CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
Tennis has a long pedigree, dating back to the Middle Ages, with its roots in a ball game called jeu de paume, played indoors using the bare or gloved hand.
By the 1500s, racquets had been introduced, and the game became popular in the courts of England, France and Scotland. King Henry VIII was a fan of the sport, playing at his favourite palace of Hampton Court. It was also at about this time that the sport became known as “tennis.” However, the game was far different from the modern sport. Among other things, players could bounce the ball off walls. This version of tennis is today known as “real tennis” or “royal tennis,” and continues to be played by a small number of devotees.
Modern tennis, sometimes referred to as lawn tennis, became popular during the early 1870s in Britain. It quickly crossed the Atlantic to the United States and Canada. The Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, which is still going strong, was established in 1876. Here in Ottawa, the earliest mention of tennis being played in the capital also dates back to 1876 when Governor General Lord Dufferin had an indoor court built at Rideau Hall.
The court was also used for special events. In late February, 1876, the newly-built court was decorated for diners attending a Fancy Dress Ball. For the event, which was the social highlight of that winter, the upper part of the court was festooned with rose and white bunting. Along its sides were placed twelve large shields on banners, including those of the United Kingdom, the Royal Arms, the Dominion Arms, the Arms of Canada, and the Arms of each Province. Each was surmounted by a Royal Crown. The Arms of Blackwood, Hamilton and Temple, which were the quarterings of the Governor General, were surmounted by an earl’s coronet. A week later, the court, still so decorated, was again used as a supper room for guests who attended an evening of theatrical performances that starred none other than Lady Dufferin herself, as well as her brother Lord Hamilton.
Besides the Governor General’s family, it’s not clear who initially used the tennis court. Most likely, friends played there too as Lord Dufferin appeared willing to allow others to use the facilities. On 13 June 1876, his secretary, E.G.P. Littleton, sent a letter on behalf of Lord Dufferin to E.A. Meredith, the Chairman of the Civil Service Board, making the court available to the gentlemen of the Civil Service while the Governor General was in residence at La Citadelle in Québec City. He wrote that Lord Dufferin was “desirous of giving every facility to the members of the Civil Service to make use of the Tennis Court at Government House during his absence.”
While the Governor General’s primary wish was “to provide a healthy recreation during the summer” to members of the Civil Service, he did not want to preclude men who were not members of the Civic Service from becoming members. He also instructed that a committee be formed to make the necessary arrangements regarding such things as the hours of play and the supply of balls. The latter must have been a major issue before such companies as Slazenger, Dunlop or Wilson began mass producing tennis balls. They were probably handmade as are balls used today in “real tennis.”
Out of this “generous act,” as described by the Ottawa Daily Citizen, the Vice-Regal Tennis Club was born. A few weeks later, the Club was opened to gentlemen who were not members of the Civil Service.
It’s not clear how long the Vice-Regal Tennis Club was active; references to it quickly disappear from the columns of the Ottawa Daily Citizen. It’s possible it only operated that one summer, or only when the Dufferins were in residence in Quebec City.
Prior to their departure from Ottawa in 1878 at the end of Lord Dufferin’s posting to Canada as Governor General, a children’s bazaar was held in the tennis court for the benefit of the children of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New Edinburgh where the Dufferin family worshipped. Among the items sold was a watercolour painted by Lord Dufferin and a “handsome cushion” worked by Lady Dufferin.
If the departure of the Dufferins meant the end of tennis in the capital, the drought did not last long. In November 1879, the Ottawa Racquet Club was established to provide “a much desired and long wanted means of winter recreation.” Lord Dufferin’s successor, the Marquess of Lorne, became the patron of the new club. The Marquess of Lorne, later known as the Duke of Argyle, was married to Princess Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. Francis Clemow was the president of the new club. There were 45 founding members. In addition to tennis, members could play handball and racquets in the indoor court located at the corner of Gloucester and Metcalfe Streets. A ladies’ morning was set aside for women tennis players.
In early 1881, a ladies’ tennis tournament was held over a period of several days at the Racquet Club. Thirteen women from as far away as Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City and Halifax participated. Lord Lorne donated the prizes. There were two viewing galleries for the event. Club members and ladies were admitted free to watch the games, while non-member men paid 25 cents.
Court conditions must have been challenging as there was no heating and it was mid-winter. Not only was the lighting undependable, it was reported that the cold was so intense one day that the balls were “too dead to encourage long rallies.” How participants dressed was not reported.
First prize in the competition, “a pretty silver looking-glass,” went to Lily Fleming. In second place was Ethel Schreiber, winner of a “tasteful ink stand.” The third-place winner was one of two Almon sisters of Halifax. Miss Almon, her first name was not reported, won a silver bracelet adorned with a silver racquet.
The popularity of the matches led the Ottawa Daily Citizen to hope that this “really excellent game will gain popularity and become both on the lawns and various courts of Canada a national amusement.” The newspaper went on to say that the sport promoted healthful exercise and should be encouraged. It added that the fact that women could readily play gave the sport an advantage over other pastimes.
The Citizen was spot on. Later that same year, on 24 October 1881, the establishment of the Ottawa Lawn Tennis Club (OLTC) under the patronage of Lord Lorne and Princess Louise took tennis in the capital to a new level. There were thirty-five founding members. Women were allowed to hold associate memberships, but were restricted in terms of when they were allowed to play. The Club’s first grass court was located at the corner of Elgin and Cooper Streets.
A ladies’ tournament was held in March 1883 under the auspices of the OLTC at the Drill Hall on Elgin Street. There were four indoor courts. Although the tournament was governed by the 1883 rules of the All England Lawn Tennis Association, play off of the walls was permitted similar to “real tennis.” As with the earlier tournament at the Racquet Club, Lord Lorne provided the prizes. Lily Fleming again took first prize—a “handsome broach” consisting of golden crossed racquets with a tennis ball hanging from a chain in the centre.
In 1888, the OLTC moved to a new clubhouse and grounds close to the Drill Hall at Cartier Square, a location it occupied until 1902. After two more moves, first to Patterson Avenue from 1903 to 1906, and then to 3rd Avenue in the Glebe, the Club, now called the Ottawa Tennis and Lawn Bowling Club, found a permanent home in 1922 on Cameron Avenue on the banks of the Rideau River where it remains today.
By the 1920s, tennis was thriving in Ottawa with as many as 29 clubs in the Ottawa District Lawn Tennis League. However, there was a cloud over Ottawa’s tennis community. Club membership was via invitation, and members of Ottawa’s Jewish community were not welcome. These were the days of rampant anti-Semitism in Canada which, while often unspoken, was very present with bars on access to universities and clubs, including Ottawa’s prestigious Rideau Club.
In a fascinating article that appeared in the Globe and Mail, Barry Padolsky recounts the history of the Tel Aviv Tennis Club (TATC), established in 1936 to give a venue to Jewish tennis players. That year, the TATC, supported by a group of prominent members of Ottawa’s Jewish community, purchased the financially troubled Riverdale Tennis Club on Russell Road (now North River Road). After the war, with the elimination of discrimination in Ottawa clubs, the fortunes of the TATC declined. In 1958, the Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Club’s land to make way for a park, consistent with the recommendations of the Greber Report to beautify Ottawa. There is no monument to the existence of the historic Tel Aviv Tennis Club except in the memories of Ottawa’s Jewish community.
Today, thousands of Ottawa residents, young and old, play tennis in clubs as well as on neighbourhood courts run by community members. The former indoor tennis court at Rideau Hall, now called the Tent Room, continues to be used for special events.