Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sports & Games - 1601-19C Skittles & Rackets & Fives at Prison

The raquet ground of the Fleet Prison as drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11) Prisoners playing Fives and Skittles, and socializing. Those imprisoned here were found guilty of debt or contempt of court. Aquatint View of the inner court of the prison, with the prisoners playing rackets and skittles on the left, others standing watching, a number of men smoking pipes, others lounging across benches. 1807 The Fleet Prison stood on the eastern bank of the Fleet River, just outside the city walls. The prison burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, but rebuilt much as before, consisting of several long buildings (with 4 upper stories and a cellar) arranged around yards in which better-off prisoners could play rackets or skittles.

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 in London, the King's Bench and the Fleet. Fleet Prison was mainly a debtors’ prison. William Penn was held there in 1707-1709 for debt. However, the prison also held political and religious prisoners. In 1601, the poet John Donne was imprisoned in it for marrying a woman without her father’s consent. Gentlemen, imprisoned until they could find the wherewithal to repay 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 brought tennis rackets with them and improvised against any convenient wall, sometimes with no side walls and always without a back wall. Spectators as well as prison visitors often came to watch matches in the prisons.

Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, 3 people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed.”  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners! 

Fleet was a profit-making enterprise. Nothing was free in prison. Food and lodging had to be paid for by the prisoner. There were fees for turning keys, fees for putting on of irons and fees for taking them off again. Even visitors had to pay fees. And the Fleet had the highest fees in the country. Prisoners with a trade such as tailoring might continue to work and earn while in captivity, but many others were reduced to begging. While the poorest prisoners languished in the cellar dungeons (known as Bartholomew Fair), those able to afford it could be lodged in large comfortable quarters on the Master's Side. The Fleet Prison management also supplemented its income by the provision of a prison tap room and coffee-room which were open to the public. The rackets court was also open to the public.

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus: To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell

See: The History of Rackets