The oldest lawn tennis club in the world is serving up an open day in Birmingham. Vicky Farncombe reports.
Think lawn tennis and the image that instantly springs to mind is a sun-soaked day at Wimbledon.
But married couple Chris and Sue Elks are on a mission to change that.
For more than 20 years, the retired PE teachers have been hunting rare rackets, original tennis dresses and Edwardian ornaments for their archive, which now features 500 pieces.
And the evidence they possess points overwhelmingly to one conclusion: Birmingham is the true home of the international sport.
For a start, the modern game was invented here, by Major Harry Gem, a city-born lawyer who was a member of Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society.
In addition, the first Olympic tennis champion at the Athens 1896 games was John Pius Boland who, it turns out, was educated under Cardinal Newman at The Oratory School, in Edgbaston.
“Birmingham hasn’t got the recognition it deserves,” says Chris, aged 63. “It should be given credence to the work of Harry Gem and those early pioneers.
"We need a bigger emphasis on Birmingham’s tennis heritage. It’s not something we should have to fight for.”
In a bid to set the record straight, the Wythall couple will be in residence at the 150-year-old Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society on Sunday (September 12) to talk about their memorabilia.
The private members’ club is opening its doors to the public for one afternoon as part of a scheme run by English Heritage to allow free access to places of historical or architectural importance.
It is the first time the club, affectionately known as The Archery, has taken part in Heritage Open Days and society trustee Bob Holland signed up because he too is disappointed by the lack of recognition accorded the region’s association with tennis.
“We thought it was about time that Birmingham knew a bit more about the club and a bit more about the history of lawn tennis,” says Bob, who will be giving tours of the immaculately-kept Victorian lawns and discussing the club’s history on the day.
“This club’s been a private members’ club for 150 years. It’s the oldest lawn tennis club in the world. Yet it’s hidden away on Westbourne Road and most people don’t even know it’s there.”
The open day will allow visitors to travel back through time and experience the development of modern tennis.
Items on display are set to include one of Fred Perry’s rackets as well as the elaborate, heavy tennis dresses worn by Victorian and Edwardian women.
“It’s only when you hold or wear these dresses that you realise just how heavy they are,” says Sue, aged 65, who has written a book From Whalebone to Lycra chronicling the development of women’s tennis dresses and how the game contributed to the emancipation of women.
“Historically, women’s place was in the home. Ladies did nothing during the day other than embroidery or playing the piano. When lawn tennis came out it was a big opportunity for them to become more physically involved,” she says.
As the heavy dresses made running around a tennis court a struggle, women had an excuse to lose the heavy trappings covering their modesty.
“The lengths of skirts shortened, sleeves were rolled up, hats were replaced with headbands. Their bodies were being emancipated,” said Sue. “It’s one of the tangible ways we can see it.’’
* The Heritage Open Day is on Sunday, September 12, from 2-5pm, at Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society, 14 Westbourne Road, Birmingham. For more details see www.ealts.net