Urban landscape — 31 January 2017
Anyone for tennis?

Should you go down Lillie Road, just past the Ibis Hotel near the curiously named Telephone Place there is a small terrace of Grade II listed mid-19th century stuccoed houses. Nothing unusual then, all over London you can find these types of houses – slated roofs; pane sashes; and painted white – except number 62 which has a highly decorated round window above the ground floor and above that what looks like a Royal coat of arms.

Concealed behind trees and street furniture (as the Google street view shows) this intriguing addition to what is a very normal group of London townhouses.

Google-street-view

Google street view

Could it be Edward VII moniker? Rumours have it that the future monarch would have secret trysts with Lillie Langtry within these modest walls. But our portly heir-apparent went to enormous lengths to remain undercover while having his dalliances. Rules Restaurant had a secret door to access the private room used by the couple; so it’s hardly likely the Prince of Wales is going to advertise his presence in such a manner as sticking the Royal Crest on the outside wall, while he got on with the business inside.

The answer must be Joseph Bickley. At this point anyone reading this with just a passing interest in playing on an indoor court will be uttering his name in reverential hushed tones. Bickley lived at 62 Lillie Road between 1889-1919 and was known for architectural moulding – hence the ornate ox-eye window. His fame (and fortune) came from his patented process of laying ‘non-sweat’ floor rendering for tennis courts.

Joseph-Bickley

Joseph Bickley window and Royal crest

All good stories involve a little mystery and Bickley’s tennis courts are no exception. He patented his method in 1889 and refined the process issuing a further patent in 1909. He would personally make up the ingredients part of which involved sieving fine sand through a 0.5mm mesh that at the same time, it was thought, adding the secret ingredient along with manganese dioxide, known as Bickley’s Mineral Black and always working while there was no prospect of a frost. The surface was then polished continuously night and day until the flawless court floor was achieved.

In 1964 Harrow School wanted to replicate the Bickley formula. Contacting a former employee a Mr. Harbour who had honeymooned in New York at the company’s expense while constructing a new court on Park Avenue. Harrow School found that the composition of Portland cement had subtly altered since Bickley’s day. The court was completed but was it the same as the fabled Bickley formula?

Featured image: Queen’s Real Tennis Court one of two constructed there by Joseph Bickley. 

Historic England have a picture of Crabbet Park, Tennis Court And Orangery, Worth, West Sussex taken on 26 July 1907 with Joseph Bickley then aged 72 standing on the left slightly away from the landed gentry who intend to play on his court.

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