Saturday, June 15, 2024

Squash’s best treasure trove collection on the move in Australia

“I’ve never refused anything,” says Bert Armstrong of his stunning, eclectic collection of squash memorabilia and artefacts amassed over the last 30 years.

We must go back to 1981 to chart the collection’s journey, when Armstrong and his wife, Jo, first moved into their house in downtown Melbourne. “There was a pool at our previous place and there wasn’t enough land to build one when we bought here so my wife said let’s build a squash court,” says Bert. “It was the best decision we ever made.”

After paying the court painter with a case of a beer, matches were up and running and soon came the transition from wooden to graphite rackets, with Bert starting to hang up his old rackets in the gallery. When friends came round for a hit, they were then more than happy to hand over theirs, following an era where players complained of tennis elbow and accumulating more than their fair share of broken wooden rackets. Bert’s journey had begun.

He now has over 1,000 (intact) rackets, a collection interspersed with trophies, badges, balls in original boxes, banners, a wealth of squash literature, plaques from across the globe, stamps and posters to name but a few. All have been collected by Bert (thanks to Ebay or trips to the UK) or donated over the decades.

But now squash’s (possibly) best museum and memorabilia collection is on the move – and with it Bert’s marvellous story.

He donated the collection to the famous Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, where his fabulous array and racket history will be properly curated with a permanent display. It follows an AUS $18m renovation at the ‘spiritual home of Australian tennis’ and the addition of two new squash courts at the club. And while there has been a delay in moving his squash treasure trove due to the pandemic, Bert hopes the collection is up and running by mid-2022.

There will be historical links with the club, too. Five past Kooyong tennis members from yore are Wimbledon champions including Frank Sedgman and Neale Fraser, who were both keen and competitive squash players. “There is a marriage of members,” says Bert. “The museum will have an introduction of the evolution of squash in the UK and Australia, via the Kooyong influence, and it will go on from there.

“I’ve also had a valuation of AUS$ 250,000 for the collection, but then it will probably cost that much to display it at Kooyong.”

Yet this commitment shows just how important the collection is. Thanks to Bert logging details of the rackets and most of his other artefacts, the Kooyong collection will be able to tell stories of each racket as well as the 50 in mint condition from the 70s and in their original packaging.

“There is stuff I had completely forgotten I had,” adds Bert. “There is a silver plaque of the first international teams championships. I’ve got a sterling silver tankard from 1907 from the New York Racquets Club, rackets held by world champions and the first professional Australian Championships trophy.”

What he hasn’t forgotten is the landmark which will be reached the next time he steps on court at Kooyong in February. A stickler for his own squash statistics, he will play his 700th match at the club and his 1,255th in all on the Melbourne circuit competition.

“It’s taken a lot of sweat, beer, red wine, two knee surgeries, broken noses, hundreds of rackets broken, all that sort of thing,” the now 81-year-old says of a career on court which started relatively late, in his mid 20s.

Such is his longevity that Bert recalls playing a Melbourne Cricket Club member who played him 40 years ago. Said member played and beat Bert’s son 25 years ago and then took the honours against his 14-year-old grandson. “We’ve got a great image of the three of us and this player who has played three Armstrong generations,” recalls Bert.

He also claims to be the only person to have played squash at every World Masters Games since its inception in 1985 and hopes to partake in a ninth Games when it resumes. So what’s kept him going? “There is no substitute for a good sweat and a run around,” he says. “It’s that mixing with younger people and on the whole squash players are intelligent, motivated people.”

Back at his home venue, Bert reckons that in terms of a public court, it has only had around six years of usage over the decades. He says: “I’ve never washed the side or back walls. I’ve had to do repairs to the front due to a leak from the bathroom above, I’ve resanded the floors twice and the walls have this fabulous mix of blood, sweat and grime. It’s been remarkably maintenance free.”

Since the early 80s, thanks to a welcoming house and being on the board of various committees in Victoria, Bert has seen various up-and-coming players train on his court, held fundraisers for players going on tour, Nicol David has visited twice with Sarah Fitz-Gerald and he hosted a memorable exhibition with David Palmer five years ago.

“The court has compromised the design of the house from a resale point of view but we’ve never thought about that,” he adds. “We’ve had slumber parties, dances, a function room with a chef in the centre, indoor soft cricket, basketball and the court has been a great storage room too. It’s been a multi-purpose room.”

Although Kooyong has bucked the trend with the addition of two new courts, squash has been in decline in Melbourne and, says Bert, the sport “bottomed out” about two years ago. “I can’t see us producing another Geoff Hunt,” he admits.

The octogenarian has one of Hunt’s old rackets, his 1981 wooden number which won him the British Open. Now this gem, along with all the other colorful history from the walls and shelves that adorns every nook and cranny of Bert’s gallery has been logged and set for a new life. That a venerable Melbourne club has taken on the project is down to Bert’s dedication to the sport.

HOW THE COLLECTION DEVELOPED

When Bert was donated a banner from the 1989 World Games in Denmark, it was the catalyst to gather other squash memorabilia. As his wife was also an antiques dealer, Bert built up his collection from antique shops, junk yards, rubbish dumps and locations ranging from Hobart, Tasmania to Bermondsey, London.

“The squash fraternity have been exceedingly generous over the past 30 years with gifts of rackets, books, photos, posters, medals, magazines, banners. It’s sad that a huge amount of history of our game has never been carefully appreciated and probably finished in the dumpster. But I am very excited that it will now be in such a fantastic venue as Kooyong.”

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