‘The Cause of Much Wickedness, Swearing and Quarreling……..’ This comment appeared in the Vestry minutes for the small town of Martock in Somerset dated 7 June 1758. It was a reference to a game played by the local youth, one which was to become popular over most of the county for a century. The game was ‘fives’, a sort of outdoor squash, but nowadays virtually forgotten except at a few elite educational establishments.
Simple outdoor ball games had been around for hundreds of years, despite Edward III trying to ban them in 1327. A hundred years later the inhabitants of Williton were being censured for playing ‘tenez’ against the walls of the church and by the early 18th century, dozens of church walls were being misused for the ‘fives’ game in which two players, or teams, struck a ball against a wall and tried to deal with its return.
While church walls might have been ideal for playing fives, the incumbents and churchwardens did not see it as proper and the mounting tally of broken windows and other damage reinforced this view. Often a ball got lost on the church roof and enterprising young men soon cut footholds in the buttresses to get it back. One got his skull broken by a fallen tile.
The churches retaliated. Following the Vestry minute at Martock in 1758, action was taken ‘to dig a ditch across ye fives place’, which cost the coffers 3s 6d. When quatrefoils were cut away to improve the fives playing surface at Montacute, the vicar had the village cross moved to the playing area and that put a stop to that.
Unsurprisingly, the church retaliation did not stop the enthusiasm for ‘fives’ for enterprising inn keepers began to provide purpose-built walls, mostly of stone, all tall and impressive, and some provided with finials and other decorations. There are fine examples in the pub grounds at Hinton-St-George and Stoke-sub-Hamdon. In one notable game at the former, one player hit a ball that bounced back from the wall and right over the pub at the other end of the gardens. At least two schools in Somerset had walls. However, as more sophisticated pastimes took over the enthusiasm for fives waned, leaving just the walls behind as a reminder that it was once highly popular and frequently controversial.
Geoffrey Body has a great interest in the local history of Somerset and its people. As well as local history, Geoff has a passion for railway history. He lives in Weston-super-Mare.contains many more strange stories of mysteries, crimes and eccentrics. His book The A-Z of Curious Somerset is available to buy now.