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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Fleet and squash


There is a widely believed story that the precursor of squash, rackets played against a single wall instead of over a net, was invented at the Fleet Prison for debtors in the early nineteenth century. While looking at medical adverts from around 1700 today I came across a handbill for a gentlewoman selling skin-conditioning washes from her house ‘in Racket Court near Fleet-bridge’. Clearly something to do with rackets was going on in the immediate area. Maybe the historical presence of rackets courts nearby, as well as a sturdy wall, led to this being the obvious choice of game to play in the prison.


Maybe the influence was directly from the sound of people 'making a racket' - a variation of the phrase is first used in the sixteenth century, and appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 'But that the Tennis court keeper knows better than I, for it is a low eb of linnen with thee when thou keepest not racket there.' 'Keeping a racket' would now be 'making a racket', which dates from 1644. The OED gives the source of 'racket', first noted from 1565, as 'perhaps imitative'; 'racket' the game was documented from c1425, so maybe the sound being imitated was the sound of the ball game with paddles played in an indoor court.


So did people making a racket around Racket Court inspire the debtors directly to play rackets against the wall of the Fleet Prison? It must have been a penetrating noise to make it through the general hubbub of early-nineteenth century London over such a high wall.



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