Most cultures in the world have invented games in which players hit a ball against a wall with their hands. Some form of fives was played by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, Today the Irish and Americans have handball, the Basques have Pelota.
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 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. (See photograph of the original court at Eton College). This bay is the model on which Eton Fives courts are based.
The following description of the court comes from David Egerton's essay on Eton Fives, published in 1932.
"Jutting out from the north wall of the chapel is the main entrance. From it descends a flight of steps, running from east to west, and having a low buttress near the lower end, to serve as a hand rail
"The pavement at the bottom of these steps formed the back or outer court. The small buttress formed the pepper-box. The upper court consisted of three walls: the front wall, part of the north wall of the chapel, and the side walls, formed by two of the great buttresses, all of which tower up above to a height of 70 or 80 feet, not anything like the whole height of these three walls could ever be used in the game.
"The floor, which was a large step some five inches higher than the floor of the outer court, was paved with flat-stones, somewhat unevenly laid, and sloping up at an angle to the front wall. In the original court this angle was such as to make standing rather uncomfortable, and the game, I should imagine, difficult.
"A convenient sloping ledge, a a height of four feet, six inches, formed the play-line, and another ledge about two feet from the ground formed an additional hazard.
"Finally, the famous dead man's hole is nothing more or less than one of the drains which served to take away surplus rainwater.
Egerton observes: "There is an intrinsic superiority of any game which includes a hazard over any game which is not so fortunate."
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 slop 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.
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 sets. 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 match between schools was on February 12, 1885, when Eton challenged 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.
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.
F B Wilson insisted on the word 'laws' since: "One the great games must have laws: rules are left to the more childish modern games!"
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 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 and Ipswich, 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.
The Old Boys' team competition, the Alan Barber Cup (named after the then Chairman of the Eton Fives Association) was restarted.
Preparatory schools launched their own competition in 1968 and since then competitions have mushroomed.
In 1972, the National League was started. In 1981, the International Team Championships were inaugurated and a year later the County Championships began with the National Westminster Bank as sponsors.
The Northern Championships and the London Tournament began in 1981.
A number of other commercial organisations have been involved in sponsoring the game in recent years.
The game is not now entirely limited to old boys' clubs, although they continue to dominate the game. The Hill Eton Fives Club was the first club which specifically set out the encourage those who had not played at school to take up the game.
Both men and women now play the game. The first Ladies Championships was held in 1984 and the first mixed doubles championship in 1985.
Currently there are 35 sets of courts in England stretching from Dorset and Kent to North Yorkshire and Cumbria, with 1777 courts between them, excluding some non-standard ones.
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 Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Courts have been built in France, on the banks of Lake Geneva .
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.
Eton Fives made a very early appearance on the Web, with a website being established in 1994. Since then the site has attracted visitors from all over the world. The EFA website was significantly enhanced in 1999, ready to take Eton Fives into the new millennium.
This brief history of Eton Fives is taken from Chapter 16 of the book How to Play and Coach Eton Fives, by John Reynolds. The chapter was contributed by Peter Knowles. © The EFA, 1993
Constructed by Mike Fenn
21st June 2001