Anyone for 18th Century Tennis?

Tennis was all the rage in the mid-1700s, as was gambling, so put the two together and you have a winning combination. The game itself was somewhat different to its format today, however, the concept was the same, with professional players being able to command a high price to display their talent.

For the British, the major competitor was a Mr Tompkyns, but the French dominated the tennis scene, led by Monsieur Masson, born around 1740 and from Paris.

Monsieur Masson, the tennis player. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

In 1767 Masson arranged for another French tennis player to compete, a Monsieur Macon, he took on the British champion Tompkyns. They played four sets on the Friday, three of which Macon won, the remaining sets were played the following Monday and once again Macon won. Reports saying that he won due to the superiority in his management of his strokes. Tompkyns was more active at catching balls, but Macon had the racquet and ball so much at his command, that he could almost strike it to within an inch of where he wanted it to go and that he noticed that there were two ‘dead places’ where the ball would not rebound which allowed him to drop it perpendicularly down so that Tompkyns had no chance of returning it.  Had Tompkyns won he would have received five hundred guineas, so he suffered quite a loss.

Tennis was a sport for both sexes though and the name which appeared in the press in the late 1760s was a Madame Bunell, aged, apparently about sixty, again from France, who was more than happy to take on any man at the game.  Madame Bunell was reputed to be able to play fairly well, but would never wear the male attire to play but instated upon wearing a short skirt and a light jacket, which would allow her to move freely around the court. She was, somewhat derogatorily described as resembling a scarecrow.

Reports stated that she had been seen practising at the tennis court in James Street every morning, from five o’clock until seven. That practise paid dividends, as in February 1768 Madame Bunell competed against Mr Tompkyns at the tennis court in James Street, where she beat him fairly and squarely two sets to one. Let’s hope that you had put your money on Madame Bunell as considerable bets were placed on that match. A week later there was a re-match, perhaps Mr Tompkyns hoped to redress the balance. It was not the outcome he had perhaps hoped for as Madame Bunell beat him again, this time six sets were played of which she won four. Maybe he had hoped for a ‘third time lucky’ but there are no references for a third attempt.

Fives played at The Tennis Court, Leicester Fields by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Fives played at The Tennis Court, Leicester Fields (a similar game) by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The next big name to arrive on the tennis scene in the 1790s was Madame Masson, from Paris, who was said to be related to Monsieur Masson through marriage. She was described as around thirty years of age, of short stature and was dressed á la grecque with a short petticoat and drawers. She was said to possess such uncommon powers, that she could beat any man at a stroke; and in addition to that, she knew how to manage the balls better than any gentleman who attended the courts.

According to the Caledonian Mercury:

Madame Masson, the celebrated tennis-player, lately arrived from Paris, has had an audience with his Royal Highness the Duke of York. This Gallic heroine of the racquet, it seems challenges to play with any person in Europe for one thousand guineas.

The Royal Duke is to have the honour of first entering the lists with her: She plays in her female attire, a la Grecque, with a short petticoat and drawers.

In March 1790, she took on the notorious Colonel Banastre Tarleton with resounding success.

Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782.
Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782.

She was also challenged by a Mr Bisset, who was described as:

a young man of good fortune, who was in a gown and cap at Oxford about five years ago. We know not the gentleman’s degree, but the lady is apparently an undergraduate at tennis.

On this occasion, Bisset won.

Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

We will leave you with this image to conjure with, from the Morning Post of July 1777.

Charles Fox is become conspicuous at the tennis court. When he leaves off play, being generally in a violent perspiration, he wraps himself up in a loose fur coat, and in this garb, is conveyed to his lodgings.

Sources

Marshall, Julian. The Annals of Tennis

Public Advertiser, Tuesday, February 14, 1758;

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Monday, April 13, 1767

Derby Mercury 24 April 1767

Lloyd’s Evening Post, May 20, 1767 – May 22, 1767.

Public Advertiser, Thursday, February 25, 1768

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Monday, March 7, 1768

Caledonian Mercury 12 March 1768

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, July 2, 1777

Public Advertiser, Friday, February 19, 1790

Chester Chronicle 19 March 1790

Caledonia Mercury, 4th March 1790

Caledonian Mercury 10 September 1795

Featured Image

 

9 thoughts on “Anyone for 18th Century Tennis?

  1. Lally Brown

    Fabulous blog made all the more interesting for me because my daughter was invited to play ‘Real Tennis’ as a guest on the Petworth House Court (first established in 1588 but this present court only dates from 1872) earlier this month … and yes it is still going strong! She said it was exhilarating, fast and fun and is seriously considering applying for membership.
    Thanks for yet another fascinating article, keep on writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Another very interesting and amusing post. Just a question: According to the first illustration it seems that tennis at that time resembled very much what we do know as “paddle”, I mean hitting the ball as hard as you can so it bounces off the wall. Was it that so? There is no mention of a net in the text, so I must assume it was like that. Wonderful stuff. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Sarah Murden

      One of our lovely readers, Ian has been kind enough to add some further information –

      Also, to answer claudius1889’s question, that first picture is a picture of people playing longue paume, a related game but not the same game as jeu de paume or real tennis as we call it today.

      Unquestionably there would have been a net on those Georgian courts described in your article, which is about real tennis or court tennis (as the Americans call it) or jeu de paume (as the French call it).

      However, a form of longue paume was popular in England in Georgian times. It was known as field tennis.

      Joseph Strutt in his 1801 seminal work on sports and pastimes describes Georgian tennis thus:

      “* The Hanoverian dynasty were not specially addicted to tennis , but Frederick , prince of Wales , who died in March 1751 , is said , by Horace Walpole , to have been a victim to the game . “ An imposthume had broken , which , on his body being opened , the physicians were of opinion had not been occasioned by the fall , but from the blow of a tennis ball three years before . ”

      “During the latter half of the eighteenth century the game lost much of its popular character and became still more the amusement of the wealthy . The Sporting Magazine of September 1793 shows , however , that the outdoor form of this sport was in full vigour : – ” Field tennis threatens ere long to bowl out cricket . The former game is now patronised by Sir Peter Burrel ; the latter has for some time back been given up by Sir Horace Mann . ”

      “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period”, Joseph Strutt, 1801. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=eJwSAAAAYAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA89

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