How Thorpe Satchville shaped Wimbledon

More Wimbledon champions at court at Thorpe Satchville, including Australian double champion Tony Wilding (back left), and first overseas men's champion Norman Brookes (back right)
More Wimbledon champions at court at Thorpe Satchville, including Australian double champion Tony Wilding (back left), and first overseas men's champion Norman Brookes (back right)

STANDFIRST - THE world’s gaze will fall on Wimbledon next week as one of the greatest tournaments in sport takes up its annual residency in SW19. But did you know the tiny village of Thorpe Satchville had a huge influence on the championships we see today? The fascinating story is told in a new book by Leicestershire tennis coach Bruce Tarrans. Melton Times sports editor CHRIS HARBY finds out more about the man who moved Wimbledon.

THERE was a time either side of the turn of the 20th century when Thorpe Satchville was at the centre of the rapidly expanding tennis universe.

George Hillyard was a latecomer to tennis but reached a Wimbledon final and won Olympic gold

George Hillyard was a latecomer to tennis but reached a Wimbledon final and won Olympic gold

Hard though it is to believe, at least 30 Wimbledon champions made a beeline for the leafy Leicestershire village. Such was the influence of George and Blanche Hillyard, tennis’ original celebrity couple.

Hillyard had been a cricketer good enough to play county cricket for Leicestershire and a talented bowler, well-connected enough to earn a place in two England tours to the United States.

He was a true all-round sportsman, typical of the Victorian era. Tall, handsome, well-connected and multi-talented, he exploited his natural attributes to the full.

A renowned shot, top swimmer and oarsman, world-class golfer and champion billiards player, he lived a life straight out of a Boy’s Own adventure.

But when he fell for the indomitable Blanche Bingley, who was already Wimbledon singles champion when they married, he found his true sporting soulmate: tennis.

In 1896, the newlyweds moved into The Elms, a handsome nine-bedroom pile with grounds extensive enough to accommodate two tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course.

It was here his obsession began to construct and maintain the perfect tennis court.

Within a few years, Thorpe’s new intake had put the village on the map. It would soon be known on the other side of the world.

The combination of the sublime courts, grandiose house parties and the couple’s own standing within the game made The Elms irresistible to all the champions of the day.

Many disembarked at John O’Gaunt - the hamlet acquired its own railway station in 1879 - before a short one-mile jaunt to the Hillyards’ home.

From 1896 to 1914 just about every strong foreign player to visit Britain wound up at Thorpe, including the first overseas players to win Wimbledon, the American champion May Sutton, and Norman Brookes of Australia.

Double Wimbledon champion Tony Wilding, the great New Zealander killed in action during the First World War, wrote: “The best matches of a private nature I have ever played have been in England at Thorpe Satchville.”

The Elms was bought largely through the fortune of Blanche, the heiress of a London tailoring business. It was this wealth which gave her the chance to develop into one of the first great women’s tennis players.

Blanche boasted by far the most successful tennis career of the couple, hardly surprising considering her record-breaking feats and her husband’s late introduction to the game.

She won six Wimbledon ladies’ singles titles between 1885 and 1900, either side of bearing two children. Blanche was the first mother to win the title and remains one of only three women to do so.

The 15-year gap between her first and last titles also remains a Wimbledon record as does her 13 appearances in the final. Blanche was also the second-oldest ladies’ champion, winning her final title aged 36.

George was no slouch on the court and won titles in England, France and Germany as well as an Olympic doubles gold medal, aged 44, in 1908.

But his Wimbledon career was relatively disappointing, the pinnacle of which was the 1902 doubles final where he lost in five sets alongside the deliciously-named Clem Cazalet, having led by two sets to one.

His true Wimbledon legacy belongs away from his carefully-manicured courts.

He helped force through the creation of the British Lawn Tennis Association in 1889, wresting control from the All England Club, who had been understandably reluctant to loosen their grip on the national game’s governance.

Yet despite Hillyard’s act of rebellion, he was appointed secretary of Wimbledon in 1907, a position he held until 1925, save for a leave of absence during the First World War when he rejoined the Royal Navy.

Hillyard had learned the value of networking from an early age while serving in the navy.

By his teens he had befriended two of Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Prince George and Prince Albert, during officer training aboard HMS Brittania.

Commander Hillyard knew how to put such priceless social connections to good use and personally established Wimbledon’s close ties with the monarchy which still exist.

In 1907 he organised the first Royal visit of his old shipmate the Prince of Wales (later King George V) and Princess Mary, persuading the prince to become president of the All England Club.

Blanche and George’s effect on the game has, sadly, been largely forgotten, but it is his ‘monument’ which is still worshipped every years by millions of tennis fans from across the globe.

Having created the best grass tennis court in Britain back at Thorpe and become a self-taught expert in court construction, Hillyard was tasked with finding Wimbledon a new home in 1919.

With the club’s original HQ at Worple Road struggling to cope with the demands of growing spectator numbers, Hillyard needed to locate a site where the club could meet the new thirst for tennis.

Settling upon a site in Church Road, Hillyard collaborated closely with architect Sir Stanley Peach, helping design the layout of the grounds trampled upon today.

It was painstakingly planned, but delivered remarkably swiftly, opening bang on schedule for the 1922 championships.

The fact many regard Wimbledon as one of sport’s finest cathedrals owes much to Hillyard’s meticulous attention to detail.

It was fitting that in the year Commander Hillyard severed his day-to-day duties at Wimbledon, retiring as secretary, aged 61, he also chose to leave his beloved Thorpe Satchville home.

Settling in Sussex, Hillyard still retained links to his second home. He became director of the championships from 1926 to 1928 and was a member of the tournament executive from 1929 until 1939, four years before his death, aged 79.

But perhaps most fittingly of all, he continued to umpire the ladies’ singles final, the scene of his wife’s greatest triumphs.