“I’ve gone completely dippy about polo, which in my opinion is the best game in the world” [Mountbatten to Prince Albert, 25 January 1922]
Polo is a horseback mounted sport, and was invented in northeastern India. The sport was promoted by officers of the British military in the mid-19th century, and is now internationally popular.
The sport is played by two opposing teams with the aim of scoring goals by hitting a small hard ball with a long-handled wooden mallet through the opposing team’s goal. Each team consists of four riders, and the game usually lasts for 2 hours, divided into periods called chukkas.
In 1921, Mountbatten played his first game in Jodhpur, India. He learnt that it would take practice to become good at polo, which included being a good equestrian. In 1923, he took a month’s course in military equitation with the Life Guards. This, along with coaching by specialists, and a scientific study of his weaknesses, helped him become an exceptional player. As a captain, he helped teams reach achievements that they had not previously, such as the Bluejackets nearly winning the Inter-Regiment trophy twice. The success was a result of detailed discussion and practice. One rule Mountbatten implemented was the team calling each other by their Christian names, which gave the players the opportunity to interpret what the caller was thinking, and to respond appropriately.
“He was the perfect captain, both on and off the field… On the field he never got rattled or bad-tempered. And no matter how silly one was he was always forgiving and encouraging.” [‘Mountbatten and Polo’ by Sir Robert Neville, pp.23-4, MB1/L291]
Mountbatten was not only interested in playing polo, but also improving and refining the sport, going so far as to construct and patent an oval-shaped head to the polo stick which provided “loft and length and a strong head.” [‘Mountbatten and Polo’ by Sir Robert Neville, p.14, MB1/L291] The head was named the R.N.P.A. head, which stands for Royal Naval Polo Association. Mountbatten gave the patent rights to the RNPA, which resulted in them receiving large quantities of royalties for many years.
Frustrated with the existing books on polo not meeting the requirements of a complete beginner, Mountbatten decided to write his own, with the assistance of Peter Murphy. An Introduction to Polo by ‘Marco’ was translated into Spanish and French, and became the bible for all polo-players. Referring to what he learnt when he first started playing polo, Mountbatten begins the first chapter on horsemanship with the following lines:
“Before you start to play polo, make sure that you are able to concentrate on your hitting without having to be busy riding. If you have never ridden in your life, begin by taking lessons from someone competent to give them, for you can’t satisfactorily teach yourself.” [An Introduction to Polo by ‘Marco’ (1931, London), p.3.]
Mountbatten was also interested in the regulations of polo, which is reflected by the correspondence we hold between Mountbatten and key persons on the proposed international rules of polo. Mountbatten was Chairman of the International Rules Committee between 1939 and 1940, and his role in ensuring one set of international rules was played worldwide involved collecting the International Rules himself, in person. As a result of Mountbatten holding this position, one set of polo rules is used all over the world, whereas previously, the Hurlingham, American and Indian Polo Association rules all differed.
“Your letter dated October 18th with regard to the proposed International Rules and the International Rules Committee arrived here at a very opportune time. The ground that you laid down when you edited the first drafts of a set of International Rules have borne fruit in this country already. I might say that your draft of rules was entirely responsible for the greatest activity that our own Rules Committee has shown in several years. It inspired them to review our own rules completely and at our last meeting numerous changes, none of them fundamental, were suggested.” [Letter from Robert E. Strawbridge, Jr., United States Polo Association, to Lord Mountbatten, 22 November 1939, MB1/L310]Thinking of ways that Naval Officers could have their polo interests addressed in the same way that the Army Saddle Club did for Army officers, Mountbatten decided to set up the Royal Naval Polo Association. Organising meetings, funds, and questionnaires, the RNPA was formed in 1930. By 1939 membership of the Association had already reached five or six hundred. The Association changed its name to Royal Naval Saddle Club in 1958.
As well as being the first honorary secretary of the RNPA in 1937, Mountbatten also took up many other committee positions in connection to polo, such as Chairman of the London Polo Committee, Secretary of the Malta Polo Club (and later patron); and in 1955, Patron of Rhinefield (New Forest) Polo Club.The Mountbatten Papers provide a rich resource for those interested in polo, with material including papers on the early days of the Royal Navy Polo Association and Hunt Club, lists of Royal Naval Saddle Club members and Club minutes, correspondence between different countries on the decision-making of international polo rules, and notes and manuscripts for Mountbatten’s An Introduction to Polo.
“I do hope that you are going to be able to give a little time in your television series to the Admiral’s polo. I believe that you might find that this would be a very popular section of the series with the television viewers. We have had many portrayals of the deeds of the great military Commanders but I think that the combination of outstanding Military leadership with his prowess on the field of sport not only highlights Mountbatten’s amazing ability to keep so many balls in the air at once but makes his exploits of more human and general interest.” [Letter from Major General Sir Robert Neville to Mr Morley, 10 September 1968, MB1/L292]