The Games People Play

Rackets – a History

In its earliest form, Rackets was played in the open eighteenth century air, against the yard walls of London’s main debtor’s prisons, King’s Bench and Fleet. Held until they found the wherewithal to repay their creditors, gentlemen would while away the hours by playing skittles or fives, using the hand or a bat. Some brought tennis rackets with them and improvised play against any convenient wall. Side walls were sometimes used but there was never a back wall.

Rackets play at Fleet is mentioned in a poem of 1749 – and also in John Howard’s 1780 report on the state of prisons in England and Wales. We learn the Fleet court had a front wall and one sidewall, similar to a Jai Alai ‘fronton’. In 1814 there were four courts at the King’s Bench and – astonishingly – six ‘Court Keepers’ to look after them!

By the early 1800s, Rackets had begun to extend beyond prison walls. In his Book of Sports and Mirror of Life (pub. 1832), Pierce Egan makes mention of several open Rackets courts other than King’s Bench and Fleet. One of these, Pentonville’s Belvedere Tavern, was the venue for most of the Open Court Championships. Others – again at public houses – included The Eagle Tavern on the City Road, The White Bear at Kennington, The White Conduit House and The Rosemary Branch, Peckham. Records also reveal courts at Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and Belfast.

Egan warns that any gentleman seeking a game at a tavern would be obliged to mix with those from society’s lower orders. Implicit in this observation is that the debtor’s prisons offered a better class of player – in terms of both social standing and proficiency. Mention is made of a Major Campbell, who, after 14 years at King’s Bench was the best player there!

Rackets spread to the colonies. Canada’s first covered Rackets court appeared in Halifax in the 1770’s; in 1793, Robert Knox, a Scot, built America’s first covered court in Allen St. lower Manhattan, between Hester and Canal. A few years later, the Allen Street court had a local rival – The Butcher’s Court – its given name a reference to the occupation of much its membership. Courts were also built in India (1821) and Australia (1847).

Harrow was the first school at which Rackets was played, probably when the schoolyard was enlarged in the early 1820s. By the time of the first Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, Old Harrovian Rackets player Spencer Gore would win the singles title.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, covered courts came to the fore. A court was established by MCC in 1844 and in 1853 the old Prince’s Club opened with several rackets courts and two tennis courts. Measuring 60’ long by 30’ wide, the main competition court at Prince’s provided what would become the standard dimensions. Before this, doubles had been played on an open court of 80’ x 40’: two players up front, two at the back.

The growing popularity of the indoor courts led to an attendant decline in the open courts attached to public houses. Rackets increasingly developed as a game for the wealthy. By 1855 – the year of the first Varsity Match – both Oxford and Cambridge had rackets courts. Harrow’s first covered court (1865) remains in use today. Between 1870 and 1890, courts were built at the new Prince’s Club, Manchester Tennis & Racquet Club and The Queen’s Club – venue for the Jeu de Paume and Rackets competitions at the 1908 Summer Olympics.


A History of Squash Rackets

The popularity of Rackets and Fives gave rise to the creation of Squash at Harrow School.

The principal place to play Rackets at Harrow, was the schoolyard surrounding ‘Old Schools’ – the main school building. One special nook of the schoolyard was ‘The Corner’: it had two good side walls and a front wall with a buttress which dropped the ball straight down – and a water pipe, which could send the ball just about anywhere.

In 1850, Harrow built two open-air Rackets courts, but court time proved hard to come by – particularly for the younger boys. Instead, they would play in the tiny, stone-walled yards of their Houses, or in village alleys. The yards and alleys, like ‘The Corner’, boasted peculiar hazards: water pipes, chimneys, ledges, doors, boot-scrapers, wired windows and fiendishly-sloping ground. Rackets was desperately difficult in such cramped conditions.

A newly-available product – rubber – had just come into use; the boys took a rubber ball, sawed down their racket handles and commenced playing this new, slower game. This bastardised version of Rackets was termed ‘baby rackets’, ‘soft rackets’, ‘softer’ – or ‘squash rackets’.

In the 1920s London’s Bath Club became the nursery for British Squash. Lord Desborough built a beautiful court, noted for its outstanding lighting and launched the Bath Club Cup, a Squash Rackets league for London clubs. League squash greatly increased enthusiasm for the fledgling sport, and Squash Rackets in Great Britain owed its success in large part to the Bath Cup competitions of the twenties.

In January 1923, the Royal Automobile Club hosted a meeting of delegates from English clubs and formed a “Squash Rackets Representative Committee.” The committee chose the slowest ball then in vogue and declared the Bath Club court – thirty-two by twenty-one feet – as the standard for British Squash. In December 1928, the Squash Rackets Association was formed to run squash in Great Britain.

Having chosen the most inert ball available, the SRA immediately began slowing the ball down further! Between 1930 and 1934 the standard ball’s speed was cut almost by half.

The introduction of glass walls has rendered television a reality; the advent of portable courts has seen tournaments staged in stunning locations: in New York’s Grand Central Terminal; in Canary Wharf, at The Royal Albert Hall, at Boston Symphony Hall – even the base of the Pyramids at Giza. In 1973, Germany had a dozen courts – and over 6000 by the Millennium. More than 20 Nations now have players in the men’s Top 100 World Rankings.


Stické

The 19th Century saw enthusiastic energies devoted to the development of new games and pastimes. Of those which emerged, some evolved and developed; some became unfashionable and died away; some remain with us. Despite a revival of interest in Real Tennis in the Victorian era, there were a great many more Rackets courts than active Tennis courts. To be played well – or indeed, safely – Rackets demands a very high skill level; Real Tennis meanwhile, is a complex game. By contrast, Stické is fairly easy to play and the rules are simple. Like Rackets, Stické was scored in units.

Stické is frequently – and not at all surprisingly – confused with Sphairistické, the racket game championed by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield and played on an hourglass-shaped court marked out on one’s lawn. The term itself derives from the ancient Greek sphairistikè – “the art of playing ball”. It’s conjectured that Stické’s origins lie in the Scientific School of Gunnery (est’d 1859) at Shoeburyness, Essex, somewhere around the early 1870’s. Reportedly, the game became known as ‘Shoeburyness-Stické’ – little wonder that it became shortened to Stické!

Stické is played in a walled court, about 80 feet by 30 feet, divided equally in two by a net. As with Real Tennis, the ball may strike the walls and remain in play. Using standard lawn tennis rackets and low-pressure vulcanised balls, players face each other over the net in pairs. The court features a service wall penthouse – which, as in Real Tennis, the ball must touch if a service to be correct. In Stické, service may be made from either end.

With early Stické courts open to the elements, the game offered the benefit of lower building costs: approximately £100 for a basic court; £400 for one with masonry walls. Rackets and balls were comparatively inexpensive, too; by and large the only routine maintenance required was to occasionally re-paint the walls with distemper. In a bid to provide recreation facilities for its Officers, The British Army built Stické courts where it was difficult – or too costly – to construct a Rackets courts. Military Stické Courts appeared in the South of England, Ireland, Bermuda – even Halifax, Nova Scotia. In India, courts appeared in Rawul Pindi, Cooch Bihar and Simla – built by Lord Dufferin,Viceroy of India. Between 1870 and 1910, some 39 Stické courts were built across the British Empire.

In time, covered Stické courts started to appear at English Country Houses. The burgeoning popularity of lawn tennis prompted a change in the scoring system: away from the unit point scoring of rackets, to scoring in fifteens. Like lawn tennis, Stické was one of the few sports played by both sexes.

In common with Real Tennis, each court offered its own unique idiosyncrasies. To a great extent, the Stické court was standardised by The “Desborough Patent Court” devised by William Grenfell, later 1st Baron Desborough, for his Thameside home, Taplow Court in Berkshire. Taplow provided the model for some twenty Stické Courts across the South of England – including one at Buckingham Palace. Not everyone fell into line however: the wooden court at Knightshayes Court, Devon has penthouse roofs at either end, like a Real Tennis Court.

Following The Great War, the weakened economy brought the social whirl of English Country House parties to an abrupt end; the Second World War pretty much spelled the demise of Stické. As of 2005, only three playable courts remain:

Hartham Park, Corsham, Wiltshire. Commissioned by Sir John Dickson Poynder (later Lord Islington): a wooden stické court, located north west of the house.

Knightshayes Court in Tiverton, Devon. Established 1907 for Sir John Heathcoat-Amory, 1st Baronet. Wooden construction.

Viceregal Lodge complex, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India – a vestige of Colonial military presence on the subcontinent.

A renaissance seems unlikely. If following Desborough’s Taplow Court model, today it would cost in the neighbourhood of £100,000 to build and equip a roofed Stické Court (not including changing facilities) – and to quote Bob Hope, “That’s a pretty fancy neighbourhood!”.


Handball

Played in various forms all over the world, handball is an ancient game played by two or four players, in a one, three- or four-walled court. Modern handball developed in Ireland, where it is promoted and managed by The Gaelic Athletic Association . The earliest known records of handball in Ireland date from 1527, when Statutes were established to outlaw play against walls in Galway city. It was brought to the United States in the late 19th century by Irish, Hispanic and French immigrants settling in New York City.


Hardball Doubles

The game of Hardball Doubles was devised in 1907 by Fred C. Tompkins, tennis and rackets professional at the Racquet Club, Philadelphia.

In the autumn of 1907, the Racquet Club relocated from 923 Walnut Street to new premises at 215 South Sixteenth Street. The fourth floor of the new clubhouse featured five squash rackets courts, one real tennis court and two rackets courts; opposite one of the rackets courts, adjacent to the stairs leading down to the locker room, stood a redundant space, too small for a third rackets court, yet too great for a sixth squash rackets court. Tongue firmly in cheek, Tompkins brazenly suggested the club build a court for the venerable British game of ‘squash doubles’. No record of any such game appears to exist, but the Anglophile committee took the Englishman at his word and resolved to install a doubles court.

In fairness to Tompkins – and indeed, the building committee at the Racquet Club – there were precedents for distinct court sizes: tennis had been played in Jeu à Dedans or the smaller Jeu Quarré courts, and singles rackets courts measured sixty feet by thirty feet and doubles eighty by forty. So it was, that during the winter months of 1907-1908, the Racquet Club duly built a ‘doubles’ court, forty-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide, with walls lined in red maple.

In 1907, squash courts could be found in two US cities only: Philadelphia and Boston. At this time, Squash Tennis was far more popular than Squash Rackets, which began its ascendency following the First World War. Doubles though, struggled to catch on. It must be acknowledged, though, that the Racquet Club doubles court was a less than ideal showcase: the clubhouse roof rendered lobbing impossible. Few other clubs possessed courts – and if they did, doubles tournaments were haphazard adjuncts to singles tournaments. No one took it seriously.

In the 1930’s though, doubles suddenly became fashionable. The Gold Racquet Invitational, held in Cedarhurst, Long Island, inaugurated an ‘Informal Doubles’ draw in 1930. A year later a second doubles tournament, the Invitation Doubles Championship, played at the Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut, was added to the fixtures list.

Women also played in the first nationals at Greenwich. In 1934 the Racquet Club hosted the nationals and pushed it back to its now-traditional date of the third weekend in March

Doubles in Britain

In 1935, three courts were laid out following U.S.S.R.A. specifications: first at St. John’s Wood Squash Club and Ladies’ Carlton Club and the Edinburgh Sports Club in Scotland. In Knightsbridge, the Prince’s Club maintained a non-standard, cement floored doubles court measuring fifty-four by thirty feet.

It is magnificent, and it makes Squash seem an infinitely greater game even if one merely contemplates the empty court” gushed Squash Rackets, Fives, Tennis and Rackets, a London-based monthly magazine of the St. John’s doubles court in January 1937. “There is no doubt at all that doubles at all games are infinitely superior to singles – if only because they introduce that element of team spirit and combination which are so essential to sport. With the introduction of doubles there should really be no limit to the playing life of the happy Squash player.

The Squash Racquets Association commenced a national tournament in 1937.

Prince’s closed its doors forever some time around 1940. Nazi bombing spelled doom for doubles in London when St. John’s and Ladies’ Carlton were destroyed. In Edinburgh, the court fell into disrepair but play resumed in the late 1940’s. Today, over a hundred members regularly use the Edinburgh court: using American racquetball balls, or oversized ‘beginner’s’ balls.

Paume à main nués; Pilota/Pelota Vasca

Pelota can be classified as either jeux directs – where players face each other – or jeux indirects – where the pelota (ball) is hit against a wall. The latter has many variations, but the most popular is bare-hand (main nue).

Pelota court surfaces range from dirt to highly-polished cement; formats include the one-walled place libre, the two- or three-walled fronton, trinquet: a small, covered court featuring a penthouse

A Fronton (Spanish: frontón; Basque: frontoi or pilotaleku) is a one- or two-walled playing area. Every self-respecting village in the Pays Basque and southern Landes has an outdoor ‘Fronton Place Libre’ – the length of which determines the styles of Pelota which can be played upon it.

Early village frontons would employ a church sidewall as the front wall. Priests would play also – and often served as referees in provincial or town competitions. Gambling and ensuing disorder led the Church to forbid play against its properties. Eventually, towns started to introduce purpose-built open-air or closed frontons.

The ‘Pelote’ (ball) has a wound rubber centre which is bound with cotton, then covered with the finest handsewn leather. Each handmade Pelote must form a perfect sphere; have a diameter of 65mm and a total weight of 115 – 125grms. more information


Fives

Although most schools feature only one type of court, three colleges – Cheltenham, Dover and Marlborough – have offered both Eton and Rugby courts. Today, Cheltenham has Rugby courts only and Dover two derelict Eton courts. Marlborough has four Rugby and two Eton courts – all active.

Eton Fives


The Eton Fives court is modeled on part of Eton College’s Chapel. Enclosed on three sides, it’s open at the back and features unique ‘hazards’: A 15cm high step splits the court into upper and lower sections Sloping ledges run horizontally across the walls – one of which forms the ‘line’. On the court’s left-hand side, in line with the step, is a large buttress – sometimes known as a ‘pepper’ At the bottom of the buttress is the ‘box’ or ‘pepper pot’.

Eton’s first courts at were built in 1840; the Laws for Eton Fives were first published in 1931. About 40 schools are affiliated to Eton Fives

Eton Fives doubles is played competitively; the ball is softer and lighter than that used in Rugby or Winchester fives, so the gloves are comparatively thin.

Rugby Fives


Rugby Fives is played in a four-walled, stone-floored space, much like a squash court; a wooden board runs parallel to the floor across the sixteen foot-high ‘front’ wall.

The Rugby and Winchester Fives ball is leather-covered, slightly larger than a golf ball – and hard; players wear a thicker glove than that used in Eton Fives.

Rugby Fives is affiliated with over 40 schools and 32 clubs. There’s been an annual Rugby Fives varsity match since 1925.


Winchester Fives

Winchester Fives features an inset section of wall from floor to ceiling on the court’s left-hand side. The courts at Winchester and Radley (‘proper’ Winchester courts) have an 11-foot-high (3.4 m) back wall. Several Winchester Fives courts have been altered to become Rugby Fives courts.


Warminster Fives

Warminster Fives: based on Wessex Fives and played as early as 1787 at Lord Weymouth’s School (now Warminster School). It’s claimed that Rugby Fives was devised by Headmaster Thomas Arnold – who first played Fives when a pupil at Lord Weymouth’s.

Although an 1860 Warminster Fives Court still exists at Warminster School, the game is rarely played. The Warminster Fives Rules appear on the Eton Fives Website.

St John’s Fives

Played at St John’s School in Leatherhead, St John’s Fives is similar to Eton Fives albeit without the step between front and the back sections of the court.

Fives Federation

Further information on Fives

Membership

Games

What's On

Wine & Dine

Club News

How to find us

Thank you to our sponsors

Image+ Aspect Tustains