Probably the best known and certainly the most striking monument in St Marylebone (East Finchley) Cemetery is Frank Lynn Jenkins cast bronze pedestal and sculpture of a young man for Thomas Joseph Tate and his wife Esther, who died within a fortnight of each other in February and March 1909. There are many who think the tomb too showy, too ostentatious, too….French. You certainly see more of this type of bronze memorial in the great cemeteries of Paris than in London. And what is it meant to represent? A half naked man, apparently in the prime of life, reclining on a bed; is he dying? The symbolism is hard to decipher.
He may have been a man of means (cast bronze memorials produced by celebrated sculptors do not come cheap) but Thomas Joseph Tate would be an almost completely forgotten name today if it were not for this monument and a handful of tennis racquets. He was born in 1832 according to the memorial but 1831 according to his baptism record in Huntley Street, now WC1, and baptised at Old St Pancras Church. He was the second of four children born to Charles James Tate, a cabinet maker, and his wife Mary. At the age of twenty he was living in Early Mews in Camden with his cousins 18 and 20 year old Joseph and Charles Gomez; all three gave their occupations as Bow and Arrow Makers. It was a career Thomas was to follow for the best part of the next forty years. His cousins worked in the family business making long bows but Thomas eventually became a foreman on archery production working for Buchannan’s of Piccadilly. He married Esther and lived with her in rented rooms at a number of overcrowded lodging houses in Westminster. It wasn’t until he was almost fifty that his fortunes seemed to improve. By 1881 he had moved south of the river to Newington Causeway in Southwark where he and Esther finally lived alone at number 84. Ten years later he was back north of the river in Great Portland Street.
The 1891 census was the first time he records his occupation as being other than bow and arrow maker; he is now a bat maker. We don’t know when or where he started making tennis racquets but he was good at it, designing and producing top class equipment. Two of his best known customers were the Renshaw twins, William and Ernest. William Renshaw won twelve Wimbledon titles, seven of them the men’s singles (an all-time record shared with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer), six of these between 1881 and 1886 won consecutively, a record that has never been beaten. The Renshaws accepted a lucrative deal from the Slazenger Company to allow one of their racquets to be named after them but they actually played most of their title matches with Thomas Tate racquets. In the 1901 census Thomas lists himself as a racquet maker and as an employer producing goods and living at 18 Prince Street in Westminster.
Thomas and Esther lived together for over forty years but there were no children. Although she was five years younger than her husband she seems to have lost the will to live once he died and she only survived him by a fortnight; Thomas dying on Thursday 25 February 1909 and Esther on Thursday 11 March.