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Tradition and Tenacity Keep the Game of Fives Alive at Repton School Over the Centuries

Football, rugby, cricket, and…fives? While the latter may not be a familiar sport to the world at large, the game of fives is near and dear to the heart and history of Repton School. This does not come as a surprise to people familiar with the School’s appreciation for tradition and athletics, as fives embodies both in novel ways.

A report of Rev. George Messiter, a Repton School Master from 1846-1874, at play embodies the thrill of the game of fives: “Two or three times a week…enjoying himself to the full, bounding about the court, shouting with excitement, and delivering his celebrated left-hand drives which came with a jerk, apparently from his left hip.” Whether a 19th century teacher resplendent in his top hat or the boys and girls of today in the latest athletic gear, fives continues to capture the competitive spirit of the Repton School community.

A Brief Introduction to the Game of Fives

To envision how Repton students past and present engaged in the game of fives, it’s important to paint a picture of the sport for modern readers. Fives is most easily compared to traditional handball played on a three-walled court. Played in pairs, two teams go against one another to keep the hard, rubber and cork ball in volley with a set of rules for boundaries, number of bounces, and eligible return shots.

Play starts when the player holding serve throws the ball against the walls so that it comes down with a bounce mid-court. The players then take turns batting the ball with a limited number of shots, touches, and rebounds. Points are awarded based on who last did, or didn’t, touch the ball as it goes out of bounds.

The game’s appeal comes from the fast pace of play and the dexterity required for both handwork and footwork. The fives court is rather small in in comparison to modern courts for tennis or racquetball, requiring all four players to move efficiently around each other without colliding. One of Repton School’s most well-known alumni, author Roald Dahl, played the game of fives as a student and relished the experience: “It was a game without physical contact, and the quickness of the eye and the dancing of the feet were all that mattered.”

Fives as a Foundation for Sports at Repton School

The game of fives has been part of the culture of Repton School for over 175 years, in line with the sport’s rise in the late 1800s. In its early years, the rules for fives evolved quite a bit, leaving room for interpretation and development of different court shapes and gameplay. Among these were Eton Fives, Rugby Fives, and Winchester Fives, each taking the name of the school or area where they gained popularity.

Early on, the students at Repton School adopted a form of fives unique to the school. Headmasters from as early as the 1850s made note of a roofless fives court on campus with newer courts constructed a few decades later. Fives was popular enough to be mentioned in the school’s student-written magazine as well as the masters who enjoyed playing when the court was clear. Interest in fives ebbed and flowed over the years as cohorts of students embraced the sport and moved on toward graduation. The activity also remained extracurricular, with cricket and football taking priority during school hours.

In the 1870s, students began to clamour for better care of the courts, equal to the attention granted for cricket, and competitions between Repton School’s houses informally began. Eager to encourage ongoing interest in fives, 1866 Repton graduate James Reddie provided the School with a Challenge Cup to be granted to the winning house in tournaments. A record of which house won the yearly competition was kept. Efforts to formalise participation and administration of the game were also stepped up to preserve interest in the game and ensure upkeep of the courts.

New headmaster and Repton School alumni Lionel Ford’s tenure brought clear measures to instill fives as part of the School’s fabric. He had personally played the game at Repton and gone on to learn the version of Eton Fives at university. Under his supervision, the game took off among students in large part due to matches played against other schools despite not using a set of standardised rules. New fives courts were added to the grounds in the early 1900s and have been used by Repton School students ever since.

Carrying Fives Forward: The Sport at Repton School Today

The Old Reptonians Fives Club was founded in 1924 in affiliation with the broader Fives Association representing different variations of the sport across England. Soon after, the Fives League was established at Repton School to formalise court access and match play while nurturing healthy competition. Despite illness, weather, and war that beleaguered the game and its players over the years, students continued to keep the tradition alive.

David Exley, a Repton School 1995 graduate, commented that “Fives is a game that teaches relationship management without a referee, further refining inter-personal skills that Reptonians tend to be strong in.” Exley’s vivid and detailed account of fives also shows why modern Repton School students have found such interest in the game: “The sport itself was enthralling too…There were, and are, frequent wow moments, perhaps as players witness a ball trajectory or shot that has never been seen before.”

Current Repton School Headmaster Mark Semmence continues to work toward cultivating interest and access to the game of fives with today’s student population. Girls began to embrace the sport in addition to boys with over 70 students participating in 2019 including House matches and a 15-school championship. Alumni remain active at Repton School with plans in line for court renovation, fixtures, coaching, and enhanced facilities in the coming school years.

Perhaps best of all is how modern students are willing and eager to set aside the more commonplace activities and technologies of the times to carry on the historic tradition of fives at Repton School. With just a ball, a few walls, and a couple of peers, these students can help Repton Fives live on in the decades and centuries to come.

The School so highly values the wide variety of sports open to its pupils that 2021 has seen the completion of a £250,000 refurbishment of its Fives Courts. Indeed, Repton is now one of the few schools in the UK that offers such an outstanding facility. The fundraising campaign, led by Repton’s Chief Commercial and Development Officer saw Old Reptonians with a lifelong love of Fives donate to the campaign along with the Eton Fives Association.

About Repton School

Repton School is a co-educational independent school for boarding and day pupils aged between 13-18. Student athletics is just one of many hallmark programmes designed to inspire wellness and development for students. Over 80% of Repton School students participate in recreational or competitive sport, which helps cultivate physical health as well as skills in teamwork, leadership, and resilience. Learn more about Repton School’s Sports programmes: https://www.repton.org.uk/school-life/sport/sport-for-all

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