As Chief Steward, Andrew Gairdner leads the Association of Wimbledon Honorary Stewards. To say that these supernaturally cheery and helpful men and women are responsible for crowd management and act as ‘host’ to the public – directing, advising, giving help and guidance to visitors – is absolutely correct, but it does not do justice to their contribution to the social fabric of The Championships. They are the salt of the SW19 earth on which the hallowed turf grows; they encapsulate the sense of orderliness which underpins the fortnight; they are sticklers for rules, but there is no situation they can’t resolve with humour or enhance with polite banter.
This is Gairdner’s last year at the helm. He has been a Steward since 1978 and Chief Steward since 1999, though his first Wimbledon memory emanates from 1951, when he came to the All England Club to play tennis in a prep school tournament. “I threw the ball up to serve and missed it,” he recalls.
As a Steward, his eye has never wavered from the ball. In 1978 he was stationed on the South Concourse. “Photo passes did not come in until the 1980s. Before then we would uncover hundreds of people sneaking in. They would squeeze into the back of cake lorries, then hide in the loos until the free standing room was available on Centre Court. We had great fun catching them. People used to dress up in ball boy uniform or push a lawnmower through the gate to try to get in without a ticket or badge.”
Gairdner has seen many changes in his 35 years. “In 1978, there were 40 Honorary Stewards compared to the team of 275-80 today (including 56 day and 24 night stewards - boys and girls at university). The average age was about 75 when I joined; it is probably 55 now. In the old days the job was not particularly onerous. A lot of Stewards would start the day with a gin and tonic in the Debentures Lounge, then have tea with their wives…Courts 14 to 17 did not exist. Nor did the Aorangi Park area. Gates opened later. We weren’t required to operate outside the grounds until the early 1990s when the Club asked us to run The Queue. The days were shorter.”
It’s become a professional operation – and that is largely due to Gairdner’s realisation that the Stewards needed to embrace the future. “Before, we’d been slightly above the hurly burly. I realised we wouldn’t be around unless we converted into a staff operation. I was later told by the Club, ‘We didn’t think you could change gear, but you have,’ so that was good.”
Gairdner describes his role as “very demanding”: “I liaise with the Club and make clear to my team what is expected in the stewarding of the courts, The Queue and the ticket-holders as they make their way to the gate. I work with the Borough of Merton in Wimbledon Park and the Golf Course, and the marketing departments of HSBC, Evian, Robinsons and so on to make sure their attractions don’t interfere with the smooth running of The Queue. Also with security, the police, ticket tearers and bag searchers. And we’ve just taken over Left Luggage at Car Park 10, which needs to open at 5am to take in overnight stuff from The Queue.”
Gairdner’s highlights in 35 years demonstrate the richness of life at the All England Club. Here is his Top 10, in no particular order:
1. Getting here on my first day.
2. Two Borg finals. In 1980 v John McEnroe to win his fifth consecutive title and in 1981, the year he lost to McEnroe, both very exciting occasions.
3. A church service held on Centre Court and officiated by the Bishop of Southwark.
4. The Roof Opening Ceremony with singing and razzmatazz.
5. Meeting the Queen. She came in up at the back of Court 19. I was told to stand in a particular spot and Tim Phillips introduced me to her and we had a lovely chat.
6. Davis Cups at Wimbledon. Always exciting. Win or lose, the crowd is unashamedly patriotic, therefore louder and noisier, with a ‘single-strength’ emotion.
7. Antiques Roadshow. Something completely different for the 125th anniversary. Filmed in 2011, it aired in 2012. The event took place in front of the Clubhouse with stalls set up between the courts. Eddie Seaward was very concerned as some of the outside courts had just been re-seeded and the Stewards were there to stop the public stepping on the hallowed turf.
8. The achievement of getting The Queue off the pavement and moving the two-queue system, which was quite dangerous, into the Park and subsequently the Golf Course.
9. Working with Sarah Clarke, Championships Manager, and all the teams which make up the Wimbledon family.
10. The emotional highlight was at my final Annual General Meeting, held on the Sunday before the Championships. I said I didn’t want any talk of retirement until after the tournament. But my successor got up and made a gracious speech. Then Chris Gorringe [former chief executive] spoke and I was given three presents, all from the Stewards: a picture, a glass decanter and an invitation to a day at Roland Garros and two nights in Paris for my wife and I. I was truly touched.