History of tennis at St Ann's Well
‘Lawn tennis can be played and enjoyed by boys and girls, men and women, of all degrees of excellence and of all ages. It can be played and enjoyed almost literally from the cradle to the grave … and, like cricket, it’s a game for everyone’ – J.C. Smyth, tennis correspondent of the Sunday Times from 1946-1951
Tennis has a long history at St Ann’s Well Gardens, dating back to 1881.
At the time, the game of tennis was in its infancy – the rules for “Lawn Tennis” had only been formally introduced seven years earlier with the first Wimbledon taking place in 1877. (Competitive tennis at Devonshire Park in Eastbourne began in 1879.)
Many features of the game were devised by British army officer Walter Clopton Wingfield who had patented a game called sphairistikè (Greek “ball-playing”) to entertain friends at a garden party in Wales.
But while tennis may have begun on country estates, parks tennis was soon to become key in spreading the game’s popularity. So too was the ubiquity of croquet lawns, which were easily converted to tennis courts. Even the invention of the lawnmower (in 1830) played its part in helping fuel a tennis craze.
The world’s first tennis club was in Leamington Spa in 1874, founded by Harry Gem and Augurio Perera, who combined elements of raquets and Basque pelota and played it on a croquet lawn. Grasshoppers Tennis Club , established just seven years later in St Ann’s Well Gardens, was one of the earliest tennis clubs in the country and is still going today (in a different location.)
Back in the 1880s, St Ann’s (known as Wick Gardens) was still a privately-owned “pleasure ground”. Visitors would pay a modest entrance fee (around 3d, 6d at weekends) to stroll around the ornamental gardens and woodland and “take the waters” at the Chalybeate, a natural spring in the grounds. The water contained iron salts which were believed to have medicinal properties and “taking the waters” was highly fashionable amongst the wealthy and well-to-do – with the St Ann’s Well spring considered one of the finest in Europe.
As well as tennis, bowling and croquet, other attractions in St Ann’s Well included a tea room, reading room, ornate pump-room and a conservatory for “lovers of quiet repose.” Numerous special events were also held in the gardens – by then dubbed a “pleasure resort” – including open air concerts, musical tea parties, children’s fetes and even a hot-air balloon ascent which attracted some 4,000 spectators in June 1894.
St Ann’s Well goes public
The gardens remained in private hands until 1907 when Hove Council was offered the freehold by Mr d’Avigdor Goldsmid for a hugely discounted cost of £10,000. The Gardens were finally opened to the public – amid much pomp and ceremony – on Queen Victoria’s birthday, known as Empire Day, on May 23rd, 1908.
At this point Grasshoppers Tennis Club was still in residence however Grasshoppers moved to its current home in The Drive in 1916, possibly because the Council was refusing to give Grasshoppers exclusive use of three of the courts. It would appear that the courts became a fully public amenity from this date onwards.
In 1922, six additional lawn tennis courts were added on the north croquet lawn – at a cost of around £60. By the 1920s, tennis was booming throughout the country and the proliferation of courts in public parks and gardens meant anyone could play and tennis was no longer the preserve of the rich.
In 1925, regular tennis players at St Ann’s Well petitioned the council to build some all-weather hard courts (grass is lovely but has its limitations!) The first hard court cost around £200 and three new ‘tarred Macadam tennis courts’ were installed in 1927 (at a cost of £571-3-4d.) Today’s costs – to build a hard court from scratch – would be in the region of £30,000. [period illustration below from Rosenstiels: artist unknown. Not a specific depiction of tennis at St Ann’s Well Gardens]
Brighton & Hove Parks League
The Brighton & Hove Parks League (originally the Brighton Parks League) began its first full season in 1930 and is thought to be the oldest continuously active citywide parks league in the UK. St Ann’s joined the League sometime after World War II and then competed every year until 2017.
The Parks League is now a 40-team contest, split into four leagues, involving 12 clubs and 650+ registered players. St Ann’s was ready and willing to enter a team in 2020 but unfortunately the competition was cancelled due to COVID-19. The League usually runs April to August. St Ann’s Tennis did win the inaugural Parks League singles competition in 2020.
The Council ran the courts at St Ann’s Well Gardens until the summer of 2020 when the newly-formed St Ann’s Tennis Community Interest Company took over. St Ann’s Tennis has embarked on a long-term programme to transform the courts. The courts were in a very neglected state but huge improvements have already been undertaken including cleaning and painting, installing new nets and net posts, hiring a regular court cleaner and introducing ClubSpark, the LTA’s easy-to-use online booking system.
St Ann’s Tennis is a registered LTA club, and is planning to enter a team in the Brighton & Hove Parks League season in 2021. The Friends of St Ann’s Well Gardens was set up in November 2007 to promote the preservation, restoration, and improvement of St Ann’s Well gardens.
1874: Tennis “invented” and first tennis club established in Leamington Spa
1877: First Wimbledon held at the newly-renamed All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.
1881: Grasshoppers Tennis Club launched in St Ann’s Well Gardens
1907: Hove Council buys St Ann’s Well Gardens for £10,000
1908: St Ann’s Well Gardens opened to the public on Empire Day, on May 23
1916: Grasshoppers relocates to The Drive
1922: Six additional lawn tennis courts added on north croquet lawn
1925-1927: First hard courts installed after petition from players
1930: Brighton & Hove Parks League starts; St Ann’s joins in sometime after WW2
2017: Brighton and Hove City Council ends funding for upkeep of parks’ tennis courts
2020: St Ann’s Tennis Community Interest Company takes over maintenance and management of eight tennis courts in St Ann’s Well Garden and starts long-term programme of improvements
The Tennis Poem – St Ann’s Well Gardens
In the winter’s coldest part
The tennis players lift my heart,
Their figures seen between the limes
Bring promise of more clement times
The darlings darting round the shale,
Impervious to the wildest gale,
Return me to my happy years,
Dispelling gloom, dismissing fears.
When skies are black with unshed rain
The tennis courts are full again
And through the trees a shaft of light
Shows swathes of crocus, mauve and white
In summer, to the hum of bees,
One hears the cries of devotees
Some overweight, some strangely clad
A charming girl, a gangling lad.
In June, July and August’s heat,
A multitude of white clad feet
Are hastening between the flowers
To play away the sunlit hours.
Oh, how I wish that I could be
The girl I was in memory,
A slim and energetic maid
A calling “service!” or “well played.”
And when we reach the final set
My partner came up to the net
And smiled and said “Why, you’ve improved”
And then I knew that I was loved.
Winifred Phillips 1913-2002