Story 39

Proud to know him

They were the odd couple as they strode from the dressing room towards the indoor courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Leonard Cheshire at the tennis court

The overweight, but still athletic, figure of former Wimbledon doubles champion Ken Fletcher dwarfed the slight frame of Leonard Cheshire, whose election to membership of the Club in 1983 allowed him to enjoy the game he had always loved in a way he had never expected. Leonard had arrived in the Australian’s life at the right moment, helping him through a very dark period. It was moving to see how Ken’s visits to Cavendish, where Leonard had already embarked upon his philanthropic work, were a real tonic for him. Both men held strong Roman Catholic beliefs which cemented their friendship.

I met Leonard on only a few occasions during this period as he prepared himself for battle with fellow members at Wimbledon, but those few times have stuck with me. All of us were in awe of Leonard’s wartime record but realised that discussion of that period, with so many painful memories, would have been inappropriate, so we often talked about the tennis champions of that period. He was fascinated with people’s form and prospects.

Even in his late 60s and suffering from ill-health, Leonard loved those games, especially on the beautiful grass courts. Michael Hann who, like Leonard, had retired from the Royal Air Force, remembers having an afternoon of doubles with guest Jonathan Dimbleby against Fletcher and Cheshire. ‘Leonard hit the ball very well,’ he remembers. ‘His natural timing and quick reflexes could have earned him a place in all but the top county teams.’

Another link with the Royal Air Force was the All England Club’s former professional Dan Maskell whose wartime role as the RAF’s first rehabilitation officer at the Palace Hotel in Torquay had earned him the OBE. He and Leonard loved to chat about those days.

Reg Bennett, a friend of Ken Fletcher and a fellow member at the All England Club, tells of an amusing moment when they were with Dan and Leonard in the Club’s formal lounge. Leonard, feeling the need to lie down, stretched himself out on one of the large sofas with his feet on the cushions. Smiling at Dan, he said, ‘I hope this will not affect my membership.’

He need not have worried. All of us at Wimbledon felt proud to have known this unassuming national hero whose life work, alongside that of his wife Sue Ryder, continues to alleviate suffering in so many parts of the world.

All of us at Wimbledon felt proud to have known this unassuming national hero.