The tennis court project was one of a number of refurbishments to the house and grounds carried out by Sir Andrew Noble (1831-1915). Originally Originally called “Black Dene House,” the house had been designed by John Dobson for T.E.Headlam in 1822. Sir Andrew purchased the property in 1871. Alterations to the rear (1870-1) then front of the house (1875) were followed by the addition of a billiard room (1885). These were all designed by Norman Shaw. Subsequently Sir Andrew used the Newcastle architect F.W. Rich. Rich worked on further alteration to the house, the addition of stables and the Real Tennis Court.
Nicholas Pevsner found the design of The Racquet Court both characteristic of Rich and “lively”: “Rich made a large hall lively by the application of buttresses, tall octagonal turrets, a pent entrance at one end and a single bay two storey apartment for the professional at the other. N. gallery and large round S. windows. In bright red brick (Flemish garden wall bond), and the plain tiles which are almost Rich’s trademark.”
When the court was Grade II listed in 1987 this description of the architecture was recorded: “Flemish garden wall bond brick with ashlar and terracotta dressings; roof of plain tiles with terracotta gable copings; lead turret roofs. One high storey, 8 bays and 2-storey ninth bay. Pent entrance extension on right return; low 4-bay pent front extension. South elevation: large round windows, with pivoted central section and metal glazing bars, in keyed ashlar and terracotta surrounds; bays defined by buttresses. Ninth bay has upper 4-light stone-mullioned window. Pentice in front of 4 right bays has sash windows, tripartite in gabled alternate bays. Tall octagonal corner turrets have terracotta strings; cornices and high domes with ball finials. Right return entrance porch has arts-and-crafts Gothic style ornament above elliptical open arch; parapet with high spike finials. Wood gallery on rear.”
Plan C Grounds and Paths 1894
When we compare this plan with ordinance survey maps, we find the building on the 2nd edition Ordnance Survey map of 1898 is shown sitting in a levelled site within a large enclosed site which is bordered to the east by the wooded slopes of the Ouseburn, with the site most adjacent to the Racquet court seemingly having been cleared
of trees by this time.
The Court in 1894
The tennis court at Jesmond Dene was built in 1894 as the private court of the Noble family of Jesmond Dene House. The correspondent of The Field newspaper who visited to report on the opening ceremonies found the court “far from being unsightly.” Later writers thought it “as good as any private court in existence in England” ; “one of the most delightful courts in which to play” ; and “a beautiful court in every way. The floor and walls are in the right relationship, and the light is certainly good”
Sir Andrew Noble (1831-1915)
At the time of the tennis court’s opening the 63 year-old Sir Andrew was at the height of his reputation as Britain’s leading innovator in the field of ballistics and gunnery. He had been knighted the year previously and praise had been heaped upon his efforts particularly in the field of naval gunnery: “In England there commenced probably the most extraordinary revolution that ever took place in connection with warlike material.”
A Scot from Greenock Sir Andrew had attended Edinburgh Academy and then the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. According to Lady Noble writing late in life: “My husband was very popular. His abilities and genial manner endeared him to friends as well as to foreigners. Though he worked very hard, his love of games of all kinds kept him young. He had played racquets for the regiment (R.A.) when he was young, and was good at lawn tennis, and finally in 1894 built a real tennis court at Jesmond where he played for some years.”
Sir Andrew must have appeared a striking figure on court with his handle-bar mustachios. His enthusiasm for tennis was though frustrated by bouts of gout. In a later memoir Humphrey Noble provides this description of the knight on his court: “A.N. built the tennis court in 1894 near the kitchen garden, and it was the best-built and best-lit court in England. He thoroughly enjoyed the game and for an old man, was remarkably good. He had a very good eye and as a young man had played rackets at Woolwich for his regiment. He could not move about very quickly, but any ball coming straight to him, or coming off the pent-house when he had plenty of time to get to it, was returned accurately and well cut. Edgar Lambert was the professional and there could be no more devoted or painstaking teacher or a better marker for A.N. His great control of the ball enabled him to place it so that A.N. could get to it and make a good return. They usually played singles together and A.N. was always delighted when he beat Lambert. Naturally he did generally win but Lambert had to be careful not to lose too obviously.”
The Family at Jesmond Dene House
From its opening in 1894 until the outbreak of war in 1914, the court was the private family court of Noble, his family and guests. Initially the professional in charge was Frank Forester from October 1894 until April 1895 when he was replaced Edgar Lambert. When Dexter, the tennis correspondent of the Field, visited Newcastle in October 1911 he found the arrangement for playing on court was that: “The owner is most kind in granting permission to play, and a list of names of players is kept in the court who can come at any time that it is not wanted for the house.”
The Opening Match 15th October 1894
The opening match on the court was played between professional Charles Saunders and amateur Sir Edward Grey . At that time Sir Edward (1862-1933) was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. The M.P. for Berwick-upon-Tweed had been the youngest serving M.P. at the time of his first election in 1885, aged 23. Despite a narrow majority he had retained the seat for the Liberal party in 1892. As Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Gladstone and Roseberry administrations he was involved in British policy in relation to the Ottoman Empire and West Africa. He would claim later that the experience proved invaluable when as Foreign Secretary (1905-1916) he dealt with the events which led to the outbreak of the First World War. He famously wrote at that time: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
Sir Edward had attended Temple Grove School and Winchester College before going to Balliol College Oxford in1 880. His Wikipedia entry includes this assessment of his time at Oxford: “Apparently an indolent student he was tutored by Mandell Creighton during the vacations and managed a second in Mods. Grey subsequently became even more idle using his time to become university champion at real tennis.” Grey was Oxford Champion and winner of the Varsity match in 1883; British Amateur Champion 1889, 1891, 1895, 1896 and 1898; runner-up in 1892, 1893 and 1894 (years in which he held office).
On that opening day in Jesmond he played the reigning professional champion Charles Saunders: “It is needless to say that Saunders was in good form, for that follows naturally from the facts, -that he gave half-30 to his antagonist, and came out of the contest victorious.”
Edgar Lambert photographed in 1904
Lambert came from a tennis dynasty of sorts: his father was the professional at Hatfield (Lord Salisbury’s court) and his uncle George had been world champion. 1904 seems to have been a vintage year for Lambert. In February 1904 Sir Andrew made a purse available for a match between Lambert and C. Fairs of the Prince’s Club. Fairs was preparing to challenge for the world championship so was expected to win easily despite giving Lambert “half 15 and 1 bisque”. Before a large crowd Lambert won the match within an hour and five minutes. The pace must have been frantic as the score is recorded as “3 sets to 1, 21 games to 11, 89s strokes (+17 the odds) to 80. ”
At that time there was no organised tournament to decide the world championship. Press reports mentioned Lambert as among the likely contenders should such an event be organised. Peter Latham the reigning world champion visited Jesmond in August 1904. Latham had been unbeaten since 1895. He would retain the world title until 1905, then regain it again 1907-8. Playing a handicapped match Lambert defeated the world champion by three sets to one after two hours and fifteen minutes on court.
In December 1904 E Johnson of Prince’s Club fought out a one set all tie with Lambert: the length of the match owing to the first set having been played to 28-26. Visiting Jesmond clearly presented problems to professionals. A report of a match between Lambert and Covey sees the journalist sympathise with the visitor: “the strangeness of the court may excuse him some uncertainty of length upon the floor and some inaccuracy at the openings.”
Edgar Lambert in 1906
In 1905 Lambert faced E. Johnson again and R. Dickinson (Oxford). Defeated by Johnson we learn from the press reports that Lambert was however playing well, favoured rackets made by Prosser and Sons and was planning to challenge Latham for the world championship. Lambert’s challenge never seems to have materialised. Around this time however he was involved in a “fancy” match: a round of golf in which the tennis professional played with a racket rather than a club. The match took place at the Northumberland Club at Gosforth Park against the golf professional there J.D.Edgar. The press report includes a faded photograph of Edgar beside Lambert, the latter with racket in hand. Tennis won the day, not least because he was allowed to play his ball from hand.
Charles Lambert at Queens 1920 World Championship
Noble family use of the real tennis court was suspended on the outbreak of war in 1914. Sir Andrew died in 1915 but the Jesmond Dene House continued to host many military visitors during the conflict. Rudyard Kipling visited at this time to research ‘Fringes of the Fleet’ and ‘The War at Sea’ (1916). The Armstrong Whitworth Company was diversifying in many ways as part of its war effort and a substantial aircraft production unit was established in the ice rink off the town moor in Gosforth. According to one source the court became an adjunct of this activity and Edgar Lambert was given the task of organising its war effort: “During the war Elswick made airships on the Zeppelin principle. A large space was required to make the balloons or gas bags for these ships. The tennis court was ideal for this purpose and Lambert was put in charge, so that even the Tennis court made its war effort.”
Information on how the gas bags were made or the size of the tennis court work force is non-existent. Certainly the workers are likely to have been women as they were predominant in such work at this time. It is known that women worked at the aircraft factory on the moor. Indeed they had their own football team, the aptly named “Aviation Athletic”.
For a short period post-World War One the real tennis court resumed its life as the family playground with a variety of play and regular visitors. So much is apparent from Humphrey Noble’s memoir: “The tennis court reverted to its proper use. Horace, who was working in Newcastle, had become a fine player and had played for Oxford in 1922. He had a very powerful stroke and cut the ball properly – anyone taught by Lambert knew how to do this. We had tennis matches again at the New Year, getting Arthur Twinn from Cambridge and Charles Feldon from Manchester. Sometimes we would have a tennis weekend in the summer and invited Edgar Baerlein, Percy Ashworth and Victor Cazalet to stay at Jesmond. Cyril Simpson would always join in these Tennis Festivals.”
Play 1932 Lambert receiver
By 1928 it was a number of years since the court had been used regularly for play. However Sir Andrew’s grandsons Humphrey Brunel [Sir Humphrey Brunel Noble of Ardmore, 4th Bt.(1892 -1968)] and Horace W. Noble were keen players. They installed Edgar Lambert’s son Charles as professional and launched the “re-opened” court with a series of exhibition matches. It appears that Edgar had by then ceased to play through illness or injury. However he was still “at hand” suggesting the family had kept him on in some capacity.
The Field was pleased to report in detail on the opening match between Charles Lambert and George Cooke, the Manchester assistant professional. Lambert prevailed, the journalist’s verdict was: “For so young an exponent he used his head well and took his bisques to advantage. In Lambert we have a professional who may go far, and possibly one who may make a champion in time.”
Charles Lambert and RW Goody January 1932
Lady Noble lived to a grand old age: she died in 1929 age 101 years. The family also suffered the sudden death of Phillip Noble (1870-1931) at this time. He had become a flying enthusiast. He died at the controls of a two-seater bi plane in July 1931. In 1930 the executors of Sir Andrew’s will had taken the decision to sell Jesmond Dene House and grounds. Their solicitors approached Newcastle Corporation.
After an initial offer of sale the family donated a part of the land for incorporation into the Dene but withdrew the tennis court from the lot. The House was sold for £11,000 and the court separately for £1000 (it had cost £8000 to build in 1894). The two deals were agreed and conveyed at the same time. The tennis court was then leased back to the Nobles on a 15 year lease at £50 per year. The lease was signed in June 1931 by Saxton, Sir John and Ernest Noble. Arthur Cochrane and Humphrey Noble were among the witnesses to their signatures.
When they acquired Jesmond Dene House and grounds the Council had said it would be open to the public and the grounds incorporated into the Dene. Various schemes were considered for the vacant house: a Museum of Engineering, a school of cookery, a maternity home, a home for the elderly. Within a year however they had leased it to Reverend Wilson for use as a girls’ school. A Mr.Mather had the right to graze horses in the grounds and he would eventually hold the leases on various outbuildings. The horses it was said saved the expense of cutting the grass. The retaining wall and fence on Mathew Bank were installed at this time as part of a road improvement scheme.
Players R.W. Goody, C.E. Lambert, Harold Wild and Captain HB Noble, January 1932
The new lease arrangements clearly suggested the need for a club. Real tennis was played on the court in the nineteen thirties under the auspices of the newly formed Jesmond Dene Tennis Club launched in 1932. The club was organised by old friends of the court. The President was Viscount Grey of Fallodon, who as Edward Grey had played on the opening day in 1894. Viscount Grey would however die in 1933, age 71. The Club Chairman was Captain H.B Noble (later Sir Humphrey).
Other Noble family members who supported the club were Sir George Noble (1859-1937) (friend of Baden-Powell and author of Birds of Jesmond Dene (1908)) and Sir John Noble (1865-1938). Aristocratic members included Lord Leconfield, Lord Abedare, Lord Ridley, Lord Armstrong and Lord Ravensworth. Old players showing their support included E.M Baerlein and Captain Cazalet.
The court opened for business on January 10th 1932 at 11 am. The first hon. secretary was Harold Wild. He marked the opening singles match between Charles Lambert and the visiting professional R. Goody of Oxford. In doing so he caused some consternation: ‘it is believed that only once previously has an amateur marked a professional match. By coincidence the other occasion was in the same court, when E.B. Noel marked a match between Lambert and G.Cooke, Manchester.’
The Newcastle Journal reporting on the same opening matches also recorded that “Local sportsmen desiring to assist in the promotion of the new venture should communicate with Mr. Wild…” This was something wholly new in the life of the court: local sportsmen.
Plan D Ground plan 1946
In 1938 the Air Raids Precautions Committee took over Jesmond Dene House. By December 1939 play was no longer possible on the court as the ARP and the Council Lighting Department had begun to store equipment in the court. In addition the Council stored furniture removed from Banqueting Hall. Lambert was paying a reduced rent however the storage was in part subject to a sub-lease. The ARP transferred its stores and office to the tennis court building in 1941. In December 41 the City Surveyor reported that he had prepared a “scheme for additional floor space at the racquet club”. A plan (not found) showed the “construction of a floor at one end of the building.”
At the end of that month [29th December 1941] enemy action caused considerable damage to greenhouses, Mathew Bank Lodge, the Mess Room on Castle Farm Road, the Parks Superintendent’s Office, the Racquet Court and premises occupied by Mr Lambert and Mr Mather. Despite the wartime measures Lambert wished to extend his lease. Indeed the council refused in 1942 to allow the Emergency Committee to take over the building entirely.
At the end of the war the Racquet Court was released by the Civil Defence Authorities. From this point onwards Lambert was expected to pay full rent, albeit still at pre-war level of £125/year. In December of 1946 a new 7 year lease
with Lambert was approved.
In February 1946 it was noted that tenders for the re-glazing of the roof of the Racquets Court were being considered. The work would be undertaken by WH Heywood and Co at a cost of £438.2.0 [“the whole of the amount would be recoverable”]
Lambert clearly decided that local clubs using the Real Tennis Court and the outside courts would give him some financial security. Without permission from his landlords he entered agreements with the North Jesmond Lawn Tennis Club and the Northern Counties Badminton Association. Alderman Pearson asked the Town Moor and Parks Committee if it was allowable to sub-let the “Racket Court” as he had heard that “someone other than the tenant was using the court for games.” (10th November 1948) A month later Mr Porter for the City Surveyor’s Office reported to the committee that tennis and badminton courts had been laid down by the lessees ‘with the object of sub-letting to clubs at fixed sums, maintenance being carried out by the lessees.’ Committee decide to allow the sub-letting with the proviso that ‘this committee cannot countenance sales of food on the premises or the use of the building for banquets, dances or similar purposes.’ (14th Dec 1948)
Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) playing at Jesmond in 1980
He told the Journal: ‘I don’t play well, my game is entirely private and very slow.’ Years previously Richardson had played the part of Sir Edward Grey in ‘O What a Lovely War!’ delivering the famous line ‘The lamps are going out…’ In Jesmond in 1980 he contested a friendly match with Anthony Tufton, Lord Hothfield. ‘It being a gentleman’s game no scores were kept.’ And Sir Ralph told the Journal: “A Beautiful Court and I enjoyed my game very much.’
Opening Day 1981, Mrs Cochrane and Charles Lambert among the guests
Post-war the Lamberts’ business plan was to maintain the building and outside courts but sub-let the properties to lawn tennis and badminton clubs. Arrangements were made privately before the Town Moor and Parks Committee were asked to ratify the agreements. They did so but forbade the sale of food and drink or the holding of banquets or dances in the building.
By the early sixties the North Jesmond Lawn Tennis Club was having difficulty paying its way. It requested a reduction in rent, offering to give up one of its grass courts. The council were clearly keen to take these over to use for extra space for its nurseries which had grown greatly since the war. Lawn tennis on the outdoor courts ended at the close of the summer of 1963.
The real tennis court continued to be used for Badminton. A new phase in the building’s history began on Sunday 10th May 1981 at 2pm when the court was re-opened for real tennis play by Mrs Y. Cochrane.