What is fives?
What do people do if you give them a ball to play with? They either kick it, throw it or hit it. Fives is one of the many games which has developed from the desire to hit a ball. Instead of with a bat or a racquet, the ball is hit with the hands; so it is a kind of handball, similar to Irish Handball.
In its earliest form the game was probably played against a wall, often that of a local church or other building so that the features of particular buildings were incorporated into the game - these were then replicated in specially built courts.
This document has a photograph of the earliest known fives ball found in the old thatch of a cottage together with a short description of the history of Fives being played against the walls of churches and early specialist courts at inns: Fives Ball Article
The need to prevent damage to windows and the desire to keep the traffic moving has resulted in measures to curtail these street games and so they now only exist in facilities created for that purpose. Fives or Handball would have been played wherever you see this sign!:
Eventually the game was formalised at Rugby School (hence the name 'Rugby Fives') and courts began to be built. Official records go back to the 1920s but there is plenty of evidence in schools of Fives being played in some shape or form in the 19th century, and even earlier.
This interesting web site includes a document (at the bottom of the page) which gives an architects view of what to look out for when
trying to spot the signs that fives has been played against the walls of a very old church - as old as 1498:
Caroe & Partners - Churchyard Fives
"In the year 1771 a Wall was built on the South Side of the Church yard & the Gates erected & made Close at the Entrance of the Church yard, the foot Path through the Church yard being by this Means prevented & the most scandalous Custom of Fives Playing, for many years permitted in this & most of the Western Church yards to the great Injury of the Tower & Church & to the Distress of Religion."
Courts have come and gone throughout the 20th century and the popularity of the game has fluctuated with them. Fives has nevertheless flourished for nearly a century in a small number of schools, at universities and a few clubs. The courts at Derby Moor Community Sports College are two of only a handful of courts remaining in state schools in the whole of Britain. They were built in 1966 when Derby School moved from St. Helens House in the city centre to Littleover. In 2003 they were refurbished and in 2015 an enclosed viewing area was created.