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Tennis champ's service a spiritual event

By Toby Neal | Nostalgia | Published:

Shropshire's Wimbledon champion had a distinct advantage over his opponents. He had God on his side.

Or at least he should have, as the Rev John Thorneycroft Hartley is the only clergyman to have won the famous tennis championships.

And he must surely also be the only player in Wimbledon history to have taken a break during his matches to conduct a church service and tend to the spiritual needs of a dying man.

Although he was a priest in Yorkshire at the time of his Wimbledon victory, he was according to most accounts born at Tong on January 9, 1849, although one or two give his birthplace as Wolverhampton, which actually appears to be the correct version.

However, young John will no doubt have been brought up in Shropshire as his father, John Hartley senior, leased Tong Castle from the Earl of Bradford from 1856.

The Gothic castle remained in the family until 1909, afterwards falling into ruin, and finally being deliberately blown up in the 1950s.

Our recent feature about the Shropshire links of the first ever Wimbledon champion, Spencer Gore, who took the title at the inaugural championships in July 1877, prompted Sarah Norton to email in to serve up the story of Hartley's sporting success.

"In 1879, John Thorneycroft Hartley won the third gentleman's singles title and retained the title in 1880," she told us.

"He went for a hat-trick in 1881 but was sadly unwell and was beaten in straight sets. He was also the only clergyman ever to win Wimbledon, and in 1926, at the Golden Jubilee Championships, was presented with a silver medal by Queen Mary as one of 34 surviving champions."

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As a practising vicar, after the 1879 quarter finals on the Saturday he caught a train to his parish in Yorkshire, so he could take his services on the Sunday.

It is said that then, hearing one of his parishioners was ill and likely to die, he went to see him and stayed with him until he died in the early hours of the Monday – the day of the semi finals.

Afterwards he went back to the vicarage, picked up some sandwiches, rode to Thirsk railway station and got the train to London, playing in the semi-finals as scheduled, although a rain delay helped give him a breather.

According to a 1977 article written by his great nephew, the author Charles Terrot, he was "the pioneer of forcing an adversary back to the baseline and killing his return with a deadly volley from a position near the net."

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Sarah's researches have shown that before coming to Tong John and Emma Hartley lived at The Oaks, Merrivale Road, Wolverhampton, and "JTH" was born there.

"The 1851 census confirms this and lists the first six children."

Sarah, who lives near Shrewsbury, has a family link to the champion.

"My great-grandfather, Charles Albert Hartley, who married Mary Emmeline Campbell, daughter of Colin Minton Campbell of Minton China and Stoke fame, was John Thorneycroft Hartley's younger brother."

John Thorneycroft Hartley, she says, was the second son of John Hartley and Emma, nee Thorneycroft, a marriage which united two leading families of the Victorian industrial era of the Black Country.

"Emma’s father, George Benjamin Thorneycroft, set up the Shrubbery Ironworks in Wolverhampton and was heavily involved in the coal and pig-iron trade, while John Hartley’s father was involved in the family glassmaking business of Hartley Chance & Co at Smethwick, Birmingham."

John Hartley senior became a partner in his father-in-law’s ironworks business and both men were leading figures in Wolverhampton, George Thorneycroft being the first Mayor in 1848 and John in 1858.

"John Hartley rented Tong Castle from the Weston Park estate from 1856 until he died in 1884, and his widow lived there until her death in 1909.

"John Thorneycroft Hartley took holy orders and in 1874 became Vicar of Burneston, near Knaresborough in West Yorkshire. In 1875, he married Alice Margaret Lascelles, daughter of the 4th Earl of Mansfield and cousin of Lord Harewood. They had no children.

"He remained in Yorkshire, becoming Canon Hartley and Rural Dean in the Ripon Diocese for 25 years. He died in 1935 aged 86."

Hartley's 1881 defeat while going for his hat-trick set a record he would not have wanted. He lost in 37 minutes to William Renshaw, 0-6, 1-6, 1-6 – the shortest Wimbledon men's final.

Going back to the Shropshire links of the first Wimbledon champion, Spencer Gore, he was the half brother of Lady Mary Herbert of Styche, Market Drayton.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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