Somerville Gibney

Last year I did a lot of research for the essay “The History of Squash in 10 1/2 Chapters” and a history timeline, both of which are at the World Squash Federation’s website:

At the time, I came across a fleeting mention of an article on squash in The Boy’s Own Paper. After much sleuthing, I tracked down the article. Boy’s Own Paper was a major British literary magazine aimed at teenage boys. The article “Squash Racquets” was published on 9 June 1894 and is one of the earliest mentions of the game in print.

The author was Somerville Gibney. He and his brother Gerald had attended Harrow from 1865 to 1867 (in Head Master’s House). Their father was a reverend in Lincoln in the East Midlands and a founder of the Lincoln College of Art (he died in 1875 when he fell through a skylight at the school into the model room).

Somerville Gibney was a popular playwright and novelist: he produced shows for the West End and the Spectator said of his 1891 novel, The Trial of Parson Finch: “It is certainly a well-told, healthy, and by no means uninteresting story.”

Gibney’s article on squash had a proselytizing streak, as it mostly was about persuading readers to build their own courts. He runs through the squash customs at Harrow, the  rules and the required equipment (a new racquet for ten shillings, a second-hand one for five shillings; and new balls for four pence, although Gibney sometimes would go back to Harrow and buy eight or ten used balls from students for six pence).

He said that when he and his brother were at Harrow, “we were both devoted to squash” so when they returned to Lincoln they created a court in a high-roofed loft over a disused stables. Their father cut a wall out, put a door on the spiral staircase that led to the loft and added, ironically, a skylight. The floor was plaster, uneven and at least a hundred years old; the side walls were rough and an oak beam ran over the court. Both the brothers and their father played many games there for years to come.

Gibney’s experience was commonplace: squash in the late nineteenth century, was unstandardized, inexpensive and makeshift. And fun.

Squash, Gibney declared, is “a capital game, which, without requiring any large expenditure of pocket-money or amount of apparatus, can be played almost anywhere where there are walls. Give a Harrow boy a wall—if a blank one so much the better—and two others or even one other, at right angles to it, with a clear space between, and the probability is it won’t be long before he is busy at squash.”