The Online Guide to Traditional Games
Pall Mall or the Game of Mail
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Also known as Pel Mel, Pell Mell, Paille Maille, Palle-malle, Pelemele, Jeu de Mail (Game of Mail)
The game of Pall Mall, known by a variety of names, is a genuinely Royal game that appears to have been played primarily by Western European royal families and the higher aristocracy (although the man-servants and caddies were liable to have a go if no-one was looking).
A lot has been written about the game in England and the fact that a London Street is named after it gives it a certain momentum that it doesn't necessarily deserve - not only was it played by a tiny minority of the populace but I am only aware of the existence of four Pall Mall alleys in the whole of Great Britain. Nonetheless, it is historically interesting from the point of view of the games historian because it the close cousin of two wholly popular modern sports - Golf and Croquet.
Many (most) books on Croquet state blithely that Croquet is the modern descendent of Pall Mall. There is no concrete evidence for this and, in England there was gap of more than 100 years between the demise of Pall Mall and the emergence of Croquet around 1850. The games have mallets, balls and hoops in common, it is true so authors who haven't looked further see the link as obvious. However, the balls and mallets were smaller, the hoop much bigger. In croquet there are 6 hoops close together and convoluted rules surrounding balls striking other balls etc. It is possible that there is a link from Pall Mall to modern croquet but it seems to me that Pall Mall is much more closely related to Golf as the objective was to whack the ball some distance several times towards the target hoop. When close to the hoop, (according to the Lauthier rules), the striking implement was changed to a shaft with a spoon-like end for hoicking the ball through the high arch - adapted more for accuracy and less for power like a putter in the game of Golf.
In 2012, I attempted to recreate approximately the game of Pall Mall on the grass alongside 'The Mall' in London for a BBC program 'Restoration Women'. With limited time and even more limited carpentry skills I used some light croquet mallets with either end of their heads re-formed at an angle, some wooden balls of around the right size and an iron hoop that was too small for historical accuracy but which sufficed for the job. We bashed the balls inadequately and they bobbled over the bumpy ground towards a hoop more than 100 yards away. When we got near to the hoop, although we didn't actually swap clubs for a more subtle instrument, the strokes changed from a wide golf-like swing to a much more considered push of a stroke like a putt. Perhaps we were influenced by our knowledge of the modern Royal game but the result clarified that even this cobbled together effort was so much like a playing a hole at golf that it was uncanny. The same feel when striking the ball, the same walking while making conversation between shots and the same irritation at not striking the ball quite how you intended. I even found myself replacing divots - after all the Mall is royal turf.
Pall Mall seems to have been primarily enjoyed by the French but the earliest mention of the game indicates an Italian source. A carnival song around 1500 from Florence mentions Palla a Maglio - in Italian "palla" - a ball and "maglio" - a mallet. The French knew the game as Jeu de Mail (The game of Mail) and it seemed to centre around the Montpelier region where it was played right into the 20th century. In 1717, when I believe the game was on the wane in England, Frenchman Joseph Lauthier wrote a book the title of which translates as 'New Rules for the Game of Mail' indicating that the game was still all the rage with the aristocracy in France.
The instructional illustration to the right is from the 1717 Lauthier book and demonstrates how the player turns at the waist while taking the backswing. One might observe that this looks mightily similar to a modern golf swing and not much like a croquet stroke. Notice the waist-high fence behind the player - the entire court was enclosed within such boarding and if the ball was struck over the fence it was called going 'out of bounds'.
There have been other related games played with clubs/mallets and balls across Europe for centuries and some still exist. Geert and Sara Nijs in their book 'Games for Kings and Commoners' summarise them nicely:
The most likely scenario, in my view is that colf is probably the ancestor of Pall Mall and Golf. Joseph Lauthier mentions 4 forms of the game Pall Mall, one of which is called Chicane - a less formal variety - "it is played in open country, in avenues, roads, and any place where people are wont to meet: the first stroke is usually a tee shot, after which the ball must be played wherever it lies...The match is finished when the ball strikes a particular tree or a marked stone serving as a goal or passes through certain narrow gaps, which have been agreed on...". The version of Pall Mall played until relatively recently in the Montpelier region was essentially Chicane. Chicane seems to match almost exactly the general description of Colf and it's not difficult to imagine the aristocracy converting the country game to a more formal (and expensive) variant for their 'superior' amusement. Similarly, the evolution of colf or Chicane into Golf does not require a vivid imagination. All the elements are there. Pall Mall players used to play a game to one hoop and then turn around and play on to the other hoop. The simple change of a hoop to a target hole would turn Pall Mall into a game that most people would recognise as a variety of Golf.
In 1548 Mary Queen of Scots went to France. It seem highly likely that she would have seen and/or played the Pall Mall during her stay because after her return to England she was spotted playing Pall Mall in the Seton Palace grounds in 1567, 6 years after her return to Britain. The 1568 Cal. Scot. Papers record that [Mary was playing at Seton] "richt oppinlie at the feildis with the palmall and goif". This document was used against her as evidence that she was complicit in her husband Darnley's murder - the argument being that so soon after his demise a wife should have been mourning but instead she she was out enjoying herself in the grounds.
Mary's son, James I of England and VI of Scotland is not recorded as having played but it is almost certain that he did practice the sport. After coming to the throne, he wrote in the formal open letter - the Basilikon Doron - addressed to his first son Henry that one of the sports he should practice is 'Paille Maille'. James moved to London shortly after acceding to the throne and is often credited with bringing Pall Mall to England. It seems highly likely that this is true but I have not been able to find any evidence to show it as fact. James I died in 1625 and the earliest definite reference to a Pall Mall alley in London is in 1630 when it's mentioned that a Pall Mall alley exists in St. James' Field (which at the time was a large empty tract of land north of St. James' Palace).
The Picture to the left is from the Fairthorne & Newcourt map published in 1658. The original Pall Mall court that is now the road of the same name is clearly labelled. The avenue of trees south of St. James Palace was soon afterwards turned into the replacement Pall Mall court that was considerably grander and which we now know as 'The Mall'.
The subsequent King, Charles I certainly played the game - in 1639, an author by the name of Peter Mundy reports spotting Charles I 'playing at Palle Malle St. James' and there are a couple of fascinating maps by Fairthorne and Newcourt that show a Pall Mall alley that starts from the North East side of St. James' Palace and runs Eastwards along the south side of St. James' Field to the bottom of what is now 'Haymarket'. My rough estimate of the length of this old alley is around 480 yards. A Commissioners for Crown Lands report in 1650 refers to '140 elm trees standing in Pall Mall Walke'. The aforementioned maps were published in 1654 (labelled Pell Mell) and 1658 (labelled Pall Mall) but Fairthorne & Newcourt surveyed London during 1643-7. The alley was not to survive for much longer after this...
Of course, these were the most dramatic of times in English history - in 1646, fearing for his safety, the Duke of York (the future Charles II) went to France and 3 years later, his father, King Charles I was beheaded. During his time travelling around Western Europe, Charles II visited several large cities that are known to have encompassed Pall Mall alleys including the largest Pall Mall alley ever built at The Hague which was reportedly 1100 yards long. It seems likely that Charles II would have played the game frequently and given that he apparently grew to be a skilful Pall Mall player, the chances are he picked up a good few tips and lessons on this tour.
After the interregnum, In 29th May 1660, Charles II returned to England and moved into St. James' Palace. He immediately began to stamp his authority starting with a complete revitalisation of the area surrounding his residence. The revamp of St. James Park is well documented and included the creation of a brand spanking new Pall Mall Alley. In fact older maps of the area show an avenue of trees in roughly the place where the alley was constructed leading me to suspect that the alley was built on an existing path. The history of the Mall may well start considerably before the construction of the Pall Mall alley...
The new alley was, like the whole new St. James Park, a grand vision indeed. Designed to impress it was, according to Samuel Pepys just short of half a mile long with a white gravel made from cockle shells laid on the surface. At one end there was a large spectator stand and running the length of the alley on both sides were tree-lined avenues for spectators, servants and caddies to stroll down while they watched the games. It was planned as the grandest Pall Mall alley in Europe and its grandeur still exists today. 'The Mall' is an impressive road, leading as it does to Buckingham Palace, often used on ceremonial occasions and still lined on either side for much of the way with avenues of trees.
To the right is a picture from "Chambers Book of Days" which was published in 1869. It portrays King Charles II attempting to knock the ball through a ring hanging from a pole that bears an unfortunate resemblance to a gallows! A lot of people have used this picture to illustrate the game of Pall Mall but in my opinion it is extremely misleading. While King Charles II was apparently a skilful proponent of Pall Mall, he would have needed to be a hero of Ancient Greek proportions to hit a small ball with a mallet through a ring of that size at that height. Furthermore, the ground is rough, uneven and there is no sign of the oakwood fencing that lined a Pall Mall alley. He's certainly not playing Pall Mall. I believe that the picture is drawn by an illustrator who had no understanding of the game (which was by then extinct) and had only a brief description as a clue. The text mentions an "elevated ring" as the target but no other direct source indicates that the target was a suspended ring.
I am not sure exactly when The Mall stopped being used for the game of Pall Mall. The latest date that shows the game still being played is 1720 (artistic licence not withstanding) - a picture of St. James' Park by Jan Kip shows players wielding mallets at the end of the alley. A pictures from 1741 shows the alley being used as a walk by the local gentry and another from 1745 shows it being used apparently for a social event with dozens of ladies and gentlemen milling around one end of the alley. It was still described as "a walk" in 1879 by Charles Dickens and my assumption is that it gradually changed from a playing area to a strolling path when the game stopped being played there. It was probably not paved until it's transformation into a ceremonial highway in the early twentieth century.
In case, you are ever in the Mall and minded to walk down where the Pall Mall alley used to be, I found a useful early 18 centry print showing the view from Buckingham House (now Palace) that assists. It shows that the road 'The Mall' does not run down where the alley used to be - it is in fact the avenue of trees on the South side of the alley - which was apparently widened. So if you come from the Trafalgar Square direction, you need to walk down the grass on the right hand side of the 'The Mall'.
After the restoration of the monarchy, the area north of St. James' Palace - most of St. James' Field was sold off for development - including the old Pall Mall alley which was anyway reportedly in a state of disrepair.
In July 1661 - players on the new Pall Mall alley were being irritated by dust blowing off the carriages on the main highway that ran parallel to it. Accordingly, it was decided to shut this highway, - an ancient road used since before 1200. Carriages were diverted down the old disused Pall Mall alley a bit further North. This arrangement persisted for a year before the new road, the old alley, was paved over. Completing its transition to a formal byway, the new road was named Catherine Street after the King's wife. However, the weak King's word was not all-powerful at this time and the locals continue calling it 'Pall Mall', regardless... and so it has remained to this day.
jm at tradgames.org.uk
Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.