By Martin Linsley and Colin Randall.
Sometime about now (late 2023 or early 2024) marks the 150th anniversary of someone playing the first game of tennis at some location in Australia. Here the case is made that the someone was a British Royal Navy officer (or someone closely associated with him) on Garden Island, Sydney, in the colony of New South Wales.
The early history of tennis provides useful background to this proposition. Significant points of that history are that Harry Gem and his friend Augurio Peraera combined elements of the games of racquets and Basque pelota to play a similar game on an English croquet lawn between 1859 and 1865 (They later helped form the world’s first tennis club in 1874.). In the early 1870s Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was also experimenting with versions of tennis. It is not known when he decided on one version, but by December 1873, Wingfield’s agent was marketing the first edition of his book The Game of Sphairistike or Lawn Tennis. In February 1874 Wingfield was granted a patent, not for the game of tennis, but for a ‘New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis’. He also gained copyright on the rules for playing the game. These developments demonstrate the entrepreneurship which led to Wingfield’s organising the production and marketing of boxed sets of the equipment needed to play his game.
Previously the equipment needed to play forms of tennis had to be procured from various outlets. In May 1875 the Marylebone Cricket Club, assisted by Wingfield, revised the rules, dropped the Sphairstike name, and produced the Rules of Lawn Tennis which, with modifications, are used today. Between July 1874 and June 1875 1,050 tennis sets were sold. The records of those sales show no listing of equipment going to Australia. This suggests that any sets arriving there would have been in the luggage of individuals returning, emigrating, or serving in one of the colonies there.
Sets were mainly sold to the aristocracy. In 1870 Wingfield had been appointed to the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms (a very small royal ceremonial guard), which would have brought him in contact with people of the court of Queen Victoria and her son, the Prince of Wales. The future King Edward VII and his family were one of the early buyers of a Sphairistike set and were reported as being highly skilled players.
So, when, where, and by whom was tennis introduced to Australia? Evidence is found in newspapers, magazines, journals, and other documents from that period. The Tennis Heritage website presents such evidence, and from this and other sources the following claims of colonial cities have been made. As background to these claims, in the early 1870s Hobart had approximately 60,000 residents, Brisbane 20,000, Melbourne (benefiting from the gold rush) 210,000, and Sydney approximately 60,000.
Hobart’s claim to having been the pioneer state for tennis in Australia has been based on an article in The Mercury (Hobart) on 26 Sep 74 which refers to ‘forming a tennis court’. This structure was built in 1875, and two English professional players were employed there, but that game was court tennis, a predecessor of lawn tennis. Page two of the Tasmanian Tribune of 9 June 1875 contains within an untitled paragraph about sport in England: ‘Tennis is, however, a game not much practised. Racquet and lawn tennis have superseded it in a great measure.’ Over six months later, on 30 Dec 1875, page three of The Mercury contains the comment: ‘Perhaps in the whole neighbourhood there are only two resident gentlemen unmarried, and they probably prefer turnip fields and partridges to young ladies and lawn tennis.’ This text was probably reproduced from an English journal, with the ‘neighbourhood’ being in that country, but just one month later the 28 Jan 1876 edition of The Mercury contained an advertisement for ‘lawn tennis’ being auctioned, and that does suggest the existence of the game in Hobart. But this was not the earliest advertisement for tennis in Australia.
Brisbane’s Courier newspaper provided a history of lawn tennis in the edition of 8 March 1888 which stated that ‘Until 1876 lawn tennis was not played or even thought of in Brisbane, or perhaps in Queensland, but in August of that year Mr R. H. Roe, MA, the headmaster of the Brisbane Grammar School, came out from England to take up his present position, and brought out a lawn tennis set.’ The writers of that article might have read a brief article in Brisbane’s The Week journal published on 18 January 1876 which referred to the game of Sphairstike and its ‘second title, that of “Lawn Tennis”.’ They seemingly didn’t read the observation in Brisbane’s The Telegraph on 15 Dec 1875 that ‘Perhaps in the whole neighbourhood there are only two resident gentlemen unmarried, and they probably prefer turnip fields and partridges to young ladies and lawn tennis.’ (Yes, the same comment that the Hobart residents had been exposed to.) So, it can be inferred that residents of Brisbane also knew of, if were not actually playing tennis by the close of 1875. Whatever, during 1876 the game must have taken-off in Queensland for, by year’s end, there were enough players to create what may well have been Australia’s first Lawn Tennis Club and, before long, a tennis association of several clubs.
There are few, if any, records of the introduction of tennis to Perth, but there is a reference to the growth of tennis clubs coming in the last decade of the nineteenth century in association with Western Australia’s gold rushes. Until then, there were likely few residents with aristocratic connections and/or leisured wealth to play tennis in that colony.
The people of Victoria might have been the first to have heard about tennis. On the 25 June 1874 the following paragraph was published in the Mount Alexander Mail:
“Sphairistike,” or lawn tennis, the new rival to croquet; has been most favourably reviewed by all the public journals;
They declare that it a clever adaptation of tennis; that it will become a national pastime; that no English home,
no public grounds; no barrack square, should be without it.
Although the journals referred to must have been English, such publicity in Victoria would have helped the game becoming the ‘rage’ as it was described in The Age of 5 June 1875. It is noteworthy that the reference to ‘barrack square’ suggests the military’s engagement with tennis. However, tennis was first played on private courts, with the first Victorian club (asphalt) tennis court being built by the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) in 1878. The club’s first grass court was laid a year later.
Shortly after the reference was made to Sphairistike in the Mt Alexander Mail, on 26 September 1874, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser published an article titled Lawn Tennis. It contained a brief history of the game, directions on how to produce ‘the perfect lawn tennis court’ and the rules for playing. For such content to be published it is likely that tennis was then being played in Sydney. If this was the case, then Sydney could claim to be where tennis was first played in Australia. Where in Sydney? Quite possibly Garden Island, for an 1880 plan of the island shows a lawn tennis ground located on the levelled site of the original First Fleet ships’ garden. For this to be there, it must have been approved by someone in authority.
Britain’s Royal Navy took control of Garden Island in 1858 so that a flotilla, ‘The Australia Station’ could be based there. In June 1866 the island officially became a Navy Depot, although it was not until 1885 that significant building work was undertaken. Responsibility for the Australia Station, including its land use, lay with its senior officer. Between May 1873 and his death in August 1875 Commodore James Graham Goodenough, RN was the commander-in-chief of the station.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography asserts that James Goodenough was well known and liked, and that he was a keen race-goer. These attributes would have served him well between 1871 and 1873 whilst serving in London and as a naval attaché in Europe. It’s not unlikely that he mixed with royalty such as the Prince of Wales. Further evidence of his connections is that his widow became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.
It’s also plausible that whilst in London Goodenough reacquainted himself with Walter Wingfield for both had served on the China Station in 1860, when British forces captured Peking. In London both held responsible military positions: Goodenough representing his country and Wingfield’s appointment to the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms. It’s not unlikely that they attended the same social and sporting functions.
Between 1871 and 1873, in addition to his military duties, Wingfield was probably finalising the development of Sphairistike/lawn tennis and organising the factory production of equipment sets. It is also highly likely that that he undertook tests and trials of the game with friends and acquaintances who had time for and interest in sport. Goodenough may well have been amongst such a group.
Wingfield hoped his game would be adopted internationally. The first tennis set was brought to Bermuda in 1873 by the merchant Thomas Middleton and the game caught on as a popular pastime, particularly among members of the British military stationed there. The game was introduced to the USA on a grass court in 1874 on Colonel Appleton’s estate in Nahant, Massachusetts by Dr James Dwight and friends. Such examples suggest that Wingfield might have used his military and Navy contacts, particularly those travelling overseas, to spread and promote his game.
In May 1873 James Goodenough was appointed captain of HMS Pearl and commander-in-chief of the Australia Station. If and when Wingfield became aware of this, he could well have sold or given Goodenough, his family, or one of his subordinate officers, one of the first sets of lawn tennis equipment for recreational use in their new locale.
HMS Pearl arrived in Sydney in September 1873 and, shortly afterwards, Goodenough sailed to Fiji for official duties. He returned to Sydney in May 1874, and his wife and children joined him shortly after. His duties required Goodenough to travel a lot. It was during one such trip, to the New Hebrides in July1875, that he was wounded by natives and died.
Although James Goodenough didn’t have much time in Sydney, his duties there would have encompassed social connections with the city’s leading figures, amongst whom would have been the editor of The Sydney Mail. It is possible that their conversations covered sporting matters, including the new game of lawn tennis, and it is possible that they witnessed, if not played, the first game of tennis played in Australia.
This is amongst, if not the first photograph of lawn tennis in Australia. Fort Macquarie was located on Bennelong Point, where the Sydney Opera House now stands. The players might well have been colleagues of Goodenough.
No irrefutable evidence has been found as to who first used Walter Wingfield’s equipment to play tennis in Australia or when and where they did so. It was most likely someone who was introduced to the sphairistike/lawn tennis in England in 1873 or early 1874 and brought a set of equipment to one of the British colonies soon afterwards. They were probably of the aristocracy or associated with it through wealth, or military/Navy/civil service. They were likely to have connections with colonial high society and to have the leisure-time to socialise through sport and games. For these reasons they probably lived in a major city.
Although Melbourne was by far the largest city at that time, Sydney was significant for its British Navy/military personnel. Both cities have credible claims to being where tennis was first played in Australia. However, there is a convincing case that it was Commodore James Graham Goodenough, RN. (or someone closely associated with him) who brought tennis to Australia, and that he played the game on Garden Island, Sydney, New South Wales, in late 1873 or early 1874. After all, the first Europeans to discover Australia, settle, govern and protect it were Navy. Why wouldn’t they introduce the popular sport of tennis?