WINGFIELD, Major Walter Clopton (1833–1912)
Plaque erected in 1987 by Greater London Council at 33 St George’s Square, Pimlico, London, SW1V 2HX, City of Westminster
Army Officer, Inventor
Major WALTER CLOPTON WINGFIELD 1833–1912 Father of Lawn Tennis lived here
Plaque manufactured by the GLC and erected by English Heritage.
Known as the ‘father’ of lawn tennis, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield did more than anyone else to establish and codify the modern game. For the last ten years of his life his London home was on a corner of St George’s Square, Pimlico, at number 33 – part of a stuccoed terrace built in about 1850 by Thomas Cubitt.
Born in Wales, Wingfield served in the 1st Dragoon Guards, and gained the rank of major in the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry Cavalry. He was posted to India during the Rebellion (Mutiny) of 1857 but is said to have been stationed at a distance in Bangalore. Here, he saw badminton played and was married in 1858.
In 1860 Captain Wingfield took part, as a regular soldier, in the Second Opium War and was present at the capture of Peking (now Beijing). The Opium Wars – the first of which was denounced in 1840 by William Ewart Gladstone as ‘unjust and iniquitous’ – forced China to open its ports, grant trade concessions and cede territory including Hong Kong.
Wingfield returned to England in 1861, retired from the Dragoon Guards a year later and moved from Wales to London in about 1868. In 1870 he was appointed by Queen Victoria to the Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms.
The Father of Tennis
Wingfield is best known as an amateur inventor and for patenting the game of lawn tennis in 1874. Its basic principles were not new, but it was he who had the idea of formalising rules and standardising a tennis set that included racquets, balls, posts and a net. Inspired by a Greek word pertaining to ball-games, Wingfield called the sets ‘Sphairistike’ – a name which never caught on.
The sets were sold at five guineas a throw by Messrs French & Co at nearby 46 Churton Street, off Belgrave Street. Lawn tennis quickly became a very popular and sociable open-air pursuit for the middle classes. By 1877 the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon had added lawn tennis to its title, and many croquet lawns were turned into tennis courts. Four years later, The Daily Telegraph acknowledged Wingfield’s achievement in a special editorial:
The right medium has exactly been discovered between scientific skill and social amusement, and it would not be too much to say … that life has, on the whole been made pleasanter by lawn tennis and all that follows in its train.
However, the game developed rapidly from Major Wingfield’s original rules, which envisaged an hour-glass shaped court and a higher net than modern players would recognise. Later in life, Wingfield tried (and failed) to repeat his success by developing group bicycle-riding in time to martial music, as described in his book Bicycle Gymkhana and Musical Rides (1897).
Wingfield lived at number 33 St George’s Square for the last ten years of his life; it was here, too, that he died in 1912 at the age of 78.