Britain may have produced Shakespeare, ruled the waves and carried on wars most successfully all over the globe, but the thing that really mattered and held it together through the ages was sport. The playing fields of Eton are said to have won us Waterloo but without the hunting and the shooting and the village cricket greens that preceded them there might not have been the flower of British aristocracy to perform so creditably in 1815. For sport in Britain had been the great mixer and the common ground on which all could share the fun. Bottle-throwing on football fields, horse-doping and screaming fits in the boxing ring are the nasty results of greed and mass non-participation. Like the Constitution we have so proudly offered to other nations, sport goes back a long way in our evolution. Early English manuscripts illustrate a pre occupation with quite recognizable games, and the hunting and hawking Barons had their foot-sloggers to be in at the kill, but general participation in field sports came when the fox took the place of the deer as prey (through deforestation and land enclosure) and every Tom, Dick and Harry with a grey mare could follow the chase. If pop songs are anything to go by, the ‘hunting horn’ and ‘the fox in the morning’, hammered out with pewter pots in ale-house or Manorial hall, were the engrossing theme of the 18th century as ‘heart’ and ‘blues’ are of the mid-20th.The muzzle-loading gun had added zest and danger to the enthralling occupation of killing birds, an activity indulged in by other nations but a positive passion with the British. Systematic slaughter was the order of the day for the grand house parties assembled in the great Manors for a season and a surfeit of field sports, but the solitary man, land-owner, farmer or poacher could be seen keeping his hand in at any time, all over England’s pleasant land; with the unpredictable weapon at his disposal he needed to, as it could never be relied upon to explode at the right moment – which was a matter for tricky calculation owing to the gun’s slow action. The dog’s, too. had an added ritual to their training, dropping to the ground at the order ‘down charge’ during the hazardous process of reloading. Overall, they managed well, with crack shots averaging a bag of eighty per cent of the shots so laboriously fired. As this was the time of the easy mixing of all classes so it was of sections of society. The political, literary and fashionable coterie were one and the same set, enjoying the same pursuits, and a Charles James Fox or a Richard Sheridan were equally at home in the House, at Drury Lane or on the hunting field. Sport more than anything else dictated the Englishman’s costume. Whereas the continental chase brought out something much fancier, with extra trimming, heavier boots and a more dramatic curl to the hat (a turn-out that has been a godsend to pantomime transformation scenes and the classical ballet), the hunt and the shoot in Britain produced something much more practical. Having become used to the comfortable and hard-wearing cloth coat and preferring the sporting life to all others, he took it with him in a glorified fashion to the clubs and boudoirs of Mayfair. Breeches became longer due to this influence, to tuck into top boots that were more frequently worn for sport, though gaiters and thick over-stockings were comfortable enough for shooting. Coats remained very much the same for ten years or more. The large cuffs gradually disappeared, the waistcoat lifted still higher and the neck rose to be turned over into a collar that became the high fashion and can be seen on the golfer of the last years of the 1780’s. This Scottish gentle man is also wearing the tight, single-breasted fashion that took the place of the more practical double-breasted sports coat of an earlier decade. From it developed the short, tight garment of the last years of the century, which was the nearest that could be managed to the Greek and Stuart tunics that the rather muddled romantic-cum-classical ideal mad all the rage. The extra front widths of the golfer’ s coat are decoratively back into full-length lapels giving it a military air, though it was, in fact, a natty idea for a distinctive club uniform. Golf, even if the Anglo-Saxons can be seen playing something suspiciously like it, was not introduced into Scotland until the 15th century and was brought south by those ardent players, the Stuarts. Exiled Scots in the 18th century, lacking their own courses, played on the wide and open Blackheath. The caddie still wears the long, cuffed coat that must have been worn by the common people throughout the century, and his three cornered hat is completely outdated by the player’s wide-brimmed postillion beaver that took its place in the late 1780’s. What really brought the people of Britain together was the practice – quite incomprehensible to other nations – of team games of which cricket was the most peculiar. For a pastime that has become the all engrossing summer preoccupation of this country and its late colonies, it is odd that the pundits are not of one mind as to its origin. It was probably played by Stone Age men on the Downs and was certainly enjoyed in the Middle Ages. The wooden stool, called a cricket in the north, used as a wicket appears to be too simple an explanation of this enthralling puzzle. It is, however, satisfactorily agreed that it was largely the game of the illiterate common people till the 18th century owing to the system of scoring by notches, but the aristocratic sportsman of higher degree, itching to have a go while watching a village match, widened its social scope and, in 1743, contemporary surprise noted that ‘noblemen, gentlemen and clergy were making butchers, cobblers and tinkers their companions’ in this extraordinary game. From the village, county was soon playing county and, keeping its democratic character, the Lord of the Manor could be a member of a team of which his head gardener was the captain. In the excitement of the game the English aristocrat was quite unconscious of his luck. If, as Sir George Trevelyan has pointed out, the French noblesse had been able to play cricket with their peasants they might not have lost their heads. The English countryman would have taken a poor view of executing a man who had made a century for his side. As sport was the eventual leveller of the status of the sexes, it is interesting to note the progress that the woman of the 18th century had made towards independence before she was thrust back into bondage by the prudish sentimentality of the 19th century. ‘Miss Wicket’, though a contemporary caricature of 1770, was in fact reality, from the account of a former match played at Guildford in 1745 in which ‘the girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men’ to the topmost rung of the social ladder when, in 1779, the Countess of Derby’s team played other ladies of quality and fashion. From the spectators’ point of view the game must have had other points than those of skill. Miss Wicket’s short, fashionable dress showed more than pretty feet in those runs, and the Dresden Shepherdess hat, perched on frame-mounted hair, was easier on the eye than the men’s three-cornered or slouch beavers while illustrating, quite forcibly, that woman need not lose her femininity when playing a man’s game. In the trend towards a more natural line in the 1770’s the panniers have quite disappeared and the cricketing girl is wearing the short loose jacket, the caraco, which was to become the high note of the 1790’s. It is said to have originated in a provincial French fashion but it looks suspiciously like the old matinee, that standby of comfort-seeking women through many decades, especially those perspiring in the colonial tropics. The curious shape of the cricket bat was not an unkind reflection on the weight of the girl cricketer. Until the latter part of the century the game was rather different from what it is to-day and the ball was thrown, underhand, low along the ground, often passing between the two stumps. As the ‘object of the game was to hit one of these the batsman was not out and could poke the curved end of his bat between the stumps to prevent the wicket keeper ‘popping’ the ball back.