Historians believe that the origins of tennis date back to 12th-century France. However, the modern game of "lawn tennis" that we are familiar with was invented in England in the late 1860s. During the 1870s, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield popularised a version of the game by producing boxed lawn tennis sets that included a rulebook. Such was the success of Wingfield's version of the game that within 10 years, lawn tennis had spread around the world.
As the game gained in popularity throughout Australia, most country towns in the region started their own competitive tennis clubs. By the late 1880s, many homesteads in the Canberra region had tennis courts and hosted "tennis parties". On September 17, 1898, The Queanbeyan Age reported, "A tennis court has been made at the back of the blacksmith shop at Hall, and a club formed." This would be the first tennis club in what was to become the ACT.
By the early 1920s, Canberra's residents had established several tennis clubs in the fledgling city, often building their own courts with volunteer labour of club members. In early 1923, committee members of the Eastlake Tennis Club (formerly the Power House Club) established the Federal Territory Tennis Association with the aim of "inaugurating competition tennis" in Canberra. Over the years, the association has had several name changes, and is currently Tennis ACT, which represents 30 affiliated clubs.
As the number of public servants in Canberra increased during the 1920s, so too did the demands on existing tennis facilities. During this time, the Canberra Tennis Association made several requests to the Federal Capital Commission for additional tennis courts as well as pavilions for the storage of equipment and the comfort of club members.
At the time, the commission constructed clay courts using a base of "ant-bed" although the Acton Bachelor's Quarters Court had a concrete base. Ant-bed consists of termite mounds that have been broken up and rolled out onto the ground. It is then soaked with water and rolled several more times, setting hard like concrete when it dries out.
In late 1928, the commission conducted a review of existing tennis facilities in the territory in preparation for new leasing agreements. At the time, tennis clubs in Canberra were unincorporated bodies, so the commission granted the leases to the clubs as trustees, charging rents of £1, £5 or £10 per court "according to circumstances", including pavilion facilities.
In 1928, while several tennis clubs featured pavilions at their courts, these facilities were often quite rudimentary. A 1929 commission review of existing tennis pavilions described them as "a very cheap type of pavilion which is not sewered or provided with water supply or light, but merely with batten seat and crockery cupboard [which] has been provided at a cost of (approximately) £100." In particular, the tennis pavilion at Westridge was noted as being "in a very bad state of repair and seems to have been deliberately knocked about".
In August 1928, the new Reid Tennis Club requested construction of two tennis courts. The club anticipated a membership of 70 to 90 people with the courts serving around 100 households. On September 11, 1928, assistant scretary H.R. Waterman sent a memorandum to the executive architect to design a more substantial pavilion than those previously built:
"Will you kindly prepare a requisition for one tennis pavilion in association with two tennis courts, a requisition for which the acting chief engineer is preparing. The type desired is brick base with timber superstructure and tiled roof, on the accommodation basis of the Northbourne Tennis Club pavilion."
Some of these locations are a little vague. A memorandum dated February 12, 1929 clarifies the exact locations. North Ainslie is the reserve between Farrer Street and Elder Street in Braddon and South Ainslie is the recreation reserve between Reid Sections 28 and 29.
The estimated cost of the newly designed pavilions was between £250 to £275, plus the commission's overhead charges. No mention is made of what exactly these "overhead charges" consisted of.
In January 1930, commissioner Goold informed Honeysett that clubs using courts where pavilions were to be erected would need to agree to a £5 per annum increase to their rent. The rent increase was to assist in paying for the expenditure involved in providing the new facilities. Neither the Ainslie nor Braddon Tennis Clubs indicated their willingness to pay any additional rental for a new pavilion.
With the onset of the Depression in 1929, the FCC instead approved a cheaper pavilion for the Reid Tennis Courts costing only £150. However, even this design proved to be too expensive for use at the Ainslie and Braddon sites.
By April 1930, the original concept of providing pavilions at these courts had been deferred indefinitely for financial reasons. As a temporary measure it was decided by the commission to offer two smaller "cubicles" at each court, for storing the clubs' court gear, at a cost of £43 per court. Both clubs were "agreeable to the proposal".
The commission's tennis courts file at ArchivesACT offers a glimpse into the early popularity of the sport and how the burgeoning clubs developed into an organised body. It also shows that details of the history of our city can turn up in some surprising places in the archives.
With the now four-year-old $27 million Canberra Tennis Centre in Lyneham, it is interesting to see how tennis has grown in Canberra from such humble beginnings. That many of the tennis clubs and facilities formed in the 1920s still exist today shows the continuing strength of the sport and the dedication of the community and administration who supported it.
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