15 June 2012

English Heritage blue plaque for Fred Perry

Penny Perry, Fred Perry’s daughter, said: "This is a great honour and it seems so appropriate that the occasion is taking place during the English summer tennis season, in a Royal Jubilee year that is hosting the Olympics.  All of these things would have thrilled Fred because no matter where he was in the world, he always considered himself to be grass roots English.  This house was the base of opposing emotions in his life lessons with the sadness of loss and the elation of success.  It was also from here that many of the friendships were formed that would last Fred his entire lifetime and he would be extremely proud today."

The blue plaque to Fred Perry

The blue plaque to Fred Perry
© English Heritage

Born in Stockport, Fred Perry is the most successful male tennis player that Britain has ever produced, and one of the country’s few outstanding champions in any sporting discipline. Great Britain has not won the Davis Cup since his era, and he remains the last British man to win a “grand slam” event. Perry’s success was based on a strong all-round game, which owed little to the textbook; being substantially self-taught, many of his shots were derived directly from table tennis. A maverick in comparison to the sedate and well-heeled tennis establishment, he was in his own words “a rebel from the wrong side of the tennis tramlines”. His sarcastic toff-baiting cries of “very clevah” when an opponent played a good shot and vaulting over the net after he won a game made Perry compelling to watch. 

John Perry unveils the plaque to his grandfather

John Perry unveils the plaque to his grandfather
© English Heritage

Victory for Perry

Perry’s victories were achieved by a steely determination that was not conducive to universal popularity. Dan Maskell, his tennis coach and friend, called him “a stubborn and sometimes truculent character who believed totally in his own ability”. In 1929 Perry became Table Tennis World Champion at the age of 19. He then decided to take up lawn tennis and played in the amateur tennis league; he worked full-time in the Co-operative Wholesale Society tea department, and later for Spaldings, the sports equipment manufacturer until 1930. Perry first appeared at Wimbledon in 1929; following a quarter final defeat in 1932 he started fitness training with Arsenal Football Club and this brought dividends, as he went on to win the men’s singles titles in the tournaments of 1934, 1935 and 1936 – a hat-trick that was not achieved again for over forty years. To his Wimbledon titles Perry added the men’s singles championships of the United States (1933, 1934 and 1936), Australia (1934) and France (1935). He was allowed to keep the US trophy after winning it for the third time, while his French title, won on an unfamiliar clay court surface was, and remains, a unique achievement for a Briton; for his near teetotalism, Perry was nicknamed “Monsieur Limonade” in Paris. Perry was also the key player in the Great Britain team that won the Davis Cup for four years running (1933-6), winning thirty-four out of thirty-eight singles matches in the process.

Perry’s achievements were not universally applauded by the British tennis establishment. Notoriously, following his first Wimbledon win, the club tie was left draped over a chair for him to pick up rather than presented to him formally, as was the tradition; he demanded – and received – an apology for this slight.

His wins were achieved against the background of bereavement; his mother died in January 1930, an event he ascribed to the strains of her being a “political wife” as his father was Co-operative and Labour MP for Kettering – as a consequence, apparently, Perry never cast a vote thereafter. As an amateur, Perry’s earnings potential from tennis was limited, and in 1936 he turned professional and moved to the United States, having married the American film star Helen Vinson. He took American citizenship soon after and was, for a time, part of the Hollywood set, though he was later reputed to say that he was “only American on paper”. Perry’s professional career began with a gruelling match series against the Californian Ellsworth Vines. This took them across the United States before a brief UK tour in the summer of 1937; being barred from all amateur facilities, they played on prefabricated courts in some unlikely settings, including the Anfield ground of Liverpool FC. During the Second World War Perry served in the USAF, working mostly on the rehabilitation of injured airmen. On court, he sustained a serious elbow injury in December 1941, which limited his competitiveness thereafter, though he won the Slazenger UK professional titles in 1948, 1950 and 1951. 

Perry's legacy

In 1950, with the businessman Theodore “Tibby” Wegner, Perry founded Fred Perry Sportswear. The branded sweatbands, shirts and other articles of clothing became a global success, both as sports and fashionable apparel. Perry sold his interest in the company in 1961, but continued to be involved in promotion.

Perry had been divorced from his first wife in 1941; two further marriages were similarly short-lived, and in 1952 he wed the English-born Barbara “Bobby” Riese. They were together for the rest of his life; he adopted her son David and they had a daughter Penny together. Fred Perry published his autobiography in 1984, and in the same year a statue was unveiled at Wimbledon along with the renaming of the gates on Somerset Road to Fred Perry Gates. Latterly, his knowledge of tennis and neat turn of phrase made him much in demand as a commentator and journalist; it was after attending the Australian Open that Perry died, on 2 February 1995. His funeral was held at Rottingdean, Sussex, which had been his base in England for many years and a memorial service was held in his honour at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Howard Spencer, blue plaques historian at English Heritage, said: “Fred Perry dominated men’s tennis in a way no British player has done so since. Less well appreciated is the extent to which he outshone his predecessors too; when he won Wimbledon, he was the first British man to do so for twenty-five years. The plaque to Perry will remind people of his achievements, hopefully inspire others, and serve to connect him with the house that is so closely linked to his Wimbledon victories.”

Although a northerner by birth, Perry’s formative years were spent in Ealing. The house and environs of Pitshanger Lane in particular were crucial to his development as a winning athlete. At home, Perry practised table tennis on the kitchen table, pushed up against a wall, and honed his tennis shots in the garden, against the wall or the garage door.  Later, when commuting to his office job with the Co-op, Perry remembered he “used to continue practising my tennis strokes with the aid of my umbrella on the twenty minutes walk to Ealing Broadway Station, clipping the tops of hedges and flowers when nobody was looking”. Perry played the game for real at the Brentham Institute (now the Brentham Club) in Meadvale Road, just a few streets away; he relished the opportunities the club offered for other sports too, as well as games and parties. “It was paradise”, he later recalled. An early taste of sporting triumph came in August 1923, when he won a three-legged race there with Charles Redding, later a successful actor and director.

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blue plaques