History of the Game
In its earliest form during the 18th Century, rackets was played in the open on the walls of the yards of the two main debtor’s prisons, the King’s Bench and the Fleet. 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 (as at Westminster School), and some brought tennis rackets with them and improvised against any convenient wall, sometimes with no side walls and always without a back wall.
There is mention of rackets at the Fleet in a poem of 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 further 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 fourteen 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 similar to a Jai Alai fronton. In 1814 there were four 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 first school at which rackets was played, probably from the early 1820s when the schoolyard was enlarged. When the first Lawn Tennis Championships were played at Wimbledon later in the century, Old Harrovian rackets player Spencer Gore would win the singles.
In the middle of the 19th Century, rackets played in covered courts began to predominate. The MCC built a court in 1844 next to the old tennis court, and the old Princes Club opened in 1853 with several courts as well as two tennis courts. The main competition court at Princes set the standard dimensions for most closed courts built from then up to the present day, being 60′ long by 30′ wide. Before this on the open courts, doubles was played on a court of 80′ x 40′ with two players playing up at the front of the court and two at the back.
Furthermore, and again about the middle of the 19th century, the growing popularity of the indoor game caused rackets at the open courts attached to public houses to fall into desuetude. Rackets increasingly developed as a game for the wealthy. Although Lord West built a court at Buckhurst Park in Sussex in the 1850s and The Earl of Eglinton and Winton built one at Eglinton Castle, his home in Scotland, rackets did not take off as a private country house game to the same extent as tennis did later in the century.
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.
Racquets in North America
The Early Years
Rackets was introduced to the North American continent by the British Army and, therefore, took its most notable hold in Canada, the colony gained through victory over the French. Following the loss of the American colonies, the need to fortify the southern border of Canada took on added importance. There is some record of Rackets in the eighteenth century, but when the British army bolstered its forts and garrisons during and following the War of 1812, the opportunity for games of all sorts, including Rackets, flourished.
According to Chris Mark's Rackets in Canada and the Montreal Racket Club, courts were constructed in several locales, including Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal. The courts in the two former cities fell into disuse by the early twentieth century, but since the courts in Montreal had greater access for local citizens, the game and particularly what became the Montreal Racket Club established strong and enduring roots.
In the rebellious colonies to the south, Rackets was first played in New York. Lord Aberdare reports that James Knox, who learned the game in Halifax where he sought refuge from the Revolution, built an open air court around the turn of the century on Allen Street. Several other courts were built over the next half century, including the first covered court in New York in 1854. All play ceased between 1868 and 1876, when the first clubhouse for what was to become the Racquet and Tennis Club was built.
Over the next fifty-five years, courts were built in several US cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Tuxedo Park. Two private courts were also built, including the Georgian Court by George Gould in Lakewood, New Jersey. St. Paul's School built a wooden Rackets court in 1882. The last court built was in a new building for the University Club of Detroit in 1931.
The game was active through the 1920's as great professionals came to North America to teach and play the game - name like Harry Boakes and his son, Harry, Jr., George Standing, Charles Williams and Jock Soutar. Fred Foulkes was an American born professional who lost in 1867 to William Gray of the World Championship.
Amateurs who rose to great stature included the Canadian player, F.F. Rolland, and Clarence C. Pell and Stanley G. Mortimer, both of whom dominated the play in North America for 20 years until the 1930's. The next great American player, Bobby Grant III, bridged the gap from the Depression through the war years and into the 1950's. That is when several North American players decided it was time to resurrect and invigorate our great game.
A North American Racquets Association
On March 14, 1956, Charles L. "Chuck" Kendrick of Detroit wrote to Clarry Pell (C.C. Pell Jr.) in New York:
"At a dinner in Chicago the boys departed from the usual custom of story telling and got real serious about the matter of developing new racquets players to carry on.
I thought this was rather appropriate in view of the fact that Chicago now boasts three of the eleven courts in North America and it is also home of the world's champion.
The windup of the whole matter was that Babe Pearson, Geoff Atkins and myself as the three youngsters in the league were chosen as a committee to try to work up some ideas that might prove helpful to all the clubs that now have racquets courts..."
Thus was the official effort undertaken to form a body dedicated to preserving and promoting the game of Rackets in North America. Two days earlier, Chuck Kendrick had written to Charles "Babe" Pearson and Geoffrey Atkins soliciting their input as members of the committee, noting:
"Beginners at racquets fall into two classes: some of them find the game much more difficult than squash to learn that, lacking urging on the part of older players, they drop out after a few attempts in the court. Others find the game a great challenge to them purely because it is more difficult and they are generally the ones who become dedicated to the sport.
Most of us have been too selfish to follow through properly with new prospects. What time we have to spend on the court we prefer to spend on our cronies (particularly better players) where we can get much fun and activity. If we are going to revitalize this wonderful game, however, we must quit being selfish and carry through with new prospects until they are being invited to play with other better players and not simply get them started and then ignore them...
...At Chicago, I thought I detected a feeling on the part of most of the boys that a North American Racquets Association should be formed. I have always opposed organizing the game in such a fashion but now I'm not so sure that it wouldn't be a good idea."
A subsequent letter from Geoffrey Atkins indicated that Rackets was in a "feeble condition," and the people who loved the game wanted to do some thing to preserve it, first, and then extend it to new players who would be supported in learning the game and thus go on to enjoy its incredible allure.
In 1957, at the first tournament of the year, the Western Singles and Doubles in Chicago, an avid group of Rackets players, did what they had committed to do: form an organization dedicated to the sport of Rackets in North America. William Wood Prince was named the North American Racquets Association's first President, with Geoffrey Atkins as Vice President, Hugh Loud of Detroit as Treasurer and Kenneth Wagg of New York as Secretary.
The Names of the original Board - Atkins, Coulter, de Rham, Ewald, Frank, Humphrey, Hoverston, Kendrick, Loud, Loud, Lynch, McSweeney, Pell, Rolland, Wagg, Wood Prince - all speak to the foundations of NARA and Rackets: great fun and a love of the game.