From December 11-14, 1901, London’s first ping pong championship was contested at the city’s Royal Aquarium. Over 200 players entered.
In 1901, ping pong fever had overtaken Britain. The infant sport (also known as “table tennis”) was decreed by some as a passing fad, but more than a few people were invested enough to compete in an open tournament in London.
This tournament wasn’t the very first table tennis tournament—there had been at least a couple held in the few months prior. However, it was still the major tournament and has been considered the first championship of London.
The 1901 affair at the Royal Aquarium was organized by Major Ritchie, a successful tennis player who would go on to win the Wimbledon doubles title twice and the 1908 Olympics singles gold medal. According to the reports of the day, a whopping 192 men signed up for the tournament alongside 48 women.
The competition began on December 11, a Wednesday. Play started at 3 in the afternoon for the ladies and 7 in the evening for men. Each gender was split into “sections” (24 different sections for men and eight for the women), which were contested for the tournaments first three days.
On the final day, both gender’s competitions came to a close. In the women’s bracket, the final two contestants played to a thrilling conclusion. For the championship, Vyvyan Eames of Streatham battled a Maud Thomas, who was a successful lawn tennis player in the 1890s.
The pairing played the best of three games to 20 points each. After splitting the first two games, the third stood at 19-19 draw. According to The Daily Graphic, it was decided that the final shouldn’t be won on a single point so the players went on to play five more points. Eames then scored three straight points and won the championship “to the accompaniment of loud cheering”.
For the men, the final saw G. Baker and R.D. Ayling vie for the crown. Like the women, these fellows played a best-of-three match; however, their game’s went to 30 points instead.
In the first game, the flashier Baker won 30-22. In the second, Ayling battled 30-23 back thanks to his “stonewall” technique that wore Baker down. At this point, the writing was on the wall for Baker, and Ayling, who utilized a vellum racket with a long handle, claimed the third game and the championship 30-26.
According to The Daily Graphic, one of the last matches saw a rally that lasted 162 shots total. As a different tidbit, one player wore a white tennis flannel which, claimed a competitor, made it difficult to see the ball.
The Daily Graphic also reported that the winners of each section won a medal and four prizes. Additionally, the men’s and women’s champion each won a challenge cup.
The very first lady who sent in her entry was declared by her father to be a “champion,” and one impossible to beat. Since then we have received entries from a large number of invincible ladies.
Organizer of the first table tennis championship
In the weeks and months that followed, several table tennis tournaments were contested in the London area. R.D. Ayling was among the winners again, as he won the All-England championship the next December.
Table tennis suffered from a political split in England when two governing bodies formed in December 1901. The Table Tennis Association formed first and was quickly followed by the The Ping Pong Association. The two groups later joined together in 1903 (this amalgamation only lasted until 1904 after the table tennis craze slowed down).
The sport itself continued to mature after a bit of a dry spell in the late 1900s and up until World War I. The International Table Federation formed in 1926 and the first world championships were held that same year. Table tennis eventually found its way into the Olympics and joined the program starting with the 1988 Seoul Games.
As for London’s Royal Aquarium, the building was demolished only two years later and, in 1911, the Methodist Central Hall was built on its site. The Royal Aquarium was known as “a place of amusement” and had been built in 1876. Besides table tennis, it hosted billiards matches, novelty acts, and other variety acts.
Last night I witnessed the great tournament at the Aquarium where hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were playing as if the destiny of the Empire hung on their every stroke, and what struck me most was the Ping Pong Face. […] greater than any [face] in its sheer and Bedlamite intensity is the white Ping Pong Face with the anxious eyes that move swiftly from side to side and are never still, the firmly-set mouth, and the lowering brow.
An unnamed reporter for the Scottish Referee
On their observations of the first table tennis championship
Not shockingly, no video exists of this tournament. However, at least one still image does. This photo below ran in The Tatler, a weekly lifestyle magazine that is still published today (the players are unnamed):
A surprising number of drawings of the tournament have also survived to the modern day. This first was shows a general overview of the setting:
Next is “a fine bout” between G. Greville and F. Good:
Below, we have a nice picture of the final match between Eames and Thomas:
The Daily Graphic also ran a sketch of Eames’ and Thomas’ match:
And finally is a drawing of the ladies’ champion Eames:
Table tennis, under the pseudonym of Ping Pong, has usurped the home. It is as permanent there as a baby; and the reason for its welcome is disclosed at the Aquarium. Woman can play the game better than man!
The Daily Graphic
On the abilities of women at table tennis
- From December 11-14 a table tennis was held at the Royal Aquarium in London. It has been regarded as the sport’s first championship.
- In the women’s side, Vyvyn Eames claimed the title, while R.D. Ayling nicked the men’s crown.
- More tournaments were held in the months and years following. Just weeks after the tournament, two separate associations were formed to govern the sport.
- “The Tale of E C Goode and the Chemist’s Cash Mat”, Table Tennis Collector, February 2019
- The Daily Graphic (various dates) via The Table Tennis Collector
- Dundee Evening Telegraph, December 12, 1901 via The British Newspaper Archive
- Scottish Referee, December 16, 1901 via The British Newspaper Archive
- “A Brief History of Table Tennis (Ping-Pong) “, liveaboutdotcom
- “Major Josiah George Ritchie”, Tennis Archives
- “Royal Aquarium”, Wikipedia