At the western end of Churton Street in Pimlico at number 46 there is an Italian restaurant called Cacio & Pepe. Previously, it was a Vietnamese restaurant. Nothing unusual about that in a street with shops and restaurants churning fairly regularly.
However, although there is nothing to show for it in the way of plaques or anything like that, well over 100 years earlier there was a shop at this address that had a strong claim to be where a new game called “lawn tennis” originated.
It was launched and patented in February 1874 by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a well connected Welsh army officer. Originally, believe it or not, it was called “sphairistike or lawn tennis” after the Greek word for ball playing skill. It sold as a £6 kit from French & Co at 46 Churton Street, complete with racquets, balls and a set of rules.
As with so many inventions, there are others with competing claims, not least Harry Gem, a solicitor who helped found the world’s first tennis club, the Leamington Tennis Club, in December 1873 with a Spanish friend. However, it was Wingfield who first formalised the rules and standardised the sets of equipment.
It was only a few years later in 1877 that the All England Croquet Club, located near the railway tracks in Wimbledon, changed its title to include “lawn tennis” in its name, and many other croquet lawns were turned into tennis courts.
The game was soon spread to America by Mary Ewing Outerbridge of New York, who was introduced to it in 1874 by a friend of Wingfield’s in Bermuda. She returned to the US with a kit and established America’s first tennis club at the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club.
Lawn tennis could not have happened without two other discoveries, as Simon Inglis points out in his marvellous book Played in London. The invention by Edwin Beard Budding (1796–1846), an engineer from Stroud in Gloucestershire, of the lawn mower enabled grass to be cut smoothly, unlike the rough finish of the hand-held scythe which preceded it, while the application of “vulcanisation” by the American Charles Goodyear – he of motor tyres fame – led the way for air-filled rubber balls.
Wingfield wisely dropped name sphairistike, but his pioneering efforts led him to be known as the “Father of lawn tennis”. He would be rather surprised to see what his invention has led to at Wimbledon.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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