From the office: The lives of my sporting ancestors

By Editor, 21 July 2016 - 4:24pm

An article in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine and a letter from a reader has prompted editor, Sarah Williams, to look at some of the sporting ancestors in her own family tree

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 21 July 2016
Sarah Williams, Editor
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Gertrude Sailman Edwardian hockey girls

Sarah's great grandmother Gertrude, middle row, second from the left

We were delighted in the office when a reader wrote in to say that Tessie Reynolds, the Victorian cycling sensation featured in our August issue, was in her family tree. And the reader had no idea that Tessie was a cyclist, let alone a record-breaking one! As she said ‘’time to add another chapter in the family history book I’m writing”.

The article, which looks at the rise of sport as a leisure activity during the 19th and 20th century, includes some lovely photographs and reminded me of tales of my great grandmother who had a tendency to remind people that she was once captain of her university hockey team, right up into her old age. We have a photograph of her (above) with her team and she looks happy. In later life she was known to be a bit of a battleaxe so maybe these were her glory days.

For most people, the only way that they will know their ancestors participated in sports is through photographs and newspaper archives. Contacting a local school or checking local archives for school photographs can also be productive. Going down that route I’ve managed to get photographs of my grandfather in his school cricket, hockey and football teams so he was clearly a keen sportsman!

1911 school cricket team

Sarah's grandfather, middle row far left, in his school's cricket team in 1911 obtained from the school's archive

Newspapers are another great resource now that they are being digitised. When local newspapers weren’t covering local crime, politics and entertainment, they were listing the run makers in local cricket matches or praising the winners in a local tug of war competition. And the more local the paper, the more likely they will think the scores at a regional bowling tournament were worth reporting.

It was newspapers that alerted me to the tennis prowess of my great aunt Phyllis. I remember meeting her at my grandfather’s funeral. Two generations above me, I certainly didn’t imagine the elderly lady I was talking to had once been the Irish women’s hardcourt tennis champion!

Phyllis Wallis tennis champion

Born Phyllis Maude Wallis in Dublin, she also had a tennis playing sister, Hilda. I have been able to follow her tennis career using the Irish and British newspaper collection on I was delighted to see that only a year after giving birth to her daughter Felicity, she was winning the women’s doubles in the Warwickshire county lawn championships.

What I loved about the Tessie Reynolds story and also my great aunt’s and great grandmother’s stories, is that it reveals another facet to the lives of the women in our family trees. We admire them as mothers, wives or sisters but discovering that they also enjoyed whacking a hockey or tennis ball, or cycling at top speed is fascinating.

You can download a digital version of our August 2016 issue here


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