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Agnes Morton - An Early English Lawn Tennis Player

By Mark Ryan

Agnes Mary Morton was born on March 6, 1872, in the town of Halstead in the south-eastern English county of Essex. (From an early age she appears to have been known to family and friends as "Agatha".) Agnes was the second child and first daughter of Robert Rutherford Morton, a solicitor (b. 1841 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England), and Jessie Mary Morton (née Sinclair; b. 1849 in Halstead).

Robert Morton and Jessie Sinclair had married each other in Halstead on April 22, 1869. Their first child, Gerald Sinclair Morton, was born the following year. In addition to Gerald and Agnes, Robert and Jessie Morton would have five more children: Nora (b. 1873); Reginald Charles, probably known as "Reynolds" (b. 1875); Bertram (b. 1879); Lilian (b. 1878); and Kathleen (b. 1879). Like Agnes, the other six Morton children were all born in Halstead.

According to "Ayres Lawn Tennis Almanack" (1925), Agnes began to learn lawn tennis in Halstead at a very young age. She was coached by her father, Robert, and the English player Helen Jackson (1867-1940). Agnes first really came to prominence in the early summer of 1902 when, together with another Englishwoman, Charlotte Sterry (née Cooper), she won the women's doubles title at Wimbledon. In the final match they had a walkover against another two Englishwomen, Hilda Lane and Connie Wilson.

In those days the women’s doubles event at Wimbledon did not have championship status (the All England Women’s Doubles Championships were, in fact, held at the Derbyshire Championships in Buxton, soon after Wimbledon). The women’s doubles event at Wimbledon was initially held from 1899 to 1907 before being abandoned. It was reinstated six years later, in 1913, with full championship status. One year later, on the eve of World War One, 42-year-old Agnes Morton won the same event, this time with the American Elizabeth Ryan. In the final they beat two married Englishwomen, Ethel Larcombe (née Thomson) and Edith Hannam (née Boucher), 6-1, 6-3.

In 1909, Agnes Morton had also won the mixed doubles event at Wimbledon with her countryman Herbert Roper Barrett when they beat another English pairing, Albert Prebble and Dora Boothby, in the final, 6-2, 7-5. (Like the women’s doubles event the mixed doubles event at Wimbledon, inaugurated in 1900, did not have championship status until 1913. In those days the All England Mixed Doubles Championships were held early in the season at the Northern Tournament, held alternately in Liverpool and Manchester.)

The year 1909 was an impressive one for Agnes Morton because she played in the final match at Wimbledon not only in the mixed doubles event, but also in the women’s singles event. In this last match Agnes faced her compatriot Dora Boothby and lost only after one of the longest finals, in terms of games played, in the history of the women’s singles event at Wimbledon, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6. (The leitmotif of the women’s game in England in 1909 was arguably the rivalry between Agnes Morton and Dora Boothby.)

The quality of Agnes Morton’s play over more than a decade is evident from her record in the Wimbledon singles event. She first took part in this event in 1901, at the age of 29, when she reached the semi-finals before losing to the great Irishwoman Louisa Martin, 7-5, 6-2. One year later Agnes went all the way to the All-Comers’ Final before being beaten by her fellow Englishwoman Muriel Robb, 6-2, 6-4. (Up until 1922 a Challenge Round was in force in the women’s singles event at Wimbledon. This meant that the holder did not have to play through the event, but could sit out and wait to play the winner of what was known as the All-Comers’ event.)

Agnes Morton was a quarter-finalist in the women’s singles event at Wimbledon in 1903, while one year later she again reached the All-Comers’ Final before losing to Charlotte Sterry, 6-3, 6-3. In 1905, she reached the semi-finals of the same event before the eventual champion, the American May Sutton, beat her, 6-4, 6-0. Three years later, in 1908, Agnes reached the All-Comers’ Final at Wimbledon for the third time where her old Nemesis, Charlotte Sterry, beat her, 6-4, 6-4.

After 1909, Agnes’s best performance in the women’s singles event at Wimbledon came in 1912 when, at the age of forty, she reached the quarter-finals before being defeated by another Englishwoman, Dorothy Holman, 7-5, 6-2. Agnes’s last appearance in this event came in 1914 when she reached the third round before losing to another Englishwoman, Helen Aitchison, 7-5 6-3.

In 1910 and 1911, Agnes Morton travelled to Germany in the late summer to take part in the clay court tournaments held in the southern spa resorts of Bad Homburg and Baden-Baden. In both years Agnes won the women’s singles event at these two tournaments. These were two of the few times that she travelled outside of England to play in overseas tournaments (foreign travel was not nearly as common nor as easy then as it is nowadays).

In 1912 and 1913, Agnes Morton also took part in the clay court tournament held in Dinard on the north-west coast of France in late summer; she won the women’s singles titles on both occasions. In 1913, she also won the women’s single title at the tournament held in late summer in the town Deauville, also on the north-west coast of France.

Agnes Morton’s participation in the above-mentioned tournaments in Germany and France were also some of the few occasions in which she took part in tournaments played on clay, the vast majority of British tournaments being held on grass during the early decades of the sport.

It is clear from her career record that, in addition to Wimbledon, Agnes enjoyed taking part in certain tournaments in England year after year. These include the North London Championships (also known as the "Gipsy Tournament"), usually held in early July, where Agnes won the singles title nine times in a row, from 1906 to 1914; the Suffolk Championships in Saxmundham, usually held in mid-August, where she also won the women’s singles title nine times in a row during the same years (1906-14); and the Essex Championships, usually held in early August in Colchester, where she won the women’s singles title six times, in 1904-06, 1908-09 and 1911. As indicated above, Agnes Morton was also an accomplished doubles player; she won many women’s doubles and mixed doubles events throughout her lawn tennis career.

No competitive lawn tennis tournaments were held in Great Britain during World War One. Tournament play resumed in April 1919, but Agnes Morton did not return to take part in any of them. She had retired from the sport by that time. Six years later, on August 1, 1925 Agnes married Sir Hugh Houghton Stewart, a baronet. She was 53 and he was 67 at the time of the marriage.

Sir Hugh had been born on September 15, 1858, in Kilmannock, Country Wexford, in south-east Ireland. Agnes was his second wife, his first being Amy Caldwell (née Greenwell). This was a second marriage for Amy Caldwell, who died on September 13, 1924. Sir Hugh Houghton Stewart died without issue on January 18, 1942. He was 83. His address at the time of his death was given as Loughmacrony Lodge, Carrickmore, County Tyrone, in present-day Northern Ireland. He left effects to the value of £3,194, 14 s.

Dame Agnes Stewart, as she had become, died on April 5, 1952, in London, England. She was 80 years of age. Her address at the time of her death was 67 Holland Park, Kensington, London. Dame Agnes left effects to the value of £14,336, 15 s, 5 d. Probate was granted to Barclays Bank Limited in London on July 11, 1952.
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