Georgina Grant, ‘The Fair Toxophilites’: Women and Archery

Georgina is a Curatorial Officer for the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, based at Blists Hill Victorian Town. She has the responsibility of maintaining, developing and delivering the interpretation of the 52 acre site. Her role is varied, ranging from researching the history of canal vessels to installing Quaker costume displays and giving talks on a traditional Victorian Christmas. Follow Georgina @GeorgyGrant

‘Much might be said why archery, as a lawn game, should be preferred to croquet by ladies…’

The Witchery of Archery, Maurice Thompson, 1879

Although popular as a pastime since the Middle Ages, archery saw something of a renaissance during the Victorian era. Framed as a nostalgic reimagining of pre-industrial Britain, archery was embraced as a pleasing, elegant and healthy amusement. Needless to say, it was embraced by those who had the time on their hands and the wealth to enjoy it. Archery societies were set up across the country, each with its own particular conditions of entry and elaborate ceremonies of bands, banners, balls, dinners and marquees. These exclusive clubs played an important role in the social networks of the elite, and playing archery became a requirement for acceptance into the higher social circles. As well as its emphasis on status, archery was remarkable for its popularity with women. Archery was one of the few competitive sports deemed suitable for respectable women to participate in, partly due to its leisurely pace.

The Fair Toxophilites: English Archers, Nineteenth Century by William Powell Frith, 1872. Held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
The Fair Toxophilites: English Archers, Nineteenth Century by William Powell Frith, 1872. Held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

Although girls played ball games and some women rode, almost the only sport practised by women in the early nineteenth century was archery. What is particularly interesting is that archery was one of the first sports in which both men and women could compete on equal terms:

…a match was shot at Branhope Hall, Yorkshire, England, between Miss Littledale, Mr. Wyborough, and Mr. Gilpin. The shooting lasted three hours. The targets were one hundred yards apart, four feet in diameter, with nine-inch golds. During the match, Miss Littledale hit the gold four times…Here was a lady winning a prize, by hard shooting, over two strong men!

(The Witchery of Archery, Maurice Thompson, 1879).

Archery was especially favoured by women because they could compete without inviting criticism of them being unfeminine. In a time when women were expected to embrace traditional femininity, this was particularly appealing. There was no special uniform for playing archery; women simply wore what was fashionable at the time, however inconvenient that may have been. This had its benefits namely they kept their embodied femininity, whilst being able to flaunt the latest fashions. Although it also had its its drawbacks as this incident describes:

It happened that the day of competition…was tempestuous. The ladies – many of them with reluctance be it said – had adopted the prevailing fashion, and appeared in the field with an exuberance of skirt. Boreas did not neglect the opportunity, and the wind came sweeping over the ground, causing the skirts to touch the bows, and this occurring at the moment of loosing, made many an arrow from the bow of a clever archeress…

(London Society, 1864.)

Archers costume, 1880s. Produced by the Costume Project at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
Archers costume, 1880s. Produced by the Costume Project at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

Despite this, archery was easier to play in a everyday dress than other pastimes such as croquet, which emerged in the 1850s. Corsets restricted movement and there was some difficultly in stooping to hit the ball.

Archery was also popular as a place for introductions, socialising and courtship. Few pastimes allowed the mingling of both sexes of differing ages in such an informal atmosphere. There were opportunities for conversation and flirtation, and even in finding a future spouse. Writing in 1828, the writer Egan declared,

…the company of the ladies must prove a great attraction to the admirers of archery…but instead of hitting the target, their aim, I rather apprehend, is of a more tender nature – the hearts of the archers!

Archery as a pastime was largely swept away by the tennis craze in the 1870s, leaving enthusiasts to pursue it as a serious competitive sport. By the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of women participating in sporting activities had lost some of its stigma and many more pastimes were deemed suitable for both sexes.


Cunnington, P. and Mansfield, A. (1969) English Costume for Sports and Outdoor Recreation: From the 16th to the 19th Centuries (London: A. and C. Black Limited, 1969).

Egan, P. The Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry and Logic (London: John Camden Hotten, 1828).

Johnes, M.  ‘Archery, Romance and Elite Culture in England and Wales, c. 1780-1840’, History (2004)

London Society, 1864.

Tames, R.  The Victorian and Edwardian Sportsman (Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd, 2007)

Thompson, M. The Witchery of Archery (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1878)

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