New York’s Madison Square Garden has just opened its doors; Albert Einstein is brought into the world; much of the upper echelons of Victorian society are waltzing to the sounds of Johann Strauss II, and Vere ‘St. Ledger’ Goold is just about to serve. The year is 1879. It’s the third ever final of the Wimbledon tennis tournament: a stage set for the well-to-do and a game of back and forth worth approximately £1 7s 10d. Sitting in the 1,100 spectator strong crowd are the elegantly dressed ladies of the day accompanied by genteel, gentleman dandies. It’s a gallery of bunched ringlets. A place where powdered faced women in overskirts caught with buckled ribbons are escorted by men with large moustaches in pinstripes and straw boaters.
Two years previously Wimbledon had become the first championship tennis tournament, ditching the original oval court for something more rectangular and codifying a set of new competitive rules that have largely remained in place until today. It was around this time that characters like Spencer Gore, an old Harrovian, shirked playing from the baseline in favour of the volley and perhaps in response Frank Hadow exhibited the cheeky lob shot*.
This was the era when tennis was beginning to move away from its image as a jovial and rather sedate pastime that, following a few glasses of Claret, might afford a rare opportunity to cavort on the lawn with the opposite sex.
On the court there was little difference from everyday apparel except perhaps the emphasis on white – men sported long-sleeved shirts with a tie and trousers while women were restricted to long, flowing dresses. Strangely both sexes would have been chastised for not wearing a shoe with a heel. Like I said, tennis was evolving but evidently a level of practicality had yet to be achieved.
It was also the start of the Irish invasion of Wimbledon, with Waterford native Vere ‘St. Ledger’ Goold pitted against Reverend John Hartley at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in what was the first Wimbledon final to feature an Irishman. In fact four of Ireland’s tennis talents had initially made the trip to suburban London – brothers A.J and H.L Mulholland, C. D Barry and Vere Goold – the Waterford native eventually taking centre stage after overcoming his competitors with relative ease.
The final was held on a damp June Monday between two men cut from very different cloth. Vere ‘St. Ledger’ Goold was a wild and swashbuckling sort, fond of a drink and something of an opium addict, whereas his opponent, a man of the cloth, had just returned from a last-minute trip to Yorkshire where he had held a bed-side vigil for an ailing parishioner.
Despite a promising start and the apparent advantage of an extra days rest, Goold went down in straight sets to the Reverend, having reportedly exerted himself in a much different way. Goold would never compete again in another Wimbledon and his career took a spectacular nose dive. The fall from grace was completed when he and his wife were imprisoned on the infamous Devil’s Island for a murder in Monte Carlo. Following his wife’s death, he committed suicide in the prison off the coast of French Guiana in 1909. To this day he holds the title of the only Wimbledon finalist to be convicted of murder (although, John McEnroe has probably come close).
As far as tennis players go, Goold is probably the most interesting (and murderous) but here are a few other Irish men and women that contributed to our now long forgotten epoch of prowess at Wimbledon.
Born in Bray county Wicklow in 1869, Joshua Pim was but a mere whippersnapper as Goold was busy debauching his way to the Wimbledon final. In his early years he trained at the Landsdowne Tennis Club, an institution that was to be integral to the Irish invasion of Wimbledon in the late 19th Century. Pim’s first Wimbledon championship came in 1890 when he won the Men’s doubles tournament with Bram Stoker’s cousin, Frank Stoker. He later added another doubles and two singles titles to his collection, becoming only the second Irishman to win a Wimbledon singles championship.
Willoughby James Hamilton
The man who literally beat Joshua Pim to become the first Irish Wimbledon victor was Willoughby James Hamilton. Nicknamed ‘The Ghost’ due to his pale, thin appearance and seemingly spectral ability to float across the grass, the man from Monasterevin beat Pim in a washed out Wimbledon final 6-0, 7-5, 6-4 in 1890. Hamilton was unable to repeat the trick in the following years, but paired with Helena Rice he did manage a mixed-doubles victory at the famous lawn club. Proving he had more strings to his bow, Hamilton was also an accomplished international cricketer and after a successful career as a stockbroker, he spent his twilight years living in Dundrum. He died in 1943 aged 78.
In its 136-year history, Helena Rice is the only Irish woman to have won a Wimbledon singles competition. And the Tipp woman won it while wearing an ankle-length dress, a corset and petticoat. Winning the ladies singles final in 1890, Rice could actually have been a champion a year earlier but managed to capitulate despite holding two match points over Blanche Hillyard. However she soon made amends, and in style, beating May Jacks in the final where she is also performed what is largely regarded as the first forehand smash. Rice also won the mixed doubles title in 1889 alongside Willoughby James Hamilton but retired at the age of 24 to care for her ill mother.
Harold Segerson Mahony
Although the subject of a tug-of-war between Ireland and Scotland, Mahony it is said, was the last ever Irishman to have won Wimbledon. He was actually born in Edinburgh to Irish parents but the fact he was christened and lived much of his life in Kenmare seems to have strengthened Ireland’s claim to him. Something of a Wimbledon veteran, Mahoney featured in every tournament from 1890 to 1905, reaching three finals and five semis. Known for showboating with one eye on the ladies, Mahony won Wimbledon in 1896 beating the brilliantly named Wilfred Baddeley in a five setter. Tragically he died aged 38 after a bizarre bicycle accident near Caragh Lake, Co. Kerry.
After Helena Rice, Ruth Durlacher was probably the closest Ireland ever got to another female champion. She was married to British tennis player Neville John Durlacher and reached the Wimbledon final in 1899. Facing her on centre court that day was the already four-time winner Blanche Hillyard, who after losing 8-6 in a second set thriller, managed to beat the Irish women to clinch her fifth title. Part of a tennis upbringing, Durlacher’s daughter Nora would also represented Ireland in the sport.
*There’s no evidence to suggest that a bewildered Gore smashed his racket to the floor bellowing ‘You cannot be serious!’ but let’s assume he did.