In these days when young women can participate in pretty much any sport they choose, it’s easy to forget that little more than a hundred years ago, anything much more strenuous than a decorous horseback ride in Rotten Row, a gentle game of tennis or maybe—maybe—a few holes of golf was frowned upon by the medical profession and society alike. Girls, move freely and break a sweat? How un-lady-like!
But there have always been a handful of sports to which young women have been given grudging access…and one of them was archery. Here was a sport at which it was unlikely you might become overheated or over-excited. It was a sport you could do while wearing a corset (in fact, wearing a corset might even help!) And it gave you a chance to order adorable new clothes, like the archery suit from 1829 worn by this young lady at the right.
Archery was a reasonably popular sport in 19th century England, due in no small part to the important role it played in English history. In the middle ages, English bowmen were famed (and feared!) in warfare. English longbows could launch an arrow capable of piercing plate armor, which of course did not make French knights very happy. Several kings passed laws requiring all able-bodied men over the age of 17 to own a bow and arrows and establishing mandatory weekly shooting practice. This fell by the wayside once firearms became widespread, but interest in archery never died…and indeed, recreational archery enjoyed a resurgence with the foundation of the Royal Toxophilite Society in 1781.
Toxophilia (isn’t that a dreadful sounding word?) means “love of archery”, and several prominent members of the nobility became members of the society, most notably the Prince of Wales (who later became Prince Regent and King George IV). They established a permanent clubhouse and shooting range in 1833 in Regent’s Park in London where practices and in-club competitions were held weekly in season…and, unusually for this time, they held an annual Ladies’ Day invitational competition every July with prizes given by the society. Go girls!