Alumnae recount establishment of first women's tennis team in the late 70s

A black and white image of the first ladies tennis team. 27 seven women posing in three different rows in tennis kit with Rod Thorpe sitting in the middle of the front row. In the bottom left corner it reads ' Ladies Tennis Teams 1-4 1977/'78.

Loughborough has a longstanding history with tennis with accounts going back to 1918. However, according to our alumni there are few traces of a full competitive women's team prior to 1977. We hear from Karen Ellam who shares her account of tennis at Loughborough.

From the end of the Second World War the College of Advanced Technology (Loughborough University of Technology after 1966) and the Teacher Training College operated as two separate entities. The cohort consisted of a technical university with few female students, and as a result competitive sport was male dominated.  

In 1977 the University of Technology and the College of Education amalgamated and was a turning point for competitive sport at Loughborough as the merge allowed more players to be eligible to play for a single institution. It also meant that more women enrolled into sports-related programmes 

We spoke to one of the founders of the first full women's tennis team at Loughborough, Karen Ellam (nee Arnold) who graduated with a degree in Physical Education and Sports Science in 1979. Along with two other alumnaeDebbie Frearson (Education and Physical Education 1980) and Phillipa Bland (Physical Education and Sports Science 1979 and Physical Education M.Phil 1982), the three of them were the driving forces behind the start of a competitive tennis team for women at Loughborough 

Karen told us about the beginnings of the club: 

“We arrived at Loughborough College as it became Loughborough University in 1976. Assuming that being a College/University renowned for sport that a tennis club would be well established and ready for us to join at the Freshers Fair, we found we were wrong.  

Debbie Fearson, Philippa Bland and I were asked by Rod Thorpe, former Director of the Sports Development Centre and lecturer, to get together and sort out a Captain, a Secretary and Treasurer for the newly formed Loughborough University Tennis Club, of which Rod was the Chairman. 

“We duly met in Philippas room on the 6th floor of Towers and tried our hardest not to be too polite as to which role we wanted or preferred. I ended up as Captain, Debbie as Secretary and Philippa as Treasurerand so the Club began.” 

The alumna continued to describe the structure of the newly established club and training at the time. She said:  

“We had weekly practices on Friday nights in the PEC (Physical Education Centre) and Victory Hall. Jim Lee was our wonderful coach and many of us went on with Jim and Rod’s help to take our LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) coaching exams and well as enhancing our playing ability.There were men's, women’s and mixed teams, and matches ranged from the inter-university ones to those against local clubs, for example Quorn and Charnwood.” 

Karen also shared her experience within the club and how it progressed: 

“I suffered with tennis elbow and had two operations by top sports surgeons thanks to connections within the University PE Department, so I spent a lot of time on administration for the club as well as learning to play with my left hand! It all stood me in good stead though as I became the WIVAB (Women's Inter Varsity Athletic Board) representative for the University and the following year, the first woman Athletic Union President before embarking on a career in sports administration.  

Recently, Karen found a photo of the team, which allowed her to reminisce on memories of Loughborough. She said: 

“The University Tennis Club under Rod Thorpe’s fantastic tireless leadership went from strength to strength in terms of numbers of players, the facilities they could use, the standard of play and coaching opportunities. Whilst I am afraid I can't recall all the honours the individuals and teams won, I do know that they became and still are the best! The club today is widely regarded with the University, local community, county and country for not only its playing standard but also all the coaches which were and are trained within the set-up. One of my sons has just finished at the University and during his time there was given wonderful opportunities to further his professional tennis coaching qualifications alongside his degree course.” 

Female students played tennis at Loughborough before the first full team was formed under Karen and friends, with recounts of Captain Muspratt supporting the players in the sport.

Do you have similar insights into early sport at Loughborough? Maybe you were also on the tennis team! If you were involved in the founding of a team or club of any kind at Loughborough or if you have any stories to share, please get in touch.

Thanks to alumna Karen Ellam and alumnus Rod Thorpe, former Director of Sports Development, for their insights into the history of Loughborough tennis.