View Full Version : Blanche Hillyard (1863-1946) - Six Times Wimbledon Singles Champion

Sep 23rd, 2010, 10:42 PM
This piece is a combination of the entry on Blanche Hillyard in the 2004 "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" and original research by me. (This piece hardly does justice to a player who won many singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles over a period of more than twenty-five years, but details of virtually all of her tournament victories can be found within the results section in this website.)

Blanche Hillyard

Blanche Bingley was born on 3 November 1863 at Stanhope Lodge, Greenford, Middlesex, England, the daughter of Charles Bentley Bingley, “gentleman”, formerly proprietor of a tailoring business in Great Marlborough Street, London, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Harrison. Blanche had [three] siblings – Emma (born 1845), Florence (born 1849) and Roselie (born 1851). By 1881 they were all living at 3 Portland Place, a very fashionable address near the centre of London. Also in the house were 14-year-old Ethel Field, daughter of Florence, by then Mrs Field and a widow.

There was also a retinue of no less than eight servants, all “living in”. These included a footman, a Swiss lady’s maid, a French lady’s maid, a housekeeper, a parlour maid and a cook. In those days, of course, it was not unusual for well-to-do, or even quite modestly off, people to employ domestic staff, though the fact that Blanche Bingley’s family could afford to employ eight servants is a strong indication of her background.

Blanche Bingley’s remarkable career in competitive tennis spanned three decades. In 1884, aged twenty, she burst upon the tennis scene when she was among the field of thirteen in the first ladies’ singles championship at Wimbledon. After winning two matches, she lost to the eventual champion, Maud Watson, in the semi-final. In 1912, aged forty-eight, after twenty-eight years of first-class tennis playing and six singles titles, she was again a semi-finalist at Wimbledon, but lost to Ethel Larcombe, who went on to win the title. Her twenty-fourth and last Wimbledon followed the next year, when she went out early to Ethel Hannam.

She first won the Wimbledon Championship in 1886, when she defeated Maud Watson, who had retained her singles title in 1885. She won again in 1889, as Blanche Hillyard, against Lena Rice. Blanche had married Commander George Whiteside Hillyard RN (born 1864) in Greenford on 13 July 1887. They would have one son and one daughter. She won again in 1894 against Edith Austin and in 1897, 1899 and 1900 against Charlotte Cooper (later Mrs Sterry).

Blanche Hillyard was thus the first mother to win the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon (in 1894, three years after giving birth to her son, Jack Montagu). She won the title three times (1897, 1899 and 1900) as a mother of two children, her daughter, Marjorie, having been born in 1896. Only three other mothers have subsequently won the same title. Charlotte Sterry (1908) won the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon once (1908) as the mother of two children, while Dorothea Lambert Chambers did it once (1910) as the mother of one child and twice (1913, 1914) as the mother of two children. The only mother to win the same title is Evonne Cawley (née Goolagong), who had had her first child when she won the ladies’ singles title for the second time in 1980.

Blanche Hillyard’s only superior in the early days was Lottie Dod, five-time champion and the greatest sportswoman of her age. Between 1885 and 1901, except on the four occasions when she did not compete, she was either Wimbledon champion or runner-up. The fourteen-year span between her first and last Wimbledon is the longest in history while her last title at age thirty-six still distinguishes her as the second-oldest ladies’ singles champion (Mrs Sterry was nearly thirty-eight when she won in 1908). Her thirteen appearances in the singles final are a Wimbledon record, and Martina Navratilova is the only other player to have won the singles title in three different decades.

In addition to her Wimbledon successes, Blanche Hillyard won an amazing number of other singles, doubles and mixed doubles championships, including the Irish, Welsh, North of England, South of England (eleven times between 1885 and 1905), London, Cheltenham, Middlesex, Buston, Exmouth, English Covered Courts, All England doubles, mixed doubles and married couples, Wimbledon non-championship doubles, German, South of France, and Monte Carlo titles. A tireless tennis enthusiast, she continued to play in public long after her skills had waned, rather than allowing protection of her reputation to interfere with a pastime that gave her immense pleasure.

Blanche Hillyard was the first woman player whose standard of performance could be described as formidable. Her style was not particularly varied and like most of her contemporaries, she played a baseline rather than a volleying game; her backhand was defensive and relatively weak and her overhand serve, although an unusual stroke for a woman in her day, was not especially strong. What gave her play distinction was a remarkable natural forehand that had topspin and was much more powerful and accurate than those of her contemporaries, her follow-through going so far that the impact of her right hand and wrist badly bruised the upper part of her left arm and shoulder. Excellent footwork and great agility and speed, along with clever tactics, good judgement and intense concentration were also major assets, as were her fierce competitiveness, tremendous, determined, dogged persistence and unfailing self-control.

Blanche Hillyard never knew when she was beaten or what it was to be too tired to play on. By her own description, her most memorable match was the 1889 Wimbledon final against Lena Rice, who won the first set 6-4 and led in the second set by 5 games to 3 and 40-15 in the ninth game before Blanche Hillyard staged an extraordinary comeback to take the set 8 games to 6 and went on to win a well-fought third set 6-4.

Unlike many sportswomen, Blanche Hillyard did not give up serious competition with marriage and motherhood, although she never allowed her love of tennis to interfere with domestic duties and her championship record is marked by breaks of family building. Her courtship with George Hillyard was frequently conducted on the tennis court, and both played competitive tennis on their honeymoon. Commander Hillyard, a fine cricketer and tennis player (especially at doubles), also competed at Wimbledon, although with less success than his wife. More than that, he was one of the founders of the Lawn Tennis Association (1888), a distinguished umpire and, from 1907 to 1924, as Secretary of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, he was a great power in the tennis world. Their son, Jack, enjoyed modest success when he played competitive tennis during the 1920s.

The Hillyards’ estate at Thorpe Satchville, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, included a private golf course and tennis court, and exuded an uninhibited sporting atmosphere. The Hillyards adored dogs and allowed their pack of pocket beagles and other terriers to wander in and out of the house at will. Hunting and tennis parties, including most of the leading tennis players of the day, were common. Indeed, according to Dame Mabel Brookes, the wife of Norman Brookes, the first Australian to win Wimbledon, Thorpe Satchville was “an institution rather than a house”.

Blanche Hillyard was a tall, plain, athletic-looking woman with a bold, clear signature that reflected her definite, businesslike manner on and off court. A sports all-rounder who was an excellent horse- and huntswoman (she hunted with the Quorn fox hunt for thirty years) as well as a tennis player, she was known for her exceptional sportsmanship and pleasantness to opponents weak and strong: the frowns that characterised her tennis play resulted from concentration rather than annoyance. She was known also for a minor sartorial eccentricity in that she always played in soft white leather gloves, evidently to ensure a firm grip on the racket.

As one of the pre-eminent women tennis players of her age, Blanche Hillyard was asked to contribute articles on tennis to various journals, including Herbert W.W. Wilberforce’s “Lawn Tennis” (1890) and Lady Greville’s edition of “The Gentlewoman’s Book of Sports” (1892). These reveal that, although far from advocating “women’s rights”, she believed in dress reform in sport and that participation in sport advanced the position of women. “In tennis,” she wrote, “our sex can compete with a certain amount of equality with the ‘lords of creation’”; for playing “promotes … that coolness of head and judgement which we are so often taunted with lacking”.

Commander George Hillyard died on 24 March 1943 at the age of 79. Blanche Hillyard’s full life and “direct approach kept her bravely active, until at a great age and crippled with arthritis, she cried ‘enough’ and passed on” (Brookes, 73) at her home, Greenford, Mare Hill, Pullborough, Sussex, on 6 August 1946. She was 82.