The OTLBC has a long and distinguished tradition in Ottawa. This year marks our 136th birthday, making us one of the oldest clubs in Canada.
The Ottawa Lawn Tennis Club’s date of birth may be recorded as October 24, 1881. The club’s first facilities were on land located on Elgin Street between Lisgar and Cooper Streets where Knox Presbyterian Church now stands. The membership was limited initially to 35.
Apart from a photograph or two, no tangible record remains of the club’s earliest years, nothing that is except for tradition. A writer for This Week observed at the time that at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, “various young men and maidens flit over the grassy sward – many arrayed in all the effective colours of the Club, crimson, blue and brown.” But the convention of white dress only on the courts was rigidly adhered to by members of the Ottawa Lawn Tennis Club from the outset. Women were required to wear bulky ankle length dresses and white bonnets. Men were obliged to wear white shirts and long white flannel pants; many bedecked themselves as well in small tight-fitting skull caps, which could be either white or black. The attire of subsequent generations has made greater concessions to the demands of play. White tennis court attire only remained an inviolable tradition at the OTLBC up until the 125th anniversary in 2006 when club members happily adopted a white and/or coloured tennis attire policy for court play.
The club had only just moved to Patterson Avenue when it was threatened by an aggressive membership drive by the Ottawa Golf Club (now the Royal Ottawa Golf Club). To counter its loss of members the club reorganized in 1905 as the Ottawa Tennis & Lawn Bowling Association. It was hoped that through this reorganization, the club would be able to develop its bowling potential more actively. The wisdom of this decision was evident in later years as the lawn bowlers became a stabilizing element within the club.
In 1912 a difference over policy priorities between the lawn bowlers and tennis players at the club caused a number of players to break away and establish what became the Rideau Lawn Tennis Club. Despite competition from the Rideau club, however, the membership of the Ottawa club grew steadily. In 1908 its combined tennis and lawn bowling membership was just over 200, of whom 130 were active playing members.
In 1922 to accommodate membership growth, a new five acre site was purchased in Ottawa South on Cameron Avenue. George A. Crain & Sons began construction of a large, two-storey clubhouse. The ground floor contained a buffet, a secretary’s office, a lounge rotunda, locker rooms and shower facilities. The second floor contained a main lounge, a ladies’ lounge, two card rooms, a dining room and a kitchen. A wide verandah and a balcony were built across the font of the new club house. After the fields were leveled, 20 clay tennis courts and two eight-rink bowling greens were laid out by Joseph Flitcroft, the club’s experienced groundskeeper. The official opening of the Cameron Avenue facilities took place on the King’s birthday, Monday June 4, 1923.
By the late 1920s the club was experiencing financial difficulties, and with the onset of the Depression the matter became serious. The crux of the problem was membership; in 1935, for example, the total membership was only 369, almost 50 fewer that it had been before 1922 when the club had occupied much more modest facilities on Third Avenue. Aggressive membership drives failed to alleviate the problem. By the end of the 1930s the club was bankrupt and in danger of having to sell its property to cover tax arrears. These serious difficulties were reflected outwardly in the appearance of the grounds. The eight back courts were reverted to nature as the club could no longer afford their upkeep. For a time, the area was rented to the Ottawa Archery Club and bales of hay were set up. But even the archery club was suspended because of financial difficulties.
To save the club from expropriation, three lawn bowling members held a series of meetings in late 1938 to find a solution to the club’s financial problems. With a faith in the club’s future, they borrowed money to pay the tax arrears and on March 14, 1939, took the further step of having the Ottawa Tennis & Lawn Bowling Club Limited incorporated by Letters Patent of the Province of Ontario. The capital of the new company was ten thousand dollars, divided into one thousand shares of ten dollars each. The lands, premises, goods, chattels and assets of the bankrupt association were acquired. Incorporation did not immediately solve the Ottawa club’s financial woes. Part of the problem was the club’s fee structure. At the turn of the century, a single membership in the club had cost ten dollars, and new members had also been required to purchase a ten dollar share of stock. In 1939 an annual membership for a married couple only cost 16 dollars for tennis and 24 dollars for bowling.
An upward trend in the club’s membership after the Second World War enabled the club to reclaim the back courts by degrees. In 1946 two of the back courts became a temporary practice board area; the remaining six were resurfaced in pairs in 1948, 1951 and 1952. The rise in tennis members proved temporary, and the bowling membership began to sustain yearly losses. In the mid-1950s, the total membership was still only about 550, including juniors.
1981 (100th anniversary)
Not until the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, did substantial increases in the senior tennis membership, together with a revised fee structure, bring prosperity to the club after three decades of hard times. As the total membership grew to well over one thousand, funds became available to make numerous improvements to the club.
2006 (125th anniversary)
Today the Ottawa Tennis & Lawn Bowling Club thrives in the heart of Old Ottawa South. The club boasts 18 Har-Tru clay courts, 8 of which were completely refurbished for the beginning of the 2007 season. In addition to numerous house tennis leagues, 5 regular weekly round-robins and 3 ladders, the OTLBC fields 3 mixed NCTA interclub teams. The best outdoor pool in Ottawa South offers a refreshing break from on-court action and a place to relax in the sunshine and listen to the breeze in the trees and the delightful bird sounds of the nearby conservation lands. Weekly Wednesday pub nights have the clubhouse deck (with a great view of the club grounds) bustling with activity as members share the week’s favourite on-court and on-green adventures.
If you are not already part of the club’s history, make this the season where you start collecting great memories at the Ottawa Tennis & Lawn Bowling Club. Come out and enjoy competition, recreation and relaxation at your “cottage in the city”!
Excerpts from the Ottawa Tennis & Lawn Bowling Club Centennial Book, 1981