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Tennis in Bedfordshire

The earliest form of tennis, known today as real tennis, court tennis or royal tennis, originated in medieval France and was played in a stone courtyard.  Henry VIII was reputedly champion of England – probably because no-one dared to argue with him – and the royal tennis court at Hampton Court is still in use to this day.

The playing of royal tennis was discouraged because it distracted men from practising archery at the butts. Offenders were fined at the local manorial courts.  Grovebury Manor, Leighton Buzzard, forbade the playing of tennis, dice or quoits in 1469 (ref: KK622 m.16 no.9) while at Ampthill in 1502 twelve men were liable to a fine of 20d each if they played ‘tenecias’ again (ref: L26/48).  There are few references to real tennis courts in the county but there was a house called Tennis Yard at Luton in 1697 which belonged to the heirs of Abraham Crawley (ref: BH54; 64).  The architect John Wing built a new tennis court and riding house at Woburn Abbey for Francis, Duke of Bedford in 1792 which survived until demolition in the 1950s (refs: R box 394; Z508/1).

Lawn tennis as we know it today only developed in the 1870s when the Victorians searched for new pastimes and took advantage of the advent of the bouncing rubber ball and efficient lawnmowers.  In 1872 the world’s first lawn tennis club was founded at Leamington, Warwickshire.  Two years later a Major Walter C. Wingfield registered a patent for the game, also known as ‘Spairistike’ from the Greek for ball game.  Examples of very early racquets, somewhat similar to modern squash racquets, can be seen at Woburn Abbey today. 

The first Bedfordshire lawn tennis club originated from a croquet club formed in June 1871 by the Brooks family of Flitwick Manor.  The first tournament was played on 29 August 1876, a year before the first Wimbledon Championships took place.  The minute book records that from a field of six pairs a  Mr G. Tylecote and Miss P. Hodgson beat Mr. and Mrs. Cobbe, the prizes being a candlestick, writing set, fan and – perhaps appropriately for future generations of players – an umbrella (ref: LL17/323).  The early rules of lawn tennis seem extraordinary today.  The court was hourglass shaped, the net four feet high (three feet at the centre increasing to three feet six at the posts today) and racquets scoring, the first to fifteen points, with deuce at fourteen-all, was used.  By 1882 the rules as we know them had emerged.

Lawn tennis was very much the preserve of the local gentry and clergy of Bedfordshire in the nineteenth century.  The list of venues makes this clear; the South Bedfordshire Lawn Tennis Club (LTC) played at Flitwick Manor, Wrest Park, Silsoe and Cranfield Court whilst the North Bedfordshire LTC had courts at Sutton Manor and Sandye Place.  North Bedfordshire LTC narrowly won the first inter-club match played on 12 June 1880 by eight sets to seven.

By the mid-1880s, the North and South Bedfordshire LTC’s seem to have faded from the scene to be replaced by the town and village clubs which have become the mainstay of the game.  The Bedfordshire LTC was established at Bedford circa 1884 on what is now part of the lawn adjoining Bedford College.  The courts could be reached by ferry from Batts Ford before Prebend Street bridge was built.  St Peter’s LTC (established 1886), the Oval LTC at Shakespeare Road and Riverside LTC (1895) were also founded at Bedford during this period, the last named club sharing courts with Bedfordshire LTC before moving to its present site at Goldington Road in 1922.  The present Bedford LTC at Bradgate Road is thought to be the successor to Bedfordshire LTC, but piecing together the history of the clubs is difficult in the absence of many records from the cradle years of lawn tennis.  We hold records for Riverside LTC, including minutes for 1913-1982 (ref: X710) and minutes for Bedford LTC, 1920-1957 (ref: X769).  Apart from these sources, directories, almanacs and newspapers are also useful.  A club was established at Biggleswade in May 1884 when 95 people attended the first meeting on Mr. Daniel’s field (Bedfordshire Times 3 and 24 May 1884, p.6 col.7).

Unfortunately, there is little information about clubs in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Luton.  However, the minute books and press cuttings already mentioned show the development of the sport and attendant social attitudes since the 1870s.  In 1876 it was suggested that ladies should be allowed to let the ball bounce twice because they were so restricted by their long skirts.  Probably for the same reason women served underarm in the early years and often showed a marked reluctance to advance to the net for the volley.  What a contrast with the game today!  Graphite and fibre glass materials have made wooden racquets obsolete and resulted in the dominance of power play, while the arrival of open tennis and prize money in 1968 has made the sport a serious business at the top level.  The records here show the development of lawn tennis from a pastime into a sport and like all archives provide a salutary reminder of the way things were in the past.