Untold lives blog

30 June 2015

Break of service

As Wimbledon fortnight swings into action, spare a thought for poor Thomas Tomkins who died at Madras in 1834 because of tennis.

The Madras Club was founded in 1832.  800 members had enrolled by the time of the second general meeting of subscribers in April of that year.  They were exclusively male, drawn from civil servants; officers of the East India Company and His Majesty’s Armies; officers of the Medical Department; members of the legal profession and the clergy.  The Club Committee set to work to adapt a house and grounds near the Mount Road to meet its requirements: bedrooms, two billiard rooms and a racquet court.  There was also a smoking-room: at that time smoking was not allowed in the club house and bedrooms.  This rule however proved hard to enforce.

By October 1832, the Club had over 1,200 members and a large amount of subscription money in the kitty.  Commenting that ‘the game of Rackets can only be played in this country at stated hours in the morning and evening’, the Committee decided to build a covered tennis court at a cost of 15,000 rupees.  A skilled man would be brought from England to superintend the construction and then act as marker.  He would be paid a salary of 150 rupees per month plus 500 rupees for his passage.

Drawing of man playing tennis

Illustration by Richard Caulfield Orpen for Fitzwilliam Square. A lawn tennis lay by F.W. (1885) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


In July 1833, the East India Company Court of Directors in London granted permission to Thomas Tomkins to proceed to Madras ‘for the purpose of being employed as a marker in the tennis court about to be established there’.  Tomkins sailed out to Madras, but by the time he arrived the Committee had changed its plans. Instead of a tennis court, it was decided on reflection to install a large swimming bath and a set of private hot, cold, and steam baths.  A tennis court was expensive, and the marker an additional cost. Moreover if the marker’s health suffered from the climate in Madras, ‘the amusement from the game would be liable to much interruption’.

Thomas Tomkins described himself as being ‘employed at the Club House’ when he married widow Sarah Thomas at Vepery Church on 7 March 1834.  His return to England was planned, with the Club paying for his passage.  Sadly the Committee’s apprehension about his state of health proved only too accurate and Tomkins died in September 1834 at the age of 30.  He was buried at St Mary’s Church Madras and the Committee paid his funeral expenses.

Plans for the swimming pool also fell through and it was 20 years before a bath was built at the Club.  The first court for lawn tennis was laid down in 1876 and the sport became a permanent feature for members.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records 

Further reading:
H D Love, Short Historical Notice of the Madras Club (Madras, 1902)
IOR/B/186 pp.418-419 Minutes of East India Company Court of Directors, 17 July 1833
IOR/E/943 p.536 Public Letter No.37 of 1833 to Madras


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