A Fatal Game of Tennis at Woburn Abbey

Woburn Abbey
From a letter written by Lady Holland to Mrs. Creevey [in Brussels]

"Holland House, 1st Jany., 1816.

". . . According to the song, 'London is out of town;' the country houses are overflowing. The love of tennis is come so strongly upon Lord Holland that he has persuaded me rather reluctantly to go once more to Woburn for 3 or 4 days, in order that he may play a few setts. The plea which makes me yield is that I believe exercise keeps off the gout."

The Sporting Magazine for February 1795 gives us the following description of the Woburn tennis courts - "THE Tennis Court and Riding House (with apartments between to dress in) forms a building 266 feet 8 inches long, and 49 feet 6 inches wide, the whole front of which is stone: The roof is a flat one, and covered with a composition of tar, chalk, tec, instead of lead. There are flues run along the walls, and under the pavement of the Tennis Court, to keep off the damps."

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford

It was Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford who improved Woburn Abbey, adding a Riding School and the Tennis Court, which would later quite literally be the death of him. It was while playing a game of tennis that the accident occurred which eventually proved fatal. He was struck by a ball; a lingering illness ensued, and he died on the 2nd March 1802.

The editor of Horace Walpole: Lord Orford's Letters to the Countess of Ossory, transcribes from the memoranda of Lord Ossory the following account of the death of Francis, fifth Duke of Bedford in 1802:— 'On February 27th 1802, I went over to Woburn, hearing of the Duke of Bedford's dangerous illness. There I found Dr. Kerr. .... The progress of the disease was not favourable, and the symptoms were very bad on Monday morning, till twelve; from that time till five or six, hopes began to revive; then they all vanished, and he was given over, and on Monday morning, March the 2d, about half-past eleven, he expired in a manner in Lord John's arms.

'Thus died Francis, Duke of Bedford, with a sort of similarity of fate to his father, both of whom I loved with much affection and attachment."

As lamentable as Francis's death was, it almost had dire consequences for the beautiful Lady Georgina Gordon, who had been engaged to him. Her mother, the Duchess of Gordon, was not going to let the Dukedom of Bedford escape her, and after Lady Georgina had left off her mourning for her betrothed, she became engaged to his brother and successor, John, sixth Duke of Bedford, to whom she was married a year later. She went on to have ten children.

1816 Plan of Woburn Abbey - Wikipedia

But back to tennis . . . From Wikipedia - A plan of the house and "pleasure ground" at Woburn from Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis (1816), a book about horticultural experiments conducted at Woburn. The top is east. A: The house. The whole of the top (east) wing and the eastern end of the north and south wings have been demolished. B: Stable/service blocks. These survive and one now houses the Woburn Antiques Centre. C: The riding school and the real tennis court, which have been demolished. D: The long rectangle at the right of the southern service block is the sculpture gallery, which survives In 1816 the main entrance was on the eastern side of the house, and was reached via a grand arch between the riding school and real tennis court. After the demolition the West Hall in the centre of the West Front became the main entrance once again.

In his Arboretun et Fruticetum Britannicum: or, The Trees and Shrubs of England, Volume 2 (1838), John Claudius Loudon describes the grounds at Woburn and tells us that there is "a passage under the Cape heathery, which forms a portion of a covered way, leading from the mansion to the different objects of interest adjoining it; such as the green-house, sculpture gallery, tennis-court, Chinese dairy, plant-stoves and palm-house now erecting, and finally to the pleasureground, including the aviary, arboretum, salictum, grass-garden, American garden, etc."
From Tennis by John Moyer Heathcote 1890, "In our own country the game was beginning to lose its popular character, although still played by the higher classes of society. Many old courts were abandoned or destroyed, and we hear of the construction of three only in the latter half of the century: the Duke of Richmond's at Goodwood, the Duke of Bedford's at Woburn, and the court in Tennis-court Road, Cambridge, erected in 1734, recently pulled down and replaced by the new buildings of Pembroke College.

"There is, however, no probability of the last age of this eventful history passing into mere oblivion, for the nineteenth century has witnessed a renewed and constantly increasing enthusiasm for Tennis, shown by the number of courts built by public and private enterprise, on improved lines, and equipped with modern requirements, and by the interest taken in all important matches."

Whilst tennis is still played in England, alas, the courts at Worburn have, indeed, passed into oblivion. During the First World War parts of the Abbey, the riding school and indoor tennis court (now demolished), were converted into a temporary ward for wounded soldiers; some 2,000 patients passed through the Abbey Hospital.

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