Liguria: The man who brought tennis to Italy
The philanthropist of Bordighera
Few visitors to the little UK village of Rowde, a couple of miles northwest of the Wiltshire town of Devizes, can have any inkling that it has a strong connection with the Italian Riviera.
For it was here, in the seaside town of Bordighera, that Charles Henry Lowe, the owner of Rowde Hall, spent the winter months for more than 30 years, largely for the benefit of his health.
Such was his gratitude that he poured large amounts of his considerable wealth into projects to improve the amenities in the town. These included a public garden, an Anglican church and its accompanying parsonage, a theatre, land for a cemetery and, remarkably enough, the first set of tennis courts ever to be built in Italy.
Charles Lowe followed his father into the shipping trade, and such was his business acumen that he managed to amass enough of a fortune to enable him to retire from business life at the age of 48. It was 1876, and by this time the English had already discovered the Italian Riviera and migrated there in large numbers.
The idea of escaping the rigours of the English weather was appealing to Lowe, whose health was by no means robust, and he decided to join his compatriots in what was by now a sizeable ‘expat’ colony.
He bought an unpretentious property called 'Casa Rosa', which contemporary reports describe as 'hardly more than a cottage'. However, he also bought a considerable area of land to go with it, most of which, in a spirit of pure philanthropy, he gave away to the local community over the following decades.
One year after Wimbledon
One of his first donations was land for the Bordighera Lawn Tennis Club. The game had only taken off in England in 1877, which was when the courts at Wimbledon were opened; the very next year saw the opening of those at Bordighera. Most of the original members were English, and tennis was seen as little more than a way of passing the time until tea at five o'clock.
However, the game soon became to be taken more seriously, especially after the First World War, by which time the British population in the town had risen to three thousand and the number of courts used by the Club to 15.
Competitions had previously only been at a social level, but in the 1920s the Club inaugurated two international events: the Vera Cup (for ladies) and the Long Cup, which remained one of the classic Italian tennis events right up to the start of World War Two, although it was not until 1933 that it was won by an Italian, Federico Billour, subsequently a world-famous maker of tennis rackets.
Heyday in the 30s
In the 1930s, the Bordighera Tennis Club was known to be the strongest on the Riviera, even beating clubs as powerful as Monaco.
The international greats of the time came to play there - such stars as Bill Tilden, René Lacoste, Harry Hopman and Henri Cochet. But the golden age ended with the advent of World War Two: the British players who had started it all left forever, the town was repeatedly bombed, and the clubhouse resounded not to the joyful sounds of drives and volleys but to the heavy jackboot tramp, tramp of the occupying Nazis.
A post-war return to the days of glory proved almost impossible. The local council was only able to buy three of the courts, and much of the rest was used for building development.
But the 1960s saw a rebirth, with the construction of a new clubhouse containing all the necessary facilities and an injection of energy into youth coaching. The club organised the Italian Student Championships in 1966, bringing to the fore such future Italian stars as Paolo Bertolucci, Corrado Barazutti, Nicola Pietrangeli and Adriano Pannatta.
Charles Lowe had also given the land for a public garden in the centre of the town. This is known to this day as 'Giardini Lowe', and so many townsfolk have such happy childhood memories of playing there that it has its own Facebook page. It is the only example of his name being attached to one of his good works: this self-effacing man held no public office other than that of churchwarden at the church in Bordighera.
His lifestyle was austere in comparison to that of those around him - he travelled second class rather than spend large sums on his own comfort. He treated his servants as friends and often referred to them as his 'faithful stewards', even arranging for his Bordighera gardener to come to England so that he could say farewell to him from his deathbed.
It is no wonder then that his obituary in the Devizes & Wiltshire Gazette of 15th April 1909 describes him as 'an admirable type of man in the true sense of the word.'
A century on, Bordighera's website (www.bordighera.net) describes him as 'generoso benefattore'. He would have been flattered - but surely content.