A Squash Match on the Titanic

On the 14th of April, 1912 RMS Titanic, the largest passenger steamship in the world, was four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City.  At 2340hrs, 640km south of the Great Banks of Newfoundland, she struck an iceberg and sank at 0220hrs the following morning with the loss of 1,517 lives. The sinking of the Titanic is one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, if not world history. But what’s less well-known is that down in the ship’s lower deck, there was a squash court.

The Squash Racquets Court

The Titanic’s squash racquets court was available for use by first class passengers only. Players were charged two shillings each (50 US cents in those days) for the use of the court and playing sessions were limited to one hour if others were waiting.

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The court was 30ft long and 20ft wide compared to 32ft and 21ft respectively for a modern court. This was due to the structural design of the Titanic which also restricted the height of the court to 15ft 8inches as opposed to today’s 18ft 6inches. Use of the lob was therefore limited. The door into the court was positioned in the left side of the back wall. The floor of the court was on G deck, with the upper part of the court occupying the space between F and E deck. The court’s viewing gallery was located on F deck. The court and its position in the ship were to play an important part in the disaster that was to engulf the Titanic.

The Players

The court was under the supervision of Mr Frederick Wright of Great Billing, Northamptonshire in England. Wright was the Titanic’s squash racquet professional. For a wage of £1 per week, Wright not only cleaned the court and ran the booking system but also supplied passengers with squash racquets and balls. He was also available to play as an opponent if required.

Frederick Wright

Frederick Wright

One of the passengers who used the court during the voyage was Colonel Archibald Gracie, a 53-year-old amateur historian from Mobile, Alabama in the US, who was travelling alone. During his previous transatlantic trips, it had been Gracie’s custom to take as much exercise as possible to stay in prime physical condition. But, on this trip, he had spent much of his time enjoying  the social (and gastronomic) opportunities  on offer, and reading books from the well-stocked ship’s library.

The Squash Match

On the evening of Saturday, April 13th Gracie decided it was time to cut back on the socialising and start his fitness regimen again. He arranged with his room steward, Charles Cullen, to wake him early on Sunday morning in order to play squash with Frederick Wright, work in the gymnasium with Mr T W McCawley, and swim in the Titanic’s heated swimming pool. All before breakfast. But twenty minutes before midnight, the collision which was to result in the sinking of the Titanic put an end to Gracie’s arrangements. Shortly after midnight, while looking for his friends, Gracie met the racquet professional, Wright, in the stairway of C deck. “Perhaps we had better cancel our match for tomorrow morning, Mr Wright!” he said half jokingly.  Wright concurred but seemed rather concerned, probably because he knew that the court was already filling with water. The match between Gracie and Wright would never be played.

The Viewing Gallery

The watertight bulkheads of the Titanic projected from its keel up to F deck where the squash court’s viewing gallery was located. When the watertight doors were closed, these bulkheads had been designed to contain any water that might get into the Titanic’s hull compartments. The Titanic’s builders, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland had calculated that, even if four compartments were flooded, the ship could still continue. However, as a result of the collision, five were initially flooded. It was known very soon after hitting the iceberg that the ship was doomed. The weight of water in the compartments would gradually tilt the ship and cause it to sink.

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic

As it was located below the Titanic’s bridge, the squash court was a convenient place from which to monitor the rise of the water. These periodic observations were made from the viewing gallery and  duly entered in the ship’s log. At 0220hrs on Sunday, April 15th the Titanic sank.

Survival

As the ship went down, Archibald Gracie was still clinging to the rail of the topmost deck after the wave had passed over him that swept the Titanic before her final plunge. “When the ship plunged down,” he said in one of his first accounts of the tragedy, “I was forced to let go, and I was swirled around and around for what seemed an interminable time. Eventually I came to the surface to find the sea a mass of tangled wreckage. “Luckily, I was unhurt, and, casting about, managed to seize a wooden grating floating nearby. When I had recovered my breath, I discovered a large canvas and cork life-raft which had floated up. A man, whose name I did not learn, was struggling toward it from some wreckage to which he had clung. I cast off and helped him to get onto the raft, and we then began the work of rescuing those who had jumped into the sea and were floundering in the water. “When dawn broke there were thirty of us on the raft, standing knee deep in the icy water and afraid to move lest the cranky craft be overturned. Several unfortunates, benumbed and half dead, besought us to save them and one or two made an effort to reach us, but we had to warn them away. “The hours that elapsed before we were picked up by the Carpathia were the longest and most terrible that I ever spent.”

Epilogue

Gracie wrote an account of the tragedy that was originally published in 1913 as “The Truth About The Titanic”. He never finished proofing his original manuscript. Gracie died on December 4th 1912 at his ancestral home in New York, having never fully recovered from the trauma of that night. Nearly a century after the event, a revised version of his book is still in print under the title, “Titanic”: A Survivor’s Story. Gracie appeared as a character played by actor Bernard Fox in the 1997 motion picture Titanic
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Frederick Wright went down with the ship which employed him as a squash professional. His body was never found.

Squash and the Brigadier

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (b 1905 – d 1989) had the remarkable distinction of winning the British Army’s Squash Racquets and Lawn Tennis championships four times each. At squash, he first became champion in 1931, retaining his title the following year. Further successes came in 1936 and, after several demanding military postings abroad, in 1946. He was once ranked as high as No 2 in the world and, in 1933, was runner-up in the Amateur Squash Championships to the legendary Egyptian player and diplomat Amr Bey, then the reigning British Open squash champion. His tennis achievements, which included competing at Wimbledon six times, are equally impressive given the fact that he regarded his army career as being by far the most important part of his life.

 

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (Centre)

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (Centre)

But it’s his skills as a writer that set him apart from most of his sporting contemporaries. And, in particular, a short guide to squash that he wrote in the 1950s.

 

A Short Guide to Squash Rackets

Jameson wrote his guide after playing squash for over a quarter of a century. During that time, he developed a reputation both as an elegant stroke-player and as a resourceful opponent possessing incredible stamina. This is reflected in the first chapter in his book where he says, “Squash should be an easy game. All one needs to become reasonably good is to be able to run hard for a long time and to be able to hit the ball somehow – not necessarily with the strings”. That’s my emboldening of the text, by the way, for reasons which will become obvious!

 

The guide’s coverage and description both of the rules of squash and its basic strokes is not only  comprehensive but could easily have been written today given its clarity and accuracy. The text is supplemented with hand-drawn diagrams showing the court positions from which certain strokes may be played during a rally, the angles at which to hit the ball, and the resulting path of the ball via  the front or side walls.

The text also includes some wry humour which adds to the enjoyment of the book in a historical context.

For example, “The Strokes – Miscellaneous” chapter includes the following entry:

“Apart from the corner [of the court], the other main difficulty one is likely to encounter is the ball which clings to the wall. The intrinsic difficulty of this shot is added to by one’s natural disinclination to break one’s racket.

Or, try this entry in the “Tactics and Positioning” chapter:

“If you are trying to win, and not just out for exercise, the pleasantest way of playing squash is to stand in the middle of the court while your opponent rushes in all directions after your shots.”

Matchplay Tips

 

“Most people,” says Jameson “Have their limitations, and they can often beat someone who is reputedly a better player by intelligence – or matchplay.” He goes on to draw a clear distinction between matchplay and gamesmanship. “On the latter,” he continues, “there are excellent treatises to which the reader can refer (for instruction or amusement), so here we will confine ourselves to matchplay,as applied to playing squash, and will exclude verbal, sartorial or other ruses calculated to lower the morale of one’s opponent.”

One can only wonder what treatises Jameson is referring to and wonder how one could get one’s hands on a copy today!

Gratifyingly, one of Jameson’s matchplay tips turns out to be one of my own favourite ploys over the years. “Your opponent’s temperament, too,” says Jameson, “repays study. If he is impatient to win the point, you may upset him by persistent lobbing. Even if he is of the type that likes to go on forever you may worry him by placidly settling down to play the same game, hitting the ball more slowly and higher than he does.”

In other words, slow, steady – and high – wins the match…

Training

 

“Being prostrated with exhaustion,” writes Jameson, ”is not conducive to enjoyment of the game.”

He goes on to assert that, “The best form of physical training for squash…is to play squash, provided you play it hard.” So much for an easy introduction to the game, then.

 

Jameson also recommends, “moderation in smoking, drinking and eating” as well as participating in other sports such as golf, skiing (another of his passions) and fishing. He follows  this suggestion with, in my humble opinion, one of the best passages of the book.

“Whether you do any other form of actual physical training, such as long distance running, in order to strengthen your legs and lungs for the endurance test of a long squash match, must depend upon your own physical and mental characteristics, and probably on your geographical location. If you live in London, you probably have access to plenty of hard squash, so have little need to run around Clapham Common or Berkeley Square. If you live in the depths of the country, far from any squash courts, you may find it necessary to go for runs, provided you don’t mind being thought eccentric by your friends and can bear the undisguised interest of the passers-by you encounter en route. You can console yourself with the thought of the pleasure you are giving to any stray dogs which join you in your travels.”

 

Suitable Equipment and Clothing

Jameson’s observations on squash equipment and clothing are notable by their focus on value for money.

“The equipment required for squash,” he writes, “is not expensive. As the racket is not subjected, as a tennis racket is, to the hazards of damp grass, rain and the grit of a hard court, the strings should last for years. And, a squash ball being light and soft, the frame should last for many more years. That is, of course, provided you don’t hit the wall or your opponent too hard with it.

And so far as expense is concerned squash has a great advantage over, say, tennis and golf, in the longevity of the ball. Admittedly, whereas a ramble on the golf course may reward the keen eyed searcher with enough balls to last several rounds, a ramble in the squash courts is unlikely to yield a rich harvest in lost squash balls. But one squash ball lasts a very long time.”

Nor is any great outlay required on clothing for squash. It might, however, here be mentioned that, though almost any clothing, such as dirty rugger shorts, is usually accepted as adequate for a friendly game, the correct wear for a match is white. This is not due to excessive dandiness on the part of the framers of the rules, but is to prevent the possibility of your opponent losing sight of the black ball against the background of your dark clothing.”

American Squash and Englishmen

 

At the time Jameson’s book was written, the English and American versions of squash were not only  different but showed little sign of merging to create a truly globalised sport. In the last section of his book, Jameson discusses the two forms of the game, and presents a range of suggestions about how to play them.

“Many Americans are capable of playing delicate angle shots,” he writes, “but on the whole their game is dominated by the hard hitter. In my opinion the tactics and finesse which are possible in English Squash make it incomparably more interesting, and I think this opinion is shared by the majority of Englishmen who have played both games.”

Interestingly, there is no mention of what Jameson thinks the majority of American men might think about his opinion but then it’s probably safe to assume that he wrote his book for a predominantly English, male and indeed English Squash-playing audience.

Jameson certainly appears to be writing from experience when he describes a typical outcome for an English Squash player using an American Squash racket and squash ball for the first time:

“The result, in the Englishman’s first game in America, is apt to be a series of air shots, amusing for the spectators but humiliating for the Englishman.” This observation clearly relates to the heavier American Squash ball which “necessitates a heavier racket, which is not so easy to wield.”

“An English racket” writes Jameson, “would not last long with an American ball. So if you are going on a visit to the United States or Canada, and intend to play squash, get your host to lend you a racket. Or, better still, take an English ball with you and lure him into playing you with it. He will probably miss it, but at least he shouldn’t break his racket.”

Playing Conditions

Jameson goes on to describe another “slight handicap” under which, in his opinion, English players then operated in America.

 

“The superiority of American central heating is well known, but one is apt at first to experience some discomfort in playing in a court whose temperature (before the match) is about 80 degrees, as it sometimes is. I think this is preferable, though, to playing in an “outside” unheated court in an American or Canadian winter. At a temperature around zero the limbs are reluctant to move, and the ball still goes very fast, in this case apparently straight along the ground.”

From personal experience, I’d disagree with the Brigadier’s assertion that a squash ball “still goes very fast” on an unheated court in winter, even in the comparatively tropical (compared to North America) English climate.

But then I’ve never won the British Army’s Squash Racquets Championship. Well, not yet  anyway.

Postscript

 

Jameson revised his book in 1973 but, apart from some observations relating to a change in the squash rules relating to obstruction made few alterations. After retiring from the army, he continued to play county squash for Kent for many years, and was a member of the Jesters Club, an international racquets association. Even in his eighties he was still playing squash and tennis despite having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Jameson was a born leader, who was a superb example of his own theory that success depends largely on one’s own effort and willpower. His greatest pride was not his own spectacular games career, but the achievements of the soldiers he trained.

His book, A Short Guide to Squash Rackets, is a valuable document of a bygone era of sporting excellence written by a gifted amateur.

Enjoy it and remember him. We’ll never see his like again.

Squash on TV: The Clinger and The Ringer

I suppose that squash isn’t such a mainstream sport that it appears regularly in light entertainment TV programmes. Well, at least not in the UK. In fact, I can remember only two occasions where a squash club setting was used as a key feature in what’s now known as terrestrial television. Once in a comedy drama and once in a much-loved comedy sketch show.

The Clinger

Clinger n A ball running right along the side wall which is difficult to hit. A clinger may be the result of a straight drive or of a cross-court drive which squirts from the nick high up between the front and side walls.

The Clinger was a 60 minute play shown on UK television in 1986 as part of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Set in a squash club and taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Playing an internal league match against old hand Ernie (Ron Pember), Alan finds himself battling not just against his own nervousness, but also against Ernie’s superior court craft and his strongest shot, the clinger. Alan’s romantic fantasies slowly turn into a nightmare as he’s given the run-around by Ernie only to be handed a lucky break as the match moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Ernie collapses and dies of a heart attack thereby forfeiting the match!

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous storylines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

An impromptu eulogy is given by club chairman Jack (Alan David) as Ernie is stretchered off court to a waiting ambulance. Jack pays tribute to Ernie and his clinger only to be lobbied by various club members anxious that, as a result of Ernie forfeiting his match, they will be denied promotion or  relegated from their league.

Naturally, Alan wins the match by default….and gets the girl.

I do like a happy ending.

The Ringer

Ringer n One who misrepresents his or her identity or ability in order to gain an advantage in a competition.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a queue in a London bookshop with Ronnie Corbett, the  surviving (and smaller) member of The Two Ronnies comedy partnership. It was recently Corbett’s 80th birthday, an event marked by repeat broadcasts of many of his best known TV sketches as well as a new programme involving a range of British comedians.

One such sketch with Ronnie Barker sees the two engaged in changing room banter after a squash match. Corbett plays the experienced club player with Barker, a complete novice who has apparently played his first game ever – wearing a business suit. Barker is seeking clarification of the squash scoring system from the humiliated Corbett having just beaten him 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Corbett’s solitary point has apparently been won at the start of the match when Barker was still holding the wrong end of his racket.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Barker plays a ringer in this sketch but 25 years after its first broadcast, it still has the power to bring a smile to the face.

Wooden Squash Rackets – The Sound of Music

Squash Racket Strings

Well, I’m just about old enough (really!) to remember playing with a wooden squash racket – or at least a squash racket with a laminated wood frame. Not only did it have a frame made from ash but, in common with the guitar I was learning to play at the time, it also had natural gut strings made from animal intestines.

Squash Rackets, Guitars and Scientific Research

Now, at the time, I certainly didn’t want to feel instrumental in causing cruelty to animals purely to help my development either as a squash player or a guitarist. In fact, as a scientist (and consequently someone who’s naturally curious), I did carry out some basic research into what was involved in acquiring gut from the appropriate animal(s) and transforming it into racket strings and guitar strings. Without going into details, I decided to play on, my conscience being clear on the animal welfare front, or at least as clear as it could be at the time…

Squash Racket Repair

The approach to repairing squash rackets in those days seemed to vary from the professional (re-stringing and frame repair by a specialist) to the amateur (involving the use of a mind-boggling variety of adhesives and other materials then in domestic use. I personally remember using Araldite, Evo-stik, paper clips (straightened of course), fuse wire and electrical insulation tape to repair my squash rackets, some of which were contributed by my fellow squash players along with bold claims as to their effectiveness.

Racket Skills

So, when I recently came across some footage from 1976 of a squash match involving eight times British Open Squash Champion, Geoff Hunt, using a wooden racket – the memories came flooding back. Here it is, posted on the internet by Hernan Dubourg, himself a nine times Argentina National Squash Champion.

One feature of the match – between Hunt and Pakistan’s Mohibullah Khan – is the length of the rallies. I’ve seen a longer recording from the match which shows many of these lasting for 50 shots or more. Perhaps the footage shows that the rackets of the time were just as good as those of the modern era (in terms of the power of shot they could be used to generate) but were not as suited to touch play at the front of the court. Who knows? But let me invite you to just listen to the sound when the squash ball is being hit.

I don’t know about you but, as a former wooden squash racket user, it certainly does sound like music to my ears.