Celebrating Women in History Month with great croquet players from the past – Lily Gower

Lilias Mary Gower, known as Lily, (1877-1959) made her first public appearance on a croquet court, aged 22, at Budleigh Salterton in 1898 where, in front of an increasingly incredulous crowd, she beat the favourite, Mr C. E. Willis, to win her first ‘all-comers’ tournament. The following year she won the Ladies Championship.

She first played croquet at her family home at Castle Malgwyn in Pembrokeshire and this aerial shot of the house shows the croquet lawn is still clearly recognisable today.

Lilias (not Lilian as it sometimes erroneously given) was one of eight children born to Erasmus Gower, Gentleman, magistrate, landowner and quarry owner, and his wife Catherine. She was born in Wigtown in Scotland but shortly afterwards the family moved to Pembrokeshire in Wales.

After first bursting onto the croquet scene in 1898, Lily caused a stir in 1901 by entering tournaments previously only entered by men, winning her first Open Gold Medal. In 1904 she became the first woman to win the Champion Cup (now the President’s Cup). Only 2 other women have ever won this top Selection event – D.D. Steel and Lorn Apps. Lily was also the first of only three women to have won the Croquet Championship when she triumphed in 1905 at the age of 27.

The editorial in the Gazette on July 6th, 1905 says “There can be little doubt that Miss Gower must be considered the best, as well as the most successful player of the day. To say, as our reporter said last week, that she is in a class by herself, is perhaps going rather too far. In sheer executive skill, in touch and in tactical knowledge, she is equalled, if not surpassed, by perhaps a dozen others; of these none excel her in steadiness and consistency. Miss Gower appears to possess exactly the right temperament for winning important events”.

In January 1906 she married Reginald Charles John Beaton at Kilgerran in Pembrokeshire. He was another leading croquet player and ‘a gentleman of private means’. For most of her playing career she was therefore known as Mrs Beaton. Reginald and Lily won both the Men’s and the Women’s Peel Memorial Challenge Bowls in 1903 – perhaps this is where their romance began.

The newly married Beatons set up home in Eastbury, Northwood, calling their house Kilgerran after the village where Lily grew up. Their first son George Walter was born in 1906 but he died in 1910 aged 3.  Reginald Walter Hardy (known as Walter) was born the following year and their youngest son Frank Wilfred Sandford in 1914.

Reginald, who was 7 years older than Lily, died in 1925 leaving a substantial sum. This ended a successful doubles partnership although Lily continued playing doubles with different partners. Lily moved to Fitzjames Avenue in Baron Court, London with her two sons.

Frank died in 1941 on active service in Syria, aged 27 by which time his mother was living in Hunstanton.

Over her long playing career, Lily won the Ladies Championship four times, the Open Doubles twice and the mixed doubles three times. She continued to play in tournaments until at least 1955.

She served on the Croquet Association’s governing council between 1939 and 1954.

Lily died in 1959 in Kensington, aged 81. An obituary (Mrs L M Beaton) appeared in the Gazette https://www.croquet.org.uk/?p=ca/gazette&GazetteIssueNum=41&pup=y page 3.

Some further details about Lily’s earlier playing career can be found in:

Lily Gower – The Rise of a Lady Champion (croquetrecords.com) by Allen Parker, which was published in the SW Fed newsletter (SWAN) in 2002