Ask anyone who the first black player at Wimbledon was, and chances are they’ll say “Arthur Ashe” without skipping a beat. But as we dish out the strawberries and cream and blow the dust off our rackets, Anne Clark has more reason than most to feel a surge of excitement at this time of year.
While Ashe was the first black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, in 1975, Anne’s husband’s ancestor Bertrand Milbourne Clark (1894–1958) was the first black tennis player to ever compete at the famous tournament – beating Ashe by more than half a century.
Bertrand was descended from a branch of Anne’s husband’s family who went to Jamaica at the end of the 18th century and became involved in the coffee industry. His great grandfather Thomas Milbourne Clark married Eleanor Fitzgerald in 1824, described in their son’s christening record as “a free person of colour”.
Bertrand’s father, Enos Edgar Clark, was a prominent dentist on the island and the family appears to have had a comfortable life. According to Bertrand’s obituary in the Sunday Gleaner, which Anne discovered in the Jamaican newspaper’s online archive, he showed sporting promise from an early age. “The article contained a huge amount of information; he’d travelled the world, and done all sorts of things,” says Anne. “And when I saw his picture, I thought ‘Wow!’ We knew nothing about this man and his achievements, and here he is in the newspaper.”
In 1910 Bertrand represented his school at the high jump, and over the following decade made his mark as the finest golfer in Jamaica. An accomplished cricketer, too, he went on to play for Melbourne Cricket Club with his brother Robert, and the pair wrote several books on the sport. He was also the All Jamaica tennis champion for seven consecutive years, and unseated the black American national champion Tally Holmes for the American Tennis Association title in 1920. He really was at the top of his game. “He was also quoted in Time Magazine as being the first black player at Wimbledon,” Anne reveals.
In 1924 he was invited to SW19 to take part in the then amateur tournament – and again in 1930. He also represented his country in other competitions around the world. Despite this, the archives at Wimbledon drew a blank. “They didn’t know anything about him, but they very helpfully had a look and found records of his matches. They had no idea there was a black player that early at Wimbledon.”
Bertrand’s obituary also reveals that in 1927, when Prince Albert (later George VI), a keen tennis player, visited Jamaica, he played tennis with some players at King’s House. “As the Jamaican champion, Bertrand Clark was naturally invited. Prince Albert partnered with Clark, playing a doubles match.”
Married twice but with no children, Bertrand worked as a civil servant, playing sport at an amateur level. Anne could see from passenger lists that he had travelled extensively. “Somewhere along the line, he or his family managed to make enough money for him to travel the world, very often first class, and latterly flying. That doesn’t come cheap. Where did he get the money from, and how did he get the time off?”
Clearly much respected in his home country, Bertrand’s name appears in the 1946 edition of the Jamaican Who’s Who. He broke down the barriers for black sportsmen and women to come, and his obituary describes him as “perhaps the greatest all-round Jamaican sportsman of our time”. “He’s a hero for me because of his achievements, and the fact he’s not been recognised outside Jamaica,” says Anne.
So how did Bertrand do at Wimbledon? “Well he didn’t win anything,” says Anne. “It’s just great to know he played there!”
Jon Bauckham is a freelance journalist based in Bristol, UK. He holds a degree in history and was previously the features editor at Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine and a section editor at BBC History Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter.