Herbert Roper Barrett – A Lawn Tennis Biography 1/4
By Mark Ryan
Part I – Early Years
Herbert Roper Barrett was born on 24 November 1873 in West Ham in south-west Essex (now East London), England. He was the first child and the eldest son of Joseph Barrett (b. 1842 in Stepney, Middlesex), a solicitor by profession, and Louisa Barrett (née Roper; b. 1851 in Stepney, Middlesex). Joseph and Louisa had married on 19 October 1871 in Saint Peter’s Church, Mile End Old Town, Tower Hamlets, in what is now also part of East London.
Joseph and Louisa Barrett would go on to have five more children, two of whom appear to have died at an early age. Their three other surviving children were also boys: Joseph Robert Barrett (b. 1880), John Ambrose Barrett (b. 1881) and Arthur Bernard Barrett (b. 1883). Like Herbert, all three younger boys were born in West Ham. The gap of seven years between the birth of Herbert and Joseph junior indicates that the two children that died at an early age were born between 1874 and 1879. No mention is made of them in the 1881 Census of England and Wales.
It is clear from the records that the ‘Roper’ in the name Herbert Roper Barrett comes from his mother’s maiden name and is not a first name. Contemporary reports of his sporting exploits would sometimes refer to him as Roper Barrett, and at other times just as Barrett.
From 1883 until 1890, in other words from the age of nine until the age of sixteen, Herbert Roper Barrett attended the Merchant Taylors’ School, an independent day school for boys then located in Charterhouse Square in the Smithfield area of London, just north of the City of London. He entered the school in the autumn term, soon before his tenth birthday, and, together with thirteen other boys, was placed in Form I of the Lower School.
At Christmas 1883, the young Herbert Roper Barrett sat his first examinations at the Merchant Taylors’ School whose records show that he was studying, amongst other subjects, Classics and Divinity (Latin, the Old and New Testament, the Church Catechism and the Collects). Naturally enough, he was also studying English and History, using, in part, standard texts such as Dr Smith’s “Primary History of Britain” and Lang’s “Geography”. Arithmetic was also an important part of the syllabus.
The results of these first examinations show that Herbert Roper Barrett finished eleventh out of the fourteen boys in Form I of the Lower School. He did particularly well in Classics and Divinity, but average in the other subjects, thereby setting a pattern for his future scholastic career at the Merchant Taylor’s School. The records show that he was a consistently average schoolboy, at least in terms of academic achievement. In the summer of 1887, he finished seventeenth out of thirty-two pupils in his class, his best grades again being in Classics and Divinity. By then he was also studying French.
At Christmas 1890, soon after his seventeenth birthday, Herbert Roper Barrett sat his final examinations at the Merchant Taylor’s School, where he was now a pupil in the Lower Modern Side of the Upper School. At that point in time he was studying several additional subjects, including geometrical drawing, the physical sciences and German. Once again he did well in Classics and Divinity, finishing fifth out twenty-three in Latin. He also received a ‘commendation’ for high marks in History.
Although he was an average pupil, it is clear from the records that Herbert Roper Barrett did very well at extra-curricular activities, in particular at sport. In the late nineteenth century, to counterbalance indoor studies, a strong emphasis was being placed on games and outdoor activities at the Merchant Taylors’ School and at other independent and public schools in England. In this respect, William Baker, headmaster during Herbert Roper Barrett’s time at the Merchant Taylors’ School, was very progressive. By the promotion of games and sporting activities Baker hoped “to foster a corporate and public spirit among the boys of the school, by drawing them together in common amusements and giving them common interests.”
Looking back on the time he spent at the Merchant Taylors’ School, in an interview he gave to the “Gloucestershire Echo” newspaper in August 1935, when he was 61, Herbert Roper Barrett recalled how he first came to focus on tennis, or lawn tennis, as it was called in his youth: “‘It was only an accident, or rather an incident, that led me to make lawn tennis my summer game,’ said Mr Barrett, when interviewed. ‘At Merchant Taylors’ School I had visions of playing for Essex at cricket, and might have done so had I obtained my first eleven colours. I only just missed them, but the way in which they were withheld caused me to turn to lawn tennis.
“‘I was in my last term at school, and when, a day after our team to meet the M.C.C. [Marylebone Cricket Club] was put up on the board with one vacancy to fill, I made 82 not out for the second eleven, it looked long odds on my getting the place. But I had a rival. My average was 36 for 28 innings, and his about 14. For some reason or other, a reason apparently quite apart from his cricket, this boy was given his colours and played against the M.C.C.
“‘I was so annoyed at being left out in such circumstances that I would not play cricket for the school, and spent my evenings at the old Forest Gate Lawn Tennis Club, near my home at Upton. For some seasons I hardly missed a day without playing a single, and at sixteen years of age, in 1889, won the club handicap, beating Walter Ramsey, father of Mrs [Geraldine] Beamish, the well-known Wimbledon player, in the final.’”
In the early 1890s, soon before his twentieth birthday, Herbert Roper Barrett began taking part in the non-handicap events at lawn tennis tournaments, in other words in events where he played on level terms with his opponents. He restricted his participation to what might be called local tournaments, i.e. tournaments taking place in south-east England, not far from the Barrett family home in the Upton area of West Ham. The records show that he also played lawn tennis mainly during the summer months. Due to professional commitments, he kept to this routine throughout his lawn tennis career; unlike a number of his contemporaries, Barrett needed to earn a living.
Like his father before him, Herbert Roper Barrett studied law, eventually qualifying as a solicitor. He would later join his father’s practice, which was based at Leadenhall Street in the City of London. For several years this practice would be known as Joseph Barrett & Son, Solicitors.