Leamington's Role in the Origins of Lawn Tennis

Postcard of Manor House Hotel and Grounds, Leamington Spa, possibly 1930s. It was next to here that the first Lawn Tennis club was formed.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH 352/111/158. Photo by Pan Aero pictures.

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.

Wingfield’s version

The precise date upon which Wingfield launched his version of ‘lawn tennis’ is uncertain, dates of 1869 and 1873 have been mooted. 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, and there were many differences to the game we know today.

Due to some terrible blows in Wingfield’s personal life, he 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. 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.

Lawn Tennis, from Edgbaston to Leamington

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.

An annual tournament

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.1

Death and disappearance

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 November 4th 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 2nd 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.

1 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.

This is an abridged version of an article previously published on the Leamington Tennis Court Club’s website, and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

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