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RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET                                                                         Issue No 66    June 2001

“The Early Years” by Elwyn S Jones

Mr Elwyn S. Jones has recently published his book ‘Tennis in North Wales’ and has kindly agreed to our reproducing the first few paragraphs in which he gives an account of its invention and of the first game played at Nantclwyd Hall. The second part of this article gives an outline of the growth in popularity of the game in Ruthin itself.  Followers of Trevor Fishlock's recent t.v. programme ‘Wildtracks’ may have noted that Wingfield was said to have devised the rules of tennis at Rhysnant Hall, Llansantffraid, near Oswestry.

Tracing the origins and early history of the North Wales Lawn Tennis Association, and of the game of Tennis in the area, has not been the easiest of tasks, especially since the earliest surviving Minute books of the Welsh L.T.A. go back only as far as 1925, whilst those of North Wales, sadly, go back only as far as 1959. However, I was able to glean some information about the early years from copies of a magazine called Lawn Tennis and Badminton which were available for reference purposes in the Library of the All-England Club.  Many friends and colleagues have also been helpful and have let me have old newspaper cuttings containing snippets of information.

 This photograph, from the Denbighshire Free Press, was taken "somewhere in the Vale of Clwyd". Seated on the grass, front row left, was Miss Ethel Parry Jones, second daughter of Dr. William Parry Jones (1841-1902) of Rhianfa, Ruthin. She married Rev John F. Rees on 30th April 1895, Rector of Caerwys in that year. The photograph was sent to the Free Press by their son, Vyvyan who was then living at Cheltenham.

Tennis enthusiasts will know that the full title of what is now popularly called ‘Wimbledon’ was originally ‘The All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.’ From the middle of the nineteenth century, croquet was a favourite pastime of the upper classes in many parts of the English-speaking world and the owners of many country homes prided themselves on the perfect grass courts which they had laid on their estates. However, some of the younger, more athletic, croquet players felt the need for a faster and more physically active game, and it was this that probably led to the modern form of tennis, which combined some of the elements of the older games of real tennis and racquets. The invention of the new game is generally attributed to Major Walter Clopton Wingfield and it is generally accepted that it was played for the very first time in 1873 at Nantclwyd Hall in the Vale of Clwyd.


 Nantclwyd Hall, situated some three miles from the market town  of Ruthin, had been the home of the Naylor Leyland family since 1840, and Major Naylor, the incumbent in the 1870s, and Major Wingfield were good friends. Wingfield wrote, in 1874, that he had been working on a new form of tennis ‘for the past year and a half’. The previous year, he had been a member of a large house party at Nantclwyd, where he and his fellow guests looked forward to some shooting and ‘a generally good time in the country’. It was on this occasion that he had laid out the court and explained to the assembled guests the rules of the new game that he had invented, which he called Spharistike (the Greek for 'skill at ball play').  Afterwards, he produced the racquets and the balls which he had brought with him and the guests at Nantclwyd thus became the first people to play tennis. For this occasion, Wingfield produced a programme (a copy of which still exists) whose frontispiece details: 

The Major's Game of Lawn Tennis Dedicated to The Party Assembled at Nantclwyd.

In 1973, a small plaque was fixed on a wall overlooking the lawns at Nantclwyd to commemorate the centenary of this first game of tennis. The inscription reads: ‘opposite this plaque and a few feet away is the centre of the first and original lawn tennis court.  Here at Nantclwyd, the Naylor-Leylands and their friend Major Walter Wingfield invented and first played the game in 1873, then named Sphairistrike. This plaque is placed here in 1973, centenary year, at the suggestion of Sir Vivian Naylor-Leyland, Baronet, by the Trustees of the Nantclwyd Settlement.’  The new game quickly became popular at other nearby country houses, notably at Ruthin Castle, which is now a well-known hotel but which, in those days, was the home of the Cornwallis-West family.


It would seem that tennis was being played in the district sometime before 1893 for in August of that year, the Free Press carried the comment that there was a need for a tennis club. It was pointed out that ‘The Ruthin Lawn Tennis Tournament’ was held each August. By the mid 1920s, there were at least three clubs, viz., The Ruthin Lawn Tennis Club, The Wynnstay Tennis Club and The English Presbyterian Church Tennis Club.

The Presbyterian club owed its origins to, and was associated with, the English Presbyterian Church of Wynnstay Road, and was located just off the Denbigh Road, accessed via a side road, `Dolwen', now leading to housing developments of the 1960s. The late Ray Shingles, in his book One Hundred Years On - the history of this church - recorded, viz.,

"In 1929, controversy arose when the Club began to sell tickets for a draw to raise funds. The church committee of elders and members was hastily summoned and a letter sent to the secretaries stating that 'In the interests of the church, and of the Tennis Club itself, the church committee has decided that the connection between the church and the club shall cease forthwith, and they therefore ask the Tennis Club to change its name and leave out the words "English Presbyterian Church". Also, if the name of the English Presbyterian Church is on the Draw tickets, these tickets must be immediately withdrawn from circulation as it is against the rules of the denomination to hold such draws.
The Committee would be glad to have an acknowledgement of this letter and to learn that the above resolution has been complied with.'

From then on the Club was known as "The Clwydian Tennis Club", but there were no hard feelings and for some time later the Club was allowed the use of the church schoolroom for fund-raising sales.

It is not known when this club was first established, but it appears that it continued for another ten years until 1939 but was not revived following the end of the war.

The origins of these clubs are still rather shrouded in mystery and somewhat confused by what may have been a lack of consistency in the use of titles. For instance, there are references in the press of May 1923 to the opening of ‘The Ruthin Bowling and Lawn Tennis Clubs’. A club which became known as The Ruthin Lawn Tennis Club may possibly have arisen from a separation of the bowling and tennis clubs into two distinct organizations, , but apparently sharing facilities. They are both still located at the top of Bryn Goodman (alias 'Jumbo' Hill) [houses now stand on the site of the tennis courts]. This was probably the 'premier' tennis club of the town with many of its prominent citizens being members and officers. Sir Edmund Spriggs of Ruthin Castle was president and several leading citizens served as vice-presidents.

The Free Press [February 1925] account of RLTC's annual general meeting reports on the 1924 season which had been marred by bad weather, so bad in fact that the pavilion was destroyed by a gale. New courts had been prepared with finance in the form of loans from the members themselves. These were repaid by the time of the AGM. The new facilities were re-opened, after postponements due to bad weather, towards the end of May, 1925.

This Club too languished during the years of the second world war. By 1951, the courts were virtually derelict and the pavilion had burnt down. The Club was then reformed and was re-established on two tennis courts at Ruthin Castle Clinic. When that closed to become a hotel, the Club decided to purchase the old Bryn Goodman courts. Two new courts were laid and a new clubhouse built. The opening ceremony was performed on 27th April,1968 by the then constituency M.P. Mr. Geraint Morgan.
The location of the Wynnstay Club is unknown at present, although it appears that they had two courts. Another tennis court (asphalt) - and bowling green - was provided by the Conservative Club, presumably for its members, when the club was located at Gorphwysfa, Castle Street [they are still there in a derelict state]. By the 1950s, however, the Conservatives generously allowed non-members use of at least the tennis court. And then, of course, there were privately owned courts, as at Ruthin Castle.

Additional sources: Ray Shingles, One Hundred Years On - A History of the English Presbyterian Church, Ruthin; The Denbighshire Free Press of 1893, 1923, 1924 and 1925.

See also postscript in edition 70 - Ed.



LLANBEDR was in the care of a curate deputed by an invalided clergyman and here again there was no school. Llanbedr's Easter services had been attended by 160 - 180 people, though usual attendance was only about twenty. He knew of no papists, dissenters or Methodists.

RUTHIN itself was relatively privileged. The warden, Edward Jones, held divine service three times each Sunday in English and in Welsh, with a sermon every other Sunday. There was also a daily service, sometimes two, with a monthly administration of the sacrament. The register book started in 1592. He estimated that there were just under two hundred communicants with no papists or dissenters. He did not know of a Methodist 'teacher' or of any meeting house of theirs.

Edward Jones was kept busy for he also took divine service in Welsh twice each Sunday at LLANRHYDD and on holidays - with the proviso "if a congregation meets the minister". Here, the sacrament was administered monthly "if a sufficient number do attend".

Reference is made to "the free school, almshouse and hospital" founded by Gabriel Goodman. In addition, there also appears to have been a blue coat school "...... endowed with £2.8s. yearly salary for the master of it for teaching twelve poor parish boys; that sum is the whole of its endowment. The master's name is Robert Edwards."

Jones reported that there were about eighty communicants and no papists or dissenters in this parish. He acknowledged, indeed, accepted the presence of Methodists for they were not yet regarded as dissenters. As in the case of Ruthin parish, he was not aware of any Methodist 'teacher' or of any meeting house.

The adjoining parish of LLANFWROG was in the charge of an elderly curate, Ambrose Thelwall Lewis until Robert Nanney of Dolgellau could settle in the parish. He conducted services in Welsh and preached a sermon every other Sunday. Lewis also reported that about two hundred had attended for holy sacrament at Easter but only twenty or thirty on monthly average. He was not aware of any papists or dissenters but seemed to think that there were some Methodists at Pont Uchel (Bontuchel) but knew little about them, believing that their teachers came from South Wales. This is a somewhat surprising statement as 'Pont Uchel' was central to the evolution of dissent in the Ruthin district, even over a far wider area. Whether Lewis, as a 'caretaker', was operating on a minimal basis or whether the Pont Uchel developments were yet to become apparent, is difficult to judge.
There was no school of any kind in the parish itself. It seems that there may once have been, for "it had been the custom for the schoolmasters to bring their scholars in Lent to be catechised, to show how well they had profited by their instruction and under their care." Llanfwrog was then on the threshold of making a very significant contribution to education in the area through its Sunday School. It was also fortunate to have, a few years hence, an incumbent, Archdeacon Richard Newcome [1804-1851], who would play a very important part in this movement.

Again, "We have an almshouse in the parish founded and endowed by Lady Jane Bagot about the year 1695 for four poor men and six poor women. The present governor and guardian is Sir William Bagot, Bart. of Blithfield in Staffordshire, her ladyship's grandson. The alms people receive [?] shillings per month, paid by the Steward. The revenues are carefully preserved and, I verily believe, employed as they ought to be. The minister and church wardens have the direction and management of the benefactions left for pious uses, and an account of them is inserted annually by the vestry clerk in a book kept for that purpose."
As in the case of Christ's Hospital, in Ruthin, the Lady Bagot almshouse trust is still functioning on a new site in Llanfwrog, providing accommodation for elderly folk.

GYFFYLLIOG was a Chapel of Ease to Llanynys and was served by David Lloyd, a curate. He had two hundred and fifty at his Easter communion service, a little fewer than usual, he thought. On normal Sundays, his congregation amounted to about forty or fifty. He had no dissenters though there was an unlicensed Methodist meeting house serving Llanynys, Llanfwrog, Clocaenog and Gyffylliog. It seems likely that this would have been at Pont Uchel (see above). He did not know their number but they had regularly attended his church until the previous Easter. On that occasion, one Rowlands of Llangeitho in Cardiganshire, a beneficed clergyman, arrived to administer the sacrament in all the meeting houses. Their teachers were 'some strange itinerants' mostly from South Wales.

(To be Continued)

WORDSWORTH and Plas yn Llan, Llangynhafal

In the autumn term of 1787 two fresher undergraduates met at St. John's College, Cambridge. They were both from the provinces, their accents probably separated them from the cultured tones of their contemporaries, the offsprings of the powerful families going up to Cambridge that year. One of the young men in question probably had the hard vowels of a north countryman and the other the soft lilting tones of a Welshman. Both were from middle class families which in the words of Francis Brett Young, "Neither knew the wealth that spoils, nor the poverty that cankers". The commonalty for the need of companionship probably created the friendship that was to last for forty years. They had widely differing intellects. One was to become one of the great figures in English literature, William Wordsworth, and the other, Robert Jones, an indolent parson. One lean and thin, the other, Robert Jones, fat and idle.

Robert Jones was born at Plas yn Llan in Llangynhafal. A common bond was that their fathers were lawyers. Wordsworth's father had died five years before he met Jones. Their friendship was bonded when in 1790 they undertook a walking tour of Switzerland. They undertook this trip one year after the French Revolution had broken out and, of course, they had to walk through France. This had a lasting effect on both men - more so, perhaps on Jones than Wordsworth. The changes they saw, the arguments they heard convinced both men that the hierarchical structure of British society was unjust. Jones was ordained into the Church. However, the Bishop of Bangor could not see his way to grant him a living and he taught at a Welsh school in Bangor.

Both men graduated in 1791 but Wordsworth drifted, staying with relatives in London where he gratefully received an invitation to stay with Jones at Plas yn Llan. He gladly accepted and stayed from the June to November. While at Llangynhafal, the two men undertook a walking tour of Snowdonia. The account of which is given in mystical style in the fourteenth book of the Prelude. They had the assistance of a shepherd guide to climb Snowdon. What a difference from today's walkers! There are several references in Wordsworth's vast literary outpouring to this visit. In November, Wordsworth returned to France and attempted to persuade Jones to join him. Jones, still hoping for a Welsh living, stayed teaching rather than run the risk of offending the Bishop.

It was on this second trip to France that Wordsworth had a love affair with Annette Villon, a surgeon's daughter from Blois. They had a daughter. Wordsworth tried to raise the money to marry the girl but failed and supported the child by granting her £50 per annum which was no mean feat considering the strained financial circumstances Wordsworth had for a number of years.

In 1793 the coach in which Wordsworth was travelling overturned near Salisbury so, undaunted, he walked to Llangynhafal. As his adoring sister told her friend Jane Pollard in a letter dated 30 August 1793: 

"William's firm friends, a pair of stout legs, supported him from Salisbury through South into North Wales, where he is now quietly sitting down in the Vale of Clwyd...
He is staying with his friend Jones of his Continental tour and passes his time as happily as he could desire; exactly according to his taste, except alas…. that he is separated from those he loves."

Jones did not get a living in Wales, but for fourteen years was Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, and then the College granted [him] the living at Souldern, near Bicester. In a poem called A Character, Wordsworth describes Jones as follows:

I marvel how Nature could ever find space 
For so many strange contrasts in one human face. 
There's thought and no thought, and there's paleness and bloom,
And bustle and sluggishness, pleasure and gloom.

One often reads of absentee English rectors in Wales paying the curate a pittance whilst they themselves lived away from the parish. This was Jones' style, for he lived for long periods during his tenure of Souldern at Plas yn Llan and if not there at Llanfihangel Glyn Myfryr. The Bishop of Bangor had given him the tenure of the church house there. He did indeed perform clerical duties in the parish but did not have the living. In the summer of 1824 Wordsworth, his wife and ailing daughter visited Wales. Jones met them at Llanrwst with a carriage and escorted them through North and Mid-Wales. In a letter to Sir George Beaumont, Wordsworth described the meeting, but of course when writing to a knight there was no mention of their expedition to revolutionary France.


He wrote:
"Next morning, we turned off the Irish road to visit the 'Valley of Meditation, [Glyn Mavyr (sic)] where Mr Jones has, at present, a curacy with a comfortable parsonage. We slept at Corwen and went down the Dee to Llangollen."

One can almost hear Jones insisting that being so close to his home they allow him to show them the beautiful spot where he lived. Whilst at Plas yn Llan, Wordsworth wrote a short poem in praise of Llanfihangel G.M. Naturally, going to Llangollen, they visited the 'Ladies' before going to Plas yn Llan. From Ruthin, Wordsworth posted a poem to the 'Ladies' which was a paraphrase of the poem describing Llanfihangel.

It is pleasant to know the Wordsworths reciprocated Jones hospitality by having him spend some time with them at Rydal Mount, their home which lies between Grasmere and Ambleside. Dorothy wrote:
"It would delight you to hear the pair of them talk of their adventures - my brother active and lively and almost as strong as ever on a mountain top. Jones fat and roundabout and rosy, and puffing and panting when he climbs the little hill from the road to our house. Never was there a more remarkable contrast. Yet time seems to have strengthened the attachment of the native of the Cambrian mountains to his Cumbrian friend."

Dorothy idolised her brother and the remarks she made in this letter about Wordsworth's health differ widely from a letter he sent to his friend at Plas yn Llan in which he complained deeply of failing eyesight and a general lethargy. Nevertheless, Jones was to die on 5 April 1835 some fifteen years before Wordsworth.

It was an interesting friendship, one of the great men of English literature and this rather indolent Welsh parson. In some ways the friendship was a little one sided. In practical ways, Wordsworth did not reciprocate Jones's efforts when Jones was in need of a living. Wordsworth at the time was perhaps in a position to persuade someone to give him patronage. Although asked he did nothing, but again perhaps Jones's ecclesiastical reputation did not warrant the favour. Both men in their writings, however, seem to have had the highest regard for each other. This friendship is well documented. but it is still pleasant to think that one of the great poets enjoyed the beauty of our landscape.



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