As part of the Blue Plaque Rebellion campaign to highlight little-known sporting achievement by female athletes from the past, The Mixed Zone looks at a 19th-century pioneer who deserves a permanent and visible monument. Olivia Shears tells the story of the all-rounder Lottie Dod
Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Dod can be found in the Guinness Book of Records where she is described as “the most versatile female athlete of all time”. Yet she remains little known to the public despite a backstory that tells of extraordinary all-round athletic ability and competitive instinct in the pursuit of sporting excellence.
Born in Bebington on Merseyside in 1871 into a wealthy family, Dod took to the new sport of lawn tennis immediately after two courts were laid near her home. After local success, she was entered into the 1887 Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship, aged just 15. She won with relative ease, defeating 23-year-old defending champion Blanche Bingley 6-2, 6-0, and remains the youngest ladies’ singles champion.
Dod was untouchable throughout 1887, taking similarly easy victories in the Irish, North of England and West of England Championships. She went on to win a further four Wimbledon championships, in 1888, 1891, 1892 and 1893. She played a highly advanced game, hitting fierce groundstrokes and becoming the first known woman to volley and smash.
Her aggressive, attacking game was considered decidedly unorthodox: ladies’ tennis was meant to be elegant and peaceful, not dogged, straining and physical. Dod disagreed: “They [women] should learn to run and run their hardest, too, not merely stride,” she once said. “They would find, if they tried, that many a ball, seemingly out of reach, could be returned with ease.”
In an era when female tennis players wore full-length dresses and corsets, Dod lamented that women’s clothing was not practical for sport. Due to her age, Dod was able to play in an outfit similar to her school uniform, which she recognised as advantageously “practical and comfortable”. Eyebrows were raised at her ‘short’ (calf-length) skirt and sensible cap, which was considered oh-so-unfeminine in comparison to the usual (yet highly impractical) bonnet.
Dod penned her experiences in an 1879 essay, where she discussed the importance of the length and width of the skirt: “If less [wide], it would be rather apt to catch, when one makes sudden springs from side to side, as in volleying; and if wider, the wind blows it about and perhaps hits the racket when we fondly imagine we are going to drive the ball.”
A true pioneer, she was not afraid to voice her opinion on all aspects women’s tennis, from attire to technique. It is thought that she was one of the first advocates of the modern grip and the idea that groundstrokes should be taken just before the top of the bounce.
Having taken women’s tennis to a more modern level, it would have been easy for Dod to step away from sport. But she moved on to conquering more sports: she tried her hand at figure skating and mountaineering before taking up hockey in 1897. A relatively new sport for women, she was involved in both the formation of her club in Spital and the England team. By March 1899, she was captain of the Cheshire county team, and had made her debut for England in a 2-1 win over Ireland. Dod was not simply there to make up the numbers, as the magazine, The Gentlewoman, commented: “She is surprisingly quick and powerful in her strokes and exceedingly tricky in dribbling and passing.”
Plagued by sciatica attacks, she would only play once more for England before finding another sport to master. She had already helped establish a ladies’ golf club at Moreton in 1895, and after regular play and dedicated practice, she won the 1904 British Amateur at Troon. In doing so, she became the first, and so far, only, woman to win British tennis and golf titles. Not content with that haul, she took up archery where her natural hand-eye coordination acquitted her well. So well, in fact, that she won the silver medal in the ladies’ archery at the 1908 Olympics.
But Charlotte Dod deserves to be remembered for more than undeniable athletic excellence. The most modest of champions, her role in establishing women’s clubs, fierce competitive spirit and outspoken desire to play and improve, should also be recognised. She was variously described as “quick and powerful”, and saw no problem in trying to run her “hardest” to reach the ball. These are phrases still not fully normalised in describing women’s sport today. Dod deserves to be up there with the boys: an extraordinary sportswoman, but also a moderniser, history-maker. A game changer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Article by Olivia Shears. Olivia’s latest articles.