Corner": James Zug
> Squash at Sea!

By James Zug.
March 15, 2001. © 2001 Funded by Squashtalk.com. Do not reproduce
online without permission.

When squash came into
as a pastime early in the twentieth century, it was natural
that they would insist on playing the sport when they traveled and they traveled
by ship.

Courts on ships was nothing new. In the sixteenth century the French installed
a court tennis (jeu de
paume) court on a two-thousand ton brig. This century the Empress of Britain
and the H.M.S. Queen Mary had courts. A young Prince of Wales (later Edward
VIII) grew so addicted to the game that in 1920 when he entered into the
Royal Navy on a tour of the Antipodes, he had a court built for him on
his battlecruiser, the H.M.S. Renown. This court, incidentally, helped
spread the game of squash to Australia. The Prince entered the 1924 and
1926 British amateur championships at the Bath Club and was a keen supporter
of the game until he gave up his throne for love.

The most famous court on a ship was one used for just four days. On 10 April
1912 a White Star Line Triple-Screw Royal Mail Steamship sailed from Southampton
bound for New York. The Titanic, 882 and a half feet long, had many amenities
for its passengers: a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a Turkish bath and the latest
import from Wiesbaden, mechanical bicycles or “electric camels.”

And on Middle Deck (F) and Lower Deck (G), just
forward of the foremost boiler rooms and adjacent
to the post office sorting room, was a squash court. “A squash racquet court,”
read the notes on the Titanic’s blueprints, “is provided on Deck F, and is
in charge of a professional player. Tickets for the use of the Court may be
obtained at the Enquiry Office 2s/2d [or 50 cents; it was one dollar to use
the pool] per half hour to include the services of the Professional if required.
Balls may be purchased from the Professional who is also authorised to sell
and hire racquets. The court may be reserved in advance by applicaton to the
Professional in charge, and may not be occupied for longer than one hour at
a time by the same players if others are waiting.”

An enclosed gallery, with an unsightly wire
fence as protection from errant balls, provided viewing space for about half
a dozen spectators on the F deck. The walls were made of steel, painted grey
and the floor was made from Veitchi flooring compound. It certainly was a
fast and loud court.

The professsional was Fred Wright. Twenty-four
years old, unmarried, originally attached to the
Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, Frederick Wright gave his address as 12
Sterne Street, Shepherd’s Bush, London, where his father William lived. He
signed on for the statutory wage of one shilling, depending for his livelihood
on tips. We know he gave a few. An American officer, Colonel Archibald Gracie,
wrote in his memoir, The Truth about the Titanic (1913) about playing with
Wright. Breaking the Sabbath, Gracie played squash with Wright before breakfast
on Sunday, 14 April.

That evening when the unsinkable ship hit an
iceberg, seawater rushed into boiler room number six, the room right next
to the squash court. The water filled the room and flooded into boiler room
five. By midnight the court itself was flooded; instead of two men swatting
a ball, spectators saw in horror sea water splashing around. Above on the
open decks, tension was high. Gracie bumped into Wright as they scrambled
to the lifeboats. Gracie remembered his half past seven court the following
morning. In a line almost too good to be true,

Gracie asked, “Hadn’t we better cancel that
appointment?” “Yes, we better,” replied Wright, knowing that the court was
under water. Wright went down with the ship. His body was never found.

Not all sailing squash professionals were destined
to share in maritime disasters. There was a court on the great Queen Elizabeth.
A successor to the Titanic, the Queens or Lizzy, as she was colloqually known,
was the largest and most luxurious passenger liner in the world. After the

Second World War, it maintained a regular schedule ferry service between Southhampton
and New York (the QE2 has succeeded the Lizzy in this run today). The voyage
took five days. Among the many amenities was a sweet-smelling cedar squash
court. Unlike the Titanic, this one had a large, comfortable gallery, for
about fifty passengers.


The pro was an Irishman named Bill Ashcroft. Born in 1911 in Limavady in what
is now Northern Ireland, Ashcroft had worked for fifteen years as a bobby
for the London Metropolitan Police. In the 1930s police stations in London
had squash courts, and Ashcroft, who was a physical training instructor, picked
up the game. After the war, he heard about the job of squash pro on the Lizzy,
and, forsaking his security as a bobby, applied and got the position.

“It was the greatest job ever,” Ashcroft says
today from his home near Los Angelos. “Those three years were among the best
times of my life.” He gave lessons, refereed and played games from eight to
one and three to six. He was allowed to charge for the lessons, but after
his maiden voyage to New York, he tore down his fee sign. The gym instructor,
who had been at sea for twenty years, was shocked and told him he would starve
to death. But on the return trip, leaving the fee up to the passenger, Ashcroft
made double his money. “At sea,” he says, “people are much more generous and

For almost one hundred voyages, Ashcroft sailed
on this floating hotel. He played with the famous and the rich, and even a
few champion tennis players: Lady Iris Mountbatten, Hazel Wightman, Rex Harrison
and Joe Louis. Michael Redgrave, Ashcroft remembers, always wore on court
an old seaman’s pea-cap. They played with a British ball and British scoring.
Ashcroft never lost a match.

Eventually his wife and children had enough
of his abscences, and Ashcroft decided to quit the ship and move to the U.S.
He went to the U.S. embassy in London to enquire about a visa to the U.S.,
which, at the time, was very hard to get. The man there asked Ashcroft what
his present job was. “I told him I was the squash pro on the Queen Elizabeth,”
he says. “He called some of his associates together and asked if I could bring
back to London a few dozen American squash balls. A shortage of rubber in
general and a longing for an American hardball meant there were no satisfactory
squash balls available. The next fortnight I brought in the balls and he gave
me my visa.”

Ashore in New York, Ashcroft worked as a squash
pro at the Racquet & Tennis Club before moving to southern California and
teaching tennis and squash at a variety of clubs. Now ninety, Ashcroft looks
back on his life and says, with the distinctive brogue of a boy of Limavady,
“squash is a wonderful game.”

[ Read Origins of Squash,
also by James Zug]

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