The 1874 Sphairistike set sold for £17,000 at Trevanion & Dean.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The name was never popular. Today it is better known by Major Winf ield’s more descriptive title of lawn tennis.

The first Sphairistike sets – labelled as such to red-painted pine boxes – were manufactured by the ‘Inventor’s Agents’ French & Co of 46 Churton Street, London. All sorts of minutiae are used to determine the precise date of manufacture but a good indictor is the weight and shape of the racquets. The earliest, weighing 10 to 12 ounces, have symmetric heads. Those made after November 1874 were heavier and have tilt heads more akin to those used in the ancient game of ‘real tennis’.

The set that surfaced at Trevanion & Dean (20% buyer’s premium) in Whitchurch, Shropshire, on October 12 was part of a cache of Victorian tennis equipment that had been found by the auctioneers in a summer house in the grounds of a Cheshire country house.

Wimbledon connection

It was incomplete but included a net, the original red-painted mallet, three pre-November 1874 racquets with original gut stringing and a three-quarter calf skin grip marked for Henry Malings of Frances Street, Woolwich.

One carried the inscription W Dod for Willy Dod. He was an ancestor of the vendor and the brother of Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Dod who won the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon five times between 1887-93.

“In the build-up to the sale we spoke to a great number of impassioned collectors who could not stress how rarely an original Sphairistike set comes up for auction,” said auctioneer Christina Trevanion.

It drew interest across the tennis collecting community before it sold for £17,000 to a UK-based private collector against the efforts of an American online bidder.

Other highlights from this remarkable collection included three Victorian tilt-headed tennis rackets c.1875-80 which sold from £1200 to £2200 and a games box by well-known 19th century maker FH Ayres sold at £2600. Dating from 1875-76 the Oxford and Cambridge Lawn Tennis Box included, to a large and colourful paper label, a central image of a doubles match on an hourglass court with high poles and nets. 

Particularly rare survivors were two examples of the HS Lawn Tennis Well and Ball Carrier. Fashioned with a simple folding pine X-frame and red-striped white canvas, each had a brass plate to the side bearing the name, the date of 1875 and the patent number 3775. Previously known only from black and white illustrations in trade catalogues, these took £1400 and £1700.