Tennis in Whitchurch

By Nigel Lewis

I was looking at some old photographs recently of immaculately-dressed Edwardian Whitchurch folk playing tennis. The men with striped blazers, white flannels, and straw boater hats; and the ladies (not women mind you!) in long white skirts, white blouses, and those incredible Edwardian hats with wide brims.

Quintessentially English (or for us more appropriately, Welsh) on a hot summer’s day in the village, knocking a rubber ball over a net on a manicured patch of grass. Lawn Tennis!

It got me thinking about how long the game of lawn tennis had been played locally. It must have been played for donkey’s years surely. For all the time we’ve lived in Whitchurch, there have always been people playing. People of all sizes, young and old, and all looking suitably bronzed in shorts/skirts, white tops and plimsoles (I couldn’t possibly call them daps!).

I was amazed to find that lawn tennis was only constituted in 1883-4, and was invented by a Welshman; Major Walter Wingfield, who was born in Denbighshire. Who’d have thought that lawn tennis was Welsh!

I’d previously discovered that there were tennis courts at the Polo Field from 1903, so there was tennis being played in Whitchurch only 30 years after being invented, maybe even earlier. Queen Victoria had recently died, so this was truly an Edwardian sport.

I’ve been shown a copy of a letter from a Miss DG Hobbis (writing back in 1975) who was born in a large house on Park Road. She recalls how, as a little girl, her father and her next-door neighbour planned to join the large tennis club at the Polo Field, but concluded that perhaps, there was room for a second club.

Miss Hobbis remembers: ‘Being Free Churchmen, they knew a number of young people at both Bethel and the Methodist Churches, who might be glad to learn the game. After contacting the other churches, a sufficient number of young and slightly older people were interested enough to make it worthwhile enquiring further. Well-known members from Tabernacle also joined’.

There was a plot of land behind the garden of number 68 Park Road (with orchards to the houses either side). The plot was large enough to accommodate three lawn tennis courts. This was in 1912, and they called it the Park Lawn Tennis Club (presumably after the nearby park).

Courts were laid out, mowed and white-lined, and netting strung around the perimeter of the plot to prevent stray balls from being lost. The first pavilion was a simple tented marquee with an awning, where tea was served. The old sepia-coloured photograph shows the members enjoying afternoon tea.

The club flourished, and whilst tennis was played throughout the week, no tennis was played on a Sunday as the founder was a strict Sabbatarian. A junior section was started to teach youngsters the game.

Within a few years, and with so many young men conscripted during WW1, there was no tennis until 1919-20, when play resumed. There were new members, and the growing popularity of outdoor sports and more leisure time helped.

As well as the Polo Field and the Park lawn tennis clubs, the game was being played elsewhere in the village, with courts adjacent to the Methodist Church (where Whitchurch Bowls now is), the Whitchurch Tennis Club on land in St Francis Road, and another somewhere off the Philog. Later, there were courts off the partly-built Manor Way and the YMCA club behind the Fox & Hounds. Lawn tennis was developing in Rhiwbina and Llandaff too.

It’s been suggested that the ‘golden era’ of lawn tennis might have been in the 1930s, when Britain won the Davis Cup four years in a row with Fred Perry.

New fashions meant that the flannel trousers and long skirts gave way to shorts for the men, and frocks showing a little ‘leg’ for the ladies. Apparently, there was consternation at the Park Lawn Tennis Club in 1933 when one of the younger and more attractive lady members turned up in a ‘divided skirt’ (whatever that was!). The following year a gentleman wore the first pair of shorts!

With the demise of the old Polo Club after WW1, its old wooden pavilion became available, and was carefully dismantled and re-erected at the Whitchurch Tennis Club. This remained until 1991 when their new pavilion was built. It was always ‘tea and coffee’ until the 1970s, when a bar was installed.

By the late 1930s, Whitchurch Tennis Club had its first hard court, using a black macadam-like playing surface.

The outbreak of WW2 and the following years saw the demise of many of the clubs, with even the Whitchurch and YMCA tennis clubs on the brink of closing.

Park Lawn Tennis Club was threatened with closure too. In 1946, the old owner of number 68 had died, and the house was sold. Fortunately, the club transferred to the larger ground off St Francis Road and merged with Whitchurch Tennis Club to become a new (combined) Park Lawn Tennis Club.

This combined club remained very traditional until 1953, with five lawn tennis courts and just the one hard-surface court. In the years following, the grass was slowly replaced with new all-weather courts. There was no longer a requirement for endless mowing and manicuring, or white-lining the courts. I wonder how many times the grass had been cut in those previous years?

With the introduction of municipal parks at Llandaff North and Birchgrove, hard-surfaced tennis courts were provided, but I understand that they are a poor substitute for grass!

My sketch below shows the Whitchurch club in its Edwardian splendour, with ladies in hats and their long skirts, men in flannels, and the old pavilion beyond.

I wonder what the future holds for ‘proper’ tennis in the village.

Thanks to Joy Henderson for the old photograph and for so much of the information contained in this article.

Nigel Lewis

Member of AWEN@thelibrary (