Andy Murray’s historic match at last week’s final reinforced Wimbledon’s name worldwide for tennis.
Moreover, thanks to AFC Wimbledon, its football reputation has been rising as well. But who knows today that this was once a major centre for archery, also known as toxophily?
Exactly 112 years ago this week in 1900, Florence Bardswell, star performer with the Wimbledon Archers at no less than 104 championships, seems to have appeared for the last time at the annual competition of the Royal Toxophilite Society. It was held in the grounds of Woodhayes, an estate beside today’s Woodhayes Road.
Back in the 16th century all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 had had to practise archery weekly to defend their country. In Wimbledon after 1554 there were regular complaints about the state of the butts and in 1595 the parish was fined 3s/4d for not maintaining them. But as firearms replaced the bow for both military and hunting purposes, its use declined.
Then in the late 19th century, archery revived among the middle and upper classes as both sexes saw the attraction of genteel but competitive target practice.
Florence Bardswell’s reputation dated as far back as 1877 when she competed with the Wimbledon Archers at a contest in Crystal Palace.
She travelled nationwide with other ladies from Wimbledon, scoring highly. On 8 July 1883 the newspaper The Graphic reported another meeting at Crystal Palace saying: “Miss Bardswell (Wimbledon Archers) secured first place with a ‘pinhole’ at 60 yards.’”
By 1900 her fame was such that she was being asked to present the prizes at major events. It was said that nine out of ten archers, on going to a meeting, would ask: “Is Florence Bardswell here?”
In both 1899 and 1900 the Royal Toxophilite Society contest took place at Woodhayes, home of a Mr Laundy Walters. Competitors included Miss Mary Preece of the neighbouring Gothic Lodge, daughter of Sir William Preece, the man who introduced electricity to Wimbledon (see Heritage story 27 April 2012).
Mary was clearly another talented archer. At the earlier contest in 1894 she had “made three golds at one end and was the happy recipient of a shilling from each archer on the ground”, according to the press report of the day in Hearth & Home. On that occasion she scored 274 against Florence Bardswell’s 277.
Florence and her sister Emily lived at 7 Crescent Road, Wimbledon in the 1890s.
Florence, who died in 1909, was not the only talented member of the family. The Museum of Wimbledon at 22 Ridgway has a painting by Emily of the archery field at Mount Ararat, another large estate at that time which was subsequently broken up and replaced by today’s Pepys Road.
Their nephew Gerald was also a leading amateur batsman at cricket. Emily was a keen cricket supporter and wrote a 60-page novel, Played On, published in 1898. Recently reprinted in a limited edition of 50 copies, it was offered for sale at £150.
Still more noteworthy was her practice of taking a bat to each game where Gerald was playing, and collecting signatures from team members, including on one occasion W.G. Grace. When one of the bats came up for auction in 2006 it fetched a whopping £9600.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.