In the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum we pay tribute to Major Walter Wingfield. As the railway network started to stretch out from the big cities, large houses with gardens developed in the rural suburbs and a middle-class culture embraced the use of ‘lawns’ for informal amusement. Croquet had been introduced in the mid-19th century. But could a more energetic summer garden sport be devised? Yes. In February 1874 Wingfield obtained a provisional patent for a game played with rackets and the new vulcanised rubber balls that bounced on grass. He initially called it ‘Sphairistike’ but later lawn tennis.
The effect was extraordinary. The game swept through the English–speaking world. Others may have played similar games before him (and indeed Major Harry Gem had formed a lawn rackets club in 1872 at the Manor House Hotel in Leamington Spa) but it was Major Wingfield who promoted the game towards its national, and international, status.
Another development transformed the sport. At the prestigious All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon, then in Worple Road, a member proposed that a court be set aside for the new game of lawn tennis. The name of the club was changed to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club (note the order). New rules were adopted by the club, finally getting rid of Wingfield’s hour-glass shaped court. In 1877 the first lawn tennis championship was held, open to all amateurs. The Wimbledon Championships were born. The game became a major international competitive sport.
It is, fittingly, at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum that a bronze bust of a somewhat severe-looking Major Wingfield can be found. He is honoured as the father of the game.