Balls of fire: Slazenger

Slazenger became the largest manufacturer of tennis balls in the world.

Ralph Slazenger (1844 – 1910) was born in Warrington to a family of Jewish German origin. He attended Manchester Grammar School and Forster’s College in Cheatham before joining the family firm of tailors in Manchester.

The Slazenger & Sons name was introduced in 1876. Athletic clothing was produced from 1877.

Ralph and his brother Albert Slazenger (1857 – 1940) transferred the family firm from Manchester to 56 Cannon Street, London in 1879. The firm began to produce sporting equipment from around this time.

Following the move to London, Ralph Slazenger renounced his Judaism.

Slazenger tennis balls were used at the largest tournaments in England and Scotland by 1888.

British businesses controlled practically all of the European tennis equipment market by 1889.

Ralph Slazenger retired in 1901, leaving sole control of the firm with his brother.

The Slazenger lawn tennis ball became the official ball of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament from 1902. The association continues to this day, and is one of the longest continually running sports sponsorships in the world.

Archdale Palmer (1865 – 1950), secretary of the All England Club, Wimbledon, was appointed general manager (equivalent to managing director) of Slazenger in 1905.

Ralph Slazenger was an extremely popular and genial man. He was a keen contributor to many charitable organisations. He died in 1910, and his gross estate was valued at £56,137.

Between 1890 and 1910 the Wimbledon tournament was won with Slazenger rackets 16 times.

Slazenger & Sons was registered as a public company, Slazengers Limited, in 1911. It had a capital of £265,000. It was the largest manufacturer of lawn tennis balls in the world.

Fred Perry (1909 – 1995) exclusively used Slazenger rackets from the beginning of his career.

A factory was established in Australia in 1922. A factory was established in Toronto, Canada in 1924.

H Gradidge & Sons, cricket bat manufacturers of Woolwich, was acquired in 1931.

A factory had been established in France by 1935.

The Slazenger factory at Woolwich produced more tennis balls than any other facility in the world by 1936. Slazenger was the leading tennis racket manufacturer in the world by 1937.

Slazenger established a factory at Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex in 1939-40.

Albert Slazenger died in 1940. His estate was valued at £444,263. Archdale Palmer succeeded him as chairman.

During the Second World War almost all production was dedicated towards producing goods for the war effort.

Slazenger acquired William Sykes Ltd, a cricket bat manufacturer with a site at Horbury near Wakefield, and a controlling interest in Ayres Sports Goods Ltd in 1942. These were largely to purchased to increase the Slazenger manufacturing base. A former war factory at Barnsley was also acquired in 1945, to establish a manufacturing centre for tennis balls.

After the war the Horbury site was modernised and extended. Slazenger closed its London factories in 1946 and concentrated production at Horbury, with 700 employees, and Barnsley, with a workforce of 200. As Barnsley had not yet reached full production, it was announced that a further 600 people would be employed. W S Dunning, the managing director of Slazengers, proclaimed that, “Yorkshire will soon be producing the bulk of the world’s sports equipment in the world’s most up-to-date plant”.

Slazenger was acquired by Dunlop Rubber, which was also a large manufacturer of sporting goods, in 1959.

Carlton Sports of Saffron Walden was acquired in the 1960s.

The footballs for the 1966 World Cup finals were made by Slazenger at Horbury. Around 30 sporting goods firms submitted balls for testing, and FIFA found Slazenger’s were of the highest quality.

Horbury was the largest factory of its type in Europe by 1983. However, manufacturing at Horbury ended in the late 1980s.

Dunlop Slazenger was sold to its management for £300 million in 1996. It was the leading producer of tennis balls in the world, and employed 3,000 people.

The Dunlop Slazenger golf division factory at Normanton, near Wakefield, was closed in 2000 with the loss of 69 jobs. Production was relocated to the United States.

The Barnsley factory was closed in 2002 and production was relocated to the Philippines. 134 jobs were lost.

Mike Ashley acquired Dunlop Slazenger in 2004 for £35-40 million.

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