A Brief History of Eton Fives
Most cultures in the world have invented games in which players hit a ball against a wall with their hands. In England, medieval peasants played a form of fives against their local chapel walls. The present game of Eton Fives is in that tradition.The origin of the word 'fives' is uncertain, but it probably refers to the fingers, as in 'a bunch of fives'. The name has been used since the 17th century.
The Origins of the Court
The shape of the current court derives from the side of the chapel at Eton College, which was supported by buttresses that formed bays in which the boys could play. Most bays required simple rules, but the one at the foot of the chapel steps was different: the steps' handrail formed a hazard. A landing between the two flights of steps extended the playing area. This bay is the model on which Eton Fives courts are based.
The First Purpose-built Courts
In 1840, the Headmaster of Eton, Dr Hawtrey, built the first block of four Eton Fives courts along the Eton Wick road. The design of these was based on, but was not an exact replica of, the chapel court. The walls were built of sandstone to reproduce the effect of the chapel walls, but the distance between the front wall and the buttress was increased and the slope of the floor reduced. These factors made the game both easier and faster. The side walls were extended, the buttress was increased in height and width but reduced in depth. The step at the back of the court was probably a result of the courts being raised a few inches to avoid flooding. The modern courts are founded on Dr Hawtrey's courts of 1840 with very few alterations, the exact dimensions being based on the 1840 courts after the decaying sandstone had been coated with one inch of cement. In 1871 twelve courts were opened on the site of the present day courts. After this the game spread rapidly. Courts were built at Harrow, Charterhouse, Highgate and Westminster in the next 20 years and over a dozen by various colleges at Cambridge between 1890 and 1900. A large number of open courts were also built in country houses all over England, but often these courts differed considerably from each other in dimensions and angles.
The Rules are Established
In 1877 A C Ainger, with several friends, drew up and published the 'Rules of the Game of Fives as played at Eton'. The game has not always been played over five twelve point games. In 1888 an Etonian pair beat Harrovian opposition by six games to none. In the return match that year they won by five games to none. The games were played up to 15 points, or 18 and 19 if scores were level at 13 and 14. Matches were best of seven until 1894. From then on they settled down to the best of five. Sets were played up to 15 until shortly after the Second World War when 12 was introduced.
The First Schools Match
The first match between schools was on February 12, 1885, when Eton visited Harrow. Eton reigned supreme until 1900 when Harrow finally defeated them. The game was at a peak of popularity between 1890 and 1900. Other schools who played to a good standard were Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, Westminster, Highgate and Uppingham, and later Repton and City of London. Fives flourished until the First World War, but was largely confined to schoolboys and schoolmasters. In London the only court outside the schools was at the Queen's Club. There was only one court at Oxford. The war did its best to kill the game but it survived thanks to a new set of players who were not content to end their playing days when they left school. Old boys clubs were started and another boom period began. Old Westminsters and Old Etonians in particular spread the gospel. The former sent sides touring all the schools and fives courts to be found in the country.
The First Competitions
Competitions soon followed. Lord Kinnaird gave a challenge cup to be competed for by pairs from the Old Boys clubs and in 1931 the title was altered to the 'Amateur Championship for the Kinnaird Cup'. The first Oxford v Cambridge Varsity match took place in 1928 and the public schools handicaps started at the Queen's Club in 1929, the forerunner of the Schools Championships. The Laws of Eton Fives, replacing Ainger's rules, were published in March 1931 by the Eton Fives Association after consultation with all the fives-playing schools. The problem of local variations was thus largely eliminated. The Jesters Club started Eton Fives fixtures in 1931. The Queen's Club Competition for old boys' teams, precursor of the Alan Barber Cup, started the following year. Sixteen schools took part in the Public Schools Eton Fives Handicaps held between 1930 and 1932.
The Modern Era
The Second World War hit the game badly and bomb damage saw the end of the courts at the Queen's Club, London Hospital and St Mary's Hospital, Sidcup. Competitions eventually restarted with the Kinnaird Cup in 1948, the later stages usually being held at Eton or at Ludgrove School, Wokingham. The Public Schools competition restarted a year later using the courts at Highgate. Some new courts have been built since the war, notably at Orpington, Oxford, Westminster, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Westway, Mill Hill, Newbury, Cambridge and Berkhamsted but others have been demolished. The City of London School no longer has any courts: none were built when it moved sites in the 1980s. The most recent expansion of the game started in the 1960s with the first provincial competition, the Midland Tournament, held annually at King Edward's School, Birmingham. Now held at Repton, it has been joined by the London Tournament at Harrow and the Northern Tournament at Shrewsbury. A National League was introduced in 1971 and competitions have mushroomed since then.
The game is not now entirely limited to old boys' clubs, although they continue to dominate the game. There are now local community clubs meeting weekly at venues all over the country. The development of women’s Fives has been a notable feature in recent years. The first Ladies Championships was held in 1984 and the first mixed doubles championship in 1985. Currently there are 40 sets of courts in England stretching from Dorset and Kent to North Wales and Cumbria.
Eton Fives has spread abroad
Three courts were built at Zuoz College in Switzerland in the 1920s. Others have been built in Zurich, Austria and Germany. Further afield, courts were built in Australia at Geelong Grammar School, in India at St Paul's School, Darjeeling, and in Malaysia at Malay College, Perak. There is a court in Bahia State, Brazil. Courts have been built in France, on the banks of Lake Geneva and in Grillon in Provence. The game flourishes in the northern states of Nigeria where more courts are being built every year. Matches are held in market places to crowds of hundreds. Umpires double as commentators. The courts are all instantly recognisable as Eton Fives courts, but some are more standard than others. Players use tennis balls and so do not need gloves.
A History of Eton Fives