Corner": James Zug
>The Origins of Squash

By James Zug.
March 1, 2001. © 2001 Funded by Squashtalk.com. Do not reproduce
online without permission.

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.

The people, therefore, took the game into their own hands. In the early eighteenth
century prisoners at the Fleet, London’s notorious debtor’s gaol, borrowed
tennis racquets and created an outdoor ball game. Their game was called racquets
and it was brutally simple—hitting a ball against a wall. With no back walls,
it was a game of finesse and dropshots. The game soon leaked out beyond the
prison. Men were very much taken with the game, finding it a pleasant distraction
a pint of beer or a hard day’s work.

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.

northwest of London lies a icon of English education,
Harrow School. In the nineteenth century Harrow boys played racquets. The
chief court was the schoolyard, a colossal gravel and paving-stoned playground
surrounding the Old School House, built in 1615 and the heart of Harrow. One
part of the schoolyard, called “The Corner,” was particularly well-suited
for racquets,
as it had three good walls including a front wall with a buttress which dropped
the ball straight down and a waterpipe that might send it anywhere. The Sixth
Formers (seniors), of course, claimed “The Corner” as their territory. “In
those days we played racquets in the schoolyard,” wrote Charles Roundell,
class of 1848. “the Sixth Form against the school building, with the wall
of the milling ground at the back, the Fifth Form on the wall opposite the
school steps, the Shell [a class for first-

An overhead view of Old Schools
at Harrow and the surrounding schoolyard where squash, especially squash
doubles, was first played

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.

Unsatisfied, William Hart-Dyke, class of 1856, got involved. In 1862 Hart-Dyke
won the racquets world championship (he was the first champion not to have
learned the game at the Fleet), and he could not stand such decrepit courts
at his alma mater. He formed a committee of Harrow alumni to raise money and
in November 1864 built, at a cost of £1,600, a covered racquets court, one
ofthe first of its kind in the world. The court, still playable today, was
opened on Saturday, 20 January 1865 with a doubles match between Hart-Dyke
& V.E. Walker and two racquets professionals, Day and Ponten.

Filling up the orchard around the new court,
Hart-Dyke put in four Eton fives courts and three Rugby fives courts.

The famous sketch of Harrow
boys playing squash in the main yard at Head Master’s House

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?

squash make it into that Rugby fives court?
Racquets with its long, heavy wooden racquet and bullet-hard ball, was difficult
for an inexperienced, weak-armed Fourth Former to learn. This was obvious
in the schoolyard but even more apparent in the narrow, cramped yards at the
Harrow boarding houses where the younger boys, unable to find court time in
the schoolyard, whiled away the hours. The house yards, like the schoolyard,
boasted peculiar hazards: the walls were crennelated with water pipes, chimneys,
ledges, doors, wired windows and devilish foot-scrapers. Split-second decisions
and speedy hand-eye coordination was essential. So with typical English invention,
the young boys at Harrow punctured a ball made of India rubber (rubber was
first vulcanized in 1839 and came in vogue as material for a ball in the 1840s)
and shortened the racquet and played their slower, easier game in their house
yards. This bastardized version of racquets was called soft racquets or baby
racquets or softer. “Adjoining the house,” wrote Douglas Straight, class of
1867, “there is generally a yard, where an anomalous description of cricket
and a still more peculiar version of racquets, with a ‘spat’ and an India-rubber
ball, are the staple sources of amusement.”

The yards at the Harrow houses were perfect for soft racquets; so too, after
January 1865 was a Rugby fives court. In December 1923 the Times of London
printed a succession of letters to the editor from Harrow alumni. One correspondent
recalled playing soft racquets in the house yards and the various “projections,
mouldings and (in our case) wired windows…coupled with the quaint effect
of a cut on the soft ball, all of which multiplied the strokes and added most
delightfully to the skilful player’s game.” Mark Fenwick, class of 1877, mentioned
that “the old ball with a hole in it which we used at Harrow in the ‘seventies
was a very slow affair, and in the winter months when the open courts were
damp, it required considerable force to make it hit the back wall full pitch.”
Long after graduating, Fenwick continued to buy his squash balls from “Judy”
Stevens at Harrow. “Our old squashes were rather smaller than a Fives ball,”
wrote a third. “They used to make splendid water-squirts in the early ‘sixties.”
In a careful description of the two courts in the yards at Head Master’s House,
one of the larger dormitories, R. Stewart-Brown, class of 1891, noted “play
was nearly all backhanded, and a very powerful stroke was thus developed.
It was a splendid game, requiring great activity and good sight, as the ball
could be made to hit the various projections and openings by a skilful player
and come off at all angles or drop dead.”

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.

[ Read History of Squash
Doubles, also by James Zug]

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