Eton Fives: Exploring the Origins of the Sport Unique to Rydal Penrhos in Wales
May 16, 2024

In anticipation of the Eton Fives Welsh Invitational Open, Rydal Penrhos explores the rich history of this much-loved sport.

When asked, “what makes Rydal Penrhos unique?” the true answer cannot be reduced to a word or a sentence. There is so much that sets our school apart; from our distinctive, longstanding traditions to our outstanding teaching practices, which enhance the exam results of all our pupils, not just the most innately talented.

A standout feature that makes Rydal Penrhos unique in Wales is its Fives Courts. Nowhere else west of Offa’s Dyke can enthusiasts of this fast-paced sport play the game. This weekend, as hosts of the Eton Fives Association Welsh Invitational Open, we are proud to welcome some of the sport’s best players to compete on our courts.

While Eton Fives continues to thrive at Rydal Penrhos, many may wonder how the sport became a staple at nearly all of the UK’s top independent schools.

Eton Fives likely originated from medieval English peasants hitting a ball against chapel walls with their hands. The name ‘fives,’ used since the 17th century, probably refers to the fingers, as in ‘a bunch of fives.’

The current court design stems from the side of the chapel at Eton College, where buttresses formed bays in which boys played. The bay at the foot of the chapel steps was unique due to the handrail forming a hazard, and a landing between the steps extended the playing area.

The first purpose-built courts were constructed in 1840 by Eton’s Headmaster, Dr Hawtrey. These courts, though not exact replicas of the chapel court, featured modifications that made the game easier and faster: increased distance between the front wall and the buttress, reduced floor slope, extended side walls, and adjusted buttress dimensions. Modern courts are based on Dr Hawtrey’s 1840 design.

In 1877, A.C. Ainger published the Rules of the Game of Fives as played at Eton. Today, local community clubs meet weekly across the country. The first Ladies Championships in 1984 and the first mixed doubles championship in 1985 marked significant progress for women’s fives—a trend mirrored at Rydal Penrhos today.

Currently, there are 40 sets of courts across the UK, from Dorset to Cumbria. This weekend, however, the focus is on the courts at Rydal Penrhos as we proudly host this thrilling tournament.