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It was a summer to remember in Bournemouth in 1910. The town was in a carnival mood, commemorating its centenary with processions and fetes; though, tragically, one feature of the celebrations, a pioneering international aviation meeting at Southbourne, was marred by the death of the Hon Charles Stuart Rolls, of Rolls Royce fame, as he crash landed his Short-Wright biplane. Other newsworthy events that summer included – the opening of the original New Road bridge over the Stour – but one which passed unrecorded by the chroniclers of the day was the founding of what is believed now to be the town’s oldest existing tennis club, the Victoria Avenue Lawn Tennis Club.
Never as glamorous as the West Hants club – which it pre-dates by nine years – it has, nevertheless, survived two World Wars, a change of name and location, and intermittent threats of homelessness, insolvency and land development, while many other clubs have surrendered to economic pressures and the advancing red brick tide of urbanisation.
Twice in the 80s the all-powerful Lawn Tennis Association, confounding those periodic accusations of elitism, and stepped in with crucial financial help. As a result the club was, after 81 years of uncertainty, finally able to buy the freehold of its two acre, tree-fringed ground in Victoria Avenue in 1991 – a milestone fittingly commemorated that summer by the staging of its first LTA-sponsored open ratings tournament, an event which attracted players from all parts of Southern England.
So it continues to survive, part of the fabric of British sporting endeavour and a direct link back to those leisurely and decorous salad days of elliptical rackets and ankle-length skirts, of straw boaters and striped blazers, when etiquette still forbade the flaunting of a naked knee, even by the men, and the 100 mile-an-hour serve was an unimaginable on court as the four-minute mile in athletics.
The club began life at Winton Rec, or Winton Pleasure Ground as it was more grandly called when the council laid it out in 1906 with a cricket pitch, tennis courts, bowling greens and ‘the only quoits court in town.’ Four years later some of the tennis players, one of whom was probably Harold Beale, of department store fame, formed themselves into what was then called, with a suspicion of class distinction, Richmond Park Tennis Club. The area was still semi-rural. To the west stretched what remained of ancient Shorthorn Common and to the east, north of Richmond Wood Road, a vast conifer plantation. In Winton, suburbia had completely enveloped the recreation ground. Demand on court availability intensified and block bookings became increasingly hazardous. Time to find another home.
So, in 1921, the club moved to its present venue, once again in a semi-rural setting close by Boundary Road, which then doubled as the border between Bournemouth and Poole and between Hampshire and Dorset. Victoria Avenue and its neighbouring roads were no more than dotted lines on a town planner’s blueprint. But urban development encroached steadily over the next few years until the ground became, as it is today, a hidden oasis trapped between the back gardens of Victoria Avenue, Namu Road and Eldon Road.
An earlier opportunity to buy the ground from the subsequent owners, Malmesbury and Parsons Dairies, came in 1955, the same year the club changed its name to its more appropriate present title. A members’ shareholding company was set up to effect the purchase but what seemed a sound decision at the time had unforeseen consequences due to a majority 59 percent shareholding being acquired by one family. Subsequently this controlling interest passed to a development company, along with many of the remaining shares. By 1982 the club was in severe danger of going out of existence altogether when it was compelled to fight housing development plans finally winning a reprieve through a triumphant court action.
Nine years later, the club finally acquired the freehold, helped by a substantial LTA loan. It plays in the Hampshire and Dorset leagues and has four professional coaches and thriving youth and mini tennis sections; ensuring, through today’s youngster, the continuation of a heritage stretching back to Edwardian times.