The beginnings of Polocrosse

I’ve written earlier about the National School of Equitation, and its contribution to the sport of polo and women’s sport. This wasn’t the NSE’s only contribution to sport: it was also where the modern sport of polocrosse began. The origins of polocrosse had become rather obscured until relatively recently, as the NSE’s contribution was forgotten after the turmoil of World War II, and polocrosse was identified as an Australian invention. Although the Australians undoubtedly made it the game it is today, the modern game’s origins were in South London.

The NSE was set up in Roehampton, South London, in 1927. I haven’t been able to find out who owned or funded the school, but its manager was a Captain Waldene Bredin. The school itself was a very superior setup. In March 1927, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News described it as having a high-class jumping course, first class loose boxes and stalls for liveries, and direct access to Wimbledon Common. There were dressing rooms for ladies, artificial lighting for evening riding, and hot and cold running water and showers, as well as an indoor school, which you can see in the picture below, handily identified. It says something for the school’s ideas of marketing itself that it made sure it was visible to those flying over London.

Aerial view of the National School of Equitation
Riding Magazine, June 1936

And polo was also offered.

Bredin himself was a polo player, and used this to generate custom for his school. He introduced indoor polo – very popular in America but with very little traction in the United Kingdom – to the NSE, perhaps inspired by an event he was involved in at the London Coliseum in 1928.

The Coliseum, having previously produced the unlikely entertainments of a rodeo and terrier racing, put on a game of polo. John Harding’s Aero Polo Team was made up of six officers of the British Army, who were led by Captain Bredin. They played on a stage covered in grass matting, about 75 yards in circumference, and used special sticks and an 18-inch wide ball made of aeroplane fabric. That is large. I do not know whether this is a mistake in the press report, or whether the ball was that large so even those in the furthest reaches of the gods in the Coliseum could see it.

Bredin went on to put on indoor polo with rather more conventional equipment at the NSE, for which there was plenty of room in the NSE’s indoor school. Gilbert Holiday, the well-known sporting artist, painted women playing indoor polo there for a picture that appeared in The Sketch in 1931 (link at the end of the article: copyright reasons prevent me from showing it here). That, and the Smallwood article in The Graphic mentioned below, do describe a rather smaller ball.

Lt-Col Smallwood, writing in The Graphic on 16 August, 1930, described the indoor game as played at the NSE, which was the only place he knew of in England that played it:

The game being usually played in large riding schools, space is confined and teams are three-a-side. The walls slope outwards from the bottom, so that one does not scrape one’s legs against them. The ball is a big one, made of sponge rubber and covered with leather, rather smaller in size than an ordinary Association football…. a lot of play is ‘off the walls’, and an element of … real tennis enters into the game.

Consider … some of the advantages of the inndoor game. Firstly it can be played all the year round … Secondly there is the very important question of reduced cost… For half the money you can get four times the amount of polo: surely not to be ignored. Thirdly, any world’s worker – and who does not work nowadays? – can play in a lighted school at night. … It is, frankly, not such a good game as the real one, but it is a very good imitation at a very luch lower cost, and must help to popularise the best of all games.

Did this give Bredin the idea for polocrosse? Or to develop the game he might already have known from his classical education as tzikanion? Bredin was at Dublin University just before the outbreak of World War I. Exactly what he was studying is unclear, but it is possible that he would have had some acquaintance with the classics, and with tzikanion.

A Byzantine chronicler, Iôhannês Kinnamos, described tzikanion as a game played with two teams on horseback. They were equipped with long sticks to which was attached a net, and the idea was to get a leather ball into the opponent’s goal. The similarities with polocrosse are obvious, but Bredin’s knowledge, or otherwise, of the game is impossible to prove.

It is also possible, of course, that the idea of polocrosse was introduced by an unnamed member of staff at NSE, but as manager, Captain Bredin would have been responsible for its development and promotion.

There is no definitive date for the introduction of polocrosse, though we can suggest 1932. AP, writing in Riding Magazine in December 1937, described the game as something that had been started by the NSE some five years previously. In its initial form it was ‘intended to amuse children and give them confidence handling their ponies,’ but the adults had soon made the game their own, and played it regularly at the NSE on Sunday afternoons. The requirements for polocrosse were far lower than for polo: just one pony, with a straightforward set of equipment: a polo stick with a loose net scoop, a five-inch Sorbo ball, a goal net 5 x 2 feet, and a peak cap, to protect the face from being hit by the scoop.

Even if polocrosse’s beginnings were for children, that was not how it was advertised as it developed in the 1930s. In the advertisements below, it’s notable that the teams playing are mixed sex in the (alarmingly static) 1938 advertisement, and all-female in the rather more lively May 1938 example. Polocrosse was not a game just for men.

Riding Magazine, February 1938
Riding Magazine, May 1938

There is also a Pathé film from 1934 showing women playing polocrosse at the NSE. Unfortunately the referee is unidentified.

But Bredin’s contribution to the sport of polocrosse was very soon forgotten. He himself left London in 1936 to serve in the Albanian gendarmerie under General Sir Jocelyn Percy, where he appears to have remained until the outbreak of World War II. Polocrosse continued at the NSE without him but, as with so much other sport in Europe, appears to have been put into abeyance by the war. The NSE itself in its original state seems to have folded during World War II: it had to move premises, and its history is unclear after that until its eventual wind up in the 1950s.

The Australians had made polocrosse their own by the 1940s. In the late 1930s, a Mr and Mrs Edward Hirst, of Sydney, had come to England, inspired by an article in Riding Magazine on polocrosse, to find out more about the sport. I am assuming the article in question is the December 1937 one mentioned above. Once back in Australia, they developed the game into the modern sport of polocrosse. By 1948, the sport was being played again in the UK, but was being reported in the press as something that had been introduced from Australia. Truth reported in June 1949 that the game had ‘recently been invented in Australia, thence relayed to England, where it appears to have taken hold in the West Country.’ Captain Tony Collings of the famous Porlock Vale Riding School had the help of Monica Krippner, a leading Australian player, in coaching his team. Polocrosse, whilst never a majority sport in the UK, went on being promoted as an Australian invention.

The war, it appeared, had succeeded in wiping the contribution to the game of the National School of Equitation and Captain Bredin from the collective equine memory.

***

Resources

Playing chicken: the early history and modern revival of an ancient game: Dr Timothy Dawson and Jane Badger
Burnley Express, July 1948
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, March 1927
Riding Magazine, December 1937
Taunton Courier, March 1949
The Graphic, 16 August, 1930
Truth, June 1949

Pictures
1931: Ladies playing indoor polo at the National School of Equitation (Gilbert Holiday)

Rules of Polocrosse
(as given in Riding Magazine, December 1937).
There must presumably have been a much longer set, given that the Riding advertisements mention a copy you could obtain for a shilling (around 5p today).

1. The ball must be thrown towards the goal from outside the goal area line. Should it fall short of the goal and inside the goal line the players must retire into the field and the back throws it into play.

2.  Riding off is allowed as in Polo. Elbowing, crossing, stopping over ball, constitutes a foul.

3.  It is permissible to tap your opponent’s stick to dislodge the ball, but not in front of the rider, and to tap up not down.

4.  It is permissible to hit the ball on the ground from one to the other, and is to be encouraged rather than to stand over a ball difficult to pick up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Lights! Camera! Action! The joys of the photo shoot.

20th October 2021

Heather Hall Riding School

20th October 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.