Fives in Martock

These notes were prepared by Jerry Sampson, Buildings Archaeologist for Caroe & Partners of Wells.

Click here for his report on the game of fives

Caroe's wish is to raise the awareness of the history of fives. Many churches were damaged by people using the walls of churches to play ball (fives). Their use escalated in the 18th century, and the authorities regarded fives as a damaging affair (which it was) and tried to suppress it. We now regard this damage as an interesting part of a church's history.

Fives was often played against the blank wall of the tower, using the end of the aisle as the second wall. Often the fives balls damaged church windows, and wooden shutters were put up to protect them. This appears not to have been done in Martock, although the churchwardens accounts, stored in a shed in the churchyard, tragically burnt when the shed caught fire. This explains the first paragraph of Jerry's account.

Here follow notes made by Jerry Sampson on a visit to Martock:

Martock: All Saints The Fives Courts 8 May 2004

Martock, a church where fives is known to have been played in the 18th century, is interesting because the adjacent windows to the blind north and south elevations of the tower show no sign of ever having received modification for shutters etc., suggesting that there is no necessary linkage between an absence of shuttering and an absence of fives playing. It is known from churchwardens’ accounts that both sides of the church were utilised by the fives players, with play shifting from the south to the north.

The southern court.

Certainly the southern elevation is the best suited for the game, having a wide clean area of well-cut ashlar between the two southern buttresses, with only a string-course at approximately 20 feet and the plinth course at about 3 feet. At present there is evidence of open putlog holes, which have been filled with glass, but these may well have been closed with loose stone when the court was in use. As far as can be seen the window of the west elevation of the south nave aisle has original jambs, but there are no clear indications of any pintles or other alterations; and the same is true (as far as can be seen) of the other three windows in the end bays of the aisles. It is, of course, possible that the Ham stone has weathered in from the period of the nineteenth-century restorations to a degree that renders it undifferentiable from medieval block. There are no signs of swing-marks from restraining hooks have been observed, and there are no hood-mouldings to be cut back for flush-fitting shutters. Thus, on the south side, there would appear to be no modifications to the fabric of the building to accommodate the known fives court. The only possible indicator is on the plinth of the WSW buttress of the aisle, where an array of six small holes has been drilled on the northern stone of the upper blank course of the plinth, forming a cross with a hole with at centre, and an outlier at upper sinister. The significance of this is uncertain, but it is interesting that similar arrays of holes have been drilled into the buttresses adjacent to the northern fives place.

The northern court

On the north side an ugly modern excrescence has been boarded off, occupying the angle between the tower and aisle and preventing access, but as far as can be seen at least the uppermost parts of the jambs of the west-facing window lack marks of modification, as do the jambs of the north window of the west bay of the aisle. The north elevation of the aisle lacks any sign of swing-marks from hooks. Prebendary Saunders reported the presence of footholds cut into the buttress at the northwest corner, and these can be seen on the NNW buttress, forming alternate steps up the outer angles. Some steps may also have been cut into the lower part of the WNW buttress, but these do not continue above about 4' 6". The edges of the NNW buttress have been chamfered off, presumably to reduce and disguise the footholds. On the north face of the NNW buttress, at a height of approximately 3' 6" five holes have been drilled to form a T shaped pattern, so that three holes form a horizontal line at the top, the central one of which is also the upper hole in a vertical line of three. On the angle between the buttresses the north face has also had a series of holes drilled, the dexter area of which precisely copies this arrangement, while next it is a pattern of three holes in a horizontal line with two holes in a vertical line beneath the first [dexter], a central hole beside the middle holes of each of these rows, and an outlier at lower sinister. There is an additional indentation, which may be the remains of a further hole which would have formed an irregular central row of three with the two already described. The repetition of patterns of holes forming horizontal and vertical rows of three in which one of the holes is shared by both rows is intriguing, and it is important to establish whether such arrangements could be used for scoring the 18th and 19th century versions of the game, as Saunders suggested. There is a small door in the north face of the tower, adjacent to the north-western buttress (which also contains the stair turret). There is a squared recess cut out at head-height in the NE corner of the NNW buttress of the tower, at the centre of the western face of which is a circular drilled hole. In the top of the plinth basal moulding there is an irregular slot cut on the north face, more or less in vertical alignment with this rebate, which could represent traces of the erection of a barrier as part of a ploy to deter the players.

Published material From [Prebendary] G.W. Saunders

‘Fives Playing Against Church Towers’ in Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries vol. xvii, p.75-6.

‘In the Martock Churchwardens’ accounts for the year 1740, there is the item For beating up ye fives place... 6 d. In the Vestry minute of 16th April 1754 the Churchwardens are ordered to “take care that the Church and Churchyard be kept cleaner, and in a more decent order than it has been, and in order to do it they may hire such person or persons to do it as they shall think proper besides the Sexton, and that effectual care to prevent peoples going up into ye Lids and to prevent fives playing in the south side of ye church.” The result of this order seems to have been only to drive the players to the north and less exposed side for on June 7, 1758, we have in the same minutes a much longer reference preceded by a homily evidently from the Vicar of the time - Rev. Thomas Bowyer - “Immediately after the marriage at Cana and Jesus’ first miracle there we read John 2. 14. etc. (the passage is quoted in full). And again at the Passover (Mark xi.) We read that He did the same thing and it is here added that he would not suffer any man to carry any vessel (i.e. commodity c.f. Dr. Hammond Matth 21.6. Mark 11.6) thro the Temple, and my house shall be called, not of but to all Nations an House of Prayer (Mk 11. 17. p.44). “Martock June 7, 1758. Whereas notice being given on Sunday last the Parishioners were desired to meet at this time in the Vestry room to consider of the more effectual way to put a stop to or prevent fives playing in the Churchyard: it having been found to be the occasion of much mischief being done to the windows of the Church, and even to the Leads and walls of it, and also of much wickedness causing swearing, quarreling, and fighting in the Churchyard and so forth. We therefore being met in the Vestry considering what is above written and the 88 Canon do order and allow that whereas a man has had his skull fractured by a stone falling on his head by another climbing up into the leads for a ball, that the Churchwardens endeavour to put a stop to the playing fives in the Churchyard by digging a ditch across ye fives place or any other method they shall think proper.

Tho. Bowyer Vicar.

C. Lewis

Wm. Cole

Wm. Taylor

Jno Potenger”

The whole matter is treated very seriously. The action of the authorities is based upon Scripture and the Canon of the Church and the methods adopter were drastic and effectual. [/] The same year appears the following items in the accounts s. d. paid for digging up ye fives place 3. 6. paid the Sexton for rooting docks and nettles 3. 0. and after this we hear no more of the abuse. But the game has left its mark upon the fabric of the Church. The fives place was the blank wall of the lower stage of the Church Tower on the north and south sides. Near the tower on the W. side may be seen series of deep holes, arranged



and another series




and another series on the south side




These are no doubt scoring boards or tallies. More noticeable is a mutilated buttress at the N.W. corner of the N. aisle. At first sight it is a 13th Century buttress with chamfered edges and in the midst of 15th Century work presents an architectural problem. But on closer examination in the light of the Vestry Martock: All Saints The Fives Courts 8 May 2004 Page No. 5 minutes we can detect footholds cut at regular intervals to form a ladder to the leads of the aisle roof, and a large piece of stone has been broken off of “the set off” which no doubt fell and fractured the man’s skull. To improve the look of the buttress, and to prevent its further use as a ladder, the corners of the buttress were chamfered off and the footholds stopped with cement. Similar buttress ladders may be seen on the N. side of Bradford Abbas Church .” From the current [2004] church guide book: Prebendary G.W. Saunders, ‘ The Church of All Saints, Martock ’, revised 1997. ‘The north porch is modern, 1860. Just beyond it is a somewhat mutilated buttress. Its edges have been chamfered off and a closer examination will reveal at its angles alternating notches which have been filled up with cement. The coping stones of the setoffs have also been badly damaged. Hereby hangs a tale. The lower stage of the tower with its side buttresses was the Fives place. But the game became a nuisance, balls were often hit on to the roof of the aisle, and windows were sometimes broken. To recover the balls from the roof the buttress was used as a ladder. The notches cut in the angles were used as footholds and handholds. Unfortunately, a piece of the coping was knocked off and fell upon the head of a bystander. The attention of the vestry was called to the nuisance, and the churchwardens were requested to put a stop to the game. Accordingly in 1758 there is an entry in the churchwardens’ accounts:- For digging up ye Fives place.... 3 6d. To the Sexton for rooting up docks and nettles.... 3 0d. But the buttress needed attention. So they chamfered off the edges and stopped the footholds with cement. Part of this area is now occupied by the Crolla heating plant for the church which was installed by M.B.H. of Taunton in 1993. Near the Fives place on the north and south sides of the church will be seen several groups of small holes which were the tallies or scoring boards for the games.’ [p.11]

Jerry Sampson