William Hazlitt on a Sporting Life

C.L.R. James mused in “Beyond a Boundary”–his far out book on cricket and “what men live by”–that he hoped to “write of the game and its players as Hazlitt wrote of fives and Cavanagh.”  James knew his 19th C. Brit culturalists and his praise led your editor to the following swatch from Hazlitt’s “Table Talk,” in which the eminent pre-Victorian paid tribute “to the best fives-player that perhaps ever lived…” 

Died at his house in Barbage street, St. Giles’s s, John Cavanagh, the famous hand fives player. When a person dies, who does any one thing better than any one else in the world, which so many others are trying to do well, it leaves a gap in society. It is not likely that any one will now see the game of fives played in its perfection for many years to come—for Cavanagh is dead, and has not left his peer behind him. It may be said there are things of more importance than striking a ball against a wall—there are things indeed which make more noise and do as little good, such as making war and peace, making speeches and answering them, making verses and blotting them; making money and throwing it away. But the game of fives is what no one despises who has ever played at it. It is the finest exercise for the body, and the best relaxation for the mind. The Roman poet said that ”Care mounted behind the horseman and stuck to his skirts.” But the remark would not have applied to the fives-player. He who takes to playing at fives is twice young. He feels neither the past nor future “in the instant.” Debts, taxes, ”domestic treason, foreign levy, nothing can touch him further.” He has no other wish, no other thought, from the moment the game begins, but of striking the ball, of placing it, of making it!

This Cavanagh was sure to do. Whenever he touched the ball, there was an end of the chase. His eye was certain, hand fatal, his presence of mind complete. He could do what he pleased, and he always knew exactly what to do. He saw the whole game and played it; took instant advantage of his adversary’s weakness, and recovered balls, as if by a miracle and from sudden thought, that everyone gave up for lost. He had equal power and skill, quickness, and judgement. He could either out-wit his antagonist by finesse, or beat him by main strength. Sometimes, when he seemed preparing to send the ball with the full swing of his arm, he would by a slight turn of his wrist drop it within an inch of the line. In general, the ball came from his hand, as if from a racket, in a straight horizontal line; so that it was in vain to attempt to overtake or stop it. As it was said of a great orator that he never was at a loss for a word, and for the properest word, so Cavanagh always could tell the degree of force necessary to be given to a ball, and the precise direction in which it should be sent. He did his work with the greatest ease; never took more pains than was necessary; and while others were fagging themselves to death, was as cool and collected as if he had just entered the court. His style of play was as remarkable as his power of execution. He had no affectation, no trifling. He did not throw away the game to show off an attitude, or try an experiment. He was a fine, sensible, manly player, who did what he could but that was more than any one else could even affect to do. His blows were not undecided and ineffectual—lumbering like Mr. Wordsworth’s epic poetry, nor wavering like Mr. Coleridge’s lyric prose, nor short of  the mark like Mr. Bougham’s speeches, nor wide of it like Mr. Canning’s wit, nor foul like the Quarterly, nor let balls like the Edinburgh Review. Cobbett and Junius together would have made a Cavanagh. He was the best up-hill player in the world; even when his adversary was fourteen, he would play on the same or better, and as he never flung away the game through carelessness and conceit, he never gave it up through laziness or want of heart. The only peculiarity of his play was that he never volleyed but let the balls hop; but if they rose an inch from the ground, he never missed having them. There was not only nobody equal, but nobody second to him. It is supposed that he could give any other player half the game, or beat him with his left hand. His service was tremendous. He once played Woodward and Meredith together (two of the best players in England) in the Fives-court, St. Martins’s street, and make seven and twenty aces following by services alone–a thing unheard of. He another time played Peru, who was considered a first-rate fives-players, a bout of five games, and in the three first games, which of course decided the match, Peru got only one ace.

Cavanagh was an Irishman by birth, and a house-painter by profession. He had once laid aside his working–dress, and walked up, in his smartest clothes, to the Rosemary Branch to have an afternoon’s pleasure. A person accosted him, asked him if he would have a game. So they agreed to play for half-a-crown a game, and a bottle of cider. The first game began–it was even, eight, ten, thirteen, fourteen, all. Cavanagh won it. The next was the same. They played on, and each game was hardly contested. “There,” said the unconscious fives-player, “There was a stroke that Cavanagh could not take: I never played better in my life, and yet I can’t win a game. I don’t know how it is.” However, they played on, Cavanagh winning every game, and the by-standers drinking the cider, and laughing all the time. In the twelfth game, when Cavanagh was only four, and the stranger thirteen, a person came in and said, “What! are you here, Cavanagh?” The words were no sooner pronounced than the astonished player let the ball drop from his hand, and saying, “What! Have I been breaking my heart all this time to beat Cavanagh?” refused to make another effort.  “And yet I give you my word,” said Cavanagh, telling the story with some triumph, “I played all the while with my clenched fist”—He used frequently to play matches at Copenhagen-house for wagers and dinners. The wall against which they play is the same that supports the kitchen-chimney, and when the wall resounded louder than usual, the cooks exclaimed, “Those are the Irishman’s balls,” and the joints trembled on the spit!—Goldsmith consoled himself that there were places where he was admired; and Cavanagh was the admiration of all the fives-courts, where he ever played. Mr. Powell, when he played matches in the Court in St. Martin’s street, used to fill his gallery at half-a-crown a head, with amateurs and admirers of talent in whatever department it is shown. He could not have shown himself in any ground in England, but he would have been immediately surrounded with inquisitive gazers, trying to find out in what part of his frame his unrivaled skill lay, as politicians wonder to see the balance of Europe suspended in Lord Castlereagh’s face, and admire the trophies of the British Navy lurking under Mr. Croker’s hanging brow. Now Cavanagh was as good looking a man as the Noble Lord, and much better looking than the Right. Hon. Secretary. He had a clear, open countenance, and did not look sideways or down, like Mr. Murray the bookseller. He was a young fellow of sense, humour, and courage. He once had a quarrel with a waterman at Hungerford-stairs, and, they say, served him out in great style. In a word, there are hundreds at this day, who cannot mention his name without admiration, as the best fives-player that perhaps ever lived (the greatest excellence of which they have any notion)—and the noisy shout of the ring happily stood him in stead of the unheard voice of posterity! The only person who seems to have excelled as much in another way Cavanagh did in his, was the late John Davies, the racket-player. It was remarked of him that he did not seem to follow the ball, but the ball seemed to follow him. Give him a foot of wall, and  he was sure to make the ball. The four best racket players of that day were Jack Spines, Jem Harding, Armitage, and Church. Davies could give any one of these two hands a tie, that is, half the game, and each of these, at their best, could give the best player now in London the same odds. Such are the gradations in all exertions of human skill and art. He once played four capital players together, and beat them. He was also a first-rate tennis player, and an excellent fives-player. In the Fleet or Kings’ Bench, he would have stood against Powell, who was reckoned the best open-ground player of this time. This last-mentioned player is at present the keeper of the Fives-court, and we might recommend to him for a motto over his door—“Who enters here, forgets himself, his country, and his friends.” And the best of it is, that by the calculation of the odds, none of the three are worth remembering! Cavanagh died from the bursting of a blood vessel, which prevented him from playing for the last two or three years. This, he was often heard to say, he thought, hard upon him. He was fast recovering, however, when he was suddenly carried off, to the regret of all who knew him. As Mr. Peel made it a qualification of the present Speaker, Mr. Manners Sutton, that he was an excellent moral character, so Jack Cavanagh was a zealous Catholic, and could not be persuaded to eat meat on a Friday, the day on which he died. We have paid this willing tribute to his memory.

“Let no rude hand deface it,
And his forlorn Hic Jacet “

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