Dave Thompson/ Reuters
London: Elizabeth Warneford-Thomson had known for a long time that her late aunt Ethel was Wimbledon tennis champion back in 1912. The one time she visited her aunt at her home in south-west England she and her accountant husband were shown a vast array of sporting trophies.
That was in 1963, two years before Ethel’s death at the age of 86 and 51 years after her triumph in the Wimbledon women’s singles final. What her aunt failed to mention, and what Elizabeth found out only last year, was that before turning to tennis Ethel Warneford-Thomson had won 11 All England badminton titles between 1900 and 1906 — five singles and six doubles. Some record books have her winning five more singles titles, making 16 in all, though that figure has lately been revised after checks in the archives.
It remains a remarkable achievement and was one of the reasons why Badminton England chairman Mike Sertin, marking the 100th staging this year of the All England championships, tracked Elizabeth down to her Taunton home. It was only then that she learnt that her aunt, who also won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 1914, had a sporting pedigree that extended into badminton.
A legend in her time
Such was Ethel’s prowess that last year she was inducted into the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) Hall of Fame. Elizabeth, 77, told Reuters: “I just didn’t know and when Mike rang my son Malcolm he thought at first he was talking about tennis.” When Elizabeth and her husband visited the champion’s home in Budleigh Salterton all those years ago they were accompanied by Malcolm, then a boy of four. Now 51 and a financial adviser in Richmond, Virginia, he recalls Ethel as very austere. Elizabeth remembers a proud, aristocratic lady, though possibly with good reason; her family can be traced back to King Edward I. “We didn’t know anything about her badminton and she didn’t mention it although she was quite chatty,” Elizabeth told Reuters. At the recent All England badminton championships in Birmingham, the Town Hall hosted a banquet celebrating the event’s centenary and honouring figures in the sport past and present. They included Ethel whose certificate from the BWF welcomed her to the Hall of Fame for ‘enhancement of badminton through exceptional circumstances’.
In the audience were great-nephew Malcolm and his 17-year-old daughter Agnes. Both flew over from the United States especially and Agnes went up to collect the certificate on behalf of her great, great aunt. Elizabeth said: “Agnes was very excited. It meant a lot.”
The occasion was all the more poignant as Sertin, who had told the family about Ethel’s achievements, had died suddenly three days earlier. The Badminton Gazette of November 1912, chronicling Ethel’s era, describes a remarkable woman. It relates that: “Mrs Larcombe (her married name) golfs, when there is time, is a brilliant pianist, a notably good bridge player with interests in needlework, music, reading, writing and a devotion to animals, especially cats and dogs.”
Not to mention Wimbledon and those All England badminton titles.