I’m wearing trainers and an unpromising expression when I arrive at The Paddock. The team plays there at 6.30pm on most Wednesdays from May to early September. Team member Rick Mason explains the rules. He’s on the management committee of Stoolball England, the sport’s national governing body, so he should know.
“The majority of the game is the same as cricket. The major differences are that we bowl underarm from ten yards away, the ball doesn't bounce on the way to the batsman – and it comes through at about shoulder height. The idea is to hit the ball away from the fielders and run to the other end. Our wicket is a white one-foot square at about shoulder height and the ball looks like a rounders ball.”
Adam Frost, who’s been with the club since it was formed, says the simplicity of the game is its attraction. “Just about anyone can play it. It doesn't require a lot of equipment and it's easy enough to pick up. I mean, I played cricket and wasn't particularly good but I'm quite adequate at stoolball!”
It turns out that the most complicated detail is the club’s history. The team started at the Black Horse pub before moving to the Lewes Arms and changing its name. “About ten years ago we stopped being associated with the Lewes Arms pub”, says Rick, “but we're still called the Lewes Arms; it's the arms of the borough – and we're now an independent mixed team that plays friendlies.” Teams usually consist of eleven players but the Lewes Arms team expands to fit the number of people that turn up.
The history of stoolball can be traced back to the fifteenth century, with men and women playing the game in churchyards. Folklore suggests the name comes from milkmaids using their milking stools as a target. Rick says history is clearer from the late 19th century, when the first stoolball clubs were formed in Sussex and the rules were written down by the Reverend William de St Croix of Glynde.
Here in 2018, I’ve turned down the offer of a game. Despite this, the Lewes Arms stoolball players are treating me like an old friend. If I was looking for a team sport, this is certainly the place I’d start.
The Lewes Arms team will be in action on Wednesday evenings in June at the Paddock. There’s also a stoolball league on Thursday evenings at the Convent Field.
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 141 June 2018