A century ago — on 23 July 1922 — the tennis courts, bowling green and football pitches on Wandsworth Common were thrown open on a Sunday for the very first time.
A hundred or so years ago, our Common was in the grip of what the press called a "Tennis boom". Across Wandsworth, private members' clubs were proliferating — but these were relatively costly to join and socially exclusive.
However the London County Council (LCC), which had taken over management of the Common in 1889, had a radical "levelling up agenda" when it came to sport (and much else). The health and well-being of the people of Battersea and Wandsworth was too important to ignore: sport must not be confined to those who can pay.
The LCC therefore vigorously expanded provision for all sorts of sports — including tennis. Facilities were made available free of charge or at a small cost. Land was added to the Common, courts were marked out, access was tightly regulated to share access fairly, and (eventually, and against much opposition) the LCC even made it possible to play on a Sunday.
First, a quick perambulation through time and space to set the scene. In the early twentieth century, most private sports clubs were on the Wandsworth side of the Common, clustered in the south-west of the Common near Burntwood Lane. They emerged during the "Long Edwardian Summer" before the First World War, or shortly after.
The greatest impediment to playing games on the Common was its vegetation — too much of it (particularly furze) — and its bumpiness. So the LCC's levelling-up agenda became quite literally that. Trees and bushes were grubbed up or burnt off, ponds and holes were filled in, drainage pipes were laid under the soil, grass was sown, and regularly mown (either by machine or cropped by sheep).
As the South Western Star complained in July 1919, "The Council's liking is for a bare and open plain... its policy for years past has been to destroy every semblance of rurality that it can set its workmen on."
In the early years of the twentieth century, tennis seems to have been played all over the Common. The LCC had marked out 21 courts by 1902/3 (though none where it is played now, since the Sports Field did not become fully part of the Common until the 1920s). Players brought their own nets, and set up wherever they could find some space, as you can see in this image:
The earliest reference I've seen to this outbreak of tennis mania is a postcard, sent in 1906 by "Mother" to "H", and addressed to "Miss Robinson, c/o Miss Fleet, Steel Cross Schools, Tunbridge Wells".
"Mother" comments "They are all mad about tennis here".
Here are a few more pre-World War One postcards showing tennis on the Common. Most of the young women players seem handicapped by their clothing and large hats — though one bare-headed young woman appears to be wearing loose trousers. (If anybody has any comments about the clothing, and whether it might be possible to date the images, please get in touch.) Non-players (including dogs) wander nearby. All the courts were marked on out on grass, which as you can see took quite a hammering.
In January 1904 the London County Council published its first Guide to Battersea Park, including regulations for all games for which special facilities are provided. (The same regulations applied in all LCC parks and commons.)
Rules were strict. Notice for example that tennis could only be played May—October, only between certain hours, and never on Sundays:
1. — The season commences on the 1st May and ends on the 31st October. No play is allowed when, in the opinion of the official in charge of the ground, it is not in a fit condition.
2. — Persons are not permitted to play lawn tennis within the Council's parks nor at its open spaces on Sundays...
4. — Play must cease each evening in parks and other enclosed spaces at a quarter of an hour before the time fixed for closing such parks or enclosed places, and on open spaces at three-quarters of an hour after sunset...
Most of the rules were designed to prevent people hogging the courts — a clear sign that demand far exceeded availability. For example:
8. — One member of each party, before commencing to play, must sign his name and insert the time of day in a book to be kept by the Council's official in charge of the ground; and every party, after having played for two hours, is liable, in order of rotation of signatures in the book referred to, to be required to remove its net from the ground, should space be required for intending players; and no member of a party actually playing shall be allowed to sign his name with a view to securing another court for that or another party, until the expiration of the two hours for which the court the party is then using has been secured.
The complete regulations can be read here.
With the numbers wanting to use the Common growing, and for often competing purposes (for example, there were (literal) turf wars between cricketers and footballers), the LCC had a problem of finding space.
And remember, it wasn't just the rival claims of different sports. Many local residents were opposed to the expansion of just about any sports on the Common. Some preferred their Common "wild", others called for the Common to be further tamed and park-like, with meandering (rather than functional, dead-straight) paths and lavish floral planting. Both resented their walks and picnics being endangered by flying balls.
Remarkably, around 1900 a significant opportunity presented itself to the LCC. For years, popular pressure had been growing for the Council to buy back (or rather, to be given back) about 20 acres of the 52 acres of Common sold by Earl Spencer in the 1850s for the construction of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylums (for the orphaned children of soldiers, sailors and marines killed in the Crimean War (1853-1856)).
This kite-shaped fifty-plus acres of land, defined by two railway lines, had been bought from Earl Spencer with money donated for charitable purposes, but twelve acres had already been flogged off to Emanuel School in 1882 (they still own it, of course).
The twenty acres was "Neal's Farm", an area deemed superfluous to the RVPA's requirements and, from 1885, rented out cheaply (at £150 per annum) to the Neal family.
When the Neal family's lease came up for renewal, it was feared that the land would be sold to property developers and builders (indeed, perhaps to the Neals themselves).
As the Westminster Gazette put it in June 1902, "The effect of covering the space with bricks and mortar would be to detract seriously from the beauty and utility of the common as it now exists".
A decade later, calls for its restoration to the Common became even more assertive:
At a public meeting held at Wandsworth last night protest against the sale the Patriotic Corporation of twenty acres of land formerly part of Wandsworth Common, a resolution was passed deploring the suggested sale for building purposes, and urging upon the London County Council and the Wandsworth and Battersea Borough Councils the necessity of taking immediate steps to secure the land an open space. A fund was opened in the hall for this purpose, and a considerable sum subscribed.
Donations were solicited from local people, to augment money pledged by Wandsworth and Battersea Borough Councils. And as we saw last month, the financier Edward Davis Stern (brother of Lord Wandsworth, and a great cricket-supporter) promised he would make up any shortfall.
In 1913 the new "Extension" was purchased (for £12,000), and work began on preparing it for sporting use.
Before the planned tennis courts, cricket pitches and bowling green could be built, there was a lot of groundwork to be done. For example, a substantial wall had to be constructed to separate the new playing field from the RVPA and Emanuel School (I assume the immense iron railings along Trinity Road were also erected at this time), some orchards had to be grubbed up, and the entire ground drained, filled, flattened and turfed.
But before this work could be completed, the field was commandeered for the duration of the First World War (and for two years afterwards) by the 3rd London General Hospital. The need for further wards and medical facilities meant the would-be Sports Field was soon covered in huts.
The Hospital continued to be needed for two years after the end of the war, and there was even talk of making the whole of the Extension into a new public general hospital. But the LCC held firm as the Daily Herald reported in July 1920:
"Hospitals are, unfortunately, an acute necessity — so on the other hand — for the children especially — are as many open spaces possible.
"In this case it may be a question of prevention being better than cure."
By 1922 the basic work on the Extension was finished and numerous courts were marked out at the far end, near the wall that divided the Common from Emanuel and the RVPA for Girls:
As the photograph shows, the tennis area had a fence round it, but it is not clear just how high this was. In any case, there were so many courts that balls must have been flying all over the place, and retrieving them quite a problem.
But this gave local youth a perfect opportunity to earn some money. As Battersea-born George Tones (1915-2000) recollected:
Another thing I did [in the mid-1920s] was to go up to the tennis courts on Wandsworth Common. I would pay a shilling for an armband which I wore on my arm, and then I would ask the tennis players if they wanted a scout. There was no fencing round the courts in those days, so our job was to chase after the loose balls. At the end of the game you could earn as much as 2s 6d.
Note: George Tones's remarkable memories of childhood and working life were published in Wandsworth Historian 89 (2010) and 96 (2013). Really interesting.
Initially all tennis was played on grass, but in 1922 notice was given that some hard courts would soon be laid down.
THE TENNIS BOOM
L.C.C. to Lay Down Many New Hard Courts
There are least 52,000 lawn tennis players in Greater London who use the courts in the public parks. At present the number of hard courts is not nearly equal to the demand. The London County Council is doing its best for park players, but it will be some time before all those who wish it be accommodated can be satisfied.
A considerable stop towards the accomplishment of their desires, however, has been made by the announcement that new hard courts have been sanctioned by the London County Council, and will soon be laid in the following parks and pubic places: Battersea Park... Wandsworth Common... Wandsworth Park...
As we have seen, the LCC managed demand by increasing the area of land, adding to the number and nature of the courts laid out, and strictly policing how long the courts could be hired for. But the Council found another way of increasing availability.
In 1922, the (almost) unthinkable happened. The LCC allowed the playing of tennis on the Common on a Sunday. Sabbatarian councillors such as (such as the Earl of Haddo) used every procedural manoeuvre available to prevent this, and for a time it seemed touch and go whether the courts would indeed be open, but on Sunday 22 July 1922...
[S]ubject to the completion of the necessary arrangements, the selected grounds will be open for games on Sunday next...
Following is a list of the places at which certain areas will be allotted to the games specified without, in the opinion of the Committee, prejudice to the convenience of the general public:
BADMINTON — Brockwell Park. Wapping Recreation Ground.
BOWLS — Battersea Park, Blackheath, Brockwell Park, Clapham Common, Clissold Park. Dulwich Park, Finsbury Park, Hackney Downs, Hilly Fields, Island Gardens, Mountsfield Park, Peckham Rye and Park, Ravenscourt Park, Royal Victoria Gardens, Ruskin Park Southwark Park, Springfield Park, Sydenham Wells Park, Victoria Park, Wandsworth Common, Wandsworth Park.
CRICKET — Blackheath, Brockwell Park, Eltham Park, Finsbury Park, Hackney Marsh, Hampstead Heath Extension, Plumstead Common, Wormwood Scrubs.
CROQUET — Clissold Park, Peckham Rye and Park.
FOOTBALL — Avery Hill, Blackheath. Prof-Ice:ell Park, Clapham Common, Dulwich Park, Eltham Park, Finsbury Purk, Hackney Marsh, Hainault Forest, Haw,stt ad Heath Extension, Hilly Fields, Marble Hill, Mill Fields, Parliament Hill. Plumstead Common, Southwark Park, Tooting Common, Victoria Park, Wandsworth Common, Wandsworth Purk. Worniwcod Scrubs.
GOLF — Hainault Forest.
HOCKEY — Avery Hill, Clapham Common, Finsbury Pa k, Hampstead Heath extension, Highbury Fields, Marble Hill, Southwark Park. Victoria Park. Wormwood Scrubs.
LAWN TENNIS — Avery Hill, Battersea Park, Beaumontsquare. Blackheath, 13rock all Park. Clapham Common, Clissold Park, Dept'ford Park, Dulwich Park, Eltham Park, Finsbury Park, (folders Hill, Hackney Downs, Highbury Fields, Hilly Fields, Horniman Gardens, Kilburn Grange, King Edward Memorial Park, Lalvaell Recreation Ground, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London Fields, Manor House Gardens, Marble Hill, Maryon Park, Meath Gardens, Mill Fields, Mountsfield Park, Watts Fields, Northbrook Park, Norwood Park, Parliament Hill, Peckham Rye and Park, Plumstead , Ravenscourt Park, Royal Victoria Gardens, Ruskin Park, Southwark Park. Springfield Park, Streatham Common, Sydenham Wells Park, Telegraph Hill, Tooting Common, Victoria Park, Wandsworth Common, Wandsworth Park, Waterloo Park, Wormwood Scrubs.
Finally (for now), this is what the fashionable lady tennis player might have been wearing on Wandsworth Common on 22 July 1922:
That's just about it from me, folks (at least for a few days). But let me leave you with this picture-puzzle.
Where exactly on Wandsworth Common was this photograph taken?