In the early 1950s my father attended an auction at Oxhey Place in Oxhey Lane, a mansion then owned by the well-known Blackwell family of Crosse & Blackwell.

The original house on the site, built by Sir James Altham after his purchase of the land in 1604, was known as Sinklees, Sinklets, Saintclers, Saint Clowes, St. Cleers - the pronunciation and spelling evolved over the years. The house and then-large estate was of such significance that its name appeared on early 17th century county maps of Hertfordshire, such as those by English cartographer John Speed and the Dutch cartographer brothers Willem and Johannes Blaeu.

Watford Observer:

A section of John Speed's early 17th century Herts. county map showing Sinklees

The Blackwell family disposed of many lots at their auction and my local historian father came away with an eclectic selection, including a Georgian rosewood writing bureau that had belonged to an early Duchess of Sutherland, a Maori Taiaha (spear), a military swagger stick and a lot comprising garden games. The games were a metal clock golf set of Roman numerals and a croquet set in a wooden box. The clock golf set was brought out every summer and family and friends were invited to play in the back garden of our home at 27 Wilcot Avenue, Oxhey, but the croquet set remained forgotten, in a dark corner of the dry shed.

The decades passed and in 1986 my father came across the dusty box and opened it. Whilst giving the contents a clean, he spotted ‘Cassiobury Croquet’ stamped on a mallet. He had read about the history of the ‘Cassiobury Set’ in the Watford Observer the previous year when photographs were published from the Essex family album; an album compiled by Lady Essex.

My father’s first thought was to talk to David Setford, curator of Watford Museum. The museum had been appealing for information about items made at the Cassiobury Saw Mills and was planning an exhibition to be entitled ‘Herts. at Play’, to run between March 26 and May 1, 1987. It was intended to cover the period from 1800 to 1987. David provided my father with information on the ‘Cassiobury Set’ and he, in response, offered two mallets, two balls, three hoops and a bell for the museum exhibition. A bell, I hear you ask. Why a bell in a game of croquet?

Watford Observer:

David Setford and Lesley's father, Ted Parrish, playing with the ‘Cassiobury Set’, 1986. Picture: Watford Observer

Croquet was extremely popular in the 1860s. Arthur Algernon Capell, the 6th Earl of Essex of Cassiobury House and a keen follower of the sport, set about devising new rules and equipment for what he called the ‘Cassiobury Set’, an early ‘cradle’ of the game. The equipment included a bell, similar to a cow bell, that hung from a hoop through which players were required to pass the balls, thus ringing the bell as well as the changes in the game. The Earl also devised the ‘Eglinton Castle Set’ at Cassiobury, named after his father-in-law’s seat of Eglinton Castle in Kilwinning, Ayrshire.

The Earl commissioned Thomas Turner, his estate manager and a carpenter by trade, to produce the croquet sets at his Cassiobury Saw Mills, which traded as Messrs. Turner & Company. Close to the railway line beyond the St Albans Road bridge, its large chimney rose from the substantial gabled brick building in which around 100 workers cut and shaped timber with large circular and band saws, planing machines and lathes. In its heyday, 3,000 croquet sets were produced annually at prices from eight shillings to princely sums of several guineas. The mill also produced wagons, carts, ladders, fencing, barrels, cricket stumps, dumbbells and even chess sets.

Watford Observer:

19th century illustration of Cassiobury Saw Mills

For the first time, ladies were encouraged to join in an outdoor game with the gentlemen and the Earl held extravagant croquet parties that attracted many prominent people. In 1869, Lady Essex competed in the first Ladies’ Croquet Championship on the lawn at Bushey Hall, a then-newly built property owned by Edward Marjoribanks.

Paradoxically, some decades later the Earl’s son, the Hon. Arthur Algernon Capell, actively discouraged ladies on the croquet lawn and wrote condemning letters on the subject to The Times and The Croquet Gazette. His arguments were that their heels ruined the lawn, they took too long over their games, they lacked nerve and strength, and only paid half-price subscriptions!

Watford (Cassiobury) Croquet Club was established in 1936 and carries on the tradition of the game on four ‘courts’ in Cassiobury Park, close to where the ‘Cassiobury Set’ was first conceived by the 6th Earl of Essex. Lady members relish the game, just as the 6th Earl intended.

Lesley is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.