The Workers’ Wimbledon

Tennis has often been considered an exclusive sport — but in the 1930s, trade unionists came together to challenge the private clubs with their own tournament: the “Workers’ Wimbledon.”

English tennis player Fred Perry, who was from a trade union family, plays during the 1935 Wimbledon championship. (Central Press / Getty Images)

This weekend, the final matches of this year’s Wimbledon will take place at the All England Club, an exclusive private club at which you can forget about ever becoming a member. In the Royal Box will be Hollywood stars, social media entrepreneurs, and hedge fund fixers, and all around the ground will be the unmistakable scent of prosperous shire and wealthy English suburb. The image of tennis as a sport of the establishment will once more be reaffirmed.

But that image is misleading. Tennis is a far more progressive sport than it appears from the pictures of Wimbledon on our television screens, and it always has been. In its 150-year history, the sport has constantly attracted individuals who were mavericks in their thinking and oppositional in their behavior.

Margaret Marshall, the wife of William Marshall, the runner-up at the first Wimbledon Championships in 1877, was one of many early players who were ardent suffragettes. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, one of the keenest of them, spent nine months in prison for his active support of the cause. He was subsequently a minister in two Labour governments. Many of the great champions like Leif Rovsing, Alice Marble, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Venus Williams have seen tennis not just as an enjoyable sport but as a site of struggle for freedom, fairness, and equality. Underneath its conservative veneer, tennis has long been a surprisingly radical game.

The game was invented in Pimlico in 1874 by Major Walter Wingfield, a Victorian entrepreneur who saw an opportunity for making money from a new outdoor pastime for the upper-middle classes. His “lawn tennis” quickly became fashionable throughout the British Isles and then, within a few years, in continental Europe, the United States, and much of the old British Empire. One major reason for its popularity was that it was played by men and women together.

Wingfield marketed his tennis sets at both sexes, and the speed and enthusiasm in which women took up the game astonished not just him but all Victorian society. It also managed to alarm some prominent early male tennis players who felt “their” game was becoming increasingly feminized. With the support of the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association, formed in 1888 to represent men’s tennis only, they started a campaign for a separate game for women with a smaller court, lighter racket, and a lighter ball.

Had the campaign been successful, it would have killed women’s tennis. The men’s game would have continued to develop as a public sport, with the resources, money, and power that entailed, while this new, softer women’s game would have reverted to a private pastime. What the campaigners didn’t take into account was the determination of early female champions to preserve tennis as it was — champions like Lottie Dod, Britain’s first sporting feminist.

In Exmouth in August 1888, Dod played a battle of the sexes match against Ernest Renshaw, who would win Wimbledon the following year. Renshaw won, but only just. “Our woman champion,” Pastime reported, “played so well that Renshaw had to run about as much as against a first-rate player of his own sex.”

Dod used the opportunity to lay down a direct challenge to the male separatists. She argued that the reason tennis was successful was because it was the first sport men and women played together. Male players stopped any tendency for the women to pat the ball back; women demonstrated they could cope with the weight of the racket since the game did not depend on strength alone. The men who wanted to treat women’s tennis differently were “invested with the prerogative of an irresponsible despot.”

Nobody could dispute Dod’s authority — a young woman admired by men as much as women — nor the unanimous support she received from other female champions. The campaign to separate women’s tennis collapsed and, in 1898, the Lawn Tennis Association agreed to assume responsibility for women’s tennis as well. It was a notable progressive victory, and it resulted in tennis developing a different kind of masculinity from other sports — one that has always had to adjust to the presence and power of women. Lawn tennis became what it remains today: the only major sport in the world that approaches something like gender equality.

It is true that this equality has mainly benefitted middle-class women, and that this has helped encourage the perception of tennis as a sport played only by the relatively privileged. But this perception is misleading, too, masking a hidden history of working-class involvement in the game.

In the spring of 1927, George Deacon and Ivy Noyes set up the Reading Labour Party Tennis Club, the first socialist tennis club in the world, where party comrades, railwaymen, gas and post office workers, craftsmen, and employees at the giant Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory could play together. By the spring of 1932, the Reading Citizen reported the club “full with 90 members.” That was something well worth celebrating: George and Ivy put an advert in the New Clarion for a tennis tournament which would take place over the weekend of September 10 and 11, 1932.

Invitations were also sent to members of a dozen other Labour Party tennis clubs that had been set up by this time, including ones in Slough, Bristol, Swindon, Oxford, York, Liverpool, and Manchester. Unattached players who were members of a trade union, the Labour League of Youth, or the local co-op were also encouraged to come along.

With all the planning involved, it would have been gratifying had the sun shone brightly that weekend — but wind and rain dominated play and only thirty-six people finished their matches. Nonetheless, there was an enjoyable party on the Saturday night, when Frederick Roberts, minister of pensions in the Labour governments of the 1920s, entertained an appreciative audience with a dozen tunes on his fiddle.

The tournament was judged a success, and a second was arranged the following year. On the weekend of June 15 and 16, 1933, this time in glorious sunshine, over a hundred contestants turned up in Reading for another two days of workers’ tennis. They included engine drivers, miners, clerks, postmen, secretaries, patternmakers, engineers, and an old Etonian, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. The official name of the tournament was ignored. Players and supporters simply referred to it as “Workers’ Wimbledon.”

Over the next couple of decades, Workers’ Wimbledon become the centerpiece of an alternative tennis culture in Britain which encompassed Labour Party tennis clubs, miners’, postal workers’, and railwaymen’s tennis leagues, and public-park tennis associations. Together they challenged the ethos of the private middle-class tennis club, with its codes of exclusion, and they championed an approach to the game that had different values from most tournament tennis at that time. Competition and rivalry could coexist on court with courtesy, friendliness, and cooperation. Your opponent was also your comrade.

The tournament was revived after the Second World War, but the energy had gone even when the All England Club invited them to play the finals at Wimbledon itself. Many Labour Party members had lost interest not just in Workers’ Wimbledon but in workers’ sport. At the same time, many private tennis clubs in Britain started accepting players from working-class backgrounds. The Workers’ Wimbledon tournament in 1951 turned out to be the last.

For twenty years, though, it gave a glimpse of a tennis culture run on socialist and cooperative lines and compared well with the status-driven stuffiness of many more-middle-class tennis clubs. Similarly, the Jewish tennis clubs, the mainly black American Tennis Association, and the recent LGBTQ tennis clubs in cities around the world have over the decades all provided powerful opportunities to imagine tennis as a sport that encourages participation from all. These clubs in turn have influenced the style and culture of the private tennis club in Britain and abroad.

It is true that many of these clubs have remained mainly middle class, and they do have a history of smug complacency and exclusion. But, at their best, they have also kept alive the spirit of voluntary endeavor, more common in society when tennis started back in the 1870s, and much rarer today; they are one of the few places in contemporary capitalist society where commercialism has been kept at a distance.

Club tennis in Britain and abroad remains a way of taking pleasure in the company of strangers. It is also the easiest place to develop that special relationship that exists in some other sports but reaches an intensity in tennis, where your opponent becomes one of your most intimate friends. This possibility of deep comradeship with a tennis partner is yet one more reason that those Wimbledon images of tennis are misleading — one more reason among many.