Someset's fives walls, and how medieval English church architecture inspired a sport which thrives in Nigeria

Sources

Wikipedia

Churchyard Fives Research
Jerry Sampson, Buildings Archaeologist for Caroe & Partners Architects, 2006

Fives in Martock
Jerry Sampson, Buildings Archaeologist for Caroe & Partners Architects, 2004

The role of archaeology, by Jerry Sampson
in Stone Conservation: Principles and Practice, ed. Alison Henry, 2006

Fives Walls
Off the Beaten Track in Somerset, 2015

Fives on-line directory
Wessex Tourist Board

Warminster and West Country Fives
Tony Baden Fuller, Eton Fives Association Annual Report, 1998/99

Badminton Library - Tennis: Lawn Tennis: Rackets: Fives
John Moyer Heathcote, C.G. Heathcote, A. C. Ainger, E. O. P.-Bouverie, 1890

Explore South Petherton’s Past
Booklet published by South Petherton Local History Group, 2007

Fives Walls
Sally Orton, published in the South Petherton Local History Group journal, 1979

Fives: an old West Country game
Graham White, published for the South Petherton Folk and Craft Festival, 1980

A Forgotten Inn Game
P.H.T. Evans, Country Life magazine, 2 Dec 1965

Five Centuries of Fives
John Armitage, Country Life, 25 March 1976

Fives, Fairs and Football: Churchyard Games
Gereth M. Spriggs, Country Life, 2 Apr 1987

Somerset’s Mystery Game
Geoff Body and Roy Gallop, Somerset Life magazine, March 2002

Clippings from the Western Gazette, 1984-85

A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 4
A P Baggs and R J E Bush, ed. R.W.Dunning, 1978

Somerset Villages
Paul Newman, 1986 (ISBN 978-0709025795)

The A-Z of Curious Somerset
Geoffrey Body, 2013 (ISBN 978-0752493299)

Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports
Ed. Tony Collins, John Martin, Wray Vamplew, 2005, (ISBN 978-0415647472)

Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850
Robert W Malcolmson, 1979 (ISBN 978-0521295956)

Regional Cultures? Local variations in Popular Culture during the Early Modern Period by David Underdown
in Popular Culture in England c.1500-1850, ed. Tim Harris, 1995 (ISBN 0-333-54110-3)

Leisure in Britain 1780-1939
ed. John K Walton and James Walvin, 1983 (ISBN 978-0719009129)

The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830
Peter Clark, 1983 (ISBN 978-0582508354)

History of Milborne Port

History of North Cheriton

Eton game spreads to inner cities
John Mehaffey, Reuters, 2009

Nigeria Loves Eton Fives
Reuters / Al Jazeera, 2011

Know Your Place Somerset

Fives walls: Historic England listings:

Photo and video credits

Squash clip by Artem Podrez on Pexels

Basque pelota by Thomas Dutour on Pond5

Warminster School wall used by kind permission of Warminster School.

Rugby School buildings from the Close by E.H. Speight, via Wikimedia, public domain

Eton college chapel, 1979 by Jim Mitchell on flickr, CC-BY-NC

Eton Chapel by Matt Brown on flickr, CC-BY

Young fives players at Eton by Alex Kintzer on flickr, CC-BY-NC

The Fives Court at High Elms by Ethan Doyle White on Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA

The Fives Court at High Elms by Jwslubbock on Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA

Eton schoolboys 1866 on Wikimedia, public domain

Eton schoolboys 1939 scanned by Paul Dunning on Flickr, CC-BY-NC

Foochow fives courts by Afong Lai, via National Galleries of Scotland, CC-BY-NC

Katsina fives courts by Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters Nigeria, via Alamy.

Emir's Palace, Katsina, by Musa Vacho77 on Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA

Victorian croquet scene, via UBC Library, via Wikimedia, public domain

Lawn tennis 1887, via Library of Congress, via Wikiedmia, public domain

Bicycle tourists by A.B.Frost, via Wikimedia, public domain

Football in 1871, S.T.Dadd via Wikimedia, public domain

Football in 1894, via Wikimedia, public domain

GWR at Taunton, 1892, via Wikimedia, public domain

Opening of the North Devon Railway via Wikimedia, public domain

Various photos via members of the South Petherton Local History Group, used with kind permission.

Errata, clarifications and additions

If I got something wrong, you can make a pull request on github.

Please note the transcript should reflect what I say in the video, even if that turns out to be wrong. So if the transcript is not what I say, pen a PR to fix it, but if my narration was wrong in the first place, open a PR to add an erratum in this section of the page instead.

Back to index

Transcript

One of the weird little sub-topics of architecture and urbanism which particularly interests me is when buildings and infrastructure are spontaneously repurposed by the public, re-used by individuals or subcultures in ways the designers and owners did not intend, and in some cases even actively disapprove of. Living in Bristol, the obvious examples of this would be graffiti, skateboarding and parkour.

This video, however, is... a little bit different. See, while we may think of these sorts of rebellious, sometimes controversial, even deemed antisocial or illegal street sports as a very modern, very urban phenomenon, you can find a comparable example hundreds of years ago in rural churchyards across England. Somerset and the West country was a particular hotbed.

Welcome to the picturesque village of Martock, South Somerset. Most of its historic buildings were built from Ham stone, this wonderful honey-coloured Jurassic limestone quarried just a few miles away on Ham Hill. Here’s the parish church, All Saints, which dates from the 13th century and is now a grade I listed building. Looks pretty peaceful and idyllic right? But rewind to the mid-1700s and oh boy, this churchyard was a turbulent and dangerous place.

The parish minutes of June 1758 show the church wardens were searching for the most

“effectual way to put a stop to or prevent fives playing in the Churchyard: it having been found to be the occasion of much mischief being done to the windows of the Church, and even to the Leads and walls of it, and also of much wickedness causing swearing, quarrelling, and fighting in the Churchyard and so forth.”

Worst of all, the minutes continued, “a man has had his skull fractured by a stone falling on his head by another climbing up into the leads for a ball, [and so...] the Churchwardens endeavour to put a stop to the playing fives in the Churchyard by digging a ditch across ye fives place or any other method they shall think proper.”

So what was fives? Well, in a lot of ways it is impossible to say exactly. In essence, it’s a game a bit like squash, playing a ball against a wall, but using only your hands instead of a bat or racquet. It could be compared to basque pelota, Gaelic handball and various other similar sports from around the world, while the name “fives” is thought to come from the five fingers of each hand.

Being as ball-against-a-wall is about as basic a concept for a game or sport as you can imagine, it’s impossible to say exactly how old it is. The first written references to “fives” date from the 17th century, but very similar sounding handball games are attested earlier, and the new name doesn’t necessarily mean it was a new sport, with new rules.

In fact, since we are talking about an era well before communications technology allowed culture to be homogenised and standardised nationally, let alone internationally, it’s safe to assume that the rules would have been subtly different in every region, if not every individual village. So I won’t even pretend to tell you exactly what the rules were.

We do know, though, that by the 1700s fives was very widespread, and the typically blank, windowless south and north elevations of parish church towers provided the best available venue for this trend. One survey of 100 churches near Wells found physical evidence for fives courts at 56 of them, and documentary evidence for many of the rest.

Here is one example, Babcary, where fives games were documented back in 1765. Such church walls had numerous architectural features which made them suitable for adapting as the playing surface of a sport like this. They were taller than anything else in the village, perhaps dressed with the smoothest cut ashlar for the most predictable bounces, and horizontal features like these bands could have indicated the limits of acceptable zones, or maybe even different value point-scoring zones.

Perhaps most importantly, I think, it’s easy to see how these buttresses, despite being very shallow in comparison to the walls of an enclosed squash court, would still have provided a huge array of bounce variety, and therefore shot variety, and therefore tactics and strategy, in comparison to a single simple flat 2-dimensional surface. They would, both literally and figuratively, have enabled a game with more depth.

Back at Martock, at the bottom of the tower you can see an intriguing pattern of holes, which could potentially have been used as some sort of scoreboard. And here at the nearby village of Montacute, another improbably attractive, picture-postcard Hamstone creation, there is a scratched grid in a similar location, which could also have been for keeping score. I should stress this is completely speculative, and either or both sets of modification could be entirely unrelated to fives.

Still, they weren’t the only way that fives players modified the church architecture. The Martock man climbing to retrieve his ball who accidentally knocked a stone onto someone’s head, was climbing up a series of notches that had been hacked into the northern buttress to form a sort of ladder. At other churches, there is evidence of holes being drilled for iron bars to form another type of impromptu ladder for ball retrieval.

Not all churches were hostile to the game, as at Martock. Sometimes, individual village churches and their vicars seem to have been happy to host the game, even playing it themselves or being complicit in modifications to support it.

One vicar here at Babcary, the Reverend Woodford, recorded in his diary playing the game himself when entertaining guests, and even gambling on the match - he lost a shilling and six pence to his opponent, a Mr Lewis Bower.

At West Pennard, near Glastonbury, the bottom half of the southern face of the church tower was refaced in a different, smoother stone in 1813, perhaps the most extreme example of the church seeming to accommodate rather than oppose the game.

Here at Montacute, a section of quatrefoil was removed by the Reverend William Langdon’s sons, to improve the playing surface.

But the most common “modification” of all would have been broken windows. As I said, players used the window-less elevation of the tower, but other windows were always going to be nearby, and, y’know, accidents happen.

Faced with this constant string of glazier’s bills, perhaps understandably, the church as a whole took an official stance against the sport. In 1754, the Bishop of Bath and Wells banned the use of church walls for fives, but as we’ve already seen from our 1758 Martock report, there’s little indication the people took any immediate notice of this decree. Churches were therefore forced to employ more practical countermeasures.

Again, I have to draw a comparison with things like skating in the present day. First, you get a group of people who start using the ‘terrain’ of a city’s architecture and infrastructure as a playing field for their activity, something which I find fascinating in itself. In contrast to sports like basketball or tennis, where standardised dimensions and equipment are an essential part of creating a consistent, fair structure within which individual athletes and leagues can flourish, sports like skateboarding or parkour draw an inherent part of their appeal from the fact that the playing field is not standardised, or even intended for the activity in the first place. Of course, you can build a skatepark or a parkour gym, but to some people, these will always be a pale imitation of performing in ‘found’ or ‘unintended’ environments, in the same way that surfing an artificial wave machine never compares to surfing ocean swell.

But the cycle doesn’t stop there. Today, authorities often attempt to prevent skating in public spaces, with interventions such as this idiotic example in Bristol, where these dangerous silly little trip-hazards for the disabled, eldery or merely innattentive have been installed to “prevent” skateboarding, to absolutely no effect as you can see. As often as not, such interventions are merely incorporated into the challenge, becoming another obstacle to conquer or feature to play with.

Back in the 18th century, our Somerset church wardens likewise attempted to use architecture and landscaping, the very same disciplines which had accidentally drawn fives players to their property in the first place, in a defensive manner, with interventions to prevent or at least deter fives matches.

With broken windows being the most common problem, shutters and window-screens were perhaps the most common response. But I’m more interested in the more extreme interventions. Here at Montacute, it’s possible the churchyard cross was moved to be bang in the fives players’ way, and the same may be true at Charlton Adam. In Ashwick, records from 1763 tell us for a fact that their cross was deliberately moved “to the Vifes place... to prevent the Young People from spending so much idle time in that sort of exercise”.

Today at Montacute, you can also see this stone trough in the way, which may or may not have been put there for this purpose, and there’s also a steep slope of grass, which I’d have to assume would not be ideal for the game, although I’ve no evidence this bank was deliberately landscaped to deter fives. At Martock, though, the parish notes from both 1740 and 1758 do tell us that ditches were to be dug, and similar records from Castle Cary and Buckland Dinham report trenches dug around the same time for the same reason. At Crewkerne, there are records of anti-fives ditches being dug a full century earlier, in 1640, showing just how long the activity of churchyard fives had been prevalent, and problematic, in the region. Corston, Blagdon and Chew Magna, meanwhile, installed fences, rails and posts instead.

Records of these anti-fives measures continue into the early 1800s, further emphasising the impotence of the Bishop’s ban. But eventually, it seems churchyard fives was largely supplanted by the provision of purpose-built walls and courts.

Somerset has 8 or 9 surviving fives walls from this era which we’ll take a look at now. At this point, lest I inadvertently mislead, I should stress that neither churchyard fives nor purpose-built fives walls were an exclusively Somerset thing. Examples can be found across England. However, Somerset does seem to have been something of a fives hotbed, with a particularly high number of surviving walls, which is my reasonable sounding justification for narrowing my focus to this area. But really,y’know, practical reasons.

South Petherton is the next village west of Martock. Well, I say village, but historically it would have been considered a small town, and judging by the edits on wikipedia, some people are quite keen to preserve that status. Built from the same warm Ham stone, it’s arguably even more picturesque than Martock. The octagonal tower of St Peter and St Paul church makes for a very distinctive and splendid architectural and historic centrepiece of the village, but it doesn’t look very suitable for fives.

Perhaps this was what encouraged the development of a dedicated, secular facility for fives in the town. According to Historic England’s listing, this wall is “Probably late C18. Ham stone rubble with ashlar face and dressings. Wall about 5 metres wide and 7 to 8 metres high” and that all seems pretty straightforward, so let’s move swiftly onto the next village.

Except... wait. There is a stone in the wall with a clearly readable 1848. Less clearly readable, the initials of the masons, b for ‘built’, and Nov 3rd. This clearly contradicts the assessment that this is late 18th century. At first I just shrugged and assumed the later date must represent a rebuild or repair job. But I had a nagging feeling that I should try a bit harder to get the full story, so I hit the local library.

Here, in amongst the bird counts of the late 60s, I found a booklet published by the South Petherton Local History Group, who had discovered a 1748 advert placed in the Sherborne Mercury & Yeovil Flying Post offering a let on the Rose & Crown Inn, asserting it to “the most commodious and best-situated Inn in the Town; as likewise a good bearing orchard, garden, Ball Court, [...] etc”.

This ball court was assumed to be for fives, pushing the potential construction date of a wall here back a full century before that given by the inscription seen today. In fact, a Crown Inn, or Rose & Crown, was attested in the town from as early as 1635, and in that same year, church records from Banwell show the expenditure of 17 pence to replace windows after fives damage, proving the sport was present in the county already. So it’s even possible, if unlikely, that a fives wall and court could have been here another full century before that newspaper advert.

It’s funny, I’d gone digging for additional evidence to try and narrow the 50-year window of dating uncertainty, and only ended up widening it by a couple of centuries.

So I got in touch with the Local History Group, to whom I am extremely grateful for putting me in touch with the current owners of the wall, and one of their members who has been researching the history of West Country fives walls for several years. I can’t thank these individuals by name, since they all preferred to remain quietly anonymous, but I nevertheless have to record my huge gratitude for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and resources and permitting me to use them in this video.

This local researcher drew my attention to the tithe maps of the 1840s, pointing out they show no trace of a fives wall or court at this location, despite the fact one at Hinton-St-George does appear to be depicted on the same map.

It seems likely, then, that this wall was built in 1848, as the inscription on it says, and any references to it having eighteenth century origin are either simply mistaken, or referring to a different, earlier facility at the Crown Inn.

In the mid-1980s, the Crown sold off most of its gardens for the development of some bungalows. The builder, a local man, attempted to donate the fives wall to the parish council, who refused his offer, leading to some controversy in the local papers. He ended up refurbishing it with several thousand pounds of his own money, and today it sits in private hands, a very large, historic and beautiful garden ornament for one of the bungalows here.

As for the wall itself, the north side is smoother faced than the south, which steps out in thickness in a manner which is visually speaking weakly reminiscent of our church buttresses, but interestingly, this wall doesn’t actually feature any projecting buttresses adding a three-dimensional aspect to the playing wall, something which seems to be a typical feature in most other walls.

That said, the next village west of South Petherton also features another single flat wall, lacking any buttress features to serve as shallow second and third walls. On paper, you might think this village is called Shepton Bo-chom, but while the name does derive from the quote-unquote French family name of the 12th century lords of the manor, it’s pronounced Shepton Beecham, because the Normans didn’t take too long to go native, apparently. (The Shepton part means sheep enclosure)

Like Petherton’s, it was formerly in the grounds of a pub, the New Inn which closed in 1960. Like Petherton’s, it’s built from Ham stone, with a curved top, and balls on finials on each side, although it lacks the central ball that Petherton has. I don’t have any documentary evidence, but it seems likely to me that these were symbolic as well as decorative - a visual signpost that this was a venue for ball sports. Historic England think this one is slightly later, hazarding “late 18th, early 19th” centuries.

While we were here, we took a look at the village church. It seems reasonable to assume that if people bothered to build a wall here, they played the game on the church beforehand, but to my untrained eye, nothing jumped out as potentially proving or disproving fives activity on this church tower. The north elevation looks suitably blank; the south has an inconveniently located statue, but I don’t know how old that is.

Let’s head to the source of all this lovely Ham stone, the aforementioned Ham Hill. Besides the quarries, it has much to make it a fascinating place - the site of an extremely large Iron Age hill fort, it was subsequently used as an encampment by invading Roman forces, and hosts a pub, millennial stone circle and war memorial. All of which is more than enough for a potential future video in its own right, so I’ll avoid the temptation to digress too far, and let’s bring our gaze back down from the war memorial to another fives wall.

Like our previous examples, this one was built in a pub beer garden, although unlike the prior two, this one’s parent pub is still operating as such. This is the Fleur-de-Lys Inn, who were kind enough to let me film in their garden, located in the village of Stoke-sub-Hamdon, which, you will receive absolutely no prizes for guessing at this point, is pretty and historic and built from that gorgeous Ham stone.

The village’s name has always quietly amused me, because “Stoke” basically means “settlement”, and “ham” basically means... “settlement”, and “don” means “hill”, so it basically means settlement-under-the-settlement-on-the-hill.

As for the fives wall, you can see once again it’s pretty similar in design to South Petherton and Shepton Beauchamp’s. In fact, a Country Life article from 7th September, 1961 posited that they were built by the same mason at the same time, on the basis that the stone blocks, balls and finials are all apparently exactly the same size.

Like Petherton’s, it doesn’t appear on the 1840s tithe map, so if it was built at the same time by the same person, there’s reasonable doubt that Historic England’s date of “late 18th or early 19th” is too early, although it could have been replacing an earlier wall.

Perhaps Stoke-sub-Hamdon’s biggest match was when two local men, John Palmer and Frederick Fame, took on two men from Bath in 1855, purportedly the reigning national champions. Grandstands were set up and £60 was taken at the gate, with the local men triumphing. This anecdote gives us some indication of the popularity of fives as a spectator sport and how seriously inter-village competition could be taken.

I mentioned earlier about the rules of the game probably varying from region to region. Most modern variations simply require the ball to be returned before it bounces twice, like tennis or squash, so I assumed most historic variations worked the same way. Here at Stoke, however, there was a six-foot square stone set into the ground twenty paces from the wall which held special significance, although sources seem to differ as to whether players had to stand on this stone, play the ball from the stone to the wall, or from the wall to the stone.

This variant wasn’t unique to Stoke; Martock was also said to have a similar, though smaller stone which was known as the ‘hopping stone’. Although I didn’t see any documentary evidence of South Petherton having one, my chat with its present owners revealed through oral history that it also did. It seems this cluster of Hamstone villages shared a common sporting tradition as well as a common architectural one.

But fives was not restricted to Hamstone country. In the vale of Taunton Deane, Bishop’s Lydeard today is popularly known as the terminus of the West Somerset Railway, but it also boasts an impressive fives wall or tower - older generations often called these constructions “towers” rather than walls, as a nod to the church towers they had replaced. No honey-coloured limestone here; rather, “Red sandstone random rubble and red brick flemish bond”.

In this, it reflects the village church of St Mary, built from red sandstone, and there are church-mimicking buttresses on each side on the playing side, and a central buttress on the back. I assume this one is serving as an actual structural buttress and not a gameplay feature, but I might be wrong.

Yet again it stands outside a pub, this time the Lethbridge Arms. Fives was certainly not unique in making a transition from churches to pubs. Throughout the medieval and early modern period, numerous activities from archery or football to indoor card games, dice games, skittles and gambling oscillated between church and inn or pub as their primary venue, depending on whether secular or church authorities were being more tolerant of them at the time.

Likewise, this similar red brick wall in Combwich, just north of Bridgwater, stands outside the Anchor Inn.

And yet another wall at the back of a pub beer garden can be found at the Poullett Arms in Hinton St George. This one is locally known as the pelota wall, with some stories suggesting it was built by, or at least used by, French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.

The same stories are associated with the court at Cheriton Hill. This too is claimed in some local legends to have been built by or for French prisoners between 1805 and 1815 for the basque game of pelota, although much of the structure, and the barn it’s attached to, appear to date from the previous century.

The shape of the buttress features is also very much in-line with local style, so I personally believe that if Basque visitors or French prisoners were associated with the wall it was more likely as players adopting this existing local venue for their take on handball, not introducing a radical foreign sport and constructing completely novel infrastructure.

This wall, too, used to be situated by a pub, the Windmill Inn.

I keep emphasising this because I believe it underlines that this tradition of fives was a game of the common man. Churches and pubs are two of the only buildings which, by their very definition, were open and welcoming to absolutely everybody, regardless of wealth, social status or occupation. (At least on paper.) They were also two of the only types of buildings that almost every village was guaranteed to have in the first place. So these venues weren’t associated with economic or urban elites, located in manor houses or larger towns and cities only, but with the rural working masses. Agricultural labourers, the sort of people who if you went far back enough you’d probably call peasants.

This ‘common working man’ lineage of fives stands in contrast to what would follow, but before we get onto that, a look at its last hurrah.

Welcome to Millborne Port, which I think is slightly too far from Ham Hill to be made of Ham stone, per se, but is nonetheless an attractively historic creation in a similar local honey-coloured limestone.

To the north of the village's fives courts (yes, courts, plural!), a plaque tells us the basic story: "The Ball Court Built by Sir W.C Medlycotte in the year 1847. It is earnestly hoped that this court which is meant for the health and amusement of the town will be protected from injury"

Sir William Coles Medlycott(e) was the local wealthy landowner. I’m not sure if he was officially counted as a member of the nobility; one of his ancestors appears to have been a baronet and an MP for the town, back when it was a rotten borough, electing two representatives in complete lack of proportion to its size or significance. His grand gesture in donating this facility for the benefit of “his” people was very in keeping with the Victorian zeitgeist of local authorities, industrialists and philanthropists building civic infrastructure to promote public health, education, godliness and so on.

And a very nice facility it is too. The double court is unique in the county, while the buttresses are particularly deep and substantial in comparison to our previous examples, running all the way to the top, and distinctive in projecting at 90 degrees to the main wall.

But in another sense, his investment in public fives courts seems almost to be missing the boat. Within a few decades the sport seems to have - well, not exactly vanished, but largely died out from the everyday life of rural commoners in villages like this, at any rate. At least... I think it did. It’s very difficult to tell.

You see, countless angry church-wardens confirm the ubiquity of fives in Somerset in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the construction of these walls shows it was still thriving up to the mid-19th, but after 1855... I’d seen basically no mention of it in any sources.

I wanted to understand when it died off, so I looked around for a late 19th century survey of sporting pastimes, and was delighted to find there was exactly such a thing. The Badminton Library was a Victorian project to comprehensively cover all sports and games with a series of books written by respective experts, and Volume 14, published in 1890, was entitled Tennis, Lawn Tennis, Rackets & Fives.

The section on fives makes it quite plain that by the end of the 19th century, fives was not being taken entirely seriously as a sport in its own right. The book warns us “there is but little to be told about the game which will interest the general reader”. It was “entirely a game for amateurs”, with nobody making a living from it; no stars with merchandising deals, as seen in other sports (yes, in 1890); and no coverage of matches in newspapers, and so on.

In fact, we are told it was almost exclusively a pastime for “boys” - the only men still playing beyond the age of 25 were probably school masters teaching a new generation of kids, or perhaps athletes in other disciplines using it as a warm-up or casual training exercise. (As for women and girls, there is no suggestion they were invited to the party. I did specifically try to find any reference to female participation in fives, but found neither confirmation that it happened, nor assertion that it definitely did not.)

Nor even are we limited to the world of schoolboys, but only a tiny subset of schoolboys: all discussion of the game is focused on the exclusive world of public schools, and in particular, Eton Fives. This is probably because the author, a chap called A.C.Ainger, was one of the so-called inventors of that game, which is one of three main branches on the public school lineage of the fives family tree. Our vernacular Somerset game would be most closely related to the Warminster School branch, where a court was built in 1787 in the Wessex tradition. A former pupil there, Thomas Arnold, grew up to become headmaster of Rugby School, and soon there was a Rugby Fives variant. (Nothing to do with rugby the sport, confusingly.)

Eton’s game seems to have developed independently. Many sources refer to it being “invented” in 1877, but A.C.Ainger makes it plain that he and his friends that year were only codifying rules from a far older oral tradition. In fact, he tells us that Eton constructed their first purpose-built courts way back in 1840, before which the game had only taken place against the chapel.

In this Eton Fives shares one key similarity with the ‘peasant’ lineage in Somerset, which is that it developed on eclesiastical architecture. In this case, the college chapel rather than a parish church, but the presence and shape of the buttresses was similarly critical. Eton boys referred to one of these obstacles as a ‘pepper box’, and this soon became a key feature in the rules.

Just as in Somerset, when the game outgrew this ‘found’ location, the purpose-built courts adopted the church-style buttresses into their secular sporting architecture. In Eton’s case, the exact dimensions of the ‘pepper box’, as well as the step dividing the court into different levels, were faithfully replicated for each new court fives court built at the school, and even in Eton Fives courts built elsewhere.

Hence the existence of structures like this, facsimile fragments of a chapel built far away and long ago, erected for a completely unrelated purpose: something I find surreal enough when it’s in a random London park, but even more so when you discover the same fragment of English medieval gothic church architecture copy-pasted by the rampantly colonialist Victorian British into places like China, India, and Nigeria, where the sport still thrives.

In fact, I found this sufficiently mind-boggling I had to pay for a stock photo to illustrate it. Do feast your eyes thoroughly, because dividing the cost of the photo by my typical viewing figures, I spent about 11 pence on this for YOU, personally.

This is a court in Katsina, in the north of the country, where fives is probably more popular than anywhere else on earth in the 21st century. The locals here use tennis balls rather than the smaller, harder stitched-leather balls traditionally used in England, but their playing surface is the same: these courts are copies of copies of a slice of English medieval Christian architecture, improbably appearing in this majority Muslim state via a contorted historical chain through imperialism and Eton back to the timeless tradition of transgressively re-appropriating architecture for the purposes of guerilla sport and leisure.

The secretary to the Emir of Katsina told Reuters that “the Emir has a court in the palace and every evening he goes out to play. He still plays to win.” But here it’s not just played by those in palaces; the masses are equally enthusiastic in their participation, if not more so.

This is, of course, in stark contrast to late Victorian England, where fives was now being enjoyed in the most expensive, privileged schools of the elite, but had seemingly evaporated from the lives of farmhands and labourers in the space of just one or two generations, despite having been thriving in Somerset churchyards and pubs for at least two centuries prior.

Or had it? It’s true that A.C. Ainger makes absolutely no mention of ‘vernacular’ fives, played by ordinary men against West Country pubs. But he is, to his credit, quite up-front about the bias in his knowledge to the Eton lineage he grew up with and helped to codify. I considered it entirely possible that fives was still going strong in Somerset villages in 1890, he just didn’t know about it, or care. He would hardly be the first or, dare I say, last Eton type to be painfully ignorant about the everyday life of normal British people. So I hit the library to review some newer historical literature to see what they say about the sport’s decline.

To cut a long story short though, it seems modern academics are equally guilty of overlooking this matter, and I was unable to find a single sentence on the demise of fives. I had a small breakthrough when I met up with the owner of the Petherton wall, and read her archive copy of the Country Life article from December 1965. This turns out to be the original source of the information about Stoke-sub-Hamdon’s “hopping stone”, and crucially, the source is cited: a local blacksmith named Vernon Richards who recalled seeing the game “70 years ago”. Assuming the interview was in 1965, this gives us confirmation the vernacular game was still being played in this area as late as 1895, some 40 years after any other written source I’d previously found.

However, the same article records a 93 year old South Petherton resident who stated she had never seen the game played in lifetime. This suggests the game may have been severely declining by the 1870s, and perhaps the game Vernon Richards saw was a rare exhibition match, a wheeling-out of a tradition that was already considered a relic of history.

To try and resolve this seemingly simple question of when fives died out, I thought it might be better to consider why it died out.

In keeping with my theme in this video, I was tempted to put forth the suggestion that vernacular fives lost an essential part of its appeal when it could no longer be played on church towers. Without the anarchic edge provided by an improvised arena and the frisson of trespass and rule breaking, something of the magic was lost. But in truth I don’t think such a theory holds up at all. The chronology shows that the game survived on dedicated courts for several generations at least, maybe a century or more.

With their beautiful historic architecture so well-preserved, it would be easy for a lazy travel writer to describe these villages as “unchanged” in centuries, but in reality the 19th century saw radical social upheaval. Industrialisation and urbanisation would have enormously eroded rural traditions such as fives, as many young people moved to the cities for factory or clerical work.

Even those who stayed saw no less of a transformation in their leisure time. Direct alternatives to fives such as badminton, lawn tennis and croquet would have seemed more modern and fashionable, and much easier on the hands, thanks to mass-production of sporting accessories like bats and racquets. This same era saw the codification of both rugby football and association football, the latter of which soon came to dominate the popular sporting consciousness.

Furthermore, this is the era of railways, the first mass tourism, the explosion of bicycle use, the upright piano and gramophones, cheap mass-market fiction... the Victorian masses had unprecedented opportunities to travel beyond their village and do things other than the traditional ball games.

Fives, I can only assume, faded away because in this environment it was deemed old fashioned, and preserved only in places like Eton which made a habit of systematising and institutionalising tradition.

Today, there are still active associations for the Rugby and Eton variants of the game, and there are sporadic attempts to broaden its appeal, with projects to introduce Eton Fives, or various other rebranded ‘wallball’ games, to state schools and inner city areas. In the run up to the London 2012 Olympics, there were even some calls to add fives to the Games.

But, truth be told, fives remains pretty obscure, and here in its former stronghold of South Somerset in 2021, it’s definitely moved on from being the top concern of parish notes, to a footnote in the history books, with none of these historic courts seeing any active use for the sport. I surely can’t be alone in finding this slightly sad, even if it does free these charming villages from “swearing, quarrelling and mischief”.

Anyway, that’s all for this video. As always I hope you enjoyed it, and if you did, please subscribe in case I make any more.

As always, thanks to everybody whose work I built on in making this video. The full list of sources and credits is getting far too long to be practical to flash up in an outro, so I’ve set up a website to make it easier to click through them, link in the description.

Huge thanks once again to the past and present members of the South Petherton Local History Group and the owners of the Petherton wall who were so generous in sharing their time and collections of material with me, and also thanks to the owners or staff of the pubs who let me film on their property. Finally special thanks to my parents who enthusiastically joined in with this gallivanting around Somerset filming strange walls in pub car parks. And thanks to you for watching. Cheers