A history of summer games and sport in our collections

Indulging in a spot of local sport is something people have been doing for centuries. As we celebrate the big summer's sporting tournaments such as Wimbledon and the Euros, and take to fields, gardens and local parks for outdoor recreation and games on a smaller scale, we take a look at our sporting connections.

Our collections are a rich resource for delving into sporting cultures. From sportswear and equipment to photographs of sporting activity, along with sports-themed sculptures and paintings, the items we care for give a glimpse into our sporting past.

It is impossible to say exactly when the history of sport began. Sports and physical games have been embedded in cultures around the world for thousands of years and have continued to play vital roles in societies.

Early sports

In its earliest days, sports were closely connected with warfare. Sporting competitions demonstrated individual strength and physical prowess. Wrestling is considered to be the oldest sport in the world. Wrestlers are depicted in the famous cave paintings estimated at over 15,300 years old in Lascaux, France.

The Ancient Greeks are credited with the introduction of organised sports, holding the first Olympic Games in 776 BCE. These Games included sports like running and hockey, and grew quickly to include boxing, javelin and discus.

Athlete, Italin marble, Roman, 2nd century AD

Athletics

This marble sculpture at Petworth House, West Sussex, is a Roman copy after a bronze original attributed to Polykleitos. The athlete is shown raising his right hand and holding a flask – or aryballos – from which he pours oil into his other hand. During training and competition, Greek athletes were typically naked and they applied oil to their bodies before exercise.

Wrestlers statue

Wrestling

This 18th-century lead sculpture by Andrew Carpenter at Fountains and Studley Royal in North Yorkshire is based the Roman marble in the Uffizi, Florence. Two young men are engaged in the pankration, a form of ancient Greek wrestling similar to today's mixed martial arts.

Marble sculpture, Petworth

Boxing

Boxing featured in the early Olympic Games. In Britain in the early 19th century, bare-knuckle boxing was a national obsession. The identity of this muscular figure by Rossi at Petworth House, West Sussex is unknown, although it may be Tom Cribb (1781-1848), a champion bare-knuckles boxer.

Billiards

A book of 1674, called The Compleat Gamester described billiards as ‘a most gentile, cleanly and ingenious game’ and that ‘it is much approved of and played by most nations of Europe, especially in England, there being few towns of note therein which hath not a public billiard table…’.  We don’t know very much about the people that made them but it was a very specialised craft, with a huge amount of skill involved in getting the bed as flat as possible so that balls would run smoothly. 

Cricket

The legacy of cricket at Sheffield Park

The first cricket match was played at Sheffield Park, East Sussex in August 1845 between two local villages, Fletching and Chailey. The original ground was built just prior to this match by the 2nd Earl of Sheffield for his 13-year-old son Viscount Pevensey (later to become the 3rd Earl).

The 3rd Earl had a passion for cricket and hosted all types of matches, from junior village standard to internationals. The Australians were frequent visitors and would open their tour with a game at the ground against Lord Sheffield’s XI. 

Perhaps the best-known player of his day, W.G. Grace was good friends with Lord Sheffield and consequently played for Lord Sheffield's XI on a number of occasions. These days, the ground is used by a local team, the Armadillos and matches are normally played here throughout the summer.

Picture caption: W.G. Grace playing cricket at Sheffield Park, c.1893

Croquet

Lawn sports became hugely popular in England from about the reign of Charles II in the 17th century. Croquet is thought to have been imported from France around this time, derived from the French game ‘paille-maille’ that used wooden mallets to hit balls.

Tapestry depicting putti playing croquet

Early croquet

A set of tapestries at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire depict putti engaged in a variety of childish games, including playing croquet. They are derived from a series of paintings by Polidoro da Caravaggio (c.1499–1543). The tapestries were probably made for William Cavendish, the Third Earl of Devonshire around 1678.

Rex Whistler, 'Ave Silvae Dornii', Oil on panel, Dorneywood

Croquet lawns

Croquet is shown as part of an allegorical panel by Rex Whistler. He painted it for Sir Courtauld-Thomson to separate the front door and the hall of his house at Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire. Although the garden pictured in the larger panel is imagined, the walled croquet lawn shown here is real and still in use.

Parlour croquet

Parlour croquet

For those who did not have space for a croquet lawn in their garden, or perhaps for the wet British summers, an indoor version of croquet was devised. This example is from Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. The circular table has four holes around the outside edge, over which small metal hoops can be placed and the raised edge of the table has counting beads inserted into it, for scoring.

The National Trust has a special role in the story of croquet. The rules were codified at Chastleton House and Gardens, Oxfordshire, by the rather unlikely Walter Whitmore Jones in 1866. Jones was born and lived at Chastleton, and turned to croquet as part of a lifelong passion for inventing games.

Walter Whitmore Jones played a key role in the development of croquet
Walter Whitmore Jones
Walter Whitmore Jones played a key role in the development of croquet

The 15th and 16th centuries saw a rise in popularity of ball games and equestrian sports in particular, seen in England in the establishment of Shrovetide football and Ascot Racecourse. However, it was the Victorian era that saw a boom in the evolution of sports, driven by industrialisation, mass production and the Victorian obsession with leisure.

Horse racing

Racehorses were the sports cars of their day and proud owners commissioned artists to paint their horses. Among the 11,000 paintings that we care for, there are many that feature racehorses.

Painting, 'Horse race at Newmarket' by John Wootton

Horse racing

Oil painting by John Wootton (c.1682–1765) entitled 'Horse Race at Newmarket'. It shows the Duke of Bolton's 'Bay Bolton' defeating the Duke of Somerset's grey 'Windham' at Newmarket on either 12 November 1712 or 4 April 1713.

Hambletonian by George Stubbs

Racehorses

One of the most famous paintings in our collection is ‘Hambletonian, Rubbing Down' by George Stubbs (1724-1806), a 12ft-wide painting at Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland. The racehorse Hambletonian (1792-1818), owned by Sir Henry Vane-Tempest, had won a thrilling victory at Newmarket in 1799.

Swimming

In the 18th and 19th centuries, sea-bathing was promoted for its health benefits. King George III visited Weymouth in 1789 for his health, popularising sea ‘dipping’. Bathing machines on wheels became a common sight on Britain’s beaches. They could be pulled out to sea so those inside could change and then take their dip whilst maintaining their modesty.

Early bathing costumes were often made of wool flannel for warmth, constructed with skirts for modesty. Swimming demanded a lighter form of dress. By the 1920s, swimsuits were sleeker, briefer, tighter fitting and more stylish, with an emphasis on the practical.

The use of swimming pools stretches back to the third millennium BCE, when the earliest known manmade bathing space, the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro, was erected. In Britain, taking a dip in a nearby river was a common pastime for all. However, swimming pools only really began to come into favour in the mid-19th century and burgeoned after 1896, when swimming was incorporated into the modern Olympic Games.

E.C. Hardman, The Diver, Photograph, 1929

Diving

Edward Chambré Hardman’s striking photograph shows Margaret Mills, his future wife, poised to dive off a rock. It was published during the 1920s, when the representation of women in sport rose dramatically.

The swimming pool, now part of the hotel at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire

Cliveden’s infamous swimming pool

The swimming pool at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (now part of the Cliveden Hotel), was the starting point for one of the most infamous episodes in British politics. It was here that the then Secretary of State for War, John Profumo met society showgirl Christine Keeler. The chance meeting between Keeler and Profumo, and the three-month affair that followed, was to end Profumo’s career and bring down the Macmillan Conservative government.

Tennis

Modern lawn tennis evolved later in the 19th century, although had deep roots in the medieval version ‘real tennis’, which was favoured by many royals, especially the Tudors. Allegedly, Henry VIII was playing real tennis on his personal court at Hampton Court when his second wife Anne Boleyn was arrested.

The Long Gallery at Hardwick

Indoor tennis

Tudor long galleries, such as this one at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, were used for indoor exercise. Ladies would promenade up and down and gentlemen would practise their swordsmanship. During the restoration of the Long Gallery at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, several Tudor tennis balls were found, suggesting the gallery was also used to play tennis.

Tudor-era tennis ball

Tennis ball

One of the Tudor-era tennis balls found if the Long Gallery at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire. The balls are made of leather stitched together and thought to be stuffed with moss.

From the 1900s onwards male and female tennis players began wearing the distinctive all white clothing we are so familiar with today. For women, chic, short, full skirts aided movement, and pleats allowed movement as the player leaped and ran about the court. 

Fast forward to the 1960s and 70s which saw new developments in the design of tennis clothes and the introduction of logos on clothing. Fred Perry (1909–95) was a British tennis player and three times Wimbledon champion in the mid 1930s. The Fred Perry company (founded in 1952) built on their brand identity with a distinctive laurel wreath logo, based on the original symbol for Wimbledon.

White tennis dress designed by Fred Perry in 1969
White tennis dress designed by Fred Perry in 1969
White tennis dress designed by Fred Perry in 1969
Sportswear

Clothing designed specifically for sport became an industry in the Victorian period, when the widespread popularisation of sport created a market economy for activewear. In the 1870s, John Redfern was one of the first couturiers to make garments especially for sports. Sporting fashions evolved rapidly from the 1920s, became increasingly practical and comfortable, overlapping with daywear as women’s fashions became less formal.

Sporting stories from our places

Joyce Wethered, champion golfer alongside her contemporaries including Glenna Collett

Knightshayes’ golfing legend

Joyce Wethered, Lady Amory (1901–1997), pictured here second right, was one of the last member of the family to live at Knightshayes, Devon. She was also one of the most accomplished female golfers of the 20th century. Although she only played the sport for around 10 years in the 1920s, she won a huge number of games during her short career and left a lasting impact on the world of golf.

mural of elgar on a bicycle

Elgar's cycling passion

Composer Edward Elgar became an enthusiastic cyclist after learning to ride in the summer of 1900. He owned two 28inch-frame 'Royal' Sunbeam bicycles over the years and called them both 'Mr. Phoebus'. An example of the type of bike he owned is on display at his birthplace, The Firs in Worcestershire.

Julius Charles Drewe by Charles Martin Hardie

Castle Drogo's fishing fanatic

Millionaire entrepreneur Julius Drewe loved fishing and the castle he built contains many relics relating to his beloved sport. In many ways this portrait is an Edwardian archetype: a self-made English gentleman, immaculately dressed for an exclusive sport, with his finest trophy – a 39lb salmon at his feet.

The fire is lit to mark the end of the games

The Cotswold Olympicks 

One of the strangest traditions in the summer sporting calendar is the Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpick Games, which takes place at Dover’s Hill, Gloucestershire. The games were first held around 1612, organised by lawyer Robert Dover, and the tradition was revived in the 20th century. The competitive events include a tug-of-war, ‘spurning the barre’ (an old English version of the Scottish tossing the caber) and the annual shin-kicking contest.

With the Trust’s fundamental connection to nature and the outdoors, many of our places remain synonymous with sport. As home to informal children’s games and organised sports events alike, our places continue the sporting legacies woven into the people, collections and stories that we care for.