Frank Sharman

The Reverend Hartley is not usually mentioned when discussion turns to Wolverhampton's sporting heroes.  But the Reverend K. G. Hunt, the Wanderers player and football international, was not the only cleric to achieve athletic distinction.  

John Thorneycroft Hartley, as his name reveals, was born with some of Wolverhampton's best connections and married into even better ones.  John's grandfather was George Benjamin Thorneycroft (who was born in 1791 and died in1851). He had started work as an artisan but worked his way up to become manager of, and partner in, the Shrubbery Ironworks in Horseley Fields.  He became very rich indeed.  In 1848 he became the first Mayor of Wolverhampton.  He married Eleanor Page, who had been born about 1795.  They had several children of whom the second daughter was Emma Thorneycroft, who was born about 1821 in Willenhall.

Emma Thorneycroft married a John Hartley. He had been born on the 26th January 1813 in Dumbarton. He established glass works in Dumbarton but soon afterwards moved to the Midlands and became a partner in Chance & Sons. He married Emma in 1839. Later he became a partner with his brother-in-law, Colonel Thorneycroft, in Thorneycroft’s ironworks and collieries. He also became very rich indeed. He became Mayor of Wolverhampton in 1858. He leased Tong Castle from Lord Bradford in 1855 and he and his wife lived there until their deaths, his in 1884, hers in 1909.

John and Emma Hartley had five children. Their second child was John Thorneycroft Hartley who was born about 1849, whilst they were still living in Wolverhampton.  He became a vicar of the Church of England and subsequently a canon. He was appointed to the living of Burneston in North Yorkshire, where he seems to have spent the rest of his working life. He was clearly an energetic man. An old parishioner in Burneston is recorded as telling the story that when he was courting his future wife, Alice Lascelles, he would take a short cut to her family home by riding to the river and then swimming across it, where she would meet him in a carriage and take him home. He duly married Alice Margaret Lascelles (born London, 23 April 1855). This marriage was probably as close as the Thorneycrofts and Hartleys got to royalty. Alice was the daughter – one of 11 children – of Edwin Lascelles, a barrister, who was the third son – of 13 children – of the 3rd Earl of Harwood.

John Hartley's chief claim to fame (by today’s standards, but probably noted only in passing at the time and thought to be far less interesting than the fact that his wife’s uncle was Earl Harewood), is that in 1879 and 1880 he won the third and fourth All England Lawn Tennis Championships and in 1881 he was the runner up.

His first win was made in somewhat remarkable circumstances. The quarter-finals were held on a Saturday, with the semi-finals to be played on Monday and the final on Tuesday. On Saturday evening, having won his quarter final, the Reverend Hartley took the train back to Yorkshire and took services and preached a sermon as usual on Sunday. He was then told that one of his parishioners was ill and likely to die. Hartley went to see him and spent the whole night there until the man died in the early hours of the morning. Hartley then went back to the vicarage, collected some sandwiches, rode his horse to Thirsk station and got the train to London. From King’s Cross he got a horse drawn cab to Wimbledon and changed into his tennis clothes whilst on the journey.  Hartley was probably helped by his semi-final against C. F. Parr being interrupted by rain, which gave him a chance of a breather.  On Tuesday he had to play the final against an Irishman, Vere St Leger Gould, who had had the advantage of having had a rest day on the Monday.  Gould was a very energetic player and was one of the earliest to be noted for coming off the base line.  Hartley was a baseline player and is described as playing "steadily".   Despite the disadvantage which his exertions must have created, Hartley won 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 and thus became the person from Wolverhampton to win Wimbledon. 

It is quite likely that Gould had over exerted himself in ways different from Hartley.  Wimbledon had already become part of the London season - and this chance to meet his upper class relatives and friends probably made Hartley feel it was worth travelling all the way down to London for a game of tennis.  Whilst Hartley was travelling and playing tennis, Good was probably over-indulging in the social life. For it turned out that the players in this final were an unlikely pair. On the one side was the country vicar with good connections. On the other side was a man whose chief occupation was gambling.

Gould and his wife Violet travelled round the world playing the tables and finally settled in Monte Carlo itself. They befriended a wealthy Danish widow who lent them money – which they promptly lost on the gaming tables. But eventually, in 1907, she asked for her money back and Gould, unable or unwilling to pay, killed her. He put her body in a trunk, took it to Marseilles railway station and arranged for it to be sent to him in London. Before it could be sent a porter noticed a strange smell coming from it. The trunk was opened and the body found. Gould was arrested, pleaded guilty at his trial and was sent to Devil’s Island, where he died two years later. He thus became the first Wimbledon finalist to be convicted of murder.

After his 1879 victory Hartley returned to the fray in 1880, when he again won, beating H. F. Lawford, 6-3, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3. In 1881 he again reached the final but this time he lost 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.  The winner was W. C. Renshaw, who then went on to become the winner of the most Wimbledon men's singles titles, totalling 7 - a feat only equalled by Pete Sampras.  

After that John Thorneycroft Hartley disappears from the tennis record books. But he continued to be the vicar of Burneston until 1919. It is likely that he retired from active ministry at that time. He died in 1935, aged 86.

Information for this article was found in an article in the Church Times of 28th June 2002; and on Ray Cowley’s web site; and on the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club web site. My thanks are also due to Owen Covick of Flinders University of South Australia, who drew my attention to Hartley’s feat.

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