[Updated on 1 June 2020] Not only is squash a great way to exercise your mind and your body but it has a fascinating and unusual history as well. Squash may have spent many years as an elite sport played in the most exclusive schools and clubs but it actually originated in a prison yard.
People have been playing games with balls since ancient times. Some believe that rackets were invented in ancient times but there is no archeological evidence to confirm it. Historians trace the origin of the racket as we know it today back to the early 1500s.
A common misconception on the history of Squash
Over time, different racket sports developed such as tennis, racquetball, badminton, and squash, among others. Each game was popular with different groups of people and squash has one of the most interesting origins of them all.
Sports that Influenced the Creation of Squash
In the early eighteenth century in London, there was a debtor’s prison called Fleet Prison. Prisoners would pass their exercise time by using rackets to hit a ball against a wall. They called the sport “rackets.” Soon, rackets spread across England and it made its way to the schoolyards.
Meanwhile, another sport called “Fives” was also growing in popularity and it was played at most English public schools. Fives is a game of handball that is named for the five fingers of the hand and most of the schools had courts for play. It was the combination of these two sports that led to the birth of squash at the Harrow School, just outside of London.
The Beginning of Squash
Squash, as it is known today, was created by English schoolchildren at Harrow School and they called it “Squash Rackets.” They found that if they took the ball that was used in rackets and punctured a hole in it, it would “squash” when it hit the wall. The squashing made it bounce off unevenly, which made the path of the ball less predictable and the return more challenging.
Squash quickly became a favorite activity and the boys would play it any chance they had. In 1865, Harrow built a new set of courts for rackets and fives and the boys used the fives courts to play their new game of squash rackets. It became so popular that local shops in Harrow began to sell squash balls and rackets.
Squash in England
The boys from Harrow played squash wherever they could. The fives courts were in use all the time and the boys continued to play when they went home for the holidays.
As they grew up and left Harrow, they took squash further out into the world. Some of them even built their own squash courts at their homes. The popularity of squash spread to other schools and any school that had a fives court soon had squash.
From School to Clubs
Eventually, squash spread to London and private clubs began to put up squash courts. Courts were added at Lord’s in 1890 and the Bath Club added several courts in 1894 as well. Other clubs began adding courts and squash eventually made its way to the north of England when the Aberdeen Squash Rackets Club opened in 1908.
During this time, there were no official rules for squash. The game developed with different variations and the courts were different sizes. Cambridge divided a rackets court into three squash courts, each very small. In Queens, they called the court “The Long Court” because it was very long.
Formalizing Squash in England
In 1922, the Bath Club started the Bath Club Cup as a squash league. The players played on different-sized courts with different balls at the competitions, which was difficult.
The following year in 1923, the Royal Automobile Club formed a “Squash Rackets Representative Committee.” The committee had delegates from the different clubs that offered squash and they set the standard for the ball and the size of the courts. They chose the slowest ball and the court size would mirror the Bath Club court at 32 by 21 feet.
In 1928, the Squash Rackets Association was formed in Great Britain. This association is called Squash England today and it sets the rules and standards for squash in England. After many years, squash became uniform in England and the game would be the same no matter where it was played.
Squash comes to the United States
Squash first appeared in the United States in 1884. The headmaster of St Paul’s Boarding School in New Hampshire built four outdoor squash courts. He had heard about the sport from his roommate at Columbia University, a Harrow graduate.
The headmaster brought it back to the school in Concord, New Hampshire. He built the four outdoor squash courts at the school and students could pay $1 per year to use them.
In 1908, two courts were built at Harvard. The graduates then took it to their men’s clubs in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Most of the clubs already had rackets courts so squash was played there. The Racquet Club in Philadelphia organized a competition between six clubs in 1903.
The following year, leaders of this inter-club league founded the United States Squash Racquets Association. They standardized the measurements of the squash courts and scoring.
Squash went through some changes but in 1920, the USSRA set the standard size of the courts to 32 by 18.5 feet.
At this time, there were two main styles of squash worldwide: softball on the 21-foot court in England and hardball on the 18.5-foot court in North America. These two versions continued until the 1990s when North American countries finally switched over to the softball version played in the rest of the world.
Today the World Squash Federation has almost 150 nations that are members. The World Squash Federation governs the sport including rules, refereeing, and coaching as well as standards and requirements for equipment.
They maintain the schedule for world championship events and they are considered by the International Olympic Committee to be the governing body. They are working to have squash considered for the Olympics. Squash narrowly missed a bid the last three times.
Squash is still growing and spreading throughout the world. It is considered one of the best forms of mental and physical exercise. From its beginnings in a schoolyard to world championships today, squash has come a long way.