The History of Cambridge Fives
Rugby Fives has been played at Cambridge University for well over 100 years, at least since the building of the courts at Portugal Place in 1892. Between that year and 1939 the game flourished in colleges such as St. John’s; there were frequent inter-college matches and college fixtures were played against schools and clubs. In 1925 Cambridge University Rugby Fives Club came into existence. From that time players from Cambridge University have dominated Rugby Fives like those from no other university or club.
The first recorded Rugby Fives contest between Cambridge University and Oxford University took place at Cambridge on March 10th 1925. A team of VI from Cambridge won by 392-103. Since then Cambridge have won 57 times, against 32 victories by Oxford (as of 2019). The match is now played each year at St. Paul’s School, Barnes; teams consist of 8 players.
Until 1995 Cambridge University Rugby Fives Club played and practised on the three courts at Portugal Place. In June 1995 the courts were closed by the owners, St. John’s College, and the building demolished to make way for a residential development. This left no Rugby Fives courts available at Cambridge University.
For some years after the closure the players at Cambridge practised on the one existing court at The Perse School, Cambridge, and played ‘home’ matches at Bedford Modern School. The annual Past versus Present match was played at Oundle School. From 2005 the Club switched all its fixtures to Oundle School, by kind permission of the Headmaster and the master in charge of Fives. In 2007 Oundle replaced its old enclosed courts by 4 indoor courts with a central viewing gallery. Oundle School is, nevertheless, a considerable distance away from Cambridge, which reduced the amount of time that Cambridge players could use these facilities. Oxford University, on the other hand, enjoys the use of two modern, glass-backed Rugby Fives courts on the Iffley Road site, to which many ex-Cambridge players gladly contributed in 1989-90. It is no coincidence that Oxford has had considerable success in the Varsity Match since those courts were built, especially during the period when Cambridge was without courts.
Past players from Cambridge, called the Sparrows, had raised a considerable sum of money in memory of Jock Burnet, for forty years the President of the Cambridge Rugby Fives Club, for the purpose of building Rugby Fives courts worthy of Cambridge University. However, this sum was not sufficient for the Club to ‘go it alone’. If the standard of play that had been achieved for so many years at Cambridge was to be maintained, it was vital that the University find a site on which at least two modern courts could be built. For many years there was talk of developing a site at West Cambridge, where it was hoped to build a University Sports Centre. That project finally came to fruition with the appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who gave the Centre priority in university planning. 2012 saw the beginning of building work. Details of the process of building new rugby fives courts within that centre can be found on this website at www.cu-sparrows.net/the-new-courts. The Opening took place in May 2013.
The last match at Portugal Place: Joe Gribble, Bob Dolby, David Hebden, Tim Caroe and Paddy d’Ancona
Achievements of Cambridge Rugby Fives players since 1925
The first contest between Oxford and Cambridge Universities took place on March 10th 1925, when a team of VI from Cambridge defeated an Oxford VI by 392-103.
The following year, 1926, the universities were each represented by an VIII, four from each side playing Singles, all eight playing Doubles. That remained the format of the contest until 2018 when it was agreed that all 8 players should contest the Singles. Cambridge have now (2019) won 57 contests in all, as against 32 wins for Oxford.
- The Amateur Open Doubles (Cyriax Cup) has been won by a Cambridge player or pair on at least 25 occasions since 1925.
- The Amateur Singles (Jesters Cup) has been won by a Cambridge player 15 times since its inception in 1932.
- Cambridge University pairs have won the British Universities Doubles Championship on 23 occasions since its inception in 1960.
- 10 different Cambridge players have won the British Universities Singles.
Notable Cambridge University Rugby Fives players include:
Kenneth Gandar Dower (Harrow & Trinity) winner of Rugby Fives Amateur Singles in 1932 and Eton Fives Kinnaird Cup for Doubles 1932
Jack Davies (Tonbridge & St. John’s), who won the Amateur Singles in 1936, 1937 and 1939 (and also bowled Bradman for a ‘duck’).
Barry Trapnell (UCS & St. John’s), British Amateur Singles Champion and Double Champion in 1949.
John Pretlove (Alleyn’s & Caius), 4 times Amateur Singles Champion between 1953 and 1958 and 7 times British Amateur Doubles Champion, including 4 in a row with Dennis Silk (Christ’s Hospital & Sidney Sussex).
Andrew Cowie (Rugby & Pembroke), the last undergraduate to win the Amateur Singles title (in 1971 and 1972) and Amateur Doubles Champion in 1973.
David Hebden (Alleyn’s & Clare), Amateur Singles Champion in 1979 and Amateur Doubles Champion 10 times between 1980 and 1990. The winner of over 100 national and regional titles in Singles and Doubles as well as the National Winchester Fives Doubles Championship. He has been Veterans Singles and Doubles Champion(over 45) and Vintage Singles and Doubles Champion (over 55).
David Barnes (Winchester & Christ’s), Veterans Doubles Champion 5 times between 1986 and 1994.
Ben Taberner (St. Paul’s & Emmanuel) and Paddy d’Ancona (St. Dunstan’s & Magdalene), multiple winners of the National Under 25 Doubles Championship and several other regional titles.
Charlie Brooks (St. Paul’s & Caius) won the British Universities Doubles four years in a row from 2004, on two occasions with
Brian Elfick (Bradfield, Exeter College & Ridley Hall) and twice with Alan Beverly. For this he was awarded a Full Blue, as was Elfick who had twice won the title before with an Oxford partner. Charlie won the Cyriax Cup for National Doubles for the first time with his partner Will Ellison in April 2013, having been runner-up the previous year. He and Ellison have now won it 4 times.
Alan Beverly (St. Paul’s & Girton) won the British Universities Singles in 2007 and the National U25 Singles in 2006, 2007 and 2008. For this he was awarded a Full Blue.
Ed Kay (St. Paul’s & Emmanuel) is the fourth winner of a Full Blue. Ed was twice winner of the National Schools Singles title, has been 3 times winner of the British Universities Singles title and 4 times winner of the Doubles as well as 4 times and 7 times winner of the National U25s Singles and Doubles titles respectively. He has also won several open titles in Singles and Doubles.
Ben Beltrami (St. Paul’s & Selwyn) and Matt Shaw (St. Paul’s & Homerton) have each also been awarded a Full Blue for their performances in the British Universities Championships and the National U25 Championships.
Portugal Place 1960 — 1995 — 1996
The Cambridge University Squash Racquets and Fives Courts at Portugal Place
St. John’s College demolished the Fives and Racquets building at Portugal Place in 1995 for redevelopment. To celebrate over a century of Cambridge courts games at Portugal Place and to mark the passing of this building an Open Day was held on Saturday, 11th June 1995, and exhibition matches of Rugby Fives, Eton Fives and Racquets were played. At a reception in the afternoon, to which the press was invited, two speeches were made. The first was by Peter Ridgeon, Chairman of the County Badminton Association and coach to the Cambridge Badminton Squad. He spoke of the history of the building: “In 1892 St. John’s College granted a lease to a Fellow of Trinity, a Cambridge banker and a gentleman from Kent, of land in Portugal Street and of the courts newly erected there to be known as the Cambridge Racquets and Fives Courts.”
Mr Ridgeon related the tale of a life’s friendship with Sid Tabor, the rose-growing, chain-smoking squash pro with a mustard-gas-ulcerated leg and lung, who regularly beat undergraduates for a packet of cigarettes, giving them eight start, while wearing a long black overcoat, blazer and flannels, plus brown trilby hat. Mr Ridgeon spoke warmly, too, of Philip Ellis, present at the Open Day, who began his incumbency of Portugal Place living in the rest room at the top of the stairs. He ended, with badminton particularly in mind, by suggesting that “We have now got to the stage where most secondary schools and all village colleges have better sports facilities than Cambridge University”.
The second speech was made by Barry Trapnell, on behalf of all the sports. Barry bemoaned the demise of the building but expressed the hope that the University would see itself able to replace the lost facilities in the not too distant future.
Those Rugby Fives players who played the last ever game of Fives on Court Number One were Joe Gribble, Bob Dolby, David Hebden, Tim Caroe and Paddy d’Ancona. David Barnes rescued a small piece of the front wall from the demolition site. That piece of court, plus all the Honours Boards which once hung in the changing rooms in Portugal Place, passed into the safe keeping of Bob Dolby in the hope that they might one day be restored to new courts. In fact when the new glass-backed courts were built in 2013 on the first floor of the University Sports Centre new Honours Boards were commissioned so as to be more in keeping with the style of the modern building. These can be see at www.cu-sparrows.net/the-new-courts.
Up-dated March 2019