Here I am on a Friday afternoon in a Birmingham cemetery; oddly it’s more like scrubland than hallowed ground. Busy traffic hems it in on all sides and there is no church to lend the place a sense of elegance. Smashed bottles, crisps wrappers and Walnut-Whip-style dog dumps were more prevalent than graves. I was tramping over it as I’d read that the grave of Harry Gem had been found there. . . no the name doesn’t mean anything to me either but he’s known to be the inventor of lawn tennis and his grave’s been restored. Thankfully I found it in ten minutes.
Harry’s real name was Thomas Henry Gem (he preferred “Harry”) and he was a busy lad being a lawyer, soldier, writer and sportsman. He is recorded as having won a bet by running 21 miles from Birmingham to Warwick in under three and a half hours. He was born not far from this grave but by the age of 22 was working as a solicitor in London. In his spare time he wrote journalism and drama for several local publications while rising to the rank of Major in the 1st Warwickshire Rifle Volunteer Corps.
Where did tennis come from? He used to play rackets at the Bath Street Racquets Club in Birmingham with a Spanish chum called Augurio Perera. Accessories and court time were expensive so they developed a simpler game that could be played at Augurio’s home in Edgbaston. The game of lawn tennis was invented on his croquet lawn at 8, Ampton Road in Edgbaston. It’s thought that Walter Wingfield invented tennis in March 1874 but Harry and Augurio’s version was being played a decade before. Theirs was played on a patch of rectangular-shaped grass whereas Walter’s was played on hourglass-shaped grass. The game took hold and was being referred to as “lawn tennis” by 1872.
Aged 54 Harry and Augurio moved to Leamington Spa and formed a club specifically to play lawn tennis (it was soon renamed the Leamington Lawn Tennis Club.) It became the world's first tennis club. Harry died locally aged 62. I wonder what he’d think of the prize money now being won at Wimbledon every year (£31.6 million in 2017.)
As I took a few photographs using the camera timer some nearby workmen kept throwing puzzled looks at me (one with hands on hips and a corrugated brow.) A coughing generator was too loud for me to shout across that I was a sad man who loved looking for dead dudes. The grave was found thanks to the efforts of Chris and Sue Elks from Wythall who - with the help of a grave-digger - found the headstone beneath six inches of soil.
I did a hearty salute and walked back to the car. Often when someone has been watching me posing over a grave I’ll see them stroll across to the grave to have a look. The workmen didn’t but a rangy Shaft-lookalike dude with a mongrel did, picking up the leaflet I’d left flapping on the grave. He put it in his pocket after examining the grave and was perhaps one of the recent anonymous emails I receive asking to added to the mailing list.
The link to restoring Harry’s grave is here…
Chris and Sue Elks who found the grave…
The house in Edgbaston where lawn tennis was invented…