The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


* This is not just a museum, but a shrine. Every year it draws some 55,000 visitors, and of every ten of them eight to nine come from abroad. They come on pilgrimage to the All England Club. the hub and magic centre of the tennis world, and the experience they treasure above all is the chance viewing platform and survey the holy of holies itself - the Centre Court. And awe-inspiring it is, too.

The museum's story begins with the late Tom Todd (1911-84), who started picking up stray tennis objects, prints and illustrations in antique shops and junk and bric-a-brac places. In 1972 he organised a small exhibition in Leamington Spa for the centenary of the founding of the world's first lawn tennis club at the town's Manor House Hotel. The club's founders were a Birmingham solicitor named Harry Gem and a Spanish businessman, Augurio Perera, real tennis players who had been experimenting to devise an open-air adaptation of the game. Real tennis. of course, goes back for centuries - Henry VIII was good at it - but it needs a special building.

The exhibition in Leamington aroused unexpected interest; people began saying there ought to be a permanent museum of the game and Tom Todd approached the Wimbledon authorities. They were receptive, the needful was supplied and in 1977, to mark the centenary of the first Wimbledon championships, the museum was formally opened by the Duke of Kent. Tom Todd's own collection is on permanent loan and the All England Club contributed its own substantial array of books, programmes and press cuttings; but it also sent messages subtly through the ether to its unrivalled contacts among local clubs. The word was passed to the far reaches of tennisdam and all sorts of fascinating and weird objects began arriving out of the blue. These were gifts or loans, there being no money to buy anything at that stage, and the first curator, Tony Cooper (1907-85), had to organise the museum without knowing exactly what would be in it.

Since those days the collection has grown substantially and there is now a fund for nev.7 purchases, but Valerie Warren, the present curator, says it is fortunate the museum started when it did. Collecting in this field has become far more common and tennis memorabilia far more expensive. Recent acquisitions she particularly likes include an eighteenth century French painting of Louis XV's real tennis professional and a vigorous 1890s bronze figure of a woman serving (underarm in those days) by Francois Carol It is an indication of the breadth of the collection that another recent acquisition is a Stevens machine for testing the deformation of tennis balls, one of the rare original 1924 models.

Miss Warren started work at the museum just after it opened in 1977, hired for six months to catalogue the collection - a task which, she says with a cheerful giggle, has still not been completed. By 1985 she was the natural successor to Mr Cooper, presiding over a museum which likes everything to do with tennis, from the history and technology of rackets and balls to costumes and changes in fashion, courts and nets and equipment, lawn mowers, ornaments, figurines, souvenirs, ashtrays, teasets - featuring teaspoons with racket-shaped handles - books, postcards and cigarette cards, posters, photographs, cups and trophies - including the stately Wimbledon championship trophies themselves. …

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