|SquashTalk>Columns>"Clio's Corner": James Zug>The Origins of Squash|
|BORN IN THE YARD: THE BEGINNINGS OF THE GAME OF SQUASH|
By James Zug.
March 1, 2001. © 2001 Funded by Squashtalk.com. Do not reproduce
online without permission.
THE STORY OF SQUASH starts in France almost one millennium ago. In the thirteenth century in French monasteries, young Cistercian brothers invented the game of tennis. They took the ancient game of handball and moved it into the cloistered courtyards of the abbey. Each Easter they strung a fishing net across the middle of the yard and slapped a leather-bound ball back and forth with their gloved hands. In time the monks played all year and their game grew in complexity, especially when at the end of the fifteenth century they started using racquets, wooden sticks with the gut of an animal strung in a gap at one end. During the Renaissance tennis became the national sport of a dozen European countries. In the year 1600 someone walked around Paris counting tennis courts: he stopped after eighteen hundred.
Yet tennis was never a game for the masses. It had byzantine scoring, a myriad of technical shots, and an enormous court with idiosyncratic hazards that recreated a monastery's courtyard. Kings played it, not coopers or colliers.
FROM TENNIS TO RACQUETS
By the reign of George III there were hundreds of makeshift places to play racquets in England, in tavern yards and side alleys and street corners. People then started building courts, as opposed to just playing in a convenient corner. They were simple affairs, roofless, usually just one or two stone walls and a stone floor. The game spread to the colonies. The first court in Canada was put in Halifax in the 1770s; in the U.S. in 1799 in lower Manhattan; in India in 1821; Australia in 1847. In 1820 a prisoner at the Fleet crowned himself world champion.
year boys] in the corner to the right. The Sixth and Fifth Form games, owing to their different local conditions, differed much in character. In the Sixth Form game it was compulsory to serve on the big chimney, back-handers from Leith's Wall being also compulsory, and a principal feature of the game; but a return back-hander from the milling-ground wall was not compulsory, but optional. Some of the happiest hours of my school life were spent on the Sixth Form ground."
In 1850 Harrow constructed two open-air racquets courts in a steeply-pitched apple orchard below the milling ground. Although the bill came to £850 and they were typical racquets courts, Harrovians found them appalling. One, like a soldier with an amputated leg, had a missing side wall, the other had a back wall that rose a mere three feet, and both were made with rough stone that made bounces as unpredictable as the waterpipe-dotted wall of the schoolyard.
FIRST COVERED COURTS
Filling up the orchard around the new court, Hart-Dyke put in four Eton fives courts and three Rugby fives courts.
Fives is handball in a walled court. Eton fives, invented amid the mossy drainpipes at Eton, is played on a narrow court with many buttresses and hazards, while Rugby fives, created at Rugby School, has an unadorned court twenty-eight by eighteen feet, with side walls that slope towards the back wall and a two and a half foot tin on the front wall. Does a Rugby fives court sound familiar?
The greatest letter, in length and gravity, came from a viscount in the House of Lords, Dunedin, class of 1868. The school's racquets champion in 1868 and "keen on squash," Dunedin described the dormitory yards and other colorfully-named spots in the town of Harrow where squash was a daily event: Monkey's, Bradley's, Vanity Watson's, Butler's and Young Vaughan's. They played doubles in the old schoolyard. He noted that Eton fives, with its many obstacles, "took on fairly well" after the courts were opened in 1865, but Rugby fives, with its plain court, was scorned by Harrovians. "The Rugby courts did not, I know, have half-a-dozen games of fives played in them," wrote Dunedin. "They obviously invited the familiar squash, and were immediately appropriated for that purpose."
From Lullingstone Castle in Kent, an eighty-seven year-old Hart-Dyke wrote the final letter on this subject. To the matter so well and consistently covered on page five of The Times, he added that he had built the Rugby fives court with squash in mind: "These, I can well remember, I intended for play with a racket and indiarubber ball. I fully agree with Lord Dunedin that these courts obviously invited the familiar squash, and from that sprung the idea of the Harrow squash court."
So this was the scene: on some gray, wintry day in late January 1865, exactly one hundred and thirty-six years ago, two young boys of Harrow walked into a Rugby fives court with their rubber ball and "spat" racquets and first played the game of squash.
This article, in a slightly different form, orginally appeared in the August-September 2000 issue of Squash magazine.
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