Red-letter day for Eton Fives and for Dover College

Paul Bowden and Dale Vargas report:

22/06/18: Thursday 21st June 2018 marked not only the Summer Solstice but also the re-opening of the first of the two Eton Fives courts at Dover College more than 40 years after they were last used for their intended purpose.

They had meanwhile served as workshops and storage rooms for the maintenance and ground staff.

Representing the EFA and EFCT to celebrate this event were Richard Barber, Richard Black, Dale and Krystyna Vargas, John Reynolds, Howard Wiseman, Alex Knight and Paul Bowden.

The enthusiasm of the Chairman of the Governors, Michael Goodridge, the Headmaster, Gareth Doodes and the Director of Sport, Tom Butt, as well as the young players new to the game was much in evidence. The fives courts are set on the edge of the Close just inside the flint walls of the former Priory on which the College is built. On a glorious summer day in this beautiful setting, the Headmaster warmly welcomed everyone. The Chairman of the Governors then added his welcome, saying that this was a red-letter day for Dover College.

The Chairman said that the courts had been built in 1865 by the second Headmaster of the College, The Rev William Compton, who had arrived three years earlier. He then explained that although the courts had been in use when he was a pupil at the school in the 1960s, he had not himself played in them. The game had lost popularity and the courts had been converted to other uses shortly after his departure.

He went on to say that he was delighted that the first court had been returned to its intended purpose and thanked the Trust for the financial assistance that had made the restoration possible. He gave an assurance that the second court would follow just as soon as arrangements could be made. He said that the courts would be named the Compton courts.

Dale Vargas replied on behalf of the EFA and the EFCT, which had given expert advice and financial support to the project.

He said that it was indeed a red-letter day: for Eton fives as much as for Dover College. The return of the game to Dover after almost fifty years in the wilderness was an event to be celebrated . He felt inclined to extend the biblical reference to the return of the prodigal son or the lost sheep that was found - but he would leave the chaplain to expand that theme.

“It would not”, he said, “ be the first time that a chaplain had used fives as an allegory: one school chaplain had threatened to wash the then-president’s feet on Maundy Thursday, when he had used EF as an example of ‘service’. Only in Eton fives of all games is the service actually performed to the requirement of the opposition rather than to win a point. It underlines the chivalrous code of behaviour that runs through the game.”

“Eton fives has returned to Dover”, Dale continued, “largely on the initiative of Tom Butt who had not heard of the game before being appointed to the Lyceum Alpinum at Zuoz, where he learned the game. On arriving as Director of Sport at Dover, he immediately spotted a building that housed Eton fives courts. With the blessing of the Headmaster, he began the business of getting them returned to their proper usage.

“There is a strange echo about this. When Gordon Spencer was appointed to teach English at the Lyceum in 1924, he naturally thought that they should play cricket - although they were few flat pieces of ground and little grass - and Eton fives, although there is so much snow there in the winter that roofs would not withstand its weight.

However he went ahead and ever year during the 1920s and 30s he would bring a team to the UK to tour the schools of the south of England. The fixture lists show that his first call - straight off the ferry - was, of course, Dover College. So there is an intriguing reprise of history here.

“The other interesting piece of history concerns the courts. There is an unusual feature about these courts: it is the cubby-hole in the back of the buttress, used for keeping gloves and balls. I have only seen this once before and that is in the House courts of Brooklands, Uppingham. I have done a little research and discovered that The Rev William Compton was indeed House Master of Brooklands before coming to Dover and so the provenance of these courts goes back to Uppingham and to the famous Edward Thring, its first Headmaster, who built their courts and who had first played the game on the original court outside the Eton College Chapel before 1840.”

He finished by thanking the Headmaster and Chairman for their warm welcome and their hospitality and promised the help of the EFA and EFCT in providing coaching and further support for the reclamation of the second court.

Michael Goodridge then unveiled the plaque at the back of the courts:

The Compton Courts

First opened by the
Revd William Compton, Headmaster, in 1896

Restored and re-opened by
Michael Goodridge MBE, Chairman of Governors
21 June 2018

With grateful thanks to the
Eton Fives Association and the Eton Fives Charitable Trust

GE Doodes, Headmaster
TJ Butt, Director of Sport

The real treat was then to see four Year 7 pupils, who had almost certainly never even heard of Eton fives a few weeks ago playing with huge enjoyment and no little skill. When asked what they liked about the game, they unanimously said that it was ‘fun’!

Our wonderful day at Dover College concluded with lunch in the amazing 12th century Refectory, the oldest room in the country which is still being used for its original purpose, after which all present signed a copy of A History of Eton Fives to commemorate the day. Paul Bowden presented Tom Butt with six new pairs of fives gloves to send them on their way.

We await with eager anticipation the re-opening of the second court in the not too distant future.

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