The Game of Fives

First published in Local Reach

Fives was, as the name suggests a game for 5 people, originally using hands and later bats or racquets.  Much like squash it involved hitting a ball against a wall.

Originally the game was played against church walls but during the eighteenth century there were attempts by the church authorities to prevent this, not least because of the damage it caused to the fabric of the buildings and the cost of replacing windows! Various methods were used including erecting railings or fences to prevent access, digging up the area and in this 1763 example at Ashwick, the churchyard cross was moved “to the Vifes place… to prevent the Young People from spending so much idle time in that sort of exercise”.

So successful were the church authorities in preventing the playing of fives that a number of secular fives walls were built, often in the grounds of inns.  The remains of several of these in Somerset are still extant.  

This illustration above is an 1808 copy of a painting of 1757 by Alfred Bennett showing a fives court in Axbridge where yellow clay appears to have been used to make a solid floor upon which to play.  The court is next to “Mrs Gallop’s cottage,” which is thought to have been used as a school.  Mr Gallop, seen here with a telescope, was said to have been fond of spying on his neighbours.  Sadly, both the cottage and the fives walls have long since disappeared.

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