An unexpected gem, just off the beaten track, is Burneston’s St Lambert’s church, near Bedale, North Yorkshire. While its medieval architecture immediately impresses, it’s the churchyard that harbours an extraordinary secret. Just below the east window is a somewhat understated yet grand granite monument. It commemorates John Thorneycroft Hartley, a former vicar. But he was far more than that…
Born in 1849 in Shropshire to wealthy industrial magnates and mayors of Wolverhampton, Hartley snubbed the iron-making industry for more spiritual pursuits. Attending Harrow then Christ Church, Oxford, in his mid 20s he was appointed as vicar of St Lambert’s in Burneston.
In 1877, the All-England Croquet Club held the first Lawn Tennis championships at Wimbledon and, two years later, Hartley paid one guinea to enter. Surprising even himself, he won matches through to the semi-final, before dashing home on the East Coast Mainline back to Burneston to conduct the three Sunday services. But tragedy struck that night when one of his parishioners lay on his death bed. His flock came first, so Hartley sat with the dying man into the early hours of Monday morning, administering the last rites as he passed away. Hartley then rushed back home to Burneston Hall — which stands opposite the church as a grand 18th-century estate, with tennis courts —and rode on horseback to nearby a train at Thirsk station.
Hartley arrived just in time but the dash there had thrown his concentration and he lost the first set. Luckily, the heavens opened and play was suspended. Hartley went on to win the next three sets and reached the final where his opponent was Irishman Vere St Leger Goold. Hartley won the title. He then returned home to North Yorkshire along with the 12 guineas awarded as the first prize and a silver cup worth another 25 guineas.
But he hadn’t finished yet. In 1880, he successfully defended his title at Wimbledon. A year later saw his third successive final but he lost that one to William Renshaw.
Hartley continued as a vicar, tending to his flock until he retired in 1919. He died at the age of 86 in Knaresborough in 1935.