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Racket Stringing Est. 1872   Racket Making founded in 1874 

 

HISTORY

HENRY JOSEPH CRAVEN, Racket Designer, Maker
1854 - 1942

 Family Tennis Business Celebrating 150 years

"The String is the Heart and Soul of the Racket" HJC 1872

Henry Joseph Craven was born on 16th April 1854 in Wrexham, Denbighshire Wales, the son of Henry and Sarah Craven. He served his apprenticeship as an iron moulder but in 1872 gave up this trade and started a hardware business which also sold paraffin oil, sports goods and he provided racket stringing service. Natural Gut String was supplied to Henry by Heymans of Finsbury Square, London. A couple of years later garden tennis and badminton sets became very popular with customers and Henry started hand making rackets.

SURREY TENNIS
Surrey Tennis is now one of the oldest family businesses in Europe. In 1874 a business opportunity arose through Heymans providing a mobile racket stringing service in Surrey. The stringing room was situated on the Reigate Road (now the A217) at Burgh Heath and was managed by Henry's his assistant, Joseph Ward. During Summer weekends a regular mobile stringing service (by bicycle) was provided at the croquet lawns of Woodcote House, Epsom, Reigate Priory, Redhill and the Nork Park Estate. The stringing service included badminton (battledore), garden (lawn) and court (real) tennis rackets. The first strings used by Surrey Tennis were made from goat intestines. In the stringing room, string was always called "goaty" even when it was made from other animals. Goat and sheep gut although more elastic became more expensive than cattle gut and it was found by making cattle gut slightly thinner, it produced the same performance for playing garden tennis. The 15 gauge string was also used for trebling until the thinner strings became popular. The brownish string (Surrey Tennis Original) remains almost unchanged to present day.

EARLY RACKET STRINGING
Whilst many players are enthusiastic about rackets, the type of string used and when it should be replaced is often forgotten. The natural gut string has been used in rackets for hundred years and is still used by many professionals keeping itís elasticity better than any synthetic string made today.
In the early days of garden tennis and badminton (battledore) there were no established methods of stringing and it was often left to the individual stringers on how they would restring a racket. The racket to be strung was secured in a vice or clamp. Henry Craven would use a Roll which resembled a wooden hammer wrapped in leather to tighten strings. Once the string was at the correct tension which was confirmed by the sound when plucking the string, a wood pin or an awl was inserted into the hole to hold the tension. In the early days of racket stringing it was normal to replace just the broken or damaged strings in a racket. Strings were joined and secured using invisible knot methods.

1872 SURREY TENNIS 3-9 STRINGING PATTERN
In 1872 Henry invented a stringing pattern that is still used at Surrey Tennis to this day. The standard 3 to 9 pattern used on many wood rackets was tensioned in the normal way using a roll and awl or pin by hand. The first 6 centre strings are strung first. Both the 3 mains after tensioned are then run up the outside of the racket to the 9th mains holes and then strung and tensioned back to the centre: 8, 7, 6, 5, and 4. There is no loss of tension using this method and the loops on some other stringing methods are not required. It is important that the 4th main strings are tied off or secured before starting on the crosses so that an awl is not knocked by mistake loosing tension on the main strings.

RACKET MAKING
Henry Craven has sometimes been described as a tennis racket manufacturer. This is not quite correct.  His enthusiasm came from playing tennis and hand making and designing rackets which he sold in small quantities to players, tennis clubs, sports shops and department stores in London. He experimented with different designs giving many rackets to friends and family abroad. He also tried producing a few metal rackets, but the weight of them prevented them from being an alternative to wood. Several of his handmade rackets had an adjustment feature to release the tension of the strings after play. His "Adjustable" Racket was later manufactured in a similar design by several members of his family living abroad. The "Adjustable" became popular in the early 1900s in the USA. Henry personally hand crafted many rackets from 1874 to 1910 for other sports shops and London department stores including the Army and Navy Stores, Browne and Heppell Sports and later for A. W. Gamage and partners. His assistant, Joseph Ward also made some rackets for the business at the Burgh Heath Blacksmiths during the Winter months when the stringing business was quiet. Henry's first rackets in 1874 were transitional flat-tops, later called the "Surrey".

THE SURREY RACKET
The Surrey Racket originally made with a regular handle, made from 1874 and from 1876 unbranded for London shops. The 15 gauge natural gut string at this time was used for the trebling. After 1880 the trebling had changed to thin black natural gut and later to a raspberry (dark red colour) still made today. A racket with a leather grip was produced as a special edition in 1884 and was sold at the Wimbledon tournament in the same year. In the 1880s some "Surrey" Rackets were made with fantails and branded the "The Club". (PHOTO BELOW). Rackets were supplied blank to shops so that the retailer could put their own name brand to the racket. By 1900 the Surrey had changed to an oval frame and sold in shops under numerous names and some were made with a conventional fishtail handle. Coloured strings had become popular and a raspberry string was often used for either the mains or the cross strings. A few rackets were also produced with double main strings in the centre. 

(Above) THE SURREY CLUB 1880s fantail, transitional flat-top with the Surrey Tennis logo on the wedge

THE WINDERMERE
The Windermere Racket was a Fish Tailed Racket. ( It has no connection with the Spalding racket with the same name) The wood handle was engraved with fish scales giving a good grip. The workshop log book indicated that 14 of these rackets were made. One was sent to the Craven family in Australia around 1905 and others sold. The racket was marked on the neck with Windermere on one side and an image of a fish on the other. In 1989, one of these rackets was sold for £1250 to a private collector.

THE END OF HAND MADE RACKET MAKING
By 1910 the days of the small racket maker had come to an end and Henry's racket making workshop closed down. Rackets had become to be manufactured by large companies at competitive prices and these were sold in his shop together with other sports goods including bowls. In 1912 he had 3 racket stringers working full time, one at his hardware shop and two at the Surrey Tennis stringing room at Reigate Road, Burgh Heath, (Now called the Brighton Road A217). Henry retired in 1918 at the age of 64 leaving the shares in his business to his 10 children and he continued playing garden tennis, (later known as Lawn tennis), into his 80s.

NATURAL GUT TENNIS STRINGS
The success of the racket and stringing business was partly due to Heymans of Finsbury Square, London, who first supplied the Craven family with some of the finest imported gut strings. By 1876 the cost of imported tennis string was becoming too expensive and Henry Craven started producing his own string in England. This string is still produced and sold today in small quantities for the restoration of wood tennis rackets.
1. "THE SURREY TENNIS ORIGINAL" (Heymans Brown) was the original string produced in 15 gauge. It was a popular string throughout the 19th century.
2. "CRAVEN GOLD" This string was first produced in 1876 to match the colouring of the varnished wood frames, 15.5 gauge. It has a golden appearance and is finely polished giving a smoother appearance and used to restring 19th and 20th century wood rackets.
3. "THE RASPBERRY"  This is similar to the Craven Gold with the addition of the burgundy colouring added. Popular in rackets from 1890 to 1950.
4. BLACK & RASPBERRY TREBLING This was a thin natural gut string produced in either black or raspberry colour. It is about the same thickness as a modern badminton string. Very popular from 1890 to 1960. Around 1960 trebling started to be made using synthetic strings.

MEGGIE CRAVEN
Henry's daughter, Meggie, was the backbone of the business. From an early age she kept the business accounts, worked in the store and strung rackets. At a racket stringing contest held at a local croquet club she won the competition for re-stringing a racket with trebling in the fastest time, just 37.5 minutes. The men in the competition could only achieve the shortest time of 42 minutes.

STRINGING ROOMS
Henry took over the running of Surrey Tennis in 1874 which was situated by the Reigate Road, Burgh Heath. The business later moved to The Green at Burgh Heath near to the fish ponds and tea rooms. Customers could partake in tea and cake whilst waiting for their racket to be strung. Two bicycles were fitted out to hold stringing tools providing a mobile service to customers, croquet lawns and later tennis clubs. The business at Burgh Heath was in an ideal position for selling rackets to department stores and sports shops in London, being on a direct coach route to London and later close to the S R Chipstead Valley Branch Line. It was also situated close to many of the gardens and croquet lawns where garden tennis was played. The stringing room remained on The Green until 1959 when it moved to Colcokes Road, Banstead. Henry's grandson, John, a medical practitioner, became the tennis player of the family taking part in many tournaments from the 1930s to 50s. Henry's great grandson, Philip, learnt how to restring rackets at the age of 9 years and later became a tennis professional in 1968.  Surrey Tennis moved to a purpose built studio near Epsom Downs in 1974 providing a stringing service for Banstead Sports and Seymour sports shops in Epsom and Dorking. The racket stringing workshop moved to Leatherhead in 2021.

SURREY TENNIS TODAY
The business continues providing a fast local stringing service, tournament stringing and specialises in the purchase, sale and restoration of wood rackets for collectors, museums and film companies. Natural gut tennis strings are still produced and sold in small quantities for antique rackets. During recent years there have been considerable advances in stringing technology. Stringing equipment is now accurate to a 1/10 lb. After we string a racket the string bed is tested and afterwards a computer reading is made for the Dynamic Tension, enabling the player to know when the racket needs restringing. A 2 hour stringing service is provided at Leatherhead.

 

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