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Maud Watson(1864-1946) - The first Wimbledon women's singles champion

Below is reproduced the full text of Alan Little's short biography of Maud Watson, the first woman to win the women's singles title at Wimbledon (in 1884). Alan Little has for many years been honorary librarian of the Kenneth Ritchie Library at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon.

Maud Watson, by Alan Little

Although The Championships at Wimbledon started in 1877, it was not until seven years later that the Ladies’ Championship was inaugurated. The recognition of the fair sex was far from the first but followed the lead given by the Irish Championships in 1879 and other tournaments such as Bath, Edgbaston and Exmouth in 1881.

When in March 1884, the All England Lawn Tennis Club Committee announced that the forthcoming meeting would be enlarged by the introduction of a gentlemen’s doubles event, no mention was made of staging a ladies’ singles. This decision came as late as 21 June and was undoubtedly influenced by the knowledge that the neighbouring London Athletic Club at Stamford Bridge planned to institute a Ladies’ Championship. Rather than create a difficult situation the L.A.C. graciously withdrew in favour of the premier body, which they felt had a priority to hold the Championship.

An entrance fee of 10 shillings and sixpence was charged for The Championship, the draw for which took place in the Pavilion on 10 July and included the names of 13 competitors. The first prize was a silver flower-basket, value 20 guineas, and the second, a silver and glass hand mirror and silver-backed brush, value 10 guineas.

The event, run concurrently with the gentlemen’s doubles, commenced on Wednesday, 16 July, the day after the conclusion of the gentlemen’s singles. Play occupied the courts for four days and was reasonably attended in view of the poor weather on the first three days, when strong south-west winds blew and showers were frequent. However, the Saturday was fine and between four and five hundred spectators assembled at Worple Road to witness the final.

Maud Watson, at the age of 19, became the first champion. In the opening round she easily defeated Mrs A. Tyrwhitt-Drake, whose style entailed in holding her racket more than half-way up the handle, 6-0, 6-2. In her next match, Maud was given a testing time in the first set by Miss Blanche Williams, who led 4-2, but she recovered to 5-all and then took the next eight games. A mild sensation occurred in the following round when Maud lost the opening set 6-3 to a very determined Miss Blanche Bingley, before raising her game to take the next two sets, 6-3, 6-2.

In the other half of the draw, Maud’s sister, Lilian, won her through to the final. Maud’s superiority was so well known that the result was regarded as a foregone conclusion, but on this occasion, however, Lilian exhibited greater accuracy and severity in her strokes than normal and was able to capture the first set, 8-6. Maud, undeterred, fought back to win the next two by 6-3, 6-3. Victory confirmed Maud’s standing as the leading player of that time and ensured that her name would appear in the record book for posterity.

By all accounts, The Championship was a great success, a sentiment echoed by at least one competitor who wrote to a journal of the day: “We ladies would like to thank Mr Julian Marshall (Secretary) for our pretty dressing room and his selection of an attendant. Nothing was forgotten, from the beautiful flowers on the table to the smallest toilet luxuries.”

Maud Edith Eleanor Watson was born on 9 October 1864, the youngest child of the Reverend Henry William and Emily Frances Watson. Her sister, Lilian Mary, was seven years older and her brother, Erskine Gerald, five-and-a-half years her senior. All the children were born in the shadow of Harrow School, where their father taught mathematics as an assistant master for eight years.

The family left Harrow in 1865 upon the appointment of Henry Watson as Rector of Berkswell, a small village near Coventry. This provided him with spare time to pursue his mathematical and scientific studies, and to become a prolific contributor to literature. As a noted scholar he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1881.

Maud learnt the game at home. She had ample opportunity to practise with the opposite sex for the Reverend used to take in and coach young Cambridge undergraduates studying mathematics. Whenever there was no one to play with she would sharpen her strokes by hitting the ball against the wall in the rectory garden.

Maud developed an all-round game which had no apparent weaknesses. She had an ideal temperament and her cool, quiet concentration often upset her more excitable opponents. Her over-arm service gave her an edge over most opponents, who were wary of her volleying and driving ability. Her judgment was excellent for she was able to discover her opponent’s weak points very early and take advantage of these to the utmost, while her behaviour on court was an example to all.

Although coloured dresses were fashionable at the time, Maud generally chose to wear a white, light wool, ankle-length skirt, with a small bustle, a long-sleeved silk jersey blouse and a sailor hat.

Maud’s first public appearance was at the Edgbaston Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club tournament, held in Hall Road, during July 1881 – the year ladies’ open events were introduced to the English public. Although only 16 years of age, Maud was immediately successful, winning the singles by defeating Lilian in the final and pairing with her to win the doubles.

Over a year elapsed before Maud competed again. At the inaugural Leamington tournament, held at Jephson’s Gardens, she partnered her brother, Erskine, to win the mixed doubles, but with R.O. Blackwood lost in the last round of the Warwickshire mixed doubles to Erskine and Lilian. The final of both these events were contested over the best of five sets. Seven weeks later Maud won the singles at Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham, but only after being given a fierce struggle by Mrs C.J. Smith in the final, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. Maud and R.W. Bradwell achieved a notable win in the mixed doubles when they defeated William Renshaw, the Wimbledon champion, and Miss Bee Langrishe. Maud and Lilian narrowly failed to win the doubles.

By 1883 the popularity of the game as a whole had grown in extent to over 30 tournaments, most of them including ladies’ events. Maud chose to play in four and, apart from conceding a walkover in a scratch pairs, remained undefeated. Early in June Maud won the West of England Championship, staged at the Lansdowne Cricket Club, Bath, defeating Miss Pope in the final, 6-2, 6-1. In four matches she lost only one set, that to Miss Edith Davies in the third round. Maud and Lilian captured the doubles title.

A week later at Cheltenham, Maud retained her singles title with an easy 6-3, 6-0 win over Miss F. Davies in the final and with Lilian took the doubles. At Leamington the programme was extended to include a ladies’ doubles event, which the Watson sisters won comfortably. With different partners, Maud took the two mixed doubles events.

During August, Maud captured her third singles title of the season at Exmouth Lawn Tennis Club, picturesquely set at the foot of Beacon Hill, facing the estuary of the River Exe. She had little difficulty in winning her three matches and was only pressed in the opening set of the final by Miss Cole, a local player. She became the first holder of a £55 handsome silver challenge salver. Maud and Edward Williams proved too strong for their opponents in the mixed doubles.

In 1884, Maud widened her horizons by entering the Irish Championships. For some time followers of the game had speculated on the relative merits of Maud and Miss May Langrishe, the Irish champion, and the possibility of a clash caused much excitement in Dublin. The public were not disappointed for both emerged, from an entry of nine, to contest the final. There was little doubt who was the superior player, for Maud, volleying and driving with surprising accuracy, proved too severe for her opponent’s graceful style of play and won in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, taking the last six games in a row. Maud had further success when paired with William Renshaw to win the mixed doubles.

Maud decided not to defend her singles title at Cheltenham, but entered only the doubles. She won the mixed with W. Milne but lost in the final of the doubles with Lilian, in a match of 45 games.

The first ladies’ singles event staged at the London Athletic Club attracted 25 entries – possibly the largest field assembled anywhere up to that date. Maud won the title handsomely, although she was forced to drop the third set to Mrs Cole of the Southgate L.T.C., in the final, which lasted over two hours.

After her Wimbledon triumph, Maud played two other tournaments that year. She returned to Edgbaston after an absence of three years to win the doubles with her sister. Two weeks later, at Exmouth, Maud won through four matches to retain her singles title, although she dropped a set to Miss Coles before overcoming Mrs F. Watts in the final, 6-1, 7-5, 6-3. Maud won the mixed doubles with left-handed John Deykin but with Lilian suffered a rare first round defeat in the doubles.

1885 was a year of outstanding success for Maud, who remained unbeaten in singles and lost only one set. Over 3,000 spectators were present at the Fitzwilliam Club to watch the final between Maud and Miss Louise Martin who was making her debut in the Irish Championships. Miss Martin displayed an all-round game, highlighted by powerful serving and precision volleying, and it required all Maud’s skill and tenacity to quell the opposition. For two sets there was little to choose between them but in the decider Maud outstayed her opponent to win, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. The match was described at the time as the best ever played by ladies. Much was to be heard of Louise Martin, who between 1889 and 1903, became Irish champion no less than nine times. Maud’s other two titles in Dublin were with Lilian and William Renshaw.

At the Cheltenham tournament fate decreed that Maud should meet Louise Martin in the opening round. Another spirited encounter took place, with seven of the 15 games going to deuce, but on this occasion Maud held the reins to win, 6-2, 6-3. She went on to take the title, losing only seven games in the next three matches. Maud’s superiority continued a week later at Stamford Bridge where she won the newly created London Championship title, beating Lilian comfortably in the last match, 6-2, 6-3. For good measure she combined with Harry Grove to win the mixed doubles.

Towards the end of June, Maud met stiff resistance on her first visit to the Northern Championships at Manchester. After a walkover in the first round she recovered from 1-4 down in the first set and 0-3 in the second to defeat Miss Margaret Bracewell, 6-4, 6-4. In the third round, Maud saved five set points in the second set against Bee Langrishe, before winning 6-3, 6-5. In the final, Maud had to call upon her reserves to counter the aggressive play of Miss Lottie Dod, the 13-year-old “little wonder” from Bebington, Cheshire, who earlier had eliminated Lilian. Maud, though out of form, managed to win the vital points to squeeze through 8-6, 7-5. In the championship round Maud outplayed Edith Davies, 6-3, 6-3. Maud and Lilian lost in the second round of the doubles to Lottie Dod and her sister, Ann, but once again the partnership of Maud and William Renshaw was invincible.

That year only ten entries were received for the Ladies’ Championship at Wimbledon. Many of the leading players were absent and only Maud, Lilian and Blanche Bingley remained from the previous year. Maud was far superior to any other competitor and comfortably retained her title. Following a bye in the first round, she quickly disposed of Bee Langrishe 6-0, 6-2, and Miss E.F. Hudson, 6-0, 6-1, to meet Blanche Bingley in the final. On the morning of the match it was reported that Maud was suffering from a sudden attack of rheumatism, but any forebodings were soon dispelled when she speedily secured the first set from her extremely nervous opponent. In the second set Blanche Bingley improved and, scoring consistently with her drives, managed to hold the champion to 5-all. However, in the next two games Maud conceded just two points and ran out the winner 6-1, 7-5. A feature of Maud’s play was that she never failed on any occasion to return her opponent’s service.

Maud was unable to defend her title at Exmouth as the tournament was abandoned due to the sudden death of their Honorary Secretary. Instead she competed at the nearby Teignmouth meeting, restricting her entry to the mixed doubles, which she won with her brother Erskine.

Maud began her 1886 season at the Bath tournament, which attracted all the best players, with the possible exception of the Langrishe sisters. The draw presented Maud with a formidable task, which resulted in the eventual lowering of her colours for the first time. Victories on consecutive days against Margaret Bracewell, 6-4. 6-3, Miss G. Gibbs (the holder), 6-3, 6-3, Blanche Bingley, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4, and Louise Martin, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, took their toll and in the final against Lottie Dod her sharpness had gone. The match was stubbornly contested, especially in the second set, when the majority of the games went to deuce, one of them to eleven. Maud fought desperately hard to stave off defeat and saved two match points, but Lottie Dod, cool and confident, held firm for 7-5, 6-4. This was Maud’s first singles defeat since her debut in 1881. During this period she had competed in 54 matches and lost but 12 sets – a remarkable performance.

A week later at Cheltenham a return match between Maud and Lottie Dod was eagerly anticipated, but the occasion never materialised for Blanche Bingley eliminated Lottie Dod in the second round. Maud in turn defeated Miss Bingley, but then fell to Louise Martin in the final, where some anxiety and ill luck turned the scales between victory and defeat. Miss Martin won 64 points out of the 119 played for victory at 6-4, 6-4.

A large crowd was present at the Northern Championships, held at Liverpool, to see Maud, the defending champion, gain revenge over Lottie Dod, the challenger, 7-5, 6-3. Maud’s persistent attack to her opponent’s backhand, coupled with her control at the net, were the deciding factors.

Maud did not enter the singles at Edgbaston but in partnership with John Deykin brought off a memorable win in the final of the mixed doubles over William Renshaw and Margaret Bracewell, a pair who were hitherto undefeated. Over 600 spectators saw a long and exciting match, contested over the best of five sets at the suggestion of Renshaw, end at 7-5, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 8-6. During the meeting, Maud won a one-set exhibition match against Blanche Bingley, 8-6.

After being under pressure from all sides for some time the All England Club agreed to give equal status to the ladies by presenting a Challenge Trophy for their Championship. This gave Maud the right to “stand out” and await the winner of the All-Comers’ singles. Blanche Bingley won through from an entry of eight and in the challenge round decisively beat Maud, 6-3, 6-3. Miss Bingley was in her very best form, hitting the ball vigorously on the forehand and showing no signs of her usual nervousness. Maud’s play lacked the determined energy which was one of its principal characteristics. She certainly had the sympathy of the crowd who felt equally that the title could not have changed into better hands.

During August, Maud renewed her challenge at Exmouth where the late entry of Blanche Bingley added much interest. The two met in a fluctuating final, which Maud won, 7-5, 0-6, 6-3, and thereby took possession of the challenge salver by virtue of having won the title three times in succession. Maud played with John Deykin to lose a fiercely fought mixed doubles final to William Renshaw and Blanche Bingley, 5-7, 7-5, 8-6., but gained some consolation by winning the handicap doubles with Lilian. A week later at Teignmouth, Maud entered only the handicap singles, which ended in unusual circumstances. In the final, Maud and Lilian had each won a set when it was discovered that the umpire had been scoring incorrectly. The match was declared null-and-void, but heavy rain prevented resumption of play and the sisters agreed to divide the prizes.

Compared to previous years, 1887 was a poor season for Maud. She was considerably handicapped by a sprained wrist which worsened with time. Nevertheless, she played in eight tournaments, more than ever before. Her visit to Dublin was disappointing in that she reached three finals and lost them all. In the singles, Maud could not counter the aggression of Lottie Dod and was beaten 6-4, 6-3. Her partners in the doubles events were Lilian and Harry Grove.

At Bath, Maud sailed through three matches with the loss of only four games to reach the singles final, where Lottie Dod awaited her. A large attendance witnessed Maud striving to get the better of her younger opponent but without success despite chances in both sets. In the first she squandered two set points by hitting out returns and in the second led 4-2 before Miss Dod reeled off the next four games. The score of 7-5, 6-4 was exactly as the previous year. Maud failed to win either of the doubles events and each time it was Lottie Dod and her partner who brought about her downfall.

From a small but strong entry at Cheltenham, Maud reached her third singles final in as many weeks, but again was thwarted. In a match dominated by baseline play Louise Martin missed a match point in the second set but made no mistake in the decider to win 6-4, 5-7, 6-2. Maud won her first title of the season in partnership with Lilian.

Maud’s next stop was at the Penarth L.T.C., overlooking the Bristol Channel, where the Welsh Ladies’ Championship was being contested for the first time. Maud, agreeing to owe 15, won the title by beating Bee Langrishe, who was hardly at her best, 6-3, 6-3. Maud and Ernest Renshaw surprisingly went down to J. Baldwin and Lilian in the mixed doubles final.

At the Northern Championships, staged at Manchester, Maud was well beaten in the challenge round by Lottie Dod, whose cross-court forehand drives dominated the match. If Maud returned the ball it was soon crisply volleyed away. Miss Dod’s margin of victory, 6-2, 6-1, clearly showed the rapid strides she had made at the game.

Maud decided not to compete at Wimbledon but to rest before embarking on the Devon circuit. At Exmouth, she met Mrs Hillyard (the newly married Blanche Bingley) in the final of the singles. Another excellent contest took place but on the day Mrs Hillyard’s hard hitting proved decisive in her 6-4, 6-4 victory. Maud was unsuccessful in two other events. At Teignmouth, Maud and Ernest Lewis very easily won the mixed doubles. Her last outing of the season was at the inaugural Torquay tournament. In the final of the handicap singles, Maud outplayed Mrs Hillyard in the opening set but as the match progressed she tired noticeably and was beaten, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. This was the last occasion these players met. Maud’s tally over the years was seven wins out of ten matches. Maud and Ernest Lewis won the mixed doubles.

Even after a winter’s rest Maud’s wrist had not recovered sufficiently to enable her to show her true form in singles and with one exception restricted her appearances in 1888 to doubles play. Her early season visit to Dublin was a failure as she lost in the opening match of both doubles. At Edgbaston, Maud was far more successful and captured two titles, the doubles with Lilian and the mixed doubles with John Deykin, although her passage in both events was not easy. She competed in the handicap singles but the odds were so steeped against her that she lost in the first round. Maud’s annual visit to Exmouth was another unhappy venture as she was eliminated in her opening matches of both doubles events.

Maud’s final year of competition was 1889. At the Irish Championships in May she was no more successful than the year before. In the doubles Maud and Lilian were well beaten by Miss Martin and Miss Stanuell in the opening round, while in the mixed doubles, Maud and Ernest Lewis succumbed to Willoughby Hamilton and Miss Lena Rice.

Maud’s participation at the Edgbaston meeting, a month later, was a much more rewarding affair, as she entered three events and won them all. Previously, Maud had never partnered anyone else other than Lilian in the doubles, but on this occasion she paired with Miss Bryan to beat the Charles’ sisters in the final. Maud won the mixed event with her partner of long standing, John Deykin, while her third title came in the handicap singles where, owing 30, she defeated Mrs G.M. Elkington in the final, 6-1, 9-7.

This was the last occasion when Maud played competitive tennis. While on holiday in Jersey she went swimming off the coast and was nearly drowned. She was rescued with difficulty and afterwards suffered an illness from which complete recovery took a number of years.

Away from the public eye the Watson sisters settled down to the quieter country life at Berkswell, helping their father with his parish duties. Erskine became a solicitor, with offices in Kingsway, London. He married in 1886 and had four children, all sons. Henry Watson resigned the benefice of Berkswell in August, 1902, and moved to Brighton, where he died five months later, but Maud and Lilian continued to live in the village at the nearby Hill Cottage.

Maud’s home nursing training led her to become Commandant of the Berkswell Auxiliary Hospital during the First World War, and for her services she was awarded the M.B.E. In May, 1918, Lilian died at the age of 60 and in August 1922, Erskine passed away at Longridge Road, London, aged 63.

In 1926, on the occasion of the Jubilee Championships at Wimbledon, surviving past champions were presented with commemorative medals on the Centre Court by King George V and Queen Mary. Maud took place of honour among the ladies by being the first recipient. She retained an interest in lawn tennis and was regularly seen at Wimbledon and other tournaments. She was very fond of animals, especially horses.

Maud continued to live at Berkswell until 1932, when she took up residence at Hammonds Mead, overlooking the sea, at Charmouth, Dorset, as companion to Miss Gertrude Evans, a life-long friend and tennis enthusiast who originated from Kenilworth. Maud often met and reminisced with May Langrishe, her opponent of fifty years earlier, who lived two miles outside Charmouth, in the small village of Morecamblake. Later Miss Langrishe fell ill and moved to Hammonds Mead, where she died in January 1939.

Maud, who never married, died at Hammonds Mead on 5 June 1946, at the age of 81. A few days later she was laid to rest with her sister in the churchyard at Berkswell.

Last edited by newmark401; Jul 10th, 2015 at 06:13 PM.
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