As the heat and the tension rises at Wimbledon this week we look at the history of tennis through the University Archives.This charming Edwardian photo of Hartley University College students in 1910 shows the truly elegant sportswear of the time. While the ladies graced the courts in long skirts and large hats, the must-have fashion accessory for gentlemen seems to have been – the pipe?! The Wimbledon Championships – established in 1877 by the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club – is the oldest and arguably the most prestigious of our tennis tournaments. The popularization of lawn tennis (not to be confused with ‘real tennis’ – see below) is widely credited to Major Walter Clopton Wingfield who published, in 1873, the first official rules of a game he called “Sphairistike” (from the Greek: “the art of playing ball”). He patented the rules and equipment of the game the following year and quickly sold 1,000 tennis sets at 5 guineas a piece! His pamphlet “book of the game” is now very rare; it set out the history of the game, the erection of the court, and the rules. These, and the scoring system for ‘lawn tennis’, have hardly changed since the 1890s: so our modern game would have been familiar to the Hartley University College students of one hundred years ago.
The earliest origins of Tennis, however, fade into the mists of time and are disputed – some authorities mention the Egyptians; many refer to a game popular with European monks in the twelfth century. This was played around a closed courtyard and the ball was struck with the palm of the hand, hence the name jeu de paume (“game of the palm”). The name ‘tennis’ may derive from the French word ‘tenez’, from the verb tenir, ‘to hold’.
‘Real’ tennis – also called court tennis or royal tennis – grew in popularity with the French and English aristocracy through the Middle Ages and was played in London in purpose-built covered courts as early as the sixteenth century. Henry VIII was a keen player at Hampton Court Palace. The fortunes of the game waxed and waned, and by the 1820s, the only London tennis court still in operation was the James Street court near the Haymarket. The members of this newly revived club invited the Duke of Wellington to join them in 1820:In his letter, Robert Ludkin, Acting Secretary of the Club, writes:
“A ‘Tennis Club’ having been recently established… I am desired to communicate to Your Grace this resolution of the Club and to assure you that its members will be most happy in the honor of your company whenever it may suit your Grace’s convenience to attend.”
You can see the Duke’s pencil draft for his reply, which was written across the front of the letter:
“Compliments the Duke is much flattered at being admitted a member of the James Club; & will be happy to attend whenever in his power.”
Ludkin enclosed a printed list of the present members, which included His Royal Highness the Duke of York –plus the Rules and Regulations of the Club. The latter relate solely to membership, rather than to the game, and record a hefty subscription of two guineas a year:
“The Tennis Club do hold their first Meeting and Dinner on the first Saturday after Easter in every Year; and do meet and dine together once a Fortnight to the 8th of July following.”
Did the Duke dine or did the Duke play tennis? He certainly owned a private tennis court at his country house at Stratfield Saye, in Hampshire. When in 1845, Prince Albert played here during the royal visit by Queen Victoria and her family, the event was chronicled in the Illustrated London News of 1st February that year:
The ILN appended, for the fashionable Victorian reader, a brief history of the “olden game” of Tennis, concluding: “Thus it was in past ages, a royal and noble game.”