900. The Chillesford team comprised several members of the Chittleborough family, who worked the estate brick kiln in the parish. Some teams added conventional suffixes to their village name, such as Campsy Ashe United and Orford Rovers, although they didn’t rove far! More interesting was the suffix ‘Whinchats’ to the Tunstall team, the birds being found on the adjoining heathland, and Chillesford added ‘Poplar’ to their name for some reason.
The clubs ran competitions between married and unmarried men, although on Orford the rules could not be strictly adhered to in early August 1885 due to the pea and oat harvest. Challenge matches also took place between individuals. Mr W McGregor, who claimed to be the world champion, beat two local players at Chelmsford in August 1888, 21-6 and 21-7. Such matches were sometimes reported blow for blow. Thus when Sergeant Hogg played Mr H Cox, 61 up over 18 yards, ‘Cox led and planted one close to the peg, but Hogg beat it with his second quoit’.
At one end each man pitched quoits completely covering the pin and the umpire, unable to declare the winner, declared a draw.
The dangers associated with a game played with steel rings weighing over 31/2 pounds each, are illustrated by the report of a 15-year old boy being killed in Steeple Bumstead, North Essex, in June1888. Struck on the head, he seemed to recover but ‘caught cold and died from cerebro-spinal meningitis’. It was declared an accidental death, and the young man who threw the quoit was merely cautioned.
David Elisha Davey, writing around 1800, mentioned the game being played in Suffolk. He compiled many voluminous manuscripts, now in the British Library, preparatory to writing a history of the county, which he never began. He recorded that in Boyton, a village between Woodbridge and Orford in the Suffolk Sandlings, working people played the game on summer evenings. He missed the point somewhat in comparing it with throwing the discus, as if distance was the criterion for winning. It must have been played in earlier times. Indeed in the 15 th century, a miracle was attributed to St Oswald of Salisbury when a girl recovered from being struck on the head by a carelessly thrown quoit, the offender having sought sanctuary and the aid of the Saint in the cathedral. It was one of those ancient games that had the distinction of being banned because its popularity kept men from archery practice.
The game has a basic quality that is rooted in the timeless earthy activities of the village, and its elements are steel, clay, sand and water. The quoits, which weigh up to 7 ¼ lbs a pair, are pitched 18 yards onto a bed of clay, kept soft by water. A circle of 36 inches diameter is drawn in the clay, and quoits must land entirely within the circle to count. Beds are raised at the far end to assist visibility. The sticky clay is removed by means of rubbing the quoit with a cloth in sharp sand, or today, often in sawdust.
The best clay contains some sand mixed with it, and this can be obtained from brick kilns where bricks have not formed properly in the mould and are, therefore, discarded before firing. In the days before tractors, horseman would tie their quoits to the plough and drag them through the sandy soil of East Suffolk to keep them shiny and rust-free. Boys began playing using special horseshoes made by the local blacksmith. These were circular and their original purpose was to protect the horse’s ‘frog’, a horny, elastic pad in the centre of the hoof, which sometimes became infected. Later, to aid proficiency, men set up a string in the garden at the height needed to pitch a quoit into a bucket, and thus perfected their game.
The target is a steel pin, with an indentation in the centre, buried just below the level of the clay, which cannot be seen at 18 yards, so a piece of paper, called a light is placed upon it. Sometimes a white feather served the same purpose. The quoits are dished on one side and curved on the other. They must lie in the bed or incline in such a way that the curved side is uppermost. Should a quoit incline with the dished side on top, this is called a ‘woman’ and is removed.
A spirit level, mounted on a ‘stem’, enables a nearly upright quoit to be checked. This tool is also used to check whether a ‘ringer’ has been scored. Two points are awarded for every ringer, and the level – its end placed within the indentation on top of the pin – will reveal whether the quoit is genuinely encircling the pin in doubtful cases.
Ringers are removed from the bed before the next quoit is pitched, but a quoit encircling the pin, but with a ‘cover’ beneath it does not count. A cover is a quoit that has part of the pin beneath it.
The scoring, apart from ringers, is as in bowls and the winning quoit or quoits can be checked by means of a pair of compasses. The surrounding clay can be removed if necessary.
Obviously, some maintenance of the beds and the grounds must take place. Until recently players stood on grass, and often made a mark with a quoit to indicate where to stand. Today, however, the standing area is concrete or paving slabs with a toe board in front. The clay is boxed in by wood (railway sleepers being ideal) or by an iron ring perhaps from an old wagon wheel. The clay should be soft enough for the quoits to stay more or less where they land, and is kept in this state between games by being covered with soaked sacks, old carpeting, polythene sheeting and a heavy metal or wooden cover.
It appears that the game became organised initially in Ipswich, the only town of any size in Suffolk. Charles Cullingham presented the Suffolk Challenge Cup in 1888 and the first winners were Waterside Works of Ipswich. In 1913 they won the cup outright, being the winners for three successive seasons. Today, teams play for the fourth cup, presented by Tollemache Brewery in 1957, but it cannot be won outright. There are few sponsors today for a minority sport!
The East Anglian Daily Times, in a lyrical passage quoted below, recorded the victory of Ipswich Friends Adult School over Crowfield in 1891: “ It fully deserves its revival, for the game brings fully into play all the qualities admired and coveted by Englishmen as much now as in the brave days of yore – a steady hand and arm, a well-trained observant eye, and above all a cool head, for woe-betide the player who allows nervousness to grip the master hand ere the light iron circlet has started on its way”
Just before the First World War there was a move to promote the game further in villages, although the first leagues had been formed soon after the new century had begun. Lord Rendlesham presented the magnificent silver cup in 1914, which is still competed for today. In its first year the competition at Saxmundham attracted a hundred players, but only one team from Ipswich. Few men entered this competition as well as the Challenge Cup. The local newspaper reported that “working men cannot afford to lose two days so close to one another, even though they love the sport”. Waterside Works lost to Saxmundham in one semi-final, and the hosts went on to beat Leiston in the final. Lord Rendlesham himself presented the three winners with the cup. The advent of the war meant that the next tournament was not until 1922, and thereafter this competition and the game greatly flourished until the 1970s.
Today there are just two leagues of five teams each, centred on Hadleigh and Stoke-by-Nayland. The latter includes teams from across the Stour Valley in Essex. The County of Suffolk Steel Quoits Association, reconstituted in 1985, arranges several tournaments – singles, pairs, and triples – and is the umbrella organisation for the leagues. All county games are 21-up, but League rules may differ.
The Woodbridge League Minute Books, dating from its inception in 1904, reveal that there were several ways in which teams might be organised. However, there were always six players in a team, and usually they played as two sets of three or as three pairs. Leagues could not contain too many teams because, in country areas, the season had to finish before harvest. Games began at six o’clock, normally on Saturdays, and half an hour was allowed for late arrival due to accident. It is clear that, sometimes, matches went on until dark and, at the General Meeting held in March 1909, it was agreed that a lamp could be used to illuminate the beds if required. The first teams were from Woodbridge and the villages of Melton, Martlesham, Bredfield and Playford, and they were encouraged by the offer of a gold medal to the player making the highest overall score in the season.
An all-day annual tournament was arranged and attended by spectators, paying two-pence at the gate, and numbers attending varied between 50 and 100. In 1910 the player making the highest aggregate in the season won a pair of quoits offered by Messrs. Wynne, Timmins and Company of Birmingham, and there are several pairs in use today that were made by this company. They marked their quoits with a letter of the alphabet to signify an exact pair.
The winning team received medals with gold centres, costing no more than five shillings each, and the runners-up medals had silver centres and cost three shillings. The presentations were at a ‘smoking concert’ in October at which those attending paid 1s 6d each.
The Woodbridge League recommenced in 1920, when the ‘home’ team called itself, appropriately, Woodbridge Comrades. It, like most if not all teams, must have lost players who died in the trenches. The weather played its part in matches and it was reported that Chittock the Suffolk champion won the title in 1923 in a rainstorm, subsequently developed rheumatic fever, and was ‘totally incapacitated’. Rules were changed at intervals and, in 1927, games were played man-to-man up to 21 points. This probably resulted in recourse to the lamp at times, and there was a protest by Hasketon at the May meeting. The Cross inn did not have player ready at 9.15 and, therefore, forfeited the game. By the end of the decade there were eight teams divided into two leagues.
Nearly every village in Suffolk had a team by this time, and most played at public houses where there was room. Ten teams comprised the Butley and District League playing in two divisions with a final play-off between the top teams. This may have been the reason the Woodbridge League declined to only three teams, albeit A and B teams, in the 1930s, although they did not help recruitment by refusing to extend the six-mile rule. Village teams, not in leagues, played friendly matches. Then came another World War.
The league was revived on 1950 and interest in the game increased considerably. Two years later the ‘catchment area’ was increased to the whole Woodbridge postal district and a golden decade began. However, open tournaments interested some players more than the league, and new competitions were introduced. The Ipswich MP, Sir John Ganzoni, had presented a cup in 1924, and to it were added trophies given by Sir Arthur Churchman, Sir Peter Greenwell, and the breweries – Tollemache and Cobbold.
The Cooperative Society hosted a major tournament at its annual fete with over 100 entries, and with many more watching. In the 1955 season, Woodbridge League players made a clean sweep of all open trophies. The cartoonist, Giles, presented the cup to the singles winner. Players, largely from the Ipswich and Woodbridge Leagues, represented the county against Essex during this period. The existence of the All-England Quoiting Association is revealed by the fact that its President, Mr L W Brookfield, presented a cup to the victorious Suffolk Captain.
Early in the 1970’s, interest in the game dwindles and most of the leagues folded, but county tournaments were kept alive. The playing fields at Butley provided space for several pairs of beds to be set up, and it became the centre where the larger tournaments, such as the Lord Rendlesham Cup, were played, sometimes on the Flower Show and Fete Day. In 1960 the Butley Singles competition attracted 64 entries. Today, the Holbrook club has the best ground and utilises their annual fete for the same purpose.
The game was played in most parts of Suffolk but, until the advent of widespread car ownership, leagues were localised and few players ventured into the Ipswich and Woodbridge area where most open events took place. By that time, there were other attractions than quoits, and the increased mobility did not increase participation in the game. Other versions of quoits are played elsewhere in England, Wales and Scotland, but with heavier quoits pitched over a shorter distance, and with somewhat different rules. The heavier quoit was used in South Essex and the London area years ago, and it would be interesting to know whether the Suffolk version is unique, although Norfolk is likely to have the same rules. Players from Suffolk have been invited to represent England in a three-way match against Wales and Scotland, but it would be impossible – our game being so different.
Vic Harrup 4/9/05