Dale Vargas reports:
20/01/22: This year Harrow is celebrating the 450th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s grant of a Charter to its founder John Lyon in 1572. Many school activities are being included in this celebration and last Saturday, it was the turn of Eton Fives.
A four-pair school match against Shrewsbury took place in the first half of the afternoon. This was followed by a jamboree of fives in which boys, parents, masters and Old Harrovians took part. During the tea interval, fives coach Ian Hutchinson, said a few words of welcome and former Master in Charge and president of the OHEFC, Dale Vargas, delivered a poem which he had written to commemorate the event.
Extract from John Lyon’s Charter, 1572: “The Scholars shall not be permitted to play, except upon Thursday only sometimes when the weather is fine, and upon Saturday, or half-holidays after evening prayer. And their play shall be to drive a top, to toss a handball, to run, or to shoot, and no other.”
John Lyon our founder had plenty to say
About what boys could do and what they could play.
“The scholars shall not be permitted”, he wrote,
“To play any games” – but he added a note.
“Sometimes on Thursday if it is fine,
And Saturdays too”, but went on to define
What they must do his laws to obey:
Latin more Latin, day after day.
But what about games? What was allowed
To be played in the school that Lyon endowed?
Driving a top, to run and to shoot;
To toss a handball was an added pursuit.
To toss a handball? Is that what he said?
We know what that means, if properly read.
What looked like denial, a thunderous cloud
Has been totally lifted. Shout it aloud!
No school emerged until forty years later
When governors began at last to create a
Building we now know as Harrow’s Old Schools.
Now there were masters and pupils and rules.
Lessons and construes and forms to be sat in,
Bluster and banter — albeit in Latin.
After hours spent working on classical data
The urge to play outside becomes all the greater.
Time to get out and play in the Yard and
Find the best place by the vicarage garden.
Known as the ‘corner’, for obvious reasons
It also had drainpipes and other adhesions.
Hazards give handball an added attraction,
Sharpen the eye and speed the reaction.
So here began fives, that old name discardin’;
No longer “handball”, begging your pardon.
Two centuries later a young beak descended*
His name was Young too — no pun intended.
He’d once played a game with hazards to grapple
Hitting a ball against his School Chapel
Not any old chapel; a royal foundation!
Here was a chance to raise the school’s station:
“Build courts at Harrow”, Young recommended
And so that’s what happened: ‘corner’ suspended.
The game we play now, it started at Eton
No shame in that; no pill to sweeten.
Long have we sought there to find our Head Masters
So far, successful; no utter disasters.
At cricket we play them, embrace the connection;
Fives has, with rackets, joined the confection.
And just to ensure the ground they keep feet on,
In matches at fives, they sometimes get beaten.
Today we have gathered to mark an occasion
No ducking, no hiding, attempts at evasion;
For four-fifty years the school has existed.
That’s FOUR-FIVE-ZERO — in case you have missed it.
We don’t drive a top; it gives us no pleasure
But we do toss a handball in very full measure.
And it’s thanks to our founder, without his persuasion,
We might still be ‘groising’**: a standing ovation!
*The Revd EM Young, Old Etonian Harrow Master, was responsible for the building of the first Eton fives courts at Harrow in 1863.
**Old Harrow slang for “spending an excessive time working”