The phrase to come a cropper, and its variants, mean:
– (literally): to fall heavily;
– (figuratively): to fail completely.
—Synonym: to come a gutser.
In the phrase to come a cropper, cropper is perhaps derived from the noun crop in the phrase neck and crop, which originally referred to a heavy fall. The earliest occurrence of the phrase neck and crop that I have found is from Dame Hobday, and her grandson, and a whale, and Noah’s flood, and many other things!—A TALE, published in Poems, miscellaneous and humorous, with explanatory notes and observations (Canterbury: Printed by Simmons and Kirkby, 1791), by Edward Nairne (c.1742-1799), lawyer and customs official at Sandwich, in Kent, known from his light verse as the Sandwich Bard:
A man on horseback, drunk with gin and flip,
Bawling out—Yoix—and cracking of his whip,
Came driving on, and spurr’d his horse and hit him,
And rode, confound him, like the devil split him,
Turning the road as short as e’er he cou’d,
Where Jan and gran close up for safety stood,
The startish beast took fright, and flop
The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!
The earliest occurrences of the phrase to come a cropper and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From the account of a steeplechase at Finchley, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Sunday 26th December 1847:
The Witch quitted her rearward position and went to the front, mended the pace, closely followed by Artist, Capias, and Antonio, Sampson and Charlotte bringing up the rear over the intervening fences to the hill, breasting which Artist went in advance, evidently going and looking better and stronger than anything in the race, but shortly after he put his fore legs into a blind drain and fell a “cropper.” Through this mishap The Witch was left with the lead, followed by Antonio and Sampson, Capias and the rest being “arrested” were stopped.
2-: From The Field, The Farm, The Garden, The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper (London, England) of Saturday 29th November 1856:
KILKENNY CLUB MEETING.
This club met on Tuesday, the 25th, at Knockbaron-hill, to course over their preserve of Chastworth. There was an eight-dog stake, and seven matches run off. The hares were very numerous, and ran in general stoutly, except when mobbed by the crowd, which was immense, and rather too anxious to be in at the death. In the first courses Dove beat Silk easily, Speed in a good trial with Spring defeated him, Whalebone won a short course from Warwick, Milo beat Holly Carew (a puppy) in an average course. The young gave good promise, but is not of the same class as Milo. Second ties: Dove beat Speed. But the course of the day was that between Milo and Whalebone, which the judge awarded to the latter. Milo raced away from the slips; did a deal of work at a good hare; Whalebone handy. After a severe and trying course Milo got a cropper that slackened his pace considerably; in fact, he had no more to say to the course. Whalebone rather improved towards the end, and was declared the winner. In the deciding course Dove easily beat Whalebone.
3-: From a letter describing the Indian mutinies, written on Wednesday 26th August 1857 by an officer serving before Delhi, published in The Sun (London, England) of Tuesday 27th October 1857:
Next morning we were surprised to find a party of Sowars galloping down upon us—so plucky, but we sent them galloping back—so funky! We then formed up, and the enemy came within 300 yards of us, but a few minie rifle balls sent them off. They then tried to come upon our flank, but we would not admit that at any price. At last, as the ground was unfavourable for cavalry, we retired and brought them out in the open, when we charged and they bolted. I got a cropper over a hedge and ditch in which my horse had fallen, but picked myself up and continued the pursuit, and soon caught up a couple of Sowars; one fellow fired at me, but missed me, and off they both bolted.
4-: From “Ask Mamma;” Or, The Richest Commoner in England (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1858), by the British novelist and sports writer Robert Smith Surtees (1805-1864):
“Oh, such a run!” exclaimed Sir Moses, throwing out his paws. “Oh, such a run! […] we were speedily away again; and, passing a little to the west of Pickering Park, through the decoy, and away over Larkington Rise, shot down to the Farthing-pie House, where that great Owl, Gameboy Green, thinking to show off, rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains, nearly knocking the poor little Damper into the middle of the week after next by crossing him.”
5-: From the account of dog races at Monasterevin, County Kildare, Ireland, published in The Freeman’s Journal, and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 6th December 1858:
Beulo led Belle Maid from the slips, but missing his foot, got a cropper; his opponent made good use of her advantage, and although Beulo came again at the finish could not score first place.
6-: From a letter to the Editor, in which ‘An Old Codger’ described a hunt in County Louth, Ireland, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Sunday 4th December 1859:
I had time to observe there were only the master (R. Haig), Messrs Read, Duffy, Townsend, Balls, Woolsey, the huntsman, and whip, with the hounds, and without waiting to try the earths, which I knew were stopped, I started across the “cutler’s shop,” leading them over a nasty blind drain, at which I had the satisfaction to see one of my oldest and most ardent pursuers got a “cropper,” whereupon I took such a fit of laughter that I got a pain in my side, which obliged me to take breath; and having very opportunely got a glass of grog I again started with the whole field in pursuit.
7-: From The Bombay Gazette (Mumbai, Maharashtra, India) of Tuesday 15th January 1861:
The following is from Rohilkund, dated 29th December, 1860:—
“The Commander-in-Chief got a ‘cropper’ on the morning of the 28th whilst reviewing the troops at Shahjehanpore. He came to grief as he was charging with the Irregular Cavalry, his horse came down with him. He was fortunately not much hurt, I am happy to say, He mounted Captain Moore’s horse for the remainder of the parade. The Chief is as plucky a rider as he is a soldier, and rather prefers a fiery charger to a steady going one.”—[Englishman, Jan. 5.]
8-: From the account of a steeplechase at La Marche, in France, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Sunday 24th March 1861:
Horoscope was first off, but before reaching the stone wall was pulled back, and Gisors led over that obstacle, followed by The Chasseur, Miss Harkaway, and Rose de Noel, in the order named, Trustworthy, Ben Liel, and Horoscope coming next together in a body, with Minouche and Vesta bringing up the extreme rear. Entering the orchard over a little bank The Chasseur fell, and got loose, the others coming out of the orchard in the same order as before indicated and approached the dry ditch, which Gisors, Miss Harkaway, Ben Liel, Rose de Noel, and Horoscope cleared in gallant style; but Minouche appearing to have had enough in the last race showed an evident disinclination to surmount the difficulty, and it required a good deal of persuasion to get her to face it; when over, she came a cropper, Vesta at the same time coming another, and both got loose, running with The Chasseur to the next fence, where they cannoned Rose de Noel and placed her also hors de combat. Trustworthy, too, though he had managed the ditch pretty well, was also at this point out of the race, which was now left to the four—Gisors, Ben Liel, Miss Harkaway, and Horoscope.