Obituary | Tony Henman dies aged 84

Anthony John Shirley Henman, known as Tony, who was an Oxford solicitor and all-round amateur sportsman, died on Friday 3 May.

I really can't bear the thought of losing. I've been out of control on the pitch all my life. I've had 61 years to sort myself out, while Tim has done so much better in only 27. Tony Henman after an England hockey match in 2002.

His stoic presence in the players’ box at Wimbledon became a fixture of his youngest son Tim’s classic Centre Court battles.

The uninitiated thought that Henman senior lacked emotion but he ‘suffer[ed] the tension more than anyone’, being ferociously competitive when playing tennis, squash or cricket for Oxfordshire, and, perhaps most importantly, when he was on the hockey pitch.

Turning out for the England over-60 side, he earned himself ‘a certain reputation’, as one reporter put it, noting that, when he put his shin-pads on, he was ‘more hard-man than hen-man’.

“I really can’t bear the thought of losing,” acknowledged Tony after an England match in 2002. “I’ve been out of control on the pitch all my life. I’ve had 61 years to sort myself out, while Tim has done so much better in only 27.”

He represented England seniors in every age group up to over-75s, and was part of the team that won the European Vintage Championships in 2002. He also played as an amateur for Headington Football Club, the forerunner of Oxford United.

When Tony proudly led his bride down the aisle, the guests gazed in amazement as the young solicitor’s normally smooth, clean-cut face was disfigured by two black eyes and a painful-looking broken nose, injuries sustained, not from a pub brawl but from a fiercely struck ball during a scrimmage in a county hockey match.

Even the couple’s winter honeymoon in Devon was not immune from the groom’s passion for ball games as he cut it short by a couple of days to play hockey for Oxford Town in a local derby match.

Fortunately, his new wife Jane (née Billington) was more understanding than most; her own family were equally devoted to sport, particularly horse breeding and tennis.

Tony did not seek the spotlight, but the unflinching stoicism and self-restraint he displayed each year at Wimbledon became known to millions, while his loyalty and discretion endeared him to the Prince and Princess of Wales, and, particularly, to Catherine’s parents, Carole and Michael Middleton.

Friends knew him as a relaxed and sociable companion, a combination of affability and discretion that was shared by his wife, Jane, ensuring that the couple’s advice about how to contend with unsought publicity was immensely valued by the Middleton family, who were neighbours in Berkshire of Jane’s brother, horse trainer Tim Billington, who died in 2020.

The friendship between the two families flourished. Jane became Carole Middleton’s doubles partner, and she and Tony were guests at Catherine and Prince William’s wedding.

The Henman family lived in Weston-on-the-Green, between Oxford and Bicester, where they owned a grass tennis court in their back garden on which Tim began playing before the age of three with a shortened squash racket.

Known locally as ‘The Brigadier’, Tony led a battle against developers who, in 2008, unveiled plans to dump a so-called ‘eco-village’ of 15,000 houses on a greenfield site, a scheme that would have seen two or three landowners pocketing £1.5 million-an-acre and abandoning the village.

On discovering that the Duchy of Cornwall owned the village playing field, he jokingly invited Prince Charles to join the protest committee. The plans were subsequently shelved.

Tony and Jane Henman seen here in the Royal Box on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2012 with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (2nd R) talking to Gill Brook (L), wife of Philip Brook, Chairman of the All England Tennis Club

© Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

Tony was born into a prosperous Oxfordshire family, the eldest of three children. His father, Albert, a local solicitor, had a practice in Woodstock and his mother, Peggy, ran an antiques shop in Oxford.

Despite attending New College Prep School, which provided choristers for the College Chapel, Tony showed little aptitude for singing, but rapidly emerged as a gifted sportsman, attaining his colours for football, hockey and cricket at a young age.

At Malvern College he captained the Fives team and won his colours at football and cricket.

Although the lure of the playing fields always took precedence over book learning, he opted for a legal career and, on leaving school, was articled to his father.

He qualified five years later and, after a spell at the Cheapside solicitors Hextall Erskine, he returned in 1965 to join his father’s practice, Henman Ballard, helping to establish the firm as a leading personal injury practice, representing large insurance companies.

He first met Jane while playing for the Cumberland Club in a cricket match against the All England Club. Jane had come to support her father, the former Davis Cup player Henry Billington, and her brother Tim, both members of The Club.

Her own talent for racket sports, particularly tennis and squash, matched her future husband’s and they married in 1967, settling at Weston-on-the-Green near Oxford.

After their three sons Michael, Richard and Tim were born, they moved to a new house in the village where, according to Michael, the garden, which boasted one of the first Astroturf tennis courts in the area, resembled a sports arena.

“Growing up, we played everything,” he recalled. “Our lawn was like the outfield at Lord’s, serving as a cricket and hockey pitch, and we also had a hard court.”

The Henmans passed on their love of tennis to all three sons. By the age of 14, Tim was playing first pair in the Oxfordshire men’s side, while his father, by then in his late forties, was still turning out at third pair.

While a boarder at Reed’s School, in Cobham, Surrey, Tim was on the Slater squad of top junior players under the tutelage of David Lloyd, the former Davis Cup tennis player. The teenager had already set his sights on a career on the international tennis circuit.

Although well aware of the odds against even the most talented youth achieving success on the world stage, Tony and Jane allowed their son to leave school at 16 to follow his dream, but never pressurised him to play.

Later Tony explained his rationale: that if Tim had failed to make the grade, there would still have been time for him to go to university in his mid-20s.

Even when Tim rose to World No 4 in 2002 and reached the Wimbledon semi-finals on four occasions, his parents did not indulge in favouritism and took equal pride in all three sons’ achievements, with Michael following his father into the law, and Richard running a sports marketing company.

Tony became the senior partner on his father’s retirement from their law practice, and with his brother and fellow partner, Roger, he expanded it from its original staff of four to about 160, before its merger with the national practice Freeth Cartwright in 2012.

According to Michael, who worked with his father for several years and is now a partner in the firm DWF Law: “He was hard-working and punctilious, but also a good listener, and cared deeply about his staff and clients. It didn’t matter if you were on the Cowley production line or a distinguished judge, he could get on with everyone.”

Tony Henman was born on 12 April, 1940, and died of cancer on 3 May, 2024, aged 84.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social Media Auto Publish Powered By :