The game of fives became a popular sport in South Somerset from the mid-18th C. There are churchwarden accounts that record the problem of fives being played against church towers. One way around this was to construct purpose-built fives walls. These were mainly built in the yards of inns.
Fives is a game that uses the hand (gloved or bare) in which players hit the ball against a wall. The formalised game became the two types – Eton Fives and Rugby Fives. The Eton court was originally the chapel-wall, using the buttresses as side walls in the game. Rugby Fives is less complicated than Eton, using a simpler form of court.[i] It occurs to me that fives gloves may have been produced by the Yeovil gloving industry.
In 1840 the first block of purpose-built courts (four of them) were constructed at Eton. They were based on the ‘chapel court’. Over the next 20 years courts were built at Highgate, Westminster, Charterhouse, and Harrow. They were built at Cambridge colleges and country houses across England in the latter half of the 19th C. There was no standard design or measurement, and the courts vary.[ii]
However, in South Somerset, the game of fives, was being played in the 18th C. Edward Phelips V (1725-1797) of Montacute House wrote in his autobiography ‘A Short Sketch of Anecdotes in My Life’[iii]:
“In the course of the summer 1771 was instituted on alternate fortnights meeting of gentlemen to bowl & to play fives which was very social & agreeable whilst it lasted. One Tuesday at Montacute & the Tuesday fortnight at Mountpleasant.”
In his diary of 1784, he records[iv]:
Monday, 19th July 1784. ‘…afternoon at Fives. Place rather wettish’
Monday, 2nd August 1784 ‘Morn haymaking. At dinner five: Mr Burchalls, Mrs W. Phelips, Charles, and William. Even at fives & at Mr. Langdon’s …’
Friday, 2nd June 1784 – ‘…afternoon to the fives place to see a match of Mr. Langdon’s, Bill Cleeves, Bishop & C: very good play.‘
(I am presuming that ‘Bishop’ was the name of a person and not the Bishop of Bath & Wells!).
Where were was the fives court at Montacute? It appears there was no purpose-built court present in the grounds of the house. There certainly was a bowling green. Samuel Donne’s map of 1782 was based on a 1774 survey and shows the bowling green to the east of the north garden at Montacute house. There is a curiously named area called ‘Boys Court’ lying to the north west of the house, which may have some link to games but there is no evidence I can find (as yet).
However, the south face of the church tower of St. Catherine’s in the village had been adapted as a fives court. Given that there are no complaints in the records from the church warden or vicar, it may be assumed that the then curate William Langdon and the vicar, Henry Rawlins were complicit in allowing fives there, and possibly taking part in the game. Certainly Mr. Langdon is recorded in Edward Phelips’s diary as taking part.
Henry Rawlins with the vicar of Montacute from 1781. From 1790 William Langdon was vicar. However, from 28th of March, 1773 ‘Mr. Langdon first served the Cure of Montacute Church’[v]. Edward Phelips had a long-standing friendship with Mr. Langdon, with whom he went foxhunting also. He also mentions in his diaries Mr. Langdon’s frequent appearance for dinner or supper at Montacute.
Edward Phelips was educated at Sherborne School, Westminster School, Christchurch College at Oxford, and Lincoln’s Inn.[vi] Presumably along the way he must have encountered the game of fives, although the purpose-built courts were later additions to schools and colleges.
STOKE-SUB-HAMDON FIVES WALL
In the neighbouring parish of Stoke-sub-Hamdon, is a purpose-built fives wall behind the Fleur de Lis pub. The pub is within a couple of miles of Montacute House. The village appears to have active clubs and societies by the beginning of the 19th C. The Ham Hill Cricket Club transferred from Hinton St. George in 1832 to Stoke. The Stoke Friendly society, based at the Fleur de Lis and a female friend society, were both registered in 1812[vii].
The building of the Fleur de Lis has been altered but has origins in the 15th C. The principal entrance was the doorway to the cross passage. The other doorway on the front was at the rear of the cross passage originally[viii]. The building was under construction as the Church House in 1544 and remained so until the late 18th C, when it became the Fleur de Lis Inn[ix].
The late 18th C fives wall at the Fleur de Lis has angled corner stepped buttresses, shaped parapet and ball finials. Constructed of Ham hill stone ashlar. Approximately 8 metres (26 feet) high[x].
Possibly the fives wall was built in the late 18th C when the Church House changed to become the Fleur de Lis Inn.
SHEPTON BEAUCHAMP FIVES WALL
The fives wall at Shepton Beauchamp lies to the west of the main street through the village. It is incorporated into a wall line. The north face is ashlar, and the south face is squared rubble. Presumably the game was played against the north face. The parish council repaired the wall in 1985. Dates from late 18th C or early 19th C[xi].
The parapet is a rounded arch with coping and ball finials. The position was in a former pub yard, as at Stoke-sub-Hamdon[xii].
SOUTH PETHERTON FIVES WALL
Ham stone rubble with ashlar face and dressings. The wall is about 8 metres high (26 ft) and 5 metres (16.4 ft) wide. It is stepped on the rear side (the photos show the rear face) to give some support to the free-standing wall. The inscription doesn’t read to anything meaningful – perhaps initials of those who contributed to its construction? Rounded arched and coped parapet and ball finials like at Shepton Beauchamp. However, an extra ball finial has been placed at the top of the parapet. Historic England put it as late 18th C. It was in the yard of the Crown Hotel, which has been built on in the late 20th C and is now in a front garden of the bungalow[xiii].
HINTON ST. GEORGE FIVES (or PELOTA) WALL
Another fives wall in the yard of an Inn is that at Hinton St. George. It is at the rear end of the garden of The Lord Poulett Arms in the centre of the village. It stands at about 7 metres (23 feet) high and not as wide as the other walls described about. They were around 5 metres (16.4 feet) wide, the Hinton one being around 4 metres (13 feet). The angular parapet is much plainer with no finials. It has a local name of the ‘Pelota Wall’. Hand-pelota is similar game to fives. The date is circa late 18th C or early 19th C[xiv].
MARTOCK CHURCH TOWER
At All Saints’ Church in Martock, it is known that both the north and south faces of the tower were used the game of fives in the 18th C. Churchwardens’ accounts provide the evidence. The adjacent windows appear to have no evidence of wooden shutters to protect them (which happened at other churches)[xv].
There is a similar drilled area on the north side of the tower, again perhaps for scoring.
Fives playing against the tower seems to have been a significant problem for the churchwardens. In 1740 the accounts report an action to dig up the fives place. In 1754 there a report to action against people going up on the roof and prevent fives being played on the south side. This perhaps was what drove the players to the north side.[xvi]
“Martock June 7, 1758. Whereas notice being given on Sunday last the Parishioners were desired to meet at this time in the Vestry room to consider of the more 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, quarreling, and fighting in the Churchyard and so forth. We therefore being met in the Vestry considering what is above written and the 88 Canon do order and allow that whereas a man has had his skull fractured by a stone falling on his head by another climbing up into the leads for a ball, that 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.
Tho. Bowyer Vicar.
From looking at the fives walls, it could be that the wall at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was the earliest (late 18th C). The Fleur de Lis Inn being in the position where there likely to be a high number of quarry men/masons at Ham hill quarries, the wall could have been easily designed and constructed. However, the Stoke-sub-Hamdon team would then need other teams to play against and their wall spawned the other walls shown above. By this reasoning they could all be constructions (if not just by design) of the late-18th C. Who paid for these walls is another puzzle for investigation. The Fleur de Lis became an inn in the late 18th C[xviii], and it could be assumed the wall was built at the same time to attract customers from around the area. From the Martock church records, Fives was being played at least from 1740.
Fives is one of those sports, like cricket, that crosses class boundaries. It was being played by the gentry and the locals. Whether they mixed their teams and played each other is another question for further research.
ADDENDUM – further Fives Courts in Somerset
The Fives Court at King’s School Bruton
Behind the Old School in Bruton (original King’s School) on the south side of the River Brue is a fives court. The archivist believes it dates from c. 1840.
[i] Hugh Chisholm, ed., ‘Fives’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 10 (11th ed.), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), p. 450. <https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclopædia_Britannica/Fives> [accessed 9 December 2022].
[ii] ‘A Brief History of Eton Fives’, Eton Fives Association, <https://www.etonfives.com/the-game/a-brief-history-of-eton-fives>[accessed 9 December 2022].
[iii] S.R.O., ‘Autobiography of Edward Phelips (1725-97). c1794’, Phelips Manuscripts, DD/PH/224/114.
[iv] S.R.O., ‘Diary of Edward Phelips of Montacute House, MP. 1784’, Phelips Manuscripts, A/EOH/1.
[v] S.R.O., ‘Autobiography of Edward Phelips (1725-97). c1794’.
[vi] S.R.O., ‘Autobiography of Edward Phelips (1725-97). c1794’.
[vii] A P Baggs, R J E Bush and Margaret Tomlinson, ‘Parishes: Stoke sub Hamdon’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 3, ed. R W Dunning (London, 1974), pp. 235-249. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol3/pp235-249[accessed 19 December 2022].
[viii] A P Baggs, R J E Bush and Margaret Tomlinson, ‘Parishes: Stoke sub Hamdon’.
[ix] ‘Fleur-de-lis Hotel, West Street’, Historic England List Entry 1116988, (1961), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1116988?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 12 December 2022].
[x] ‘Fives court wall, about 34 metres south of Fleur-de-lis Hotel’, Historic England List Entry 1116942, (1961), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1116942?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 12 December 2022].
[xi] ‘Fives court wall on Roadside at NGR ST 4034 1688’, Historic England List Entry 1264141, (1958), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1264141?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 12 December 2022].
[xii] Julian Orbach, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 556.
[xiii] ‘Fives court wall, Crown Lane’, Historic England List Entry 1345903, (1961), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1345903?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 12 December 2022].
[xiv] ‘Fives court wall, about 10 metres north of the Poulett Arms Inn’, Historic England List Entry 1056127, (1958), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1056127?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 12 December 2022].
[xv] Jerry Sampson, ‘Fives in Martock’, Martock Local History Club, <http://www.martockhistory.co.uk/research/fives.php> [accessed 10 December 2022].
[xvi] Jerry Sampson, ‘Fives in Martock’, Martock Local History Club.
[xvii] ‘Fives Playing Against Church Towers’, Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries vol. xvii, p. 75-6 (Published material from [Prebendary] G.W. Saunders), < http://www.martockhistory.co.uk/research/fives.php> [accessed 12 December 2022].
[xviii] ‘Fleur-de-lis Hotel, West Street’, Historic England List Entry 1116988.