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Jimmy Biggs - A Tribute

July 2015: It is with a deep sense of shock and sadness that we record the death of four-times Kinnaird Cup winner, Jimmy Biggs, in a tragic car accident.

In addition, he was a Kinnaird finalist a further eight times from 1955 to 1976, after which, he was a regular winner/finalist in the Veterans Competition between 1985 and 1992. He was also a perfect ambassador for the game as a Jester.

Fives anecdotes from Jimmy were always entertaining. He recalled as a youngster being very nervous about meeting for the first time the legendary Peter May. Peter had offered him a lift to a match and arrived in a brand new car but, as there was a rattle, Jimmy was asked to sit in the back to try to trace it. Jimmy was not certain if he felt more at ease over this or not.

Jimmy had first approached the Reptonian, Philip Curtis, to see if he would partner him in the Kinnaird. Philip's answer was very much a put down as he had written to Peter May and he would let Jimmy know when he had a reply. Ironically, as far as is known, it was to be the only time that Peter May lost in the Kinnaird. However, Jimmy and Philip then made a five-year plan to win the championship and this they achieved in 1957. Jimmy paired later with fellow Olavian, Jim Wallis, and they were champions in 1961, 62 and 64. A later partner was another top player, the Harrovian, Martin Shortland-Jones and, as a pair, they were rarely beaten.

A new shot was introduced to the game when Jimmy felt his left hand was weak and he would defend the pepper box by an unorthodox use of his right hand. Using a circular sweep action, Jimmy could vary the angle of his wrist and disguise his shot to take his opponents by surprise.

As a dynamic captain of the Old Olavians Fives Club from 1958 to 64, Jimmy spearheaded the extension of their fixture list, widening its scope to include weekend tours to distant schools and invitations to more teams to play on the St Olave's courts, then at Tower Bridge. In his youth he was so quick that he could 'carry' almost any partner, but he would also adjust his game in weaker matches to encourage his opponents. He persuaded many others to set up clubs and helped them find fixtures. He was a genial host and always stayed to socialise afterwards.

His passion for the game and his constant reassurance to young and lesser players was reflected in his presentation of the Pepper Pot Trophy in 1984 for winners of the Kinnaird Plate A Competition. There is now much further gratitude due for a generous donation which has been left to the EFA.

Besides his extraordinary skill as an exponent of Fives, Jimmy was a more than useful cricketer. He was a regular player for the Old Olavians as a middle order batsman, but his greatest asset was his fielding – he took some outstanding catches at slip where his reactions, which served him well at Fives helped him to snaffle the most unlikely of chances. At school, he had been a very competent wicketkeeper for the 1st X1, but he decided that this was not an appropriate role for someone going into dentistry who needed to protect his hands. He would bowl occasionally and more than once took pleasure from bowling an over with three balls delivered with his right arm and three with his left.

An illustrious career was earned by Jimmy when he became Chief Dental Officer for Carreras Rothmans. As they sponsored a series of televised '40 Over' Sunday afternoon cricket matches, Jimmy was called upon to chauffeur such heroes as Lance Gibbs and Sir Garfield Sobers amongst many more.

As a dental surgeon, Jimmy was involved in the Ocean Racing Yacht Round the World Race and found the experience exciting.

Over the years, various charities have benefited from Jimmy's fundraising events and even from his DIY skills, which he volunteered to save them money. Latterly, he was a trustee of The Flavel Trust, Dartmouth – a charity for the education of the public in the arts – and his competence and efficiency have been acknowledged as remarkable.

As a strong family man, Jimmy was a devoted husband, father and grandfather. But, he also endeared himself to everyone as a genuine, warm friend with his cheerful disposition and quiet manner.

Perhaps few will have realised, until his passing, the breadth of his attributes and unselfish interests, which focussed on the welfare of others. With this has been a commitment to give of his best at whatever he undertook and his example has been inspirational.

To his wife, Maggie, and the family, we extend our sincere condolences.

Gordon Stringer/John Brown

EFA Chairman Richard Black read the following tribute at his funeral:

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Some of you may not be aware that Jim Biggs was a magnificent player and passionate devotee of a game called Eton Fives.

Some of you may indeed be unaware of what Eton Fives is. This would not altogether be surprising, as it is played by only about 800 adults and 1200 school pupils in the UK.

Eton Fives meant a huge amount to Jim (or perhaps I will call him Jimmy which is the name we know him by in the Eton Fives Community).

It is basically a handball game played on a 3-walled court with a hard ball using a gloved hand. You have to hit the ball above a ledge on the front wall. It all started when Eton College pupils decided to while away some time by playing this handball game against a section of their Chapel Wall in area enclosed on two sides by the tall buttresses supporting the wall.

Wisely they chose a section where there no expensive windows to break, but in this particular section there were all sorts of strange ledges on the walls, two steps and a very strange buttress–like protrusion about five feet high sticking out half-way up the court about three feet from the left-hand wall. These eccentric features have been replicated in the modern Eton Fives courts. It is always played as doubles with two pairs playing against each other in this small court, trying not to fall over the steps or injure themselves on the buttress. It is great fun to play, but I am pretty sure that, if the game was invented today, it would not survive modern-day Health and Safety risk assessments.

Jimmy was not just a good Eton Fives player, he was a true champion, one of the best players in the history of the game. He was national Champion four times and appeared in many other finals. He has a place amongst the all-time greats of the game.

But he was also a champion person. He was unfailingly courteous on court and he showed this natural courtesy and genuine warmth towards other people in the way that he encouraged and supported fives players of all standards and ages over many decades. He encouraged many people to set up clubs and helped them get fixtures and was a generous host at matches. He had a 100% record of going to the pub after matches.

If you are a player of desperate mediocrity like me, it was great having Jimmy on court. If he was your partner, you always had that feeling that he would carry you to victory in a virtuoso solo performance. If you were playing against him, he would adapt his performance so that you always seemed to having good rallies, be in with a real chance of winning and playing the game of your life, until you suddenly realised that you were not actually winning that many points.

Jimmy could also be quite a wily player. Eton Fives is a game of tactics and there is an element of psychology involved. But you have to be observant to make the most of it. Jimmy was once playing with his partner Martin Shortland –Jones, another of the games great players, in an important competition. It is true to say that they were not then in their first flush of youth and the week-end competition had been long and hard. They came up latish on Sunday afternoon in the final against a young Oxford University pair, very useful and, even worse, in peak physical fitness. Jimmy and Martin, on the other hand, were so exhausted that, if they did not win quickly, they would not win at all. Things were not going well during the match. The young Oxonians were leaping around the court like young gazelles and Martin and Jimmy were feeling increasingly non-gazelle like. In fact they were probably not far off conceding the match. However, in a pause between games Jimmy noticed that the young gazelles were anxiously consulting their watches with furrowed brows and many sotto voce mutterings. Sensing a chink of light, Jimmy with his usual charm asked sollicitously if there was a problem. The young gazelles replied that they absolutely had to be back in College for formal hall and it was going to be touch and go whether they could make it. Jimmy made the incredibly magnanimous suggestion that the final be replayed in a week’s time so that could meet their commitments. The gazelles clearly had not researched the true calibre of their opponents and they had not observed that they were having difficulty putting one foot in front of another and so could well have been vanquished in half an hour. Thinking that they could easily beat this ageing pair of stags anytime they wanted, they accepted this offer with profound gratitude and went off to their port and stilton. Next week it was, as they say, a different ball-game. The gazelles found themselves up against one of the best pairs in the history of the game, fully fresh and fit and were systematically and definitively wiped off court. Someone did point out to Jimmy that perhaps he had been a touch Machiavellian in his tactics but he insisted with a smile. “No, no, one should always be considerate to one’s opponents; it was only right to help them out in their impossible situation”.

Jimmy learned his fives at St.Olaves School and for many years he played for and played a leading role in the Old Olavians Fives Club. His generation of players was very talented and they won many competitions .Perhaps even more importantly, he communicated this enthusiasm and dedication to the next generation of Old Olavian players who in turn have passed it on to the current generation of players who consistently come out year after year as the best Old Boys club on the circuit and amongst whom are many national champions of recent years one of whom is here today. Jimmy has left a true legacy.

Jimmy would have been delighted that St.Olaves School will be building four new courts in the next two years which will allow Fives to flourish even more. Any donations made to the Eton Fives Association today will go towards that project in which Jimmy himself will be commemorated in some way.

Eton Fives is only a small sport and it has little natural momentum to carry it forward from one generation to another. The torch needs to kept alive and passed on. Jimmy, you held that torch for many years, you made it burn brighter by your brilliance, your encouragement of others and your generosity and thanks to your inspiration, the game is flourishing. Thank you for everything that you have done over so many years, thank you for being a true champion player and a true champion person.