There’s no tennis this year, but as Wimbledon Village emerges from lockdown, Country Life magazine has been delving into the area’s history to discover more about its enduring appeal.
Wimbledon has come a long way over the past five centuries. Formerly an estate, ownership of the area has passed between various historical luminaries. They include Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell – anti-hero of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy – as well as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, who features in the film, The Favourite.
The Duchess passed the estate to John, the first Earl Spencer, who began creating the place we know today. His presence attracted wealthy merchants and gentlefolk, transforming it from hamlet of less than 50 houses to a gentrified place-to-be.
Spencer commissioned celebrity landscape designer, Capability Brown to create a park in his signature style, with woodlands and a lake. Much of it exists today as Wimbledon Park.
The area was so impressive that, writing in 1790, the playwright, Hannah Moore said: “I did not think there could have been so beautiful a place within seven miles of London. The park… is as un-Londonish as if it were a hundred miles out.”
This combination of town and country still draws people to Wimbledon, with the common a big part of the area’s appeal. Public access to this unique wild area was enshrined in law in 1871 after the then Earl Spencer attempted to enclose it – local people made their objections known.
The All England Croquet Club opened in 1868 – who knew the game was so popular, outside of Alice in Wonderland? Fashions soon switched, however, to a faster and more thrilling game – and the area’s association with tennis began. The club was renamed the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and the first championships (for men) took place in 1877. The women’s event began seven years later.
Before 2020 the tournament had only been cancelled during the two world wars. Wimbledon fortnight won’t be exactly the same without the tennis. But as non-essential shops begin reopening, the special vibrancy of the village means it’s unlikely to be quiet for too long.
Read more about the history of Wimbledon on the Country Life website.