The vicar who moon­lighted as a ten­nis leg­end

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TO HIS parish­ioners in the small North York­shire vil­lage of Burne­ston he was sim­ply the Rev John Thor­n­ey­croft Hartley, mild-man­nered man of the cloth.

To the out­side world, how­ever, he was John Hartley, ten­nis trail­blazer and the third man ever to win the men’s sin­gles ti­tle at Wim­ble­don. So good was Hartley that he went back to the All Eng­land Club the fol­low­ing year and won it again, be­com­ing the first player ever to re­tain the fa­mous tro­phy. Not even Andy Mur­ray in his pomp man­aged that. They don’t, it’s fair to say, make vi­cars like Burne­ston’s finest any more.

Born in Wolver­hamp­ton in 1849, Hartley took up lawn ten­nis in his 20s af­ter mov­ing to Burne­ston to as­sume his pri­estly du­ties. He was one of six play­ers who dom­i­nated the game, be­com­ing su­per­stars of their time – the oth­ers be­ing broth­ers William and Ernest Ren­shaw, Pa­trick Hadow, Her­bert Law­ford and Spencer Gore, the first man ever to win the men’s sin­gles at Wim­ble­don.

Hartley’s first Wim­ble­don ti­tle came in 1879 at 30 when he beat the won­der­fully named Vere Thomas St Leger Goold 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in the fi­nal. Al­though he re­tained the tro­phy 12 months later beat­ing Law­ford in four sets, fin­ish­ing run­ner-up in 1881 to William Ren­shaw, it is that first fi­nal which still raises plenty of smiles around the All Eng­land Club.

“John Hartley was a de­fen­sivetype player who got every ball back, keep­ing it in play un­til the other fel­low missed,” says the cel­e­brated ten­nis writer Richard Hill­way, co-au­thor of the book The Birth of Lawn Ten­nis, com­mis­sioned by Wim­ble­don to mark the 150th an­niver­sary of the All Eng­land Club this year.

“The great thing about John in 1879 was that he wasn’t pre­pared to play beyond the (mid­dle) week­end of the tour­na­ment. And so he had to take a train back to York­shire to give a ser­mon on the Sun­day, then catch an early train the next morn­ing to Lon­don to play his fi­nal match, which was on the Mon­day. He got there by the 2pm start, beat St Leger Goold who had just won the Ir­ish Cham­pi­onship, and as a re­sult be­came the third man ever to win the Wim­ble­don ti­tle.”

Sev­eral years af­ter los­ing to Hartley, in a pe­cu­liar post­script to the 1879 fi­nal, St Leger Goold was found guilty along with his wife Marie Girodin of killing a wealthy Dan­ish widow by the name of Emma Liven in Monte Carlo. He was sen­tenced to pe­nal servi­tude for life on Devil’s Is­land, French Guiana, where he died in 1909 aged 54.

By that time Hartley had long since given up ten­nis and be­come Hon­orary Canon of Ripon Cathe­dral. Now there’s a salu­tary les­son in right and wrong for you.

Hartley re­mained a North York­shire res­i­dent for the rest of his life, pass­ing away at his home in Knares­bor­ough in Au­gust 1935 aged 86. But there re­mains a cor­ner of Lon­don where he will al­ways be re­mem­bered hav­ing paved the way for modern-day greats such as Rafael Nadal and Ser­ena Wil­liams. Hartley, be­ing an am­a­teur, earned noth­ing for his ex­ploits, sur­viv­ing off his pri­estly salary and play­ing for the love of the game.

“He’s part of the Wim­ble­don fab­ric,” adds Hill­way. “It took some­thing spe­cial to win a ti­tle here, even then. To come back again the fol­low­ing year and win it a sec­ond time, the first per­son ever to do that, just shows you what a player he was.

“Spencer Gore gets all the glory for win­ning the first one, but John’s achieve­ment is right up there as well. The fact that he was this preacher, lead­ing a good life, while St Leger Goold got in a lot of trou­ble and ended up on Devil’s Is­land sim­ply adds to the story.

“They were pi­o­neers – John, Spencer Gore, the Ren­shaws, Hadow, Law­ford – and this place might not ex­ist now if they hadn’t put it firmly on the map back then. They de­serve not only to be re­mem­bered, but cel­e­brated.”

It took some­thing spe­cial to win a ti­tle here, even then. Richard Hill­way, co-au­thor of the book The Birth of Lawn Ten­nis.


PI­O­NEER: North York­shire vicar the Rev John Thor­n­ey­croft Hartley won his first Wim­ble­don men’s sin­gles ti­tle in 1879; he went on to win it again the fol­low­ing year.

TRAIL­BLAZER: The Rev John Hartley paved the way for modern stars such as Roger Fed­erer.


VIC­TO­RI­OUS: A vin­tage il­lus­tra­tion of John Hartley in ac­tion at the Wim­ble­don ten­nis cham­pi­onship in 1880.

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