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The Warminster Court

Ramblings in Retirement

This article was written by David Guilford in 2000 and first appeared on the original EFA website.

Churchyard and Licensed Premises Fives

And on the tower
We see the sharp spring sunlight thrown
On all its sparkling rainwashed stone,
that tower, so built to take the light
Of a sun by day and a moon by night,
That centuries of weather there
Have mellowed it to twice as fair
As when it first rose new and hard
Above the sports in our churchyard.

In his poem Churchyards John Betjeman writes of many goings-on, but the 'sports' he mentiones here do not include fives, as well he might have, had he been writing somewhat earlier, for against the church tower in numerous villages in the South West a form of handball was played, and as far as we can glean, played competitively by the bloods of the area.

The towers of some churches provided no suitable wall, or, if there was one, running back would be dangerous or impossible, and the venue of the fives wall, sometimes reminiscent of the side of a church tower, was appropriately to be found in the grounds of the local hostelry, to which the players would retire for the welcome pint after their exertions.

Tony Baden Fuller's admirable article, West Country Fives (EFA Annual Report 1998-1999), encouraged me to look up my notes of August 1999, when I went on an investigative tour. I enjoyed learning more about Warminster fives. The court is, of course, well known, so much so that one learned sports tome reported that Eton Fives was founded at the Lord Weymouth School! An early brochure states that the court "was built before 1787." Warminster Fives, then, is a very old pastime.

warminster fives

The Warminster court

David Longbourne's sheet mentions courts which are beside licensed premises. Stoke-sub-Hamdon was perhaps the headquarters of the league - it is very impressive. I've not yet visited Mere to learn more of the game and of the Mat Fayre held there (mentioned some time ago and again this week in the local weekly newspaper, The Blackmore Vale. At South Petherton I parked for a Memorial Service outside the bungalow called Fives Wall. At the erstwhile New Inn at Shepton Beauchamp there is the following inscription: The Fives Wall given to the Parish Council by Mr and Mrs Cyril Welch, June 1985, Somerset County Council restored. It was at Hinton St George that Robin Gilkes collected a sheet of valuable information, compiled by Dr Dennis Brailsford - I've tried hard to contact the author but so far without success.

stoke sub hambdon  south petherton  hinton st george

Stoke sub Hambdon, South Petherton and Hinton St George

shepton beauchamp

Shepton Beauchamp

Further courts I have located at Bishops Lydeard, North Cheriton and Milborne Port (a double court). Of these the first is at the Lethbridge Arms and the second by a house called Fives Court. The third, the Ball Court [n.b. large image] in the War Memorial Garden, close by the A30, was built by Sir William C. Medlycott, Bart., [n.b. large image] the local MP, in the year 1847 and boasts the inscription:

It is earnestly hoped that this court which is meant for the health and amusement of the town will be protected from injury.

Sir Williams wishes have been respected.

cheriton hill  medlycott

North Cheriton and the Medlycott courts

The church tower at Montacute was injured, though, the cinquefoils being removed on the South side. Martock suffered, too, as Prebendary G. W. Saunders records in his church guide:

The lower stage of the tower with its side buttresses was the Fives place. But the game became a nuisance, balls were often hit on to the roof of the aisle, and windows were sometimes broken. To recover the balls from the roof the buttress was used as a ladder. The notches cut in the angles were used as footholds and handholds. Unfortunately, a piece of the coping was knocked off and fell upon the head of a bystander. The attention of the vestry was called to the nuisance, and the churchwardens wre requested to put a stop to the game. Accordingly in 1758 there is an entry in the churchwarden's accounts:

For digging up ye Fives place 3 6d.
To the Sexton for rooting up docks and nettles 3 0d.

But the buttress needed attention. So they chamfered off the edges and stopped the footholds with cement.

The Bradford Abbas 'court' was heavily scaffolded when I visited, but at Portesham further trouble in the churchyard provided a significant link with history. In his survey of the church the Reverend Jack Elwin writes:

Two hundred and fifty years ago the young people of the village used the churchyard as a PLAYGROUND. The damage caused to the church windows is indicated by the gaziers' bills in the churchwardens' accounts - and such an entry as the following:

We whose names are underwritten taking into our Serious Consideration the Many Damages done to the Church as also the Invasion of Private Property, together with the Nuisance and above all the Prophanation arising from the Scandalous Practice of Playing at Vives in Church Yarde have this Day agreed to put a Stop to so Infamous a Practice in respect of That belonging to our Parish.

This therefore is to give Notice That Whoever shall presume to Play Vives (Fives) in this Church Yarde from the Day of the Date hereof will be prosecuted with the Utmost Rigour of the Law, as so Complicated and Insult upon God and Man calls for and demands at our Hands.

Given in the Vestry of the Parish of St. Peter Portesham this 14th Day of April 1751.
J.Rhudde Vic.
Jo Hardy - Church Warden
Cha. Masterman - Church Warden
Wm Soper
Charles Hawkins

Joseph Hardy was father of Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, Bart, GCB, the captain of H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar whose home was at Portesham, and whose tomb is at Greewich.

I wonder if in his boyhood he was ever caught playing 'vives' in the churchyard! Charles Masterman was presumably a relative of Joseph and Thomas Hardy.

Parson Woodford's diary tells of fives at Ansford, Babcary and Castle Cary (18 July 1768, Castle Cary, "waited on father (the rector) to dig up fives place." There must be many more.


There's little to report from Sherborne itself, although Richard Digance for One Night Only (West Coutry T.V.) not too long ago tried his hands at Rugby Fives, and, in the Daily Telegraph obituary, Robert Powell, Headmaster from 1950 to 1970, "was a conservative figure, and when not playing fives was often to be found in gown and mortar board". What's wrong with that? First things first!


On holiday in Shropshire, though - my father was a Shropshire lad - I have visited the courts at Shrewsbury, where my mother's brother held his first teaching appointment and learned the game, at Wrekin, where I had a long talk with the assistant bursar, who was enthusiastic for the refurbishment of the courts and at Oswestry (one Rugby Fives court, now a store), where I chanced upon the last master-in-charge, who bemoaned the loss of the game but as proud Head of Classics insisted that I should see his department. In nearby Staffordshire the Uttoxeter court was used as a wood store.


In retirement reading, too, I find reference to the game. I've enjoyed John Galsworthy's The Politician, in which the hero Eustace at Harrow played games so badly that in sheer self-defence his fellows permitted him to play without them. Of fives they made an exception, for in this he attained much proficiency, owing to a certain widmill-like quality of limb."


Perhaps Galsworthy himself was a keen player when he was a boy at the same school? In Eric Parker's Playing Fields there are wonderful descriptions of the game at Eton including some shrewd observations on adapting one's game in wet conditions in open courts. And what about the scramble for courts at the end of the morning?

Tulford shook his head gloomily. There were certain fives courts open to the whole school, and the only way to get one after twelve was to run for it. The court belonged to the boy who first put his foot on the lower step; so that you only had a chance of getting one if you happened to belong to a division master who let you out of school on the stroke of twelve. If you were later than that, you had no chance at all. The Blaster was always later.

Today's academic pressures prevent all that. Eheu fugaces!

D.J.S. Guilford