150 Years of Fives at Harrow

Graham Dunbar reports:

18/09/17: For those with a sense of the history of games at Harrow, Saturday 16 September was a landmark: 150 years of Eton fives at the School.

The first Eton courts were built with the ‘old’ rackets court and four rugby fives courts in 1865, under the outward-looking headmastership of Montagu Butler, but in those days there were no inter-school matches; all play was internal and so the precise dimensions of the courts were not considered important. The rackets court (soon to be upgraded) is significantly wider and longer than standard and the original Eton fives courts were described as the creation of a builder who dreamt about fives courts and woke up to “create his nightmare in bricks and mortar”. They were knocked down and re-built.

As we walked along the alley to the courts, traces of the old Rugby courts are still visible. The top six Eton courts were built in 1889-90 but have been substantially up-graded in the intervening years.

A spectacular addition is the newly created panels: an honours board featuring all Harrow’s champions – most notably Tom Dunbar, winner and holder of the Kinnaird Cup for a record 13 times - and The History of Eton Fives at Harrow. The history panel, written by Dale Vargas and beautifully designed by Charles Marsden-Smedley, is displayed on the wall facing the courts.

The day was an ‘open day’ for fives with former players of all generations, some with their families, dropping in to play or watch. The senior Old Harrovian present was Keith Hindell, who began at the School in 1947, later a half-blue at Oxford. Hugh Siddons had travelled from Ottawa and Scott Martin, captain of fives in 1982, from Colorado. Informal games were played in the morning, some of the participants rediscovering skills and muscles they had not activated for many years. Fives coach, Ian Hutchinson, after a quick assessment of facial complexion, colour of hair (if any) and extent of waistline, organised the players into fours, the most vulnerable being assigned to courts near water and first-aid equipment.

After a sandwich lunch at the courts, the boys arrived and afternoon play took on a more serious hue. The Chairman of the Governors, John Batting, captain of School fives in 1977 and later captain of Cambridge, playing with Nick Hewens, a Schools Championships finalist in 1977, rolled back the years with some excellent play: shorter in wind maybe, but not noticeably feeble of foot or rheumatic of shoulder.

The most impressive performance was that of Hamish Duncan and Nick Shaw, two former Schools’ Championships winners, who were more than a match for the School first pair.

Mercifully there were no serious injuries: just Omar Dajani suffering a badly bruised hand from over-zealous cutting after a thirty-year lay-off. Edward Buxtion , who seemed to have played more or less continuously from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., was approaching the amber light area but walked off apparently unaffected.

After play, several of the players went for a drink with Graham and Teresa Dunbar to meet the still sprightly 91-year-old John Leaf, another who had played fives for the School and for Cambridge, and had been Master-in-Charge of Harrow fives in the 1950s.

In the evening the Head Master presided over a convivial dinner in the Shepherd Churchill Room. Graham Dunbar, who had arranged the day, spoke of the fun we have all had playing this great game and the friendships made. Dale Vargas followed with an impeccably researched and highly amusing speech and proposed a toast to Eton fives.

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