Birmingham is ‘The Home of Lawn Tennis’ with the first ever game of Lawn Tennis being played in 1859 at ‘Fairlight’, 8 Ampton Road in Edgbaston. It was then home of Spanish Merchant Augurio Perera and he and his friend Major Harry Gem, Clerk to Birmingham Magistrates played rackets at the Bath Street Rackets Club in Birmingham.
Gem and Perera wanted to play a rackets game outdoors and marked out a court on the lawn at ‘Fairlight’. Their first lawn tennis experiments date back to 1859. The dimensions of a modern lawn tennis court roughly correspond to those of the back garden of 8 Ampton Road, Edgbaston which would be our first stopping off point on the ‘Birmingham Tennis Trail’
The next place of interest on the ‘Birmingham Tennis Trail’ would be the Edgbaston Priory Lawn Tennis Club in Sir Harry’s Road (named after Sir Henry Gough Calthorpe, whose family own over 1500 acres of Edgbaston: ‘The Calthorpe Estate’) Edgbaston Priory is home to the important pre – Wimbledon Ladies Tennis Tournament: ‘The AEGON Classic’.
In honour of another hugely important and significant Birmingham tennis figure, the Centre Court at Edgbaston Priory is named after the 1969 Wimbledon Ladies Singles Champion Ann Jones, who at one time lived in Edgbaston. Ann Jones has devoted a lifetime of service to the game of tennis, firstly as a Warwickshire County Player, then as an international player representing Great Britain in The Federation Cup and as a British Wimbledon Champion and latterly as an official with the Women’s Tennis Association. Interestingly Ann Jones was a World Champion Ladies Table Tennis player as a teenager before turning to outdoor tennis.
The ‘Birmingham Tennis Trail’ then moves down through Edgbaston, past Edgbaston Golf Club, whose imposing clubhouse was once home to ‘Lunar Society’ member Dr William Withering, who invented the heart drug Digitalis. We turn left down Edgbaston Park Road which takes us to the University of Birmingham ‘Tennis Courts’ halls of residence. It was here that the Edgbaston Lawn Tennis Club was located until the mid 1960’s, when it joined with The Priory Lawn Tennis Club to become the Edgbaston Priory Club in Sir Harry’s Road.
The University of Birmingham kept the shale courts for a while and it was on one of these that Black Country photographer Martin Elliott, who sadly is no longer with us, shot the photograph which became the iconic 1970’s Athena poster: ‘The Tennis Girl’. The model who posed for this shot Fiona Butler is also local hailing from Stourbridge in The Black Country, and is now a grandmother!
Back via Church Road and past St George’s Church and Edgbaston High School for Girls and down Westbourne Road to the Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Society (E.A.L.T.S.)
E.A.L.T.S. is the oldest existing lawn tennis club in the world. The society’s six grass courts occupy the same piece of ground where the original courts were laid down in the early 1870’s. Therefore this patch of land holds the distinction of being the oldest lawn tennis playing surface still in regular use anywhere in the world.
The ‘Birmingham Tennis Trail’ then moves up the hill to the traffic junction named ‘The Ivy Bush’ after the public house on the corner of Hagley Road and Monument Road, near to Tolkien’s ‘ Two Towers’ in Waterworks Road, Perrott’s Folly and the Waterworks Tower.
The Birmingham Oratory just along Hagley Road in Edgbaston was at one time home to the first Olympic Lawn Tennis Champion: John Pius Boland. The son of a Dublin baker, whose Boland’s Biscuits still retail in Ireland, John Pius Boland attended The Oratory School as an orphan in Birmingham, where he played cricket and lawn tennis.
Boland was taught and coached at tennis by Father Pereira at The Oratory School. Pereira is not to be confused with Spaniard Augurio Perera above. Oratorian Priest Father Pereira also played County Cricket for Warwickshire CCC. Pereira Road in Harborne is named after Father Pereira and is near to the scene of some of his exemplary sporting deeds: The Oratory Sports Ground in Knightlow Road, Harborne, latterly used by St Philip’s Grammar School and Dixonians Rugby Football Club from Edgbaston.
John Pius Boland’s adoptive parents taught him to play lawn tennis and his tennis skills were honed by the coaching of Father Pereira at The Oratory School in Birmingham. Boland then attended Christ Church College, Oxford. In 1894 Boland invited a Greek acquaintance: Konstantinos Manos to speak at The Oxford Union on “The Revival of the Modern Olympic Games”. Boland and Manos became close friends and Boland was invited to spend the Easter holidays of 1896 in Athens.
It appears that John Boland had no intention of competing in the first Olympic Games in Athens however his host, who was a member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, prevailed upon the 26 year-old Irishman to enter the Olympic Lawn Tennis Tournament.
Boland won two Olympic Gold Medals. He took the singles title by beating Egypt’s Dionysios Kasdaglis in three sets and then joined German Friedrich Traun to win the Men’s Doubles Title.
Andy Murray at London 2012 was not the first Olympic Tennis Men’s Singles Champion from these islands. The ‘Roll of Honour’ was begun by John Pius Boland in Athens in 1896 and was followed in Paris in 1900 by Laurence Doherty and in London 1908 by Josiah Ritchie.
John Pius Boland became a noted Irish Nationalist politician until defeat at the 1918 Irish General Election when he retired from politics and moved to London to become Director of the Catholic Teaching Society. Another religious Birmingham tennis link is the fact that the noted Bishop of Birmingham, Alfred Gore whose statue stands in St Philip’s Cathedral grounds, was the brother of the very first Wimbledon Men’s Singles Champion from 1872: Spencer Gore.
OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST:
- Bath Street – site of The Bath Street Rackets Club & St Chad’s Cathedral where Perera’s children were baptized
- Great Charles Street – Perera’s business was here and it was the location for Gem’s incredible ‘Feat of Memory Wager’ (see www.theharrygemproject.com)
- Moor Street – The Police Courts may have been here as would have been Major Gem’s Office as Clerk to Birmingham Magistrates, a position held by Gem’s father before him.
- Warstone Lane Cemetery – Major Harry Gem’s grave was discovered here in 2013.
- Aston Church – Opposite Aston Hall: Gem’s father’s grave is here. Its location is not known.
- Waterloo Street (off Colmore Row) – Gem’s uncle’s law firm Gem & Co. had offices here.
- Thorp Street – Birmingham Rifles Barracks where Major Harry Gem was an Officer
- Moseley Road/ Trafalgar Road, Moseley – site of Major Harry Gem’s home: ‘Trafalgar Cottage’
Keith Bracey, Birmingham Historian