This is a story of sporty siblings, a tennis court and a formidable Wimbledon champion. But we’re not talking about Serena and Venus, or Andy and Jamie. We’re talking about the youngest person to win a Wimbledon singles title – ever. We’re talking about British Red Cross volunteer Lottie Dod.
Born into a wealthy family in 1871, Charlotte was the youngest of four sporty children.
Charlotte, known as Lottie, was educated at home in Cheshire. By the time she was nine years old she was swinging a racket with her team of siblings on her parents’ tennis court. Lawn tennis was introduced to the UK in 1873 and soon became all the rage in Victorian England.
Lottie joined her local club and started playing doubles with her sister. She won her first tournament aged 13 and quickly rose to being a sporting star. The newspapers named her The Little Wonder.
In 1887, at the age of 15, Lottie became the youngest-ever Wimbledon singles champion – a record that has not been beaten.
The media were rather calm about this astonishing feat. On 17 July 1887 the Sheffield Independent reported:
“About the ladies’ singles there is little to be said – only five entered as against eight last year. Miss Lottie Dod simply ‘cantered’ through the two rounds in which she had to play… Miss L Dod is now lady champion of England, of Ireland, of the West of England, and Northern Lady champion.”
Lottie went on to win Wimbledon four more times: in 1888, 1891, 1892 and 1893.
A ‘becoming costume’
Whilst the older women players struggled with their full-length Victorian gowns, young Lottie was allowed to wear a calf-length dress with black shoes, stockings and a cricket cap. This outfit helped her tear around the court, running backwards whilst watching the incoming ball. She was the first woman to volley and smash.
According to The Guardian, Lottie wrote in 1897: ‘Ladies’ dress is always more or less of a trial when taking exercise, and the blessings of our sex would be heaped upon any one who could invent a practical, comfortable, and withal becoming costume. It must be becoming, or very few of us would care to wear it.’
Lottie retired from tennis by the age of 21, but she didn’t stop there. She became a British national champion in golf, an England international in field hockey, and also took up ice-skating, tobogganing and mountaineering.
In the 1908 London Olympics, women were allowed to take part in the games for the first time. Guess who was part of Team GB? Lottie won a silver medal in archery, beaten to gold by her brother William.
WW1: Volunteering with the Red Cross
This record-breaking five-time Wimbledon champion and Olympic medallist did 600 hours of “pantry and housemaid’s work” at Chelsea VAD hospital, according to our records.
One month after Lottie retired from her volunteering role, a club was opened up for Red Cross volunteers in Piccadilly.
Here the women could forget the drudgery – and in some cases trauma – of hospital life for a few hours. They could read the paper, write letters and eat lunch in the canteen.
There were also three tennis courts to rent. Players paid threepence (3d) for one hour on the court.
Perhaps it’s a good thing Lottie missed this perk. I’m not sure she would have had much use from the tennis courts. Would you dare to take on Lottie the Wonder in a tennis match?