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The Harry Gem Project

Portrait of Harry Gem

The History of Lawn Tennis

The origins of lawn tennis can be traced to the meeting of two men in a pub in Bath Street, Birmingham, more or less opposite to St Chad’s Cathedral. Originally the Welch Harp its name seems to have been changed to the Racquet Court Inn when the Bath Street Racquets Club was formed in 1859 with a court beside the pub. Here gentlemen and players met for entertainment and to play racquets – a game similar to fives and a forerunner of squash.

reconstruction of Harry Gem playing tennis

Secretary of the club was Thomas Henry Gem (40), known to all as Harry and his particular friend and playing partner was JBA Perera (37). Whilst not dissatisfied with racquets they fell to wondering whether it might not be possible to devise a less expensive game. One that did not require an indoor court and all the costs that entailed. They were also interested in developing a game which was simple to set up and play outdoors at home, a game for both sexes to enjoy. Their first experiments in 1859 took place in the garden of Perera’s home in Ampton Road, Edgbaston and initially they called their game Lawn Rackets or Pelota in homage to Perera’s Spanish roots.

Harry Gem was Clerk to the Birmingham magistrates, married to Ellen and had no children. They lived in Trafalgar Cottage, on the corner of Trafalgar and Moseley Roads. He was clearly a highly respected individual, had wide interests and was an all round sportsman. He was founder of the Bath St Racquets Club and the Union Club in town. He was an accomplished amateur actor, a swimmer, a horseman, an archer and a racquets player. He played cricket and was instrumental in setting up several cricket clubs. He also set up the Birmingham Rifle Volunteer Corps eventually being promoted Major. He had a prodigious memory and was something of a runner too.


Gem & Perera moved to Leamington Spa where, in 1874, they formed Leamington Lawn Tennis Club together with local Doctors Arthur Tompkins and Frederick Haynes. This was perhaps the first club in the world formed specifically for playing lawn tennis and was based at the Manor House Hotel. It appears to have survived for some 15 or so years. Major Gem died in 1881 and is buried in Warstone Lane Cemetery in Birmingham.

Tennis tournament 1908

Bank Holiday Tournament 3 August 1908 at Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Society, the oldest lawn tennis club in the world.

The Harry Gem Project

The purposes of the charity:

  • To celebrate and publicise the life of Thomas Henry Gem (1819 – 1881) through publications, exhibitions, community events and a dedicated web site

  • To publicise his role as the originator, with his friend JBA Perera, of lawn tennis here in Birmingham and the creator of the world’s first lawn tennis club in Leamington Spa

  • To produce and publish the history of Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society, the oldest lawn tennis club in the world, where Harry Gem was a member in the 1860s, including the history of the origination and rapid development of lawn tennis in Birmingham and Warwickshire

  • To distribute the book to schools and libraries in Birmingham free of charge

  • To devise and promote a Birmingham lawn tennis trail

  • To restore and maintain Harry Gem’s grave in Warstone Lane Cemetery.

  • To create a lawn tennis history display to be erected in the grounds of Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society

  • To work with other interested parties to establish a higher profile for this important aspect of Birmingham’s sporting heritage.

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