Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sports & Games - 18-19C Skittles & Rackets in Britain both in & out of Prison

Debtors Playing Rackets at the Fleet Prison in 1827

A Brief History of Rackets

In its earliest form during the 18C, rackets was played in the open on the walls of the yards of the 2 main debtor's prisons, King's Bench &  Fleet. Gentlemen, imprisoned by their creditors, amused themselves with many different activities around the prison yard. These included skittles, fives, which was played both with the hand and a bat, and some debtors brought tennis rackets with them and improvised against any convenient wall, sometimes with no side walls and usually without a back wall.
"The Humours of the Fleet: An humorous, descriptive Poem. Written by a Gentleman of the College," & "London: Printed for B. Dickinson, the Corner of the Bell-Savage Inn, on Ludgate-Hill. 1749. The design represents the "yard" of the Fleet, with 2 prisoners playing at racket against the high wall, and several men looking idly at the game...Below the design the following verses are engraved : "Welcome Welcome Brother Debtor To this poor but merry place..." 

There is mention of rackets at the Fleet in the poem The Humours of The Fleet in 1749 and in John Howard's report on the state of prisons in England and Wales published in 1780. It is not until the early 1800s that rackets becomes part of life outside the prisons. In his Book of Sports and Mirror of Life published by Pierce Egan in 1832, there is a long description of rackets mentioning several open rackets courts other than the King's Bench and the Fleet. One of these was at the Belvedere Tavern, Pentonville, where most of the Open Court Championships were played. Others were to be found elsewhere in London, again at public houses, at the Eagle Tavern on the City Road, The White Bear Kennington, the White Conduit House, and the Rosemary Branch, Peckham.

There are records of courts at Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and Belfast. Egan states that if a gentleman sought a game at a tavern he would have to mix with those not of the highest rank in society. Implicit in this observation is that the debtors prison may have had a higher class of player (in both meanings of the word), and mention is made of a Major Campbell who was the best player in the King's Bench through having been incarcerated there for 14 years. 

Spectators as well as prison visitors often came to watch matches in the prisons. Dickens mentions rackets in the Pickwick Papers, as Mr Pickwick had the misfortune to be incarcerated in the Fleet. From Dickens' description the Fleet court appears to have had a front wall and one sidewall. In 1814, there were 4 courts at the King's Bench and six racket masters to look after them. Early courts outside the prisons had a front wall only, about 40 feet wide and 45 ft high.

Outside prisons and taverns, Harrow was the 1st school at which rackets was played, probably from the early 1820s, when the schoolyard was enlarged. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities had courts by 1855, the date of the first Varsity match. There were courts built at Torquay in 1859 and the first covered court at Harrow school, built in 1865 is still in use today. Devonshire Park at Eastbourne included a rackets court built in 1870, as part of its general recreational facilities. Between 1870 and 1890, courts were built at the new Princes Club, Manchester, Liverpool; and in 1888, the courts at The Queen's Club were opened.

Sources: Book of Racquets J.R. Atkins. The Badminton Library. The Lonsdale Library. British Sports and Sportsmen. Willis Faber Book of Tennis and Rackets Lord Aberdare. The Queens Club Story Roy McKelvie