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.
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.
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.
Knole's billiard table
Very few early billiard tables survive, making this late 17th-century mahogany-framed billiard table at Knole very rare. Early billiard cues, like those shown resting on the table, were slightly curved at the tip.
Nostell's billiard table
Gillows of Lancaster produced billiard tables from the 1760s, dominating the market for several years. This rare mahogany-framed example, which dates to c.1785–95, was moved to Nostell’s state floor from the Lower Hall in 1819.
Penrhyn's billiard table
Unusually, this billiard table at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd is made entirely of enamelled slate. It was made in 1844 by George Eugene Magnus for Colonel Edward Gordon Douglas-Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn (1800-1886).
Tyntesfield's billiard table
This grand billiard table was made by James Plucknett and Co for Antony Gibbs, a keen billiards player. Scoring was controlled by electric buttons around the cushion that linked to the scoreboard on the wall.
Standen's billiard room
Early billiard rooms in country houses were often part of a men's suite.The Billiard Room at Standen, East Sussex, however, was a place for men and women as was increasingly the norm by the 1890s.
Polesden Lacey's billiard room
The Billiard Room at Polesden Lacey in Surrey was designed by Ambrose Poynter in 1903–5. Edward VII may have played on the Burroughs and Watts billiards table, which dates to the 1880s, when he visited in 1909.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Croquet outfit, Killerton
The croquet craze took fashionable circles in England by storm in the 1860s. The glass buttons on this three-piece silk taffeta dress are engraved with croquet mallets, hoops and balls.
The term ‘capped’, meaning to play for one’s country or club, originated from the fact that players were given caps to wear. This cricket cap at Killerton, Devon, dates from the 1930s.
Dressing for the races
Racing fixtures, particularly Ascot, have become synonymous with flamboyant fashion. Designer David Shilling (b. 1956) started to design hats for his mother to wear at Ascot. This 1970s hat at Killerton is one of his designs.
This late 19th-century navy blue lady's swimming costume is in the collection at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Victorian bathing costumes were often made of wool flannel for warmth, but this one is made of cotton.
This dress of around 1937 is made of cool linen. Its buttons were a later addition, stitched on by hand in 1985. It's part of the costume collection of Killerton, Devon.
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.