By Warren Kimball
Sometime in the late 1970s, a new entry mysteriously appeared on the schedule for the USTA Annual and US Open meetings – “Wingfield Society dinner.” It wasn’t a committee; it wasn’t publicly explained; it wasn’t something most attendees knew anything about. Wingfield who? What society? What did it do? Why was it on the schedule? By the 1990s, some of those few in the know, when questioned, all too often grinned, giggled, and offered evasive answers.
The Wingfield Historical Society does exist. Why it remained obscure for so long is itself a mystery. The Society’s current constitution is at odds with secrecy since its express purpose is to foster the understanding and teaching of the history of tennis; to provide scholarships and grants for tennis-related education; and to “recognize and honor the inventor of the game... Major Walter Clopton Wingfield.” So let us lift this unfortunate and, it seems, unintended veil of mystery.
The story starts with Major Wingfield. Born in 1833, Wingfield became a “career” British cavalry officer in the Kings Own 1st Dragoon Guards and spent 10 years on active duty (India and China, of course – this was the Victorian Era of the British Empire) before retiring to take up his true calling – being of the landed gentry (minor aristocracy) and a professional dilettante. Unlike many of that class who suffered from a persistent shortage of ready money, Wingfield seems to have been financially secure, although “well off” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Photographs routinely show him with a full beard and moderate handlebar moustache, like a true aristocrat of the Victorian-Edwardian era. A family castle (or perhaps a “folly”) in Suffolk, a mad (mentally ill) wife, membership in the right London clubs – he seems to have stepped from the pages of a Victorian novel. He “invented” a better bicycle, wrote a book titled "Bicycle Gymkhana and Musical Rides" (1897), founded and became Supreme Don of a gourmet society (perhaps inspired by Edward, the quite ample Prince of Wales), and became a member of the Royal Victorian Order in recognition of his long-time service to the Royal Family particularly as a Gentlemen-at-Arms .... and .... he produced the first written set of rules for lawn tennis.
Wingfield’s publication in 1874 of a set of rules for Lawn Tennis, generally conceded to be the first written rules for tennis, comprises his one true claim to fame. To distinguish his game from Court Tennis, played by kings and courtiers in whatever often bizarrely shaped large hall was available, Wingfield gave it a proper name – Lawn Tennis. “Lawn” tennis did not require a lawn. Like the “foot” in American football, lawns were part of the game’s name, not integral to the sport. Even the Major had referred to setting up a court “on a lawn, on ice [!!!], or in any suitable-sized space, either in or out of doors.” “The ground need not even be turf,” he wrote, “the only condition is, it must be level.” By the 1880s, Americans were playing lawn tennis on cinder, asphalt, dirt/clay and wood (often laid in winter over dirt), as well as grass courts. The word “lawn” disappeared from the U.S. Tennis Association’s name in 1975, in a quixotic effort to escape the country-club image that came with the sport’s roots as a game for the wealthy at Croquet and Cricket Clubs.
The Major’s interest and involvement with lawn tennis was short lived. In the sports-conscious world of Victorian England’s “leisure” classes, the new game quickly caught on. Croquet lawns and cricket fields soon became infested with tennis players; women and men and clubs, like Marylebone and All-England, quickly established leadership. By 1877, revenue from tennis to the renamed All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club (today generally referred to simply as Wimbledon) exceeded that earned by croquet. In the words of one historian, if the purpose of setting up lawn tennis courts was to make “money for the All England Club [then] it did its work well. From that moment tennis was commercialized.” But Wingfield’s rules, modified and very occasionally modernized, remain with us today. His original hour-glass shaped court lasted only a few years; the essence of the game remains as the Major laid it out.
What better patron for a society dedicated to the history and playing of lawn tennis?
The Major Wingfield Historical Society did not materialize until 1976 – a century and a year after the Major published his rules and obtained a British patent on the game. The moving force behind that founding was research about the early years of lawn tennis done by George Alexander, who eventually wrote the biography of Wingfield, published in 1986. Alexander’s research brought him regularly to England, where he made contact with the Wingfield family. Wherein lies a tale.
Alexander found a store of Wingfield artifacts – the Major’s uniform, sword, and such – although not the original patent granted by Her Majesty’s (Queen Victoria’s) patent office for the “Invention of ‘A New and Improved Portable Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis.’” But Alexander, who wanted to obtain the Wingfield regalia for museum display, could not reach an agreement with the Wingfield heirs. Alexander then brought in Stan Malless (Association president, 1974-76) who had been interested in the Wingfield story and who eventually arranged to purchase the artifacts. The Wingfield heirs also granted Malless ownership rights to the patent, if he could find it. He did.
The patent had hung on the wall of the Wingfield country home until some British officers, billeted there during the Second World War, apparently took it with them when they left. The search continued until Malless learned of, or was contacted by, a Chinese art collector who had found the patent in an antique shop in Berlin. He had bought it on the assumption that any original document that old would be worth something. Malless asked for the price, the art collector responded one million dollars! Staggered, Malless bargained, finally getting a price of $500,000. Too steep, replied Malless. Then, prompted by reading about a court case that denied the property rights of persons who bought stolen art, Malless told the art collector that he could be taken to court for selling stolen goods. “Court, where, in China?” the collector responded. Stalemate. But the collector must have realized that he had a very small customer base, so negotiations continued. Met with repeated threats of court action, the collector dropped the price. One hundred thousand, then 50 thousand dollars. Malless assessed the situation, concluded that he could afford that amount and that the collector was approaching the point where he could sell it elsewhere – and the deal was made. Thanks to Malless, the patent is now prominently displayed at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
All that prompted Malless, then president of the USTA, to set up the Major Wingfield Club in 1976. The initial purpose was essentially social -- "to retain the presence and fellowship of long-serving USTA members, who have contributed much to tennis at the national level." There should be a "fine and exclusive dinner" during the USTA annual meeting (USTA politics was verboten); the club could offer awards and might take on projects for the USTA -- perhaps even "a complete and current" history. Those purposes were largely followed, without formalities, for a decade. Membership seems to have been limited to those at least 60 years old, and former USTA presidents routinely made up about half the small membership. The 1986 proposed (and presumably adopted) constitution merely formalized Malless's outline that had been genially followed for a decade -- though it left out any mention of projects or USTA histories.
The Club's main accomplishments came early on. It refurbished Major Wingfield’s grave site in London’s famous Kensal Green Cemetery (a stop on the Bakerloo Underground line), donated a commemorative plaque to the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., and arranged installation of memorial plaques at 112 Belgrave Road in London (where Wingfield lived in 1874, the year his lawn tennis patent was granted), and another on the house he lived in at the time of his death. Through the efforts of George Alexander, the Society, and eventually the USTA, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamped envelope commemorating Wingfield (which must have mystified users) in 1981, the 100th anniversary of the USTA’s founding.
After that burst of activity, the Wingfield Club reverted to its original purpose -- a social activity that also recognized and honored distinguished service to the USTA. Its external educational component seems to have been the distribution of George Alexander’s biography, "Wingfield." Installation of new members was done quietly; relatively fewer and fewer people knew anything about the organization. It became mysterious.
A decade or so later, the constitution was revised with some very significant changes. The club became the Major Wingfield Historical Society. While it remained an organization composed of people who had made important contributions to tennis and to the Association, its stated purpose clearly became historical and educational – and tax deductible.
Although the Wingfield Historical Society was not and is not formally part of the USTA, its current stated goals reflect and support the values and purposes of the Association, albeit on a far smaller and more tightly focused level. In the past few years, the Society’s leadership has begun working to restore its early vigor and to fulfill its stated purposes. It has worked to broaden and greatly diversify the membership. The criteria for membership remain the same – “60-somethings” who have made “a substantial contribution” to the Association. A quick glance at the membership list suggests that those efforts have been and will continue to be successful. The Major has been well honored, thanks to the work of the Society. Educating the public and the USTA family about the fascinating and instructive history of tennis – the Society’s purpose – offers wonderful opportunities for active support from the group. Moreover, the Society represents tradition, something intensely important to an association like the USTA, which reveres its champions along with the story of its efforts “to promote and develop the growth of tennis.”
The mystery is gone. The work remains. Stay tuned!
Warren Kimball, a long-time USTA volunteer who served four years on the USTA Board of Directors, has been working on an institutional history of the USTA since he retired from teaching history at Rutgers University. This is a “short subject” taken from his research.