Lena Rice – The Only Irish Wimbledon Lady Champion
First published in 1985, the following piece was written by Alan Little, Honorary Librarian at the Kenneth Ritchie Library at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon.
Lena Rice – The Only Irish Wimbledon Lady Champion
By Alan Little
“The least known of all the Wimbledon Champions is Lena Rice, the only Irishwoman to have won the coveted title. Her achievement in 1890 was remarkable in that her lawn tennis career spanned just two seasons and no more than a handful of tournaments.
“Lena, one of eight children by Spring and Anna (Gorde) Rice, was born on the 21st of June, 1866, at Marlhill in New Inn, a small village on the main Dublin to Cork Road, approximately six miles south of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland. Her parents gave her three Christian names, Helena Bertha and Grace, but she was always known as Lena, which explains the initial ‘L’ which prefixes her name in the early records of the game. Lena had three brothers, Spring Robert (born 1858), Samuel Pollock (born 1868), and Henry, and four sisters, Elizabeth (born c. 1860), Constance (born c. 1861), Annie (born c. 1863) and Lucy. The family was kin to Lord Monteagle.
“Marlhill, situated half a mile outside New Inn, was a two-storey Georgian house with basement, set in a well-kept and grounds, a feature being the snipe and duck pond.
“Lena, who had a reputation for being a practical joker, learnt the game at home, where many fine tennis parties were held in the [eighteen] eighties. Lena and Annie were great friends. They spent many hours playing together, often at the Cahir Lawn Tennis Club which, in those days, had four tennis courts and two croquet lawns. Two of the grass courts were reputed to be the best in Ireland. There was no scarcity of young male players in the district during this period as a cavalry regiment was stationed nearby and other army units within a small radius.
“Lena developed a very powerful service and forehand drive. Her weaknesses were her inability, or a disinclination, to play a backhand down the line and a tendency to be nervous at the beginning of a match.
“Lena’s first tournament appearance was at the Irish Championships, held in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, during May 1899. After defeating Connie Butler, 6-3, 6-2, Lena narrowly lost in the semi-final to Blanche Hillyard, 7-5, 7-5, after holding a commanding 5-2 lead in the second set. She partnered her victor to reach the final of the doubles and teamed with Willoughby Hamilton to capture the mixed doubles crown from Harold Stone and Blanche Hillyard, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. A most successful debut.
“Towards the end of June, Lena and Annie played at the Lansdowne meeting in Dublin. In the handicap singles both lost to Miss G. Crofton, Annie in the semi-final, 6-4, 6-2, and Lena in the final, 6-4, 6-2. The sisters also competed in the handicap mixed doubles and at the semi-final stage Annie and Ernest Greene defeated Manliffe Goodbody and Lena, 6-4, 6-2, before losing in a five-set final to C.P. Brett and Miss Head, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4
“An entry of six
A week later, Lena and Annie crossed the Irish Sea to compete in The Championships at Worple Road, Wimbledon, which attracted an entry of six. Lena, following a bye, easily beat May Jacks, 6-2, 6-0, to reach the final which, in the absence of the holder, Lottie Dod, decided the championship that year. Awaiting her was Blanche Hillyard, who had eliminated Annie in the opening round, 6-3, 6-0
“Before a large crowd on the Centre Court, Lena, taking advantage of her opponent serving many double faults, won the first set at 6-4. She led 5-3, 40-15, in the second set and was three times within a stroke of victory, but on each occasion Blanche Hillyard’s experience pulled her through to eventually even the score. The deciding set was well fought, and at stage Lena stood at 4-3, 40-30, but once again her opponent recovered to secure the title at 4-6, 8-6, 6-4. Writing many years later, Blanche Hillyard described this contest as her most memorable and exciting match.
“Lena made history another way at Wimbledon by taking a ‘line’ during the match between William Renshaw and Herbert Lawford, as this was the first occasion a lady had officiated at the meeting. She had few strokes to judge, but her decisions were clearly and promptly given. Lena did not compete again that year.
“At the 1890 Irish Championships, Lena failed at the last hurdle. After scoring easy wins over Connie Butler, 6-0, 6-2, and G. Crofton, 6-2, 6-1, she lost in the final to Louisa Martin, and eventual nine-time winner of the title, 9-7, 6-4. Lena was unsuccessful in both doubles events. At the Lansdowne tournament, Lena went one better than the year before, winning the handicap singles. She never lost a set throughout and beat a Miss Wilson in the final, 6-3, 6-1.
“Seized her chance
“At Wimbledon [in 1890] there were only four entries for the ladies’ singles – the lowest figure on record. Blanche Hillyard, expecting her first child, did not defend and Lena seized her chance. In the opening round, Lena defeated Mary Steedman, 7-5, 6-2, in a contest where both played extremely well and the rallies were long and keenly contested.
“The final against May Jacks took place on Friday, 4th July, 1890, in fine weather. For this match, played on the Centre Court, Lena wore a two-piece costume, consisting of an ankle-length, floral-patterned skirt and blouse, tightly clinched at the waist. A tie, dark leather shoes and a strawboater completed her outfit.
“After winning the opening game, Lena appeared to lack confidence and placed many of her returns short to trail 2-4. However, from then on she performed better and better, returning the ball more severely and placing the ball more severely to take the next four games and the set, 6-4. Lena continued in a similar vein in the second set, losing only the fifth game, ending on a high note by capturing the last two games without conceding a point. In all she had won 58 points to her opponent’s 42.
“Besides winning the right to hold the 50-guinea Challenge trophy for the year, Lena was awarded the first prize, value 20 guineas, and with this she purchased an emerald and diamond ring, now worn by her great-niece, Susan Faithfull.
“1890 was Ireland’s year at Wimbledon for, a couple of days after Lena’s triumph, Willoughby Hamilton won the men’s singles and Johsua Pim and Frank Stoker took the men’s doubles to complete a unique treble.
“There is no record of Lena ever having played in public again. The probability is that, soon after Wimbledon, she was forced to devote more time at home owing to the illness of her mother, Anna, who for years had borne the responsibility of managing the household and the upbringing of the children following the premature death of her husband at the age of 41 on 21st October, 1868. The passing of Anna on 17th March, 1891, at the age of 63, certainly would have prohibited Lena’s participation in any Irish tournaments or the defence of her Wimbledon title that year. Doubtless, had Lena continued to play she would have a dangerous rival to Lottie Dod and Blanche Hillyard, who dominated the early years of the game.
“Lena, who never married, died of tubercular hip on her 41st birthday, 21st June, 1907, at Marlhill. She was buried in front of her parents’ graves in the small Protestant cemetery situated in Downeys Field at New Inn. Her brother Samuel, who died at the age of three in 1871, and Agnes, a 66-year-old maiden aunt on her father’s side, were also buried nearby. By coincidence the graveyard, which had been sadly neglected for many years, was cleaned up and renovated in 1984 by the New Inn Tidy Village Committee. The removal of all the trees and bushes from the site revealed the graves of Lena and her parents
“Soon after Lena died, Elizabeth and Constance left Ireland and made their home at Alassio in Italy, where they were responsible for managing the British Library. They returned to Ireland for a short period in 1919 to assist in winding up the estate upon the death of Henry. Elizabeth married a Mr Bagwell and had a son, Edward, while Constance remained single. Little is known about Lucy except that she became a Mrs Maybury and had a son Charles.
“Annie had left Marlhill many years earlier. In the mid-eighteen nineties she married George McMullen, a Major in the Indian Army, and settled in India. She continued to play tennis and won many local tournaments. Later she returned to England and eventually died at Gosport in 1934. One of her children, Eleanor, who married a Lieutenant Nelson Noble in 1921, played and umpired in the mid-nineteen twenties on the French Riviera and at one time was very friendly with the legendary Suzanne Lenglen.
Two of Lena’s brothers were military men. Major-General Sir Spring Rice was a very distinguished and highly-decorated soldier, who fought in the South African War, 1889-1902, and the European War, 1914-18, when he was chief engineer to the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was knighted in 1917. He retired in 1919 and lived at Brighton until his death in 1929, when he was survived by his wife, Mary.
“Colonel Henry Rice also served in the South African War and it was said that one brother was at the siege of Ladysmith, while the other was at the head of the relieving army.
“Marlhill was purchased in 1919 by a Mr W.P. Ryan, who disposed of the estate in 1938 to a Mr Thomas Leahy, of hurling fame. In 1962, the building was demolished and a new two-storey house erected in front. In 1983, the property was acquired by the present owner, Mr David O’Brien, the well-known horse trainer, who a year later considerably extended the house. During the excavation work, the remains of a tennis court was discovered and pieces of tennis equipment found, which undoubtedly had belonged to the Rice family. Unfortunately these links with the past failed to survive the bulldozer.”