The Langrishe Sisters and the early Irish Lawn Tennis Championships
By Mark Ryan
Part I: Origins
The Langrishes originally came from England, but were well-established in Ireland by the time May Langrishe and her siblings were born in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their paternal great-great-grandfather, Sir Hercules Langrishe (born in Knocktopher, County Kilkenny, in 1729), became a freeman of Kilkenny in 1750 and represented the constituency of Knocktopher as an MP in the Irish House of Commons for six consecutive terms totalling nearly 40 years, from 1761 until the abolition of the seat with the Act of Union in 1800.
Sir Hercules Langrishe was known for advocating the repeal of the penal laws against Catholics, though his advocacy in this respect is thought to have been motivated primarily by fiscal reasons. His gradual acquisition of property in the borough of Knocktopher allowed him to let exclusively to Catholics, who did not have the vote. In others respects, his politics were mainly protestant.
Hercules Langrishe was created 1st Baronet Langrishe, of Knocktopher, County Kilkenny, on 19 February 1777. The Langrishe baronetcy has passed down the male line of Langrishes, eventually being inherited by May’s father, Sir James Langrishe and, subsequently, by his son, Hercules Robert.
Sir James Langrishe was born on 24 May 1823. He later became a Lieutenant Colonel and High Sheriff for County Kilkenny. On 2 July 1857, he married, as his first wife, Adela de Blois Eccles. She was the daughter of Thomas de Blois Eccles, a native of Charlemont in the English county of Staffordshire. The surname (de) Blois is both French and locational in origin, and can be traced back to the time of the Normans. The surname Eccles is British and also locational in origin.
Sir James and Lady Adela Langrishe had six children, but two of them, girls named Frances Alice and Norah Elizabeth, died in infancy. Their other children were Hercules Robert, born 27 June 1859; Adela Constance, born in 1858; Maria Cecilia, known as Beatrice (or “Bee” in certain sources), born circa 1863; and Mary Isabella, known as May, born 31 December 1864.
Like his sisters, Hercules Langrishe took part in some lawn tennis tournaments, but not in as many as they did. He was considered something of a dashing figure in his time and gained the rank of Captain in the Army Motor Reserve and the rank of Captain and Honorary Major in the 3rd Battalion, Oxfordshire Light Infantry. During the First World War, he served in the Mediterranean and Russia, gaining the rank of Temporary Commander in the service of the Royal Navy Reserve. At different times he also held different offices, including those of High Sheriff of County Kilkenny and Deputy Lieutenant of County Kilkenny.
On 16 April 1887, Hercules Langrishe married Helen Amelrosa Hume Dick, daughter of Right Honorary Fitzwilliam Hume Dick. The marriage settlement of £100,000, a huge sum in those days, brought some well-needed money into the family coffers as it appears that the Langrishe estate was in severe financial difficulties at the time. Hercules succeeded to the title of 5th Baronet Langrishe of Knocktopher, County Kilkenny, on 22 August 1910.
Sir James Langrishe, 4th Baronet, had died in Dublin on 20 August 1910 at the age of 78. Following the death of his first wife, the former Adela de Blois Eccles, he had married, secondly, Algitha Maud Gooch, daughter of Sir Henry Daniel Gooch, 2nd Baronet and Mary Kelsay Croskey, on 7 February 1906. (Lady Adela Langrishe had died on 12 September 1901). Sir Hercules Langrishe, 5th Baronet, died on 23 October 1943, at the age of 87. He was succeeded by his son Terence Hume Langrishe.
Part II: Mainly Lawn Tennis
The Langrishes appear to have had a tennis court on their estate in Knocktopher, so May and her siblings would have been able to play and practice there before they began to play competitively. The Langrishes seem to have enjoyed sporting activity in general and tennis was becoming increasingly popular not just as a sport but as a social activity in the late nineteenth century. In Ireland, as in England and other countries, it was initially played by members of the gentry and wealthy families.
The first Irish Championships were held at the Fitzwilliam Club in Dublin in 1879. According to Irish author Ulick O’Connor, in “The Fitzwilliam Story: 1877 – 1977”:
“It was not, in fact, first called the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club. In November 1877, ten men met to found the Dublin Lawn Tennis Club. It was to have 30 members who would pay a subscription of £3 a year. At the next meeting on 23 November, it was decided to lease some ground in Upper Pembroke Street (just off Fitzwilliam Square) from Sir Francis Brady for £25 per annum on a ten-year lease. It wasn’t until the next meeting on 6 December 6 that Arnold Graves, one of the committee, proposed that to ‘avoid confusion’ the club be called the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club.”
Although a men’s singles event had been held at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, in 1877, the unique feature of the Irish Championships was that it also included a ladies’ singles and a mixed doubles event, the first championship titles of their kind to be played anywhere in the world.
“The Field”, a sports journal, reported on the tournament in June 1879 as follows:
“For some time the holding of an Irish championship meeting had been talked about, as the game had made great strides in public opinion on the other side of the Channel, and many players were known to be decidedly above average. The Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, under whose management the whole of the details were carried out, issued a very liberal programme, comprising not only singles matches, but doubles for two gentlemen, and also a lady and gentleman as partners [mixed doubles]. The gentlemen’s single match, for which a first prize, value £20, and a second, value £5, were given, obtained an entry of fifteen; the ladies’ singles, first prize, value £10, second prize, value £2 10s, seven; the gentlemen’s doubles, two first prizes, value £7 10s each, and two second prizes, value £2 10s each, fourteen; and the ladies’ and gentlemen’s [mixed] doubles, two first prizes, value £5 each; and two second prizes, value £2 10s each, an entry of nine.
“Considering it was the first venture of the kind in Ireland, the entries must be considered very good. The matches were arranged to begin on Wednesday last in Fitzwilliam Square, each match to be the best of three sets, and, if possible, to be finished in the day. The ladies’ singles championship, to be played on asphalt today (Saturday), is to take place in the private ground of the Fitzwilliam Club, where admittance will only be by a member’s voucher.”
As reported in the “The Field”, the tournament as a whole was to be played over a week or so, with each individual event being held on one specific day. It is interesting to note that the ladies’ singles event was held in private, on an indoor asphalt court at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club itself in Upper Pembroke Street, just around the corner from Fitzwilliam Square. The reason for this was that it was considered unseemly for the women to be seen playing in public even though they would have worn what would now be considered an excessive amount of clothing likely to hinder instead of facilitate movement.
This is the draw for the first Ladies’ Singles Championship:
Miss D. Meldon d. Miss Beatrice Langrishe 3-6, 6-3, 6-2
Miss [Connie] Butler d. Miss Aungier 1-6, 6-4, 6-1
Miss Adela Langrishe d. Miss Costello 6-2, 4-6, 6-2
Miss Casey, a bye
Miss D. Meldon d. Miss [Connie] Butler 6-3, 4-6, 6-2
Miss Casey d. Miss Adela Langrishe 6-2, 0-6, 12-10
Miss May Langrishe, a bye
Miss May Langrishe, a bye
Miss Casey, absent
Miss D. Meldon, a bye
Miss May Langrishe d. Miss D. Meldon 6-2, 0-6, 8-6
As only seven players entered, Miss Casey had a bye into the second round (the first name of this and a number of other players is unknown, apparently unrecorded). However, it was not uncommon at that time for byes to be awarded in subsequent rounds, too, which was the case for May Langrishe in the second round, and for her and Miss Meldon in the third round. Another striking feature of this event is that, of the seven entrants, three were sisters – May along with Adela and Beatrice. Although the first name of most of the other entrants is unknown, Miss Butler is likely to have been Connie Butler, a talented player who may also have been from Kilkenny. In fact, all of the entrants for this inaugural ladies’ singles championship – and for the other three events – were Irish.
“The Field” carried the following report of the ladies’ singles event:
“It was arranged to hold the ladies’ matches on the rink of the Fitzwilliam Club in Upper Pembroke Street [literally around the corner from Fitzwilliam Square]. The court is a very good one, being made of asphalt not brought to a perfectly smooth surface, thus giving the players some hold on the ground and preventing them from slipping. In order to keep the matches as private as possible, admission to the rink was by members’ vouchers only, and these, of course, being difficult to obtain, people were all the more anxious to witness the tournament.
“The committee had managed all the details very well, arranging seats around the walls, so to give as far as possible a good sight to everyone present. The whole rink was crowded, some of the gentlemen seeing the matches from the surrounding walls. A marquee had also been provided, with light refreshments, making the afternoon very much like a private ‘at home’.
“The play of four or even five of the ladies was far and away above what we have seen before, the backhanded strikes of Miss [Adela] Langrishe being very good, and also the certainty with which Miss Casey returned all the balls. The final set between these two ladies was one of the most remarkable ever seen in a match, as it took twenty-two games – just double the usual number to decide who should be returned as the winner. Miss May Langrishe who, by winning, becomes the champion for the year, was, we believe, the youngest of all the competitors, and fully deserved the position, as her hard returns just over the net were simply splendid, and she showed great judgement in placing her balls.”
If May really was born on 31 December 1864 and won this singles event in early June 1879, she would have been only 14-and-a-half years of age at the time. All three Langrishe sisters also participated in the mixed doubles event, but May and Beatrice and their respective partners did not survive the first round. However, Adela reached the final with Mr C. Barry, where they lost 6-4, 6-4 to Mr E. Elliot of the 82nd regiment and Miss Costello. The whole mixed doubles event was played on Thursday, 5 June.
The following report on the mixed doubles event comes from “The Field”:
“The match [event] set for decision was the ladies’ and gentlemen’s doubles. Play began just before one o’clock, and by three the grounds were again filled with a large and fashionable assembly. The band engaged for the afternoon were the Queen’s Bays, and they gave great satisfaction under their able master. The play shown by the winning pair, and also by Mr and Miss Aungier, was far and away the best we have seen – in fact, it was a long way above what we have ever heard about the play of the Dublin ladies.” The Mr Aungier referred to is more than likely Peter Aungier, from Dublin.
According to “The Field”, in the semi-final Miss Aungier (possibly Mary, sister of Peter) was too tired to play as well as she had in the previous two rounds (not surprisingly, perhaps, as all of the matches were played on the same day). As for the final: “Some of the games were most splendidly contested, and long rallies were the rule, the backhand returns of Miss [Adela] Langrishe being especially noticeable. Miss Costello, also, though not so good in that particular stroke, managed to cover an immense amount of ground at the back of the court, where her partner, Mr Elliott, was playing his favourite and most well-judged strokes at the net. It will be seen by this that the latter gentleman has carried off both the partner prizes, and we must say that his play in these matches has been really splendid.” (Elliott had won the men’s doubles on the previous day, Wednesday, 4 June, together with R. Kellie, also of the 82nd regiment.)
The men’s singles event took place on the Friday, 6 June. The ladies’ singles was the last event scheduled (perhaps an indication of the organisers’ priorities). As indicated above, it was held indoors, on an asphalt court in a rink in the Fitzwilliam Club itself, in Upper Pembroke Street, just around from Fitzwilliam Square. The reasons for holding this event indoors are unclear, although a number of sources say it was to afford the ladies privacy. However, some of them had just participated in the mixed doubles event, held in public. In addition, there is evidence that the weather turned bad at the weekend, preventing the whole ladies’ singles event from being played on the Saturday, as originally scheduled. Certainly there is no evidence that the ladies’ singles event was ever held indoors again.
A ladies’ doubles event was not inaugurated at the Irish Championships until the following year, 1880. It was won by May Langrishe and Connie Butler. They reached the final by beating Miss Meldon and Miss Lynch, 6-3, 6-4. In the final itself they had a walkover for an unspecified reason against Miss Costello and Miss Meldon. The number of entrants for both the ladies’ singles and ladies’ doubles was very low in 1880 and these two events were not held at the Irish Championships in 1881. In fact, the ladies’ doubles event would not be held again until 1884. The ladies’ singles event was resumed in 1882, the year in which May won the singles event at the Northern Championships, held that year in Liverpool, England.
In 1883, there were only four entries for the ladies’ singles at the Irish Championships. May beat Miss Esmonde and Beatrice beat Connie Butler. In the final, May won her second ladies’ singles title easily, by a score of 6-0, 6-1. (One year later, two sisters, Maud and Lilian Watson, would also play in the Wimbldeon singles final, with Maud winning.)
In 1883, May also won the mixed doubles title in Dublin, partnering her countryman Ernest Browne. In the final they beat their compatriots, Peter Aungier and Lena Rice, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0. (In the early years of the Irish Championships the mixed doubles final was played over the best of five sets.) Lena Rice, from County Tipperary, would go on to take the Wimbledon singles title in 1890. At this point in 1883, she was barely seventeen years of age.
May Langrishe herself played in the singles event at Wimbledon only once. That was in 1891, when she reached the semi-final before losing 6-4, 6-1 to Blanche Hillyard. Adela never played at Wimbledon, while Beatrice, like May, played there only once, in 1885, when she lost 6-0, 6-2 in the first round to Lilian Watson. The sisters’ lack of participation there is unusual because at least May and Beatrice certainly played at other events in Britain over a number of years.
In 1885, May reached her third singles final at the Irish Championships, but was beaten there by Maud Watson, the Wimbledon champion, invincible in singles at the time. For the first and only time the ladies’ single final was the best of five sets. Maud won in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. Earlier in the same event May had defeated Lilian Watson, while Maud had beaten Beatrice Langrishe.
In the ladies’ doubles final at the 1885 Irish Championships, Maud and Lilian Watson beat May and her sister, Adela, 6-2, 6-4. This was probably the first time that two sets of sisters played each other in a major doubles final.
In 1886, May won her third and final ladies’ singles title at her native championships. In the final she beat Louisa Martin 6-3, 6-4. Louisa would go on to win the singles title in Dublin a record nine times between 1889 and 1903, and many experts agree that only nerves on the big occasion prevented her from taking the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon, where she reached the All-Comers’ Final on three occasions.
May and Beatrice were runner-up in the ladies’ doubles event in Dublin in 1886, losing 6-3, 6-4 to Connie Butler and Louisa Martin. However, May won her final title at the Irish Championships in that year’s mixed doubles event. She and Eyre Chatterton beat Toler Garvey and Adela, May’s sister, 6-0, 6-2, 6-1 in the final. Both Chatterton and Garvey were Irish.
After 1886, May did not appear in any more finals at the Irish Championships. However, she did continue to play tennis competitively, as did Beatrice. In 1887, Beatrice was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Maud Watson in the final of the Welsh Championships, held in June in Penarth. May won the Derbyshire Championships in Buxton later that season.
A sprained ankle kept May out of the Irish Championships in 1889. However, in both this year and 1890, she won the singles title at the prestigious South of England Championships in Eastbourne. After 1890, neither May nor Beatrice appeared in any major singles finals although May was only 26 at this point, while Beatrice was about a year younger.
In “Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad” (1903), H.S. Scrivener wrote of May: “She was an accomplished volleyer, and played with a grace that was simply charming, her backhand stroke being the most perfect I have ever seen. She and I used to have some terrific private matches with Mr [George] and Mrs [Blanche] Hillyard in mixed doubles, and I have never wished for a better or more good-humoured partner.”
On 21 December 1921, Beatrice married Colonel Henry Francis Thornhill Fisher, a soldier in the Worcester Regiment. She died childless on 14 March 1921. Adela, the least successful of the sisters in terms of winning titles, later moved to Leixlip in County Kildare. In 1911, at the age of 41, she was living in a house there and had a housemaid and a cook. Adela died on 6 March 1948 at the age of 87 or 88.
In the early twentieth century, two Langrishe sisters, Cecilia [Cicely] and Eileen, were members of the Kilkenny County and City Lawn Tennis Club. These were two of the daughters of Richard Langrishe by his third wife, Amitia Sneade Brown. Richard Langrishe was the youngest of the four children of Reverend Sir Hercules Richard Langrishe, 3rd baronet. His brother James was the paternal grandfather of Adela, Beatrice and May Langrishe.
Like her eldest sister, Adela, May Langrishe did not marry, In later life she moved to England, where she lived in a small village in Dorset called Morecamblake, located two miles outside Charmouth. Maud Watson also spent her final years in Charmouth, in Hammonds Mead, which overlooked the sea. Both former champions liked to meet and reminisce about their past tennis careers. When she fell ill near the end of her life, May Langrishe also moved to Hammonds Mead and died there on 24 January 1939 at the age of 74.
Last edited by newmark401; Aug 3rd, 2015 at 01:50 PM.