In addition to being the home of the World’s oldest tennis club, Leamington played a pivotal role in the development of ‘Lawn Tennis’ – a game which appears to have become quite popular….
Opinions are divided regarding the creators of tennis; the main protagonists are Major Walter Clopton Wingfield on one side – and Major Thomas Henry Gem (“Harry”) with his great friend Juan Bautista Luis Augurio Perera (“Augurio”) on the other. Major Walter Clopton Wingfield’s statue stands at the headquarters of the Lawn Tennis Association – and it is he who is often credited with the creation of the sport.
The precise date upon which Wingfield launched his version of ‘lawn tennis’ is uncertain. Lord Lansdowne claimed that Wingfield demonstrated the game in the garden of his Berkeley Square home in 1869 – although there are doubts about the accuracy of Lansdowne’s recollection: he refers to ‘Major Wingfield’ although Wingfield didn’t attain that rank in the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry until May 1873. In his meticulously-researched work, Tennis: A Cultural History, Heiner Gillmeister reveals that on December 8 1874, Wingfield wrote to Gem, commenting that he’d been experimenting with his version of lawn tennis “for a year and a half”.
“According to the Major’s own testimony, therefore, lawn tennis à la Wingfield was not played earlier than in the Spring of 1873”
Having patented his “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis”, Wingfield commenced actively marketing his game in the spring of 1874. It was a boxed set – comprising rackets, a net with poles, court markers, rubber balls imported from Germany – and a set of rules & instructions. Sets were sold through Wingfield’s agent, French and Co. of Pimlico for between five and ten guineas.
In Wingfield’s version, the court took the shape of an hourglass and the net stood at 4’ 8”. Service was made from one end only, with the server standing within a diamond-shaped box. For the serve to be good, the ball had to bounce beyond the service line, rather than before it. Wingfield adopted Rackets’ scoring system (games consisted of 15 points – or ‘aces’) and named his game Sphairistikè (Greek: “pertaining to a ball game” – albeit making use of a feminine adjective but lacking an appropriate noun) Between July 1874 and June 1875 1,050 tennis sets were sold – largely to the aristocracy. Wingfield was author of two books on tennis: The Book of the Game (1873) and The Major’s Game of Lawn Tennis (1874).
Lawn tennis was played at Lord’s Cricket Ground. With the game becoming an important adjunct to cricket, in 1875, John Moyer Heathcote invited Wingfield to MCC to establish a universal set of rules. With an hourglass court and Rackets-based scoring agreed, Wingfield considered ‘his’ version now established as the official version of the game. Sadly, Wingfield’s personal life then suffered some terrible blows: his wife’s mental health went downhill and all three of his young sons were killed. Bereft and mourning, Wingfield lost all heart and interest in tennis and retired, leaving promotion and management of the game in the hands of MCC.
In 1877, the All England Croquet Club changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and established a new set of rules eschewing the elements characteristic of Wingfield’s Sphairistikè. It decided on a rectangular court 78 feet by 27 feet, adopted real tennis scoring – 15, 30, 40, game – and allowed the server one fault. The Wimbledon Championship was launched that year. There were 22 entrants and some 200 spectators attended the final – although it was noted that those present were more interested in socialising than they were in the match before them. Amusingly, the first men’s singles champion, Old Harrovian Rackets player Spencer Gore commented “Lawn tennis will never rank among our great games.” The next few years saw several amendments to the rules – the height of the net, for example – until 1880, when the All England Club and MCC published revised rules that resemble very closely those in use today.
In the meantime, two regulars at Birmingham’s Bath Street Rackets court, solicitor Harry Gem and Spanish merchant Augurio Perera developed a game on the croquet lawn at Perera’s Ampton Road, Edgbaston home, ‘Fairlight’. The two friends had been playing privately as far back as 1865 – and research suggests that experimentation may have started as early as 1859. Perera, Gem would assert, should receive credit for devising the game, which incorporated elements of Rackets and Basque pelota. Originally referred to as Lawn Rackets or Lawn Pelota, by 1872, the game had become known as Lawn Tennis.
In that same year, Perera and Gem each moved to Leamington Spa. The Wise family’s Manor House stood immediately opposite Perera’s Avenue Road home – and it was here that they established the World’s first lawn tennis club. The first official game was a doubles match between Gem, Perera and two Physicians from the nearby Warneford Hospital: Dr Arthur Wellesley Tomkins and Dr Frederick Haynes. This was five years before Wimbledon would hold its first championship, in 1877.
In his excellent work Tennis: A Cultural History Gillmeister reveals that Leamington Lawn Tennis Club held an annual tournament from 1874, as evidenced by a printed set of tournament rules dated for that year – two copies of which are extant. It’s even possible that the tournament could be traced back to 1872 – the year of the club’s inception.
The tournament was played at Leamington Lawn Tennis Club itself (on the lawns of the Manor House), in the Jephson Gardens and on the lawns of several other large properties in and around the town, including Shrubland Hall and Heathcote. It was no small event: Leamington-born tennis hero Ernest Renshaw graced the Leamington tournament for several years – and comments in the annals of the All England Club observe that in a number of years, the quality and quantity of the ‘field’ was weakened by leakage to the tournament at Leamington Spa. Although the All England Club’s event would eventually rise to primacy, the Leamington tournament persisted until the Second World War. (nb: I was born in 1967 and clearly recall daisies growing where the tennis court line markings had once been on the Jephson Garden’s lawns. The lines would have been marked out with lime – and daisies grow well in lime-rich soil.)
Harry Gem: actor, artist, composer, cartoonist, poet and player – a man who once ran the 21 miles from Birmingham to Warwick in under three and a half hours – passed away aged 62, on Nov 4 1881. He steadfastly refused to take the credit for the creation of lawn tennis – citing always his friend Perera as the man who conceived their game. He was buried at Warstone Lane cemetery in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, but the exact location of his grave remained unknown. On May 2, 2013 Gem’s memorial stone was discovered intact, cleared and cleaned by trustees of the Harry Gem Project – a charity dedicated to promoting Gem’s contribution to the sporting world.
Augurio Perera left Leamington in 1884, three years after the death of his friend; it would appear that nothing is known of what then became of him.
A tennis cup permanently on display in the town’s Art Gallery & Museum featured in the celebrated Radio 4 series:
When the Leamington Lawn Tennis Club Tournament was won three years in a row by Dr Joshua Pim, the club awarded him the competition’s silver trophy for life. Pim (1869-1942) born in Bray, Co. Wicklow, later resident in Kiliney, Co. Dublin, was considered the finest tennis player of his day. He won two Wimbledon singles titles in 1893 and 1894 and in 1902 was coaxed out of retirement to captain the Davis Cup team to America. Following his passing, Pim’s family kindly re-presented the trophy to Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum.
William and Ernest Renshaw (b. Jan. 3, 1861, Brandon Parade, Royal Leamington Spa) dominated the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club’s tournament in Wimbledon during the 1880s and are credited with transforming tennis into a spectator sport.
The Renshaws entered the 1879 All England tennis championships but, somewhat daunted by the crowd, they elected to watch and learn rather than play. Their début on court at the championships came in 1880, when Willie was beaten in the second round and Ernest reached round three. Thereafter followed a period of unprecedented success.
The Renshaws introduced fast serves and volleyed returns to a game which up to that point, had been played almost exclusively from the baseline. Players adopted either the heavily-‘cut’ real tennis shot – or the wristy flicks of rackets. By way of contrast, the Renshaws developed a distinctively different style, intercepting early with volleys and smashes. Willie was forceful, determined and athletic; Ernest: measured, stylishly graceful, and mannered. By sending one player up at the net to intercept and volley, they turned doubles play on its head. Their brisk serve-and-volley playing style, which became known as the “Renshaw Rush”, confounded opponents and held the audience in thrall.
Willie won twelve Wimbledon titles – seven of which were in singles, an all-time record matched only by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. The first six Singles titles, though, were consecutive (1881-6) – an achievement which has yet to be equalled. This said, the five successive wins achieved by Björn Borg and Roger Federer respectively are considered the ‘modern’ record: in Renshaw’s day, the reigning champion was granted automatic entry to the following year’s final.
Willie defeated his brother Ernest in the 1882 and 1883 finals. In 1886, Willie developed tennis elbow; while he rested, brother Ernest took up the slack: he was runner-up in 1887, then went on to win in 1888. In 1889, Willie returned and prevailed over Ernest in the final to take his seventh singles title. Together they took the British Doubles Championship seven times.
In 1888, William was elected the first President of the British Lawn Tennis Association.
The last appearance of a Renshaw at Wimbledon was in 1893, when the twins were drawn to play each other in the first round. Willie withdrew in favour of his younger brother, who lost in the subsequent round.
Ernest Renshaw died on 2 September 1899 at The Grange, Waltham St Lawrence, near Twyford, Berkshire, having ingested spirits of carbolic acid. The subsequent inquest found no evidence to suggest that it had been taken intentionally. Described as ‘a gentleman of independent means’, Willie Renshaw died at Swanage, Dorset, on 12 August 1904, following epileptic convulsions. Neither twin married.
In 1905, the Renshaw family presented the All-England Club with a trophy – The Renshaw Cup – for any winner of the Wimbledon Men’s Singles All Comers Final, who then went on to play the champion of the previous year in the Challenge Round for the title. This practice ceased in 1922, since when the reigning champions have had to play in the main draw. After 1922, the cup was awarded to the Men’s Singles Champion – who thus received two trophies.
From Elkington and Co. – makers of the plate for the Wimbledon Women’s Singles Championship – The Renshaw Cup features a player with wings on his back and heels, holding aloft a cup. In 2006, Christies sold Fred Perry’s 1936 Renshaw Cup trophy for £31,200