Andy Murray may have become the first British man to win Wimbledon for 77 years but without the contribution of Major Thomas Henry Gem, the Birmingham man who invented lawn tennis, none of it would have been possible. Enda Mullen takes a closer look at a truly global sport’s Second City roots.
It might not be a name that’s as familiar as William Webb Ellis, the founder of rugby union, but the contribution Major Thomas Henry Gem made to the sporting world is equally significant.
Perhaps it is down to the fact the famous All England Club in Wimbledon is seen as the spiritual home of lawn tennis but the sport (originally called pelota and later lawn racquets) was first played in an Edgbaston garden in 1859 and Mr Gem went on to co-found the first club in Leamington Spa in 1872.
The Post recently told how the long-lost grave of Harry Gem, as he was commonly known, was rediscovered in a city cemetery by amateur tennis historians.
By all accounts he was a humble man. He gave his friend Jean Batista Augurio Perera the credit for inventing the game but most acknowledge it was Mr Gem who devised it.
The two friends were members of Bath Street Racquets Club, based close to where St Chad’s Cathedral now is, and the idea for lawn tennis came out a desire to play a less expensive game than racquets (a game similar to fives and the forerunner of squash), which did not require an indoor court.
Two inventions essentially made the sport’s creation possible – the mechanical lawnmower, which enabled grass to be cut to a uniform height and vulcanised rubber, paving the way for the creation of balls which could bounce on soft surfaces like grass.
The early version of the game was played on the croquet lawn of Mr Perera’s home in Ampton Road, Edgbaston.
Mr Gem was something of a sporting all-rounder. As well as being founder of both the Bath Street Racquets Club and the Union Club in Birmingham he played real tennis, racquets and cricket.
He was also a capable swimmer and horseman and by all accounts a talented actor. Additionally he is said to have once run the 21 miles from Birmingham to Warwick in just over three hours, dressed in formal Victorian attire, to win a bet. He also set up the Birmingham Rifle Volunteer Corps and served as a solicitor and clerk to the Birmingham magistrates.
His funeral was attended by thousands and an obituary in the Edgbastonia magazine in December 1881 said: “During an acquaintance of nearly 40 years duration we never heard anyone utter a single unkindly word of Harry Gem.”
Mr Gem, who initially lived in Trafalgar Cottage on the corner of Trafalgar Road and Moseley Road in Moseley, and Mr Perera later moved to Leamington Spa in 1872, where they formed Leamington Lawn Tennis Club with two local doctors, Arthur Wellesley Tompkins and Frederick Haynes.
Based at the Manor House Hotel it was the first lawn tennis club in the world, though it lasted only 15 years or thereabouts.
The oldest surviving lawn tennis club in the world is the Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society, which Mr Gem and his wife Ellen had been members of before moving to Leamington, though it was previously known as Edgbaston Archery Society and subsequently Edgbaston Archery & Croquet Society.
It is not known whether tennis was ever played at the club before the Gems moved to Leamington and the sport was only formally adopted there between 1873 and 1875.
But Edgbaston Archery’s grass courts still sit on the same spot where they did in the 1870s, meaning it offers a true link to the earliest days of the sport. At around the same time the Edgbaston Cricket & Lawn Tennis Club and the Solihull Lawn Tennis Society took up the sport. The Solihull club later moved from its town centre base and merged but lives on as Solihull Arden Club.
Another Major (Walter Clopton Wingfield) is also credited with influencing the development of the game, though historians believe his to be a lesser contribution, even though he profited extensively from it.
The retired army officer returned from India and developed a game which was sold in boxed set form to the wealthy. Sphairiristike (later abbreviated to sticky and then lawn tennis) proved popular, but unlike lawn tennis as we now know it was played on an hour-glass shaped court.
As various versions of lawn tennis became popular much debate ensued in the magazine The Field regarding its origins, prompting Mr Gem to write in to say he and Mr Perera first played it in 1859.
In his letter he also gave Mr Perera credit for its creation, though the Edgbastonia obituary said that while many might be surprised Mr Gem invented the game it was “an unquestionable fact”.
And referring to the date he started playing it added: “This was long before Colonel Wingfield was known in connection with the game.”
Chris Elks, a tennis historian and trustee of The Harry Gem Project charity, said: “Harry Gem always said that it was Augurio Perera who did the law making for this game but I think it was just Harry wanting to be magnanimous and wanting to give his friend the credit. “Around the mid 1870s you had got a situation where there were several outdoor games with a racquet that were being created, though most were like real tennis and very aristocratic or up against a wall like fives or squash.
“Harry Gem was playing the game with his friend much earlier than others and when the debate was taking place about where the game started he wrote to The Field saying he had been playing an outdoor game with racquets for the last 15 years.”
As the popularity of tennis spread throughout the country, the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon introduced it in 1875. It started the Lawn Tennis Championship in 1877.
Interestingly, in terms of the sport’s continuing Midland connections the first men’s singles championship was won by Spencer William Gore, whose brother would later become the Bishop of Birmingham, while the first women’s champion in 1884 was Maud Watson from Berkswell.
Ms Watson, who did play at Edgbaston Archery club on at least one occasion, won it the following year too and British women would go on to win the title until 1919 when Suzanne Lenglen from France ended a lengthy period of home domination. In the men’s singles British players won it continuously until 1907 when Australian Norman Brookes claimed the title.
The following year Arthur Gore reclaimed it for Britain and retained it in 1909, though a British player would not win it again until the start of Fred Perry’s hat-trick of wins in 1934. That was followed by the 77-year gap that was finally brought to an end by Andy Murray on Sunday.
* Gem of a game recreated by duo
On May 25 2011 Robert Holland and Chris Elks, two of the trustees of The Harry Gem Project, recreated Harry Gem and Jean Batista Augurio Perera’s early game on the very lawn where the pioneers had played more than 150 years before in Ampton Road, Edgbaston.
Mr Elks, dressed in period costume from his own collection of antique tennis dress, said: “This was probably the first time the game had ever been recreated here since the two men played all those years ago.”
The event marked the anniversary of Harry Gem’s birth on May 21 1819 and publicised ‘Court on Canvas: tennis in art’ and ‘A Gem of a Game’, two exhibitions then running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham.
Gem and Perera had long handled racquets with angled heads, with no grips just plain wooden handles, which they would have used to play at the Bath Street Racquets Club.
The court was marked out following Harry Gem’s original plan, published in his Leamington Club rules.
It is three feet narrower than a modern singles court but 12 feet longer and fits still in the original location on the lawn of the modern garden behind the Ampton Road house.
The net is four feet high, (a modern lawn tennis net is three feet high at the centre) and supported with interim posts to keep the net cord as near parallel to the ground as possible.
* Restoration bid for lost grave found by trustees
The Harry Gem Project is a charity that was launched to celebrate and publicise the life of Thomas Henry Gem (1819–1881) through publications, exhibitions, community events and a dedicated web site.
Most recently three of the trustees – Chris and Sue Elks and Bob Holland – discovered the long-lost grave of Mr Gem in Warstone Lane Cemetery in the Jewellery Quarter.
One of the charity’s aims is for Mr Gem to be given the recognition they feel he deserves and it hopes to help raise funds to have the grave properly restored and a plaque erected in his memory.
The charity is also striving to publicise Mr Gem’s role as the originator, with his friend JBA Perera, of lawn tennis in Birmingham and the creator of the world’s first lawn tennis club in Leamington Spa in 1872.
In addition it hopes to devise and promote a tennis trail in the city, including a history display in the grounds of Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society.
It also aims to produce and publish the history of the oldest lawn tennis club in the world and distribute the book to schools and libraries in Birmingham.
Overall it also hopes to work with other interested parties to establish a higher profile for what it believes is a vitally important aspect of Birmingham’s sporting heritage
Ms Elks believes the British tennis establishment is not keen on promoting the sport’s Birmingham heritage and history.
“They don’t seem to want to promote it for some reason,” she said.
“Everybody seems to imagine lawn tennis is all about Wimbledon, and, of course, Wimbledon is London.
“For years now we have been trying to raise the profile of Harry Gem in Birmingham, while at the same time trying to tell people tennis is not all about Wimbledon.”
* Anyone wishing to find out more about the charity should visit the website at www.theharrygemproject.co.uk .