And in doing so, challenged the social exclusivity of private tennis clubsby David Berry / June 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Think of tennis and politics and the image that occurs is of Boris Johnson and David Cameron daintily batting a ball over a west London net. Tennis carries with it a blue tint, a decorous conservatism which is always on display at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) during the Wimbledon Championships, when its pavilions and lawns exude the leafy, buttoned-up charm of the prosperous shires and the more ambitious English suburbs.
The sport does indeed have bourgeois roots, as Patrice Hagelauer—the former French professional brought in by the Lawn Tennis Association to raise Britain’s game in 1999—discovered when he dug into tennis’s sociological undergrowth. The British game, he complained, was a “hobby for a few privileged adults,” and the private tennis club, a “social club for middle-class amateurs.” Every year, the strawberries and Champagne at SW19 and the presence of the Duke of Kent reinforce this image. Despite the success in recent years of Andy Murray and now Johanna Konta, most tennis in Britain is still played away from the public gaze, in private clubs hidden behind privet hedges, their gated boundaries defined by class. Indeed, both Konta and Murray were fortunate enough to be able to pay to train abroad (Konta initially in Australia—her nation of birth—and then Spain; Murray just in the latter) an opportunity that rarely falls into the hands of many budding young players. And yet there was a moment when things could have taken a different turn—when Labour politics and tennis became entwined, when miners and postmen, bank clerks and shop workers all competed at the All England Club, in a “People’s Wimbledon.”
It is a little fanciful to imagine today’s Labour Party—not even Jeremy Corbyn’s young Momentum supporters—fostering a network of socialist tennis clubs. But between the wars, tennis became an improbable focus of the Labour movement, which aimed to plant its flag in the game and popularise it among Britain’s working class. Had it succeeded, British tennis might have produced more champions.
That attempt to claim tennis for the workers began near the Woodcote Road in Reading, an arterial road not often associated with pleasure, camaraderie and games. Yet here, in September 1932, a remarkable sports tournament took place. Fifty trade unionists gathered in the garden of a villa called “Nuthurst” to inaugurate the National Workers’ Tennis Championships soon to become better known as “Workers’ Wimbledon.”
Today, there is no trace of Nuthurst or its tennis courts. Workers’ Wimbledon has disappeared too. Yet for 20 years, it was followed avidly by national newspapers as well as the radical press. Its finals were watched by Labour politicians and trade union grandees, many of whom proclaimed it as the true home of amateur tennis since, by that time, the major championships had become dominated by players professional in all but name. Its greatest contribution, though, was the type of player it attracted. In the 150 years lawn tennis has been played in Britain, Workers’ Wimbledon was the most powerful symbol that the game could be enjoyed by the working as much as the middle class.
In the spring of 1927, George Deacon and Ivy Noyes of the Reading Labour Party were looking for somewhere new to play lawn tennis, the sport they loved. Reading, a prosperous Berkshire county town of some 90,000 people, supported half a dozen tennis clubs that were keen to attract new members—so long as they fitted in. Deacon, who ran a small business, and Noyes, a clerk, would have had little problem, but many fellow Labour Party members—railwaymen, gas and post office workers, craftsmen and biscuit factory employees—would not have felt at home. The British tennis club between the wars was, according to the historian Ross McKibbin, “a tool to achieve high social standing.” Collars were white not blue.
So Deacon and Noyes decided to set up a club where all their comrades would be welcome. These were, after all, not times in which Labour and trade union people waited to be asked. The preceding decade had seen the party displace the Liberals, and, for all the gloom of the late 1920s—electoral defeat, depression in Labour heartlands, the worsening international scene—Labour people still believed in the power that came from their own organisation, not just in politics, but away from it too.
This pair of near-neighbours rented part of the Old Athletic Ground in Caversham, a Reading suburb. They collected £40 to roll four courts out on the lawn and install nets. The Reading Labour Party Tennis Club was born, the first socialist tennis club in Britain. Its founding captain was neither a solicitor nor a retired major, but a union official called Rowland Bishop, who had recently electrified the Labour Party conference with a speech demanding more nationalisation. Under his leadership, the new club quickly became very popular. By 1932, the Reading Citizen reported that it “was now full with 90 members” making it one of the larger tennis clubs in town. This was something worth celebrating and Bishop, Deacon and Noyes had an idea. They would organise a national tennis tournament open to all.
“Between the wars, tennis became an improbable focus of the Labour movement”
Entries were encouraged from trade unionists, the Labour League of Youth, and the co-op. And special invitations were sent to the other Labour Party tennis clubs that had sprung up around Britain, in Bristol, London, Swindon, Oxford, York, Guildford, Liverpool and Manchester, many inspired by Reading or from the same social seam. The first National Workers’ Tennis Championships was held in Caversham in September 1932, with Nuthurst reserved for the finals. Participants would be expected to be present at 10am sharp, although there was a “special dispensation” for those who worked on Saturday mornings.
It would be pleasing to report that the sun shone. It didn’t. Wind and rain dominated play and only 36 people finished their matches. Lionel Winyard, a postal worker from Southend won the Men’s Singles. Noyes and her sister Flossie were surprisingly defeated in the Ladies’ Doubles final. Perhaps Ivy had been distracted by the gathering she had organised on the Saturday night. In the Boston Hall on Oxford Road, players and supporters paid one shilling to drink and dance in the company of their guest Frederick Owen Roberts, a privy councillor and Minister of Pensions in both Labour governments of the 1920s, who entertained the audience with stories about the perfidy of Ramsay MacDonald as well as a dozen tunes on his fiddle.
Despite the weather, the tournament was judged a success, and one participant from Willesden in north London saw its potential. George Elvin never reached the heights of his father Herbert, who was President of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). But he did end up as one of the longest-serving trade union leaders of his generation. He served as General Secretary of the Association of Cine Technicians for 35 years. He also ran the British Workers’ Sports Association, set up by the Labour Party and TUC in 1930 to challenge the British Communist Party’s domination of working-class sport. Much as George Elvin enjoyed cricket, athletics and football, tennis was his true passion. He made it his mission to encourage working-class players and his most potent weapon was Workers’ Wimbledon.
With a marketing flair unusual for socialists at that time, Elvin arranged a second, more ambitious Workers’ Tennis Tournament to be held in Reading in 1933, this time not in a rainy September but in potentially sunny July, just after Wimbledon. Over 100 took part, including Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence an old Etonian and Labour MP who would become Secretary of State for India in Clement Attlee’s 1945 government. The tournament’s official name was ignored. Players and supporters simply referred to it as “Workers’ Wimbledon.” “How it originated,” Elvin reflected afterwards, “nobody seems sure but it is a good name and we are sticking to it.”
And they did, for two decades. At the third tournament in 1934 the trophies were presented by Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the TUC, who remarked that he was “very impressed by the way unsuccessful competitors congratulated their opponents.” The following year, the tournament moved to Brockwell Park in Brixton and included two players from Europe, a hard-hitting Czech called Oran who was, according to the Reading Citizen, “on the run from Hitler’s Stormtroopers”; and Fritz Jellinick from the Vienna Workers’ Lawn Tennis Association, a socialist club which once had 3,000 members but would before long be shut down by the Nazis.
The 1938 tournament, held in Southsea, attracted, according to the Portsmouth Evening News, “railwaymen, woodworkers, clerks, shop assistants, civil servants, bank clerks and insurance men… all ordinary working people and quite a number of them never had a minute’s coaching in their lives. Their tennis has been snatched after hours hurriedly and the result is surprisingly good.”
By then, Workers’ Wimbledon had become the pinnacle of an alternative tennis culture in Britain that encompassed Labour Party tennis clubs, miners’, postal workers’ and railwaymen’s tennis associations and public park leagues. Together they challenged the private tennis club code of exclusion and discrimination. Their approach had more in common with the sport’s earliest days, when it was an amusing passion played on country house and vicarage lawns, rather than the celebrity-driven, spectator sport top tennis had become. Competition could co-exist on court with courtesy and co-operation. Your opponent was also your comrade. Winning was less important than taking part.
“Our players are socialists,” George Elvin said in 1935, “and they realise that sport is but an aid to the development of body and mind. Our best players often sacrifice practice for work in the Labour cause.” A few years later, he would boast: “I am ambitious enough to look forward to the day when our major tennis tournament, Workers’ Wimbledon, will command more popular interest than any other.” It didn’t happen—not even when the tournament was held on the courts of Wimbledon itself. In this post-war hour, Labour’s high noon, every institution, however conservative, that had an instinct for survival understood the need to move with the times. It was the AELTC that invited the alternative competition onto its grounds. “Don’t suppose you ever expected to play at Wimbledon,” the 1947 programme boasted, “quite frankly neither did we. Workers’ Wimbledon gets stronger every year.”
This proved to be wishful thinking. When the Men’s Singles in 1947 was won by Howard Walton, the RAF champion from Birmingham, the tournament had become a side attraction. In the newly-egalitarian post-war Britain, there were fewer barriers to the mainstream game, at least for the better players. Walton’s main tennis was elsewhere. He played for Britain in the Davis Cup and would appear three times at the Wimbledon Championships themselves. In 1950, he even took on the great Australian champion, Fred Sedgman, winner of 22 Grand Slam titles, only losing in three close sets: 4-6, 5-7, 4-6.
The following year, months before the Attlee government fell from power, Workers’ Wimbledon was held once more at the AELTC. But it was now less of a serious competition and more a reunion for old friends. Elvin was there, the only person to play in every Workers’ Wimbledon since the first. Noyes and Bishop came up from Reading and Deacon was the referee. Entries were down though, and Deacon had less to do than he expected. He was seen wandering wistfully around courts dressed in a boater and green blazer. And the 1951 Workers’ Wimbledon was held, not on the beautifully tended grass of Wimbledon’s Centre and Number One Courts, but on the practice courts out the back.
People had lost interest not just in Workers’ Wimbledon but in all kinds of socialist sport. The combination of politics and local sporting endeavour, which the Labour Party tennis clubs represented so well in the 1930s, seemed out of place in a 1950s Britain entranced by the power of the state to transform people’s lives. The party’s job was to govern Britain rather than champion any kind of alternative life. The member’s job was to ensure the party was elected, not faff around on court. The rewards were increased affluence and greater consumer choice rather than the conviviality of playing games with people you love.
At the same time, tennis in Britain became more popular than ever. By 1950, there were over 3,000 private clubs and many in the coming decade would add all-weather courts, new clubhouses and floodlights to attract and keep members. Some started accepting competent players from any background as long as they knew—or could be taught—how to behave. A gap opened up, not just in the facilities the private clubs offered, but also in the standard of play. Only the most dedicated party member would carry on simply playing with their Labour Party comrades.
Elvin did his best to keep interest alive. “Some of the most active workers at the General Election were sports-minded young people,” he wrote in a booklet in 1951 which celebrated 21 years of the British Workers’ Sports Association. Workers’ Wimbledon was “one of the movement’s great successes.” But by then it was too late. That year’s Workers’ Wimbledon was the last. The socialist tennis clubs petered out, and their grounds were handed back to local authorities as the Labour Party retreated from organised sport. In 1960, the British Workers’ Sports Association was wound up. Ten years later, when I travelled to Reading to try out for county junior tennis, a working-class boy lost in a middle-class world, the Reading Labour Party Tennis Club had vanished.
“When I tried out for county junior tennis, I was a working-class boy lost in a middle-class world”
I wonder what would have happened if Worker’s Wimbledon had become my aim rather than making the Berkshire County Team. I doubt if I would have been a better player, but I would have met and played with boys and girls from similarly modest backgrounds rather than the Berkshire public school kids and their parents who never invited me back for tea. I would have had more fun. And perhaps I would not have given up the game at 17, frustrated at not having been able to become part of a tennis culture that seemed to have no place for people like me. I suspect that, among all those thousands of similar working-class children who learned tennis on the public courts in Britain in the second half of the 20th century, only to flounder in the alien world of the private tennis club, there would have been a potential world number one or two or three. And we would not have had to wait 80 years for the real possibility, this summer, that the men’s and women’s Wimbledon champions might both once more come from Britain.
I came back to tennis. Most people who play the sport in their early teens do, although it took me two decades. In my early forties and safely middle-class, I tip-toed back onto court one spring afternoon and discovered I no longer felt an outsider. Many of my summer evenings these days are spent at my club in Crouch End. Its members are, like me, mainly professional people. We did have a bookmaker called Bill but he didn’t last long. When I play in the Middlesex league, the players I encounter in the north London suburbs are teachers, financial advisors, IT consultants, GPs. There is rarely a trade unionist in sight let alone a call-centre worker or hospital porter. Tennis in Britain remains a pastime of middle-class manners where people like Bill the Bookie simply don’t fit in. If Workers’ Wimbledon had survived, it might have been very different.