James Zug is a senior writer at Squash Magazine and is the author of Squash: A History of the Game, published by Scribner in September 2003.
I – FIRST THERE WAS REAL TENNIS …
The origins of squash are in the ancient game of real tennis. In the twelfth century in France boys and girls played ball games in the narrow streets of their villages. They slapped balls along the awnings or roofs that lined the street or into shop and door openings. Rules depended on local geography. In time these street games migrated up to cloistered monasteries. Every Lenten season young brothers strung a fishing net across the middle of their courtyards and patted a ball back and forth with their gloved hands. The balls – a patch of leather with dog hair sewn inside, later cloth stuffed with soil, sawdust, sand or moss-bruised and cut hands. Monks added webbing to the gloves and then extended their hand by picking up a stumpy stick, a branch of a tree, a shepherd’s crook. At the end of the fifteenth century the Dutch invented the racquet.
The game was called tennis and it became the national sport of a dozen European nations. In 1580 the Venetian ambassador to Henri III of France walked around Paris counting tennis courts: he stopped at eighteen hundred. Gambling and violence sadly became the norm (Caravaggio, the Italian painter, killed a man at a tennis court in Rome in 1606) and tennis slowly retreated to royal palaces. Lawn tennis, as played by Hewitt and the Williams sisters, was invented in 1873 in Great Britain as an outdoor version of real tennis.
Tennis begat rackets. In the early eighteenth century, prisoners at the Fleet, London’s notorious debtor’s gaol, created an outdoor version of tennis. It was called rackets, and it involved no more than smacking a ball against one or two walls. The ball, unsqueezable, was made from wound cloth and was similar to a golf ball; the racket was a stretched tennis bat. Soon rackets spread across Great Britain and was a common pastime as workingmen played in tavern yards and alleys and schoolboys played outside their classrooms.
Britons started building rackets courts, as opposed to just playing in a convenient corner. These courts were unadorned affairs, roofless, rustic, usually just one or two stone walls and a paving stone floor. Inclement weather drove players toward a court with a roof. In 1830 the Royal Artillery built the first known covered racket court at their Woolwich depot. The Marylebone Cricket Club, the home of cricket, built one in 1844 next to their tennis court at Lords, and in 1853 Prince’s Club opened its historic doors with seven covered rackets courts. Rackets spread to the colonies. The first covered rackets court in Canada was put in Halifax in the seventeen-seventies; in India in 1821; Australia in 1847. In 1793 Robert Knox, a Scot, put up the first covered court in America on Allen Street, between Hester and Canal, in lower Manhattan. A few years later the Allen Street court had a nearby rival that was called, due to the predominant profession of its membership, the Butcher’s Court.
History By James Zug