Gem was born in the industrial heart of England in Birmingham in 1819. He was educated at King’s College London and from 1841 he practised as a solicitor in his home city, becoming a magistrate’s clerk in 1856.
He was very active in local life and wrote for several newspapers and rose to the rank of Major in the 1st Warwickshire Rifle Volunteer Corps. Gem was also sporty and once won a bet by running the 21 miles from Birmingham to Warwick in under three and a half hours.
Gem was keen on rackets, an indoor game with some similarities to squash, which he played with his friend Augurio Perera, a Spanish merchant based in Birmingham. But rackets requires special facilities and the pair decided to develop a simpler game that could be played on the croquet lawn at Perera’s home.
Gem’s version incorporated elements of rackets alongside features of the Basque game of pelota and is known to have been played in 1865 but it is likely that they began their experiment as early as 1859 and it certainly predates sphairistikè, the other precursor of lawn tennis devised in 1874.
Known as lawn rackets or lawn pelota, Gem’s game also bore a closer resemblance to the modern game, particularly in the size and shape of the court and a net that should be ‘of a light or conspicuous colour’ and balls that should be ‘white or as nearly so as can be obtained’.
Gem and Perera moved to Leamington Spa and in 1874 formed the Leamington Club specifically to play the new game of lawn tennis. The club was renamed the Leamington Lawn Tennis Club at the end of 1874 and became the world’s first tennis club, played on the lawns of the Manor House Hotel opposite Perera’s new home.
Gem died in 1881 but the game he invented lives on as permanent fixture of the summer sporting calendar.