Tennis bats (and other sporting fauna)

Tennis players are probably already reaching for qwerty keyboards to protest at the term ‘tennis bats’ but it is used here because this is how it appeared in the 1891 census against the name of a former pupil’s grandfather. And to prove it …

1891 census
1891 census

One must assume here that the enumerator who wrote this was probably not a sportsman. Lawn tennis by this stage had been around for almost twenty years after Major Wingfield registered a patent in 1874 for the revised rules, drawn from real tennis which had been around for considerably longer. Called, somewhat unmemorably, Sphairistike by the Major, as lawn tennis it became immediately popular and within a year sets of equipment were being sold throughout the world.

Major Wingfield
Major Wingfield

Probably the most famous lawn tennis tournament, Wimbledon, began in 1877 – at a croquet club. In fact the full title of the place known throughout the world simply as ‘Wimbledon’ is still the All England Croquet and Lawn tennis Club. Lawn tennis was played on one court set aside from a number of croquet pitches.

Finding the entry in the 1891 census sent me on a quest to find out more about how tennis bats were made and by whom. First, let’s establish that they are normally called tennis racquets or rackets  – the jury is out about the ‘correct’ spelling. In fact the jury is also out about the origin of the word. One version is that it is from Arabic rahat al-yad meaning the palm of the hand. However more recent etymological research is inclined to favour the view that it is a Flemish word raketsen. This, in turn, is derived from Middle French rachasser meaning to strike back or to strike [object] back.

Whatever its origin and preferred spelling, tennis racquets were originally made of wood and the heads of the racquets were more oval than round. The image below is from https://www.rareburg.com/article/antique-tennis-rackets and shows the more oval head being replaced with rounder ones.

Tennis racquets early C20th
Tennis racquets early C20th

Early racquets, generally made of ash, were works of art and are now highly collectible but increasing rare to find. The strings were natural gut which made them much heavier than modern counterparts. The maker of the tennis racquet was indeed a craftsman and, in case you should decide “I can do that!”, you may wish to know that there are 42 steps required to make a wooden tennis racquet. They include:

1. Rout throat wedge from basswood.

2. Cut handle wedge from basswood.

3. Cut handle pallets from basswood.

and

24. Rout handle flake tip to proper shape and edge radius.

25. Drill holes with automatic driller.

and

41. Racquet is weighed and balanced again and weight added if necessary in handle hole.

42. Butt cap and grip is installed. Trim tape added to top of grip

(Information from http://www.thewoody.net/webpages/racquets/racquetconstruction.html)

You may also wish to know that the last wooden racquet used in a Wimbledon championship was in 1988 and that Bjorn Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles using one.

However, back to the 1890s when the grandfather of Eileen & Vera Hones, Edward Thomas Hones, was listed as a tennis bat maker living in Woolwich, there were several manufacturers of racquets in London at the time and he may have worked for any one of them – or none. Certain information is unavailable. Manufacturers like Jefferies, F H Ayres and Bussey were producing racquets but possibly more for the real tennis market. The manufacturers of note for lawn tennis racquets were A G Spalding bros, Wright & Ditson and Horsman.

http://www.antiqueathlete.com/vintage-tennis-rackets.shtml
http://www.antiqueathlete.com/vintage-tennis-rackets.shtml
An advertisement for Wright and Ditson
An advertisement for Wright and Ditson

Wright & Ditson, Horsman and Spalding were all American companies but all had branches in London. George Bussey was English. Which of these (if any) Mr Hones worked for is impossible to say. By the following census, his occupation was given as carpenter as it was in 1911 when employers’ names were often given so we will probably never know which company he made sporting equipment for. By the time his two granddaughters were born (1911 & 1912 respectively), the family may even have forgotten that Granddad used to make tennis bats. Only the recording of the enumerator in 1891 captures that moment in time. And now this.

Game, set and match?

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