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The contents of this brief history of the club have been taken almost exclusively from John Shneerson’s excellent book Two Centuries of Real Tennis – with his permission of course. It is a fascinating book for all Real Tennis lovers but for members of this club it is particularly relevant as the vast majority of the book concentrates on the Suffolk House Tennis Court which became the Newmarket Real Tennis Club that exists today. If, after reading my précis, you would like a copy of John's book there are (at the time of writing) only a few copies left – please contact the club professionals if you are interested. The book is priced at (£25).
The Newmarket Real Tennis Club exists thanks to Toad of Toad Hall. Or to be precise, because of the character the writer Kenneth Grahame based him on - Sir Charles Rose. Sir Charles was inmany ways larger than life. He was born in 1847, married Elza (daughter of an MP) and they then had 4 sons and a daughter. All four sons died prematurely, three in active service, one in a traffic accident. This may have been the catalyst that drove Sir Charles to involve himself in such a wide variety of activities. Professionally he was a very successful banker and subsequently an MP.
His other interests included horse racing (becoming a member of the Jockey Club) yachting (where he challenged for The Americas Cup), the very new automobile (becoming chairman of the RAC), followed by the birth of Aviation (becoming Chairman of The Royal Aero Club) but the one interest that seems to have lasted longer than all the others was Tennis. He built two courts at Hardwick and one, fortunately for us, in Newmarket.
Sir Charles bought Suffolk House (which used to be on the High Street side of the existing club building) in 1890. He bought the land where the club now sits in 1899 and applied for planning permission to build a Tennis Court on this land in 1900.
After approval he employed the specialist Tennis Court builder of the time - Joseph Bickley. He had built the courts at Queens, Holyport, Newcastle & Hardwick House. He was also involved with most of the courts built in the USA at that time.
The Newmarket court was officially opened on 29 June 1901 and was generally accepted as being an advance over all its predecessors. It cost Sir Charles £6,000 - the equivalent of £542,460 in 2011!
The opening of the court was marked by an exhibition match between Peter Latham, world champion, and Cecil “Punch” Fairs, head professional at Prince’s Club, Knightsbridge. Fairs received 15 and a bisque and won by three sets to two (4-6, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4).
Sir Charles engaged Peter Latham (1865-1953) as professional from the time of opening the court until 1907.
Latham was also world champion at rackets – the only player to ever hold both championships simultaneously. This was a time of increasing interest in the game which in-turn spurred higher speeds and a higher standard of play. Sir Charles was keen that the court was used regularly – but only in daylight at this stage as there was no lighting. He regularly organized exhibition matches – on at least one occasion causing King Edward VII to be late for the races whilst he watched a match!
Residents of Newmarket could play for free at this time.
In 1908, Sir Charles decided to sell Suffolk House – possibly as the result of the death of his son Adrian, a drop in the stock market or his enthusiasm for the court he had just built at Hardwick (the 2nd one he built there – his 3rd in total).
It was put up for auction at 5pm on Mon 18 May 1908 – there were no bids. Sir Charles therefore rented Suffolk House and the Tennis Court to the 9th Duke of Manchester (1872-1947). He employed Cecil “Punch” Fairs as professional from 1908-1912. Fairs was also world champion making the Newmarket court unique in having its first two professionals as current world champions!
In 1912 Sir Charles decided to occupy Suffolk House again. He renovated and repaired the tennis court – especially the floor which had cracked. He then put Hardwick House its estate and Tennis Court up for sale but he died suddenly two weeks later on 20 April 1913 before the planned sale in July. On the day of his demise he had taken his first and only flight - in a Farman biplane at Hendon. He was taken ill on the drive home and died of a heart attack – it was attributed to the excitement of the flight and was the first recorded death attributed to flight rather than a flying accident. His family then decided to keep Hardwick and sell Suffolk House but it failed to reach its reserve of £3,600 although bidding did reach £3,350.
Sir Charles’s only surviving son Captain Frank Rose (1877-1914) inherited Suffolk House & of course the tennis court both of which he rented out. He himself was killed fighting in Belgium the following year. His widow continued to rent out the house to a series of Race Horse owners: Oscar Lewisohm (1913-15), Mrs H Fenwick (1915-17) & finally Bob Seiver (1917-20). During this period interest & enthusiasm for tennis waned for several reasons: the tenants' priority was racing, the First World War and the ensuing financial chaos. Not much is known of the players at the time but tantalizingly, in 1995 during the restoration, a visitor mentioned that he had the original visitor’s book. He chalked his phone number on the walls but it was painted over and lost. All efforts to find him have failed. So if you do know the whereabouts of the Suffolk House Tennis Court Visitors Book – please get in touch! So although the court was in perfect condition in 1920 its use as tennis court was coming to an end – for many years.
Lady Rose sold Suffolk House and the tennis court to Ernest Crisswell on 5 August 1920. His first use of the court was for his reception after he married Ethel Harper on 11 January 1921.
The house and the court were extensively modified with the court used as a garage under various owners until 1971.
The house and court were then sold to Wallis & Son Ltd for £13,500 (two thirds of the value attributed to the tennis court building). They used it as a warehouse. They also demolished the stables and accommodation that had stood where we now park. Suffolk House was completely demolished shortly afterwards. On 3 February 1978 Ablondi Tiles Ltd bought the court for £18,000. They used the court for their Italian ceramic tiles business. The court was sold again in 1981 for £47,000 to Hescot Ltd – importers of Polish furniture. It was sold next to P G Glazerite in 1984 for £87,000 – they used it for their glazing business. They went in to liquidation in 1990 and on 22 July 1992 the court passed into the hands of the receivers.
John Shneerson was in touch with PG Glazerite from 1989 about acquiring the Court if it was not needed for their business. They were in touch in 1991 about their intention to sell the building and steps were taken to try to finance its purchase. On the 17 March 1992 the Newmarket Real Tennis Club Limited was formed with John Shneerson and Anthony Coles as Joint Directors. They were able to raise around £150,000 and bought the Court on the 5 August 1993, 73 years to the day since it had been sold by Lady Rose.
The structure of the Court was sound, but it had been drastically modified over the years. There was a 15x14 foot opening on to where the car park now is to let heavy goods vehicles in and out. Two floors of offices had been built above a shop inside the Court at the hazard end where the penthouses had been. There were steel gantries in the Court for industrial purposes and large quantities of metal, brick and other debris in the Court. The roof was leaking and there was no usable internal lighting.
The Court had to be made secure, the roof repaired and thought given to the best way to renovate the Court using modern methods and materials.
After quotes from various builders, Lynxcourt Limited based in Newmarket were awarded the renovation project in November 1993. However, it also had to produce a hard-wearing and durable finish. It also had to “play” faithfully! Some careful planning was required!
The walls had to be re-plastered using a modern plaster (Arducrete B12) with a black colouring added. This produced a good playing surface but had to be painted as well in the end because it was not dark enough.
Andrew Hamilton generously donated the oak gallery posts, turned in the design of the original posts,from his estate in Warwickshire.
The penthouse angle was one feature which was changed from the original design angle of 22 degrees. 24 degrees was chosen to assist services (other than a railroad) placing it between Cambridge & Manchester & similar to Queens's (23.25) and Lords (26.25).
Several options were considered for the floor including polishing the original Bickley floor but the final solution was to float a 6 mm Epoxy Resin covering (with red colouring).
Court Lines. It was decided to use Sir Charles Rose's racing colours for the lines. His grand-daughter (Lady Rose) provided information about the almost identical court at Hardwick. From this & old photographs the lines were drawn - 1 1/3 inches wide.
The restoration overran the original planned finish date but was completed on 27 April 1995. The first match took place that day between John Shneerson & Anthony Coles almost 75 years since the previous game!
Apart from writing the excellent book Two Centuries of Real Tennis, John was also a director of the club until 1996.
He is still playing and we owe him and all those who gave their time and effort to make the club what it is today - a great deal.
Following financial problems in the first 4 years, the tennis court was acquired on 1 October 1999 by a new company called Newmarket & Suffolk Real Tennis Ltd, formed by John Burnett, Chris Hollingsworth, and Alex Riley. Over the 11 years the Club gradually increased its membership numbers and the Professional Andrew Knibbs was joined on an increasingly permanent basis by Mark Hobbs until it had two full time Pros. The Club held a very successful and enjoyable Centenary celebration on 29 June 2001, exactly to the day 100 years after the opening of the court.
But after 11 years the three directors decided that the long-term future of the property as a tennis club would be better secured by a complete change of ownership and management by the Membership. The name Newmarket Real Tennis Club Ltd had by now become available again, and this was chosen to become the vehicle for the members to purchase the Club with the help of repayable interest free loans from around 150 people from the tennis community as a whole.