The long lost grave of the Birmingham man who invented tennis has been rediscovered in a city cemetery.
In the week Wimbledon gets under way, Major Harry Gem’s resting place has been uncovered in Warstone Lane Cemetery in the Jewellery Quarter – and campaigners are now calling for him to be given the recognition he deserves.
Major Gem, who created the game of lawn tennis with JBA Perera in a back garden in Ampton Road, Edgbaston, before going on to found the world’s first lawn tennis club in Leamington Spa in 1872, was buried in 1882, but the location of his grave remained a mystery for years.
Amateur tennis historians Chris and Sue Elks, of Wythall, joined forces with fellow enthusiast Bob Holland in an attempt to find the lost grave and their efforts have now borne fruit.
The trio, who were inspired by a shared interest in tennis history, were determined to locate the grave and carried out research with the Church of England and Birmingham City Council in a bid to find it.
With the help of a grave-digger they discovered it hidden under six inches of soil and have now embarked on a drive to have it properly restored and maintained.
They also believe Major Gem’s role in the history of tennis has been overlooked and have launched a drive to see the grave turned into a fitting memorial.
They are now hoping to raise funds for its restoration and the erection of a plaque in his memory.
In the long term they also hope the restored grave could form part of a tennis trail around Birmingham in recognition of the city being the true home of the sport.
“Considering he was such a brilliant man and bearing in mind thousands of people are said to have turned up at his funeral we thought it was a bit strange there wasn’t a more prominent grave,” said Mr Elks.
Mrs Elks added: “For years Chris and I 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 Wimbledon.
“We met up with Bob through a tennis collector group which has members worldwide and discovered he had been trying to do the same thing as us for years – so we joined forces.
“We thought one positive thing we could do first of all was to investigate where Harry Gem was buried.
“It had always been known it was Warstone Lane Cemetery but it had got into a terrible state.
“It’s a very old cemetery and hasn’t been maintained, so a lot of the graves are in a desperate state.”
Permission to search for Major Gem’s grave had to be obtained from the Bishop of Birmingham and records obtained of where the grave was supposed to be.
But the search drew a blank when there appeared to be no trace of it in a location marked on old church records.
Eventually the grave was found more by chance than by design.
“The council grave-digger dug at the side and his spade hit something solid,” said Mrs Elks. “When we cleared that away it exposed the gravestone.
“Many Victorian graves did not use headstones but flat stones which cover the whole size of the plot and are usually raised on plinths.
“Over the years all of the graves have been so badly let go and most of the plinths have broken up and sunk into the soil.”
Mrs Elks said she believed the location of the grave had either been recorded incorrectly or the headstone moved when Mr Gem’s wife Ellen was buried in the same plot.
“It could be when they interred her they moved the original big stone and it somehow got moved to the left or the right and got covered up over the years,” she said.
“We found it by mistake but fortunately it was close by.”
After discovering the grave Mrs Elks said they placed a marker and some flowers and the city council have since erected a temporary plaque.
“It was a bit of a Eureka moment,” she added. “We did expect to find something but thought it might just be broken bits of a headstone as a lot of headstones from that era have crumbled and broken.
“We weren’t expecting to find a beautifully engraved stone intact but the engraving on the top is in perfect condition because it has been buried and conserved. It now needs to be brought up properly, lifted off the surface, cleaned and a kerbstone put around it.”
Anyone wishing to find out more about the discovery of Mr Gem’s grave and other moves to mark his memory should visit the website at www.theharrygemproject.co.uk/.