The Enduring Mystery of Badminton’s Origins09 August, 2016
It is widely known that an English aristocrat’s house became the name of the world’s fastest racket sport, and that some of the earliest and most basic forms of the game were played in his Gloucestershire mansion. However is that really where hitting a shuttlecock over a net or string first happened?
The generally-accepted theory of origin is about friends coping with a rainy day by borrowing children’s toys and imbuing the game of Battledore and Shuttlecock with livelier qualities by tying a piece of string across a room. A co-operative activity was turned into a more competitive form and eventually a set of rules were formed, bringing about the first recognisable version of badminton.
The name came from where all this is said to have happened – Badminton House, the ancient and opulent country home of the Duke of Beaufort in England.
But how true is this story? Was this actually the first time such a change happened?
String or nets had appeared outdoors in India by the 1860s, and it is unclear whether or not that had already happened in England by then. We do know people played with shuttlecocks at Badminton House as far back as 1830 - but only to keep them airborne with a battledore, a bat covered in vellum. Battledore and Shuttlecock, after all, was a popular pastime among Europe’s royalty.
There is also speculation that rules for a shuttlecock game with a net were written by a friend of the Duke of Beaufort’s family, John Lorraine Baldwin, a cricket enthusiast. He certainly wrote rules for other games, however there is no hard evidence that he wrote badminton’s.
There is proof though, that rules were devised at Poona (India) by Indian Army officer Col. H.O. Selby in 1873, for they were framed and kept. By then, badminton had been played there for several years, as well as in other Indian cities.
The game may therefore have acquired its name from British soldiers, bringing their version home and combining it with whatever was played at Badminton House. This version says modern badminton originated in India, possibly created by the colonial British. A photo taken there in 1867 shows Englishmen hitting shuttlecocks over a net in a grassy area, which suggests badminton’s genesis may have happened here as an open air activity in the second half of the 19th century.
A brochure written by Henry Jones in 1876 claimed that “given a fair sky and happy, light-hearted company, badminton will furnish healthy, enjoyable recreation and amusement for both old and young of both sexes.” These characteristics of course still distinguish it today.
An Indian correspondent for Harpers Bazar, New York, in 1874, said: “not only are young people passionately fond of the game, but aged colonels and civilians.” He adds: “After it is over we pair off to take a rest from our exertions and then what brilliant (and sometimes tender) conversations begin!”
That year a book by J. Buchanan outlines advantages which badminton allegedly had over cricket – fewer players needed and greater female participation. Women were significant in badminton from the beginning.
By contrast, the evidence at Badminton House suggests a rallying game was played during the 1830s and 1840s in the front hall, but gives no indication when a piece of string might have been tied across it.
Battledores have inscriptions stating that Lady Henrietta Somerset, one of the Duke’s children, kept a shuttlecock airborne with a friend for more than 2,000 hits. This was about 45 minutes of continuous hitting, which seems a likely motive for seeking something with more variety.
Whether hitting shuttlecocks over a piece of cord started in Gloucestershire or in Poona, it became an “established amusement” at Badminton House, according to Sir George Thomas, the English baronet who became the IBF’s Founder-President. He espouses the rainy day tale and reckons the real genesis happened at Badminton House between 1865 and 1870, claiming from here it “found its way to other places, among them India.”
Whether or not this chronology is exactly correct, it certainly has a kind of convenience. It lent the sport an elegant origin which helped gain it more attention in Europe in the early 20th century.
It is worth noting though, that the earliest accounts of a shuttlecock game in Europe, in the 16th century, suggest it was played by peasantry as well as aristocracy. That was also the case in other parts of the world, many centuries previously.
Shuttlecock games thus had wider social ingredients. Because the history of labouring strata is less well recorded than that of the leisured classes, some of badminton’s real social identity remains unclear. Enough is known, however, to suggest that the strand in its character which straddles all social classes and both genders ubiquitously well may have existed from the beginning.
What is clear is the speed with which the game with a net evolved in India. Sir George Thomas says it became “sufficiently popular for The Times of India to run a piece in which the Bishop of Madras protests against it as a threat to Christian worship”!
The Field magazine of May 31st 1873 mentions how fashionable it had become. That year a Major Forbes sent a copy of the game’s rules to the magazine, which were published in Calcutta. The number of players could vary from two to six, though occasionally as many as eight played.
There were two types of court, one an hourglass shape derived from idiosyncrasies of the doors at an indoor venue in Karachi. This shape was allowed to survive, rather bizarrely, for another 30 years.
Two years later what was possibly the world’s first badminton club was formed at Folkestone in Kent. Thereafter clubs sprang up regularly in southern England, and two more years brought an adaptation of the “Indian rules” to the Bath Club’s facilities in London.
Six years after that came the birth, at Portsmouth in 1893, of the Badminton Association, with 14 clubs and standardised rules. The first stage of modern badminton’s journey – from the pastime of aristocrats to a popular sport – had been completed.
-- By Richard Eaton