Many of us are familiar with the, probably apocryphal, quote by the Duke of Wellington that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Fewer of us know, though, how many sports were genuinely invented in the grounds of Britain’s public schools.
Rugby School: Rugby
In 1823, William Web Ellis, a pupil at Rugby School in Warwickshire, took it upon himself to flout the rules of Football, picking up the ball and running with it towards the goal. It is said that, in doing so, he invented Rugby Football. To this day, it’s the William Webb Ellis Cup that is presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup.
Web Ellis went on to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he played Cricket – not Rugby – and later took Holy Orders. His legacy thrives at Rugby School, which has supplied two Lions players and 63 international players (including four England captains, two Scottish and one Springbok). The school also owns the earliest pen-and-ink drawing, watercolour and oil painting of a game of Rugby Football.
Harrow School: Squash
The boys at Harrow School created what they first called “Squasher” in around 1830. Using a punctured Rackets ball that “squashed” against the wall when they hit it, they discovered a game of greater pace and variety. It proved so popular that the first four Squash courts were built at Harrow in 1864, and Squash was officially founded as a sport in its own right.
By the time the first book on Squash was written – in 1901, by Eustace Miles, a Tennis and Rackets world champion – the game was enjoyed by thousands of players across the globe. Courts sprang up in schools, universities and houses all over the UK and there was even one provided for first class passengers on RMS Titanic’s lower deck.
Eton College: Eton Fives
First played by boys in 1877 in one of the bays beside College Chapel, Eton Fives has been described as “the best handball game on earth”. It’s a bit like Rackets or Squash, but players hit the ball with their hands, which are protected by leather gloves. It is still played on a three-sided court that has hazards incorporated into it, as the original one did. It is the only one of the games created at Eton to have spread beyond the school.
It is now enjoyed throughout the UK – and, bizarrely, in Nigeria, Australia and India. Several (state and private) schools, universities and clubs boast Eton Fives courts – but the only private one still in use is believed to be at a private house in Kent. The game may yet seep further into the mainstream as a proper public Eton Fives court was opened a few years ago at The Westway Sports Centre in London.