From its origins in the mid 19th Century, the sport of Squash was largely the preserve of the privileged few from the public schools and the traditional universities.
Courts often existed either as stand-alone buildings or as a block of 2 courts, frequently in conjunction with sports such as Tennis, Cricket, and Hockey, as part of a multi-sport members club.
All that changed dramatically in the 1970s when several influencing factors came together:
- Local authority funded multi sports centres were being built for community use and many included Squash.
- Executives in the cities were attracted to a sport that was high intensity; could be completed in 30-40 minutes; and only required one other person (unlike the more traditional team sports).
- A sport dominated by Pakistanis and Egyptians finally had a British Champion in the charismatic Jonah Barrington. He won the British Open title 6 times between 1967 – 1973.
- Private squash clubs expanded rapidly.
The growth of Squash (allied to squash court construction) was sensational in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When I joined Redbridge Sports Centre in 1977 (originally built in 1972) it had 4 courts (average for the time). Due to demand, a 5th court was added in 1977 and in 1980 a further 2 glass backed courts were added. This demand led, construction pattern was fairly typical. In Essex, for example, in 1965 there was a total of 13 courts. By 1978 there were 287!
Very quickly the challenge, as a manager was not how to market the Squash facility (except at very off-peak times), it was how to create a booking system that the membership perceived as fair. As a consequence, we ended up with 2 courts available to be booked by phone each day at 9.30am 6 days in advance; 2 courts available for booking in person from 7.30 in the evening 6 days in advance; etc. Often wives and secretaries (sorry this was the 70s!) were instructed to phone up and stay on the phone until the booking was secured!
A local facility manager told me that, as each member was only allowed to book one court session, someone from Ford’s would phone up and then pass the phone round all his colleagues!
To add to the complexity, some courts were available in 30min sessions, some 40 mins, some 45 mins. Better players (who took longer to complete their matches) would each try to book courts so they could have a double session. The internal league structure became a source of great interest in each facility.
As the sport evolved, skill and fitness levels improved, and another significant factor came into play – the ambient temperature of the courts increased. Whilst the old traditional courts were generally in a separate unheated building, the new ones (many in sports centres) were in a heated environment where the rubber balls bounced higher and the rallies lasted longer. Matches that were previously completed in 30 mins (I lost in less than that on a cold winter’s night in Croydon!) were now lasting for an hour and beyond! (Subsequently, many of the traditional courts had gas fired heaters retro fitted, hanging high up in the court and running almost the full length.)
Warmer courts meant longer matches and longer matches meant more challenges for the booking system!
In 1980, with the sport booming and sports centres being built all around the Country, Locker installation company, Helmsman, saw an opportunity to enhance their profile with local authorities by sponsoring an annual Squash event for the Association of Recreation Managers. This was initially played at Bury St Edmunds Sports Centre under the watchful eye of Centre Manager, John Binks, and subsequently moved around the Country.
One of the key figures in the commercialisation of Squash was Rex Guppy. The entrepreneur built up his Basildon based Kingwood Club from 6 courts to 19 courts – the largest Squash Club in the world. Sports Centres were keen to follow the trend and the numbers of courts mushroomed both in the private and local authority sectors.
Guppy also played a key role in the development of Racketball in the UK (as played on squash courts), which was adapted from the American sport of Racquetball that is played on a larger court which is fully enclosed, and you can play off the ceiling.
His son and current owner, Alister Guppy, tells me that their 7 courts are now roughly 50/50 Squash/Racketball and I suspect that this ratio is mirrored in sports centres, where courts still exist and have not been replaced by fitness facilities due to the greater capacity and added income generation for the contractor. The attraction of Racketball is that it is not as fast, less impactful and not as stressful on the joints.
As sports centres have changed and evolved in so many ways, the sport of Squash has also had to react and change. Whilst it still has a part to play, we are unlikely ever to see a return to those “heady” days of the 70s & 80s.