From rackets to rugby: Dubliner Frank Stoker and his sporting triumphs

Frank Stoker, Wimbledon champion and Irish international rugby player
Frank Stoker, Wimbledon champion and Irish international rugby player.

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Frank Stoker, from Dublin, achieved sporting greatness in tennis and rugby. We relive his sporting achievements, as well as exploring his link with Bram Stoker of Dracula fame and his life as a dental surgeon and family man.

Frank Stoker left an indelible mark on the world of sports as a two-time Wimbledon champion and five-cap international rugby star.

Born Francis Owen Stoker in Dublin city in May 1866 to Dr Edward Alexander Stoker and Henrietta (née Wisdom), both from Dublin, he was the youngest of at least 13 children born to the couple. The Stoker family lived in a large house in Rutland Square (now Parnell Square), an affluent neighbourhood in Dublin city.

Several sources claim that the family were distantly related to fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker, the renowned author of the iconic horror novel Dracula (1897). The Irish Stokers came from England originally and the surname is relatively rare in Ireland. The Dublin Stokers were Protestant artisans of humble origins. They gradually ascended the social ladder and established themselves as middle-class business people by the late 18th century. But Frank Stoker, like Bram, would carve out his own path in life.

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Frank Stoker’s tennis career

Frank Stoker’s sporting journey began as a member of the Lansdowne Lawn Tennis Club, founded by Henry Dunlop – the same visionary who established Lansdowne Rugby Football Club and the former Landsdowne Road Stadium.

Although he participated in singles tournaments, Stoker’s true passion lay in team competitions and he initially teamed up with his brother Ernest Wilson Stoker, the second youngest in the family and just two years older than Frank.

In 1886, in a valiant effort, the Stoker brothers narrowly missed out in the men’s doubles final at the Greystones Lawn Tennis Tournament, conceding to R.W. Lucas and Guy Pilkington. But Frank Stoker’s moment of glory was fast approaching.

In 1890, Stoker joined forces with Joshua Pim, a native of Bray. The pair dominated the Irish tennis scene for years. Between 1890 and 1895, this unstoppable duo clinched the coveted Irish doubles title five out of the six years.

The Irish Tennis Championships in Dublin.
The Irish Championships in Dublin (photographer: Robinson; source: A. Wallis Myers, 1903, “Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad” via HathiTrust Digital Library).

One of their greatest achievements came in 1890 when they secured victory in the men’s doubles at the All-England (Wimbledon) Tennis Championships, cementing their place in the annals of tennis history. In the final match, they faced the formidable Ernest Lewis and George Hillyard.

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At Wimbledon, Ireland also produced title winners in the men’s and women’s singles tournaments in 1890, completing a grand slam.

Stoker and Pim were runners-up the following year, but they didn’t have to wait long to taste victory again.

In 1893, Pim secured the singles title at Wimbledon and along with Stoker, the pair once more brought home the silverware in the doubles that year. Again, they defeated Ernest Lewis in the final, who was joined this time by Harry Barlow.

The Irish pair were declared “the finest combination the world had ever seen”. Stoker and Pim are the only two Irish tennis players in history to have won more than one Wimbledon title. Pim also took the singles title in 1894 and at the time, he was considered the number one tennis player in the world.

Joshua Pim, Irish tennis player and Wimbledon champion.
Joshua Pim (photographer: Robinson; source: A. Wallis Myers, 1903, “Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad” via HathiTrust Digital LibraryWikimedia Commons, public domain).

The 1890s is still considered a golden age for Irish tennis. During this time, Irish tennis players won a total of five Wimbledon singles titles, two Wimbledon men’s doubles titles, two US Open singles titles, two US Open women’s doubles titles and one US Open mixed doubles title. Talk of the “luck of the Irish” was on everyone’s lips!

In 1896 Stoker retired from competitive tennis, but this tennis titan continued to play for enjoyment in the years that followed.

Frank Stoker’s rugby career

Beyond the tennis courts, Stoker’s athletic prowess extended to the rugby pitch, where he generally played in the forward pack – a fitting position given his tall stature and large build (he was 6 foot 1½ inches tall and over 13 stone).

He donned the jersey for the Wanderers FC, one of Ireland’s oldest rugby union clubs. During his tenure with this Dublin team, he was made captain. His brothers Graves and Ernest also played for the Wanderers.

Wanderers FC logo.
Wanderers FC logo (© Wanderers FC)..

After gaining attention with the Wanderers, Frank Stoker lined out for Ireland, earning five caps between 1886 and 1891, while Ernest also played for Ireland in 1888 as a forward.

Frank Stoker’s test debut match took place on 20 February 1886, when Ireland faced Scotland at Raeburn Place during the Home Nations Championship. This competition – contested by England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – was the precursor to the Five Nations Championships, which saw the addition of France and later, when Italy joined, it became the Six Nations Championships.

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Unfortunately, the match ended in defeat for the Irish. The 1886 Home Nations title was shared by England and Scotland, both winning two matches each. Stoker had the prestigious honour of representing Ireland three more times in the Home Nations Championships, but regrettably, Ireland only won a single game.

Stoker’s rugby career saw him face other formidable opponents, including the New Zealand Natives in late 1888. Made up of predominantly Māori players, the New Zealand Natives embarked on a tour of Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. The star player of this touring team was, however, the controversial Patrick Keogh. Born in Birmingham, England, to Irish parents from Enniscorthy, Keogh emigrated to New Zealand at a young age. His remarkable rugby skills secured him a spot on the tour due to a shortage of available players.

Stoker’s final appearance for the Irish team occurred on 7 March 1891, in a match against Wales at Llanelli. The Welsh team capitalized on their home advantage and emerged victorious with a score of 6-4.

While Stoker’s international rugby career did not bear witness to many victories, his dedication exemplified the true essence of sportsmanship and an unwavering love for the game.

Away from competitive sport

Off the pitch and court, Stoker had a distinguished professional career. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather William, his father Edward and four of his brothers, Frank ventured into the medical profession, studying at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, where his brother William was professor. Frank’s tennis partner Joshua Pim studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons as well.

Drawing of Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin by Bernard Mulrenin.
Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin (artist: Bernard Mulrenin; source: © National Library of Ireland via Wikimedia Commons).

Incidentally, three of author Bram Stoker’s brothers also became doctors.

After qualifying in medicine, Frank Stoker attended the dental school of Guy’s Hospital (London) in 1893 to train as a dental surgeon. Establishing his surgery at 23 Westland Row, nestled in the heart of Dublin beside Trinity College, it served the local community for years.  

Despite being a member of the Church of Ireland, 33-year-old Frank Stoker married 32-year-old Margaret (“Rita”) Maunsell, a Roman Catholic. The daughter of a retired civil servant, she lived on North Great George’s Street in Dublin and was originally from Clontarf. They wed in June 1899 at the Catholic chapel of St Eustace in Newbridge, Co. Kildare.

The 1901 census reveals that the couple, along with a housemaid and a cook, resided at Westland Row, where Stoker had his practice.

Between 1903 and 1913, Frank and Rita had seven children, all girls. First born were the twins May and Florence, followed by Norma, Elizabeth, Joan, Ruth and Monica. Tragically, both Florence and Elizabeth died as babies. All of the children were raised in the Catholic faith in spite of Stoker’s own Protestant background.

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The 1911 census reveals that the prosperous Stoker family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle at Westland Row, where they employed four live-in female domestic servants.

Apart from his tennis and rugby exploits and his thriving dental practice, Stoker somehow found time to indulge in his love of golf, attaining a low handicap. This Dublin dynamo was also fond of horseracing.

Amidst the fun and games, the Stoker household was struck by a series of tragedies. Frank’s beloved brother Ernest died suddenly on Christmas Eve, 1914. He was only 50 but had long suffered from diabetes. The Irish Times noted:

“The strain of the war, with attendance upon Red Cross hospitals, combined with work done for absent friends serving at the front, in addition to his own practice, so overworked him, that he succumbed to an attack of pneumonia after a few hours illness.” 

Ernest never married and was interred in the Stoker family vault in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Frank suffered more loss with the untimely passing of his 14-year-old daughter Ruth in 1923. During her first term as a pupil at Kylemore Abbey College in Connemara, she suffered heart failure brought on by leukaemia. She was buried in the nuns’ cemetery at Kylemore, presumably at the request of her parents.

Kylemore Abbey, Pollacappul, Connemara, County Galway.
Ruth Stoker died while attending boarding school at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Co. Galway (credit: © alanbatt via Pixabay).

Later the Stoker family moved to Dún Laoghaire, taking up residence at 6 Eglinton Park.

Frank Stoker’s death and legacy

Frank Stoker died on 8 January 1939 in St Vincent’s Hospital, at the age of 72, due to diabetes and cardiac failure. He was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Glasnevin Graveyard, Dublin.
Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (credit: © TuendeBede via Pixabay).

Following his passing, the Stoker family was beset by a series of losses in relatively quick succession. In October 1940, Frank’s 27-year-old daughter Monica, a clerk, died; two years later, his daughter Joan, a secretary in her 30s, also met an untimely end; in the following year, 1943, his wife Rita, aged 76, passed away. All were buried in the Stoker family plot in Glasnevin.

Fortunately, they had all survived long enough to witness Norma’s remarkable journey, following in her father’s footsteps as she established herself as a talented tennis player. Having won the Irish ladies’ doubles championship six times and being selected for the Irish international badminton and hockey teams, she solidified her position as one of the greatest all-round Irish sportswomen in history, further adding to the Stoker family’s sporting legacy. She was also a competent golfer and croquet player, further proving her wide-ranging athletic abilities.

Norma Stoker, Irish tennis, badminton and hockey player.
Norma Stoker, daughter of Frank Stoker and an accomplished tennis, badminton and hockey player (source: carrickmines.com).

In 1962, after many years of serving as a private secretary in the French Embassy, Norma died at 57. Norma’s death marked the end of the Stoker lineage, with neither she nor her sisters having married or had children.

Being one of only a couple of international rugby players to also claim a Wimbledon title, Frank Stoker’s memory endures in sports circles to this day. Remarkably, the only other man to share this distinction was also Irish. His name was James Cecil Parke. An exceptional athlete from Monaghan, Parke captained the Irish rugby team and won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1914.

While Parke is often hailed as “Ireland’s greatest ever sportsman”, Stoker was also a true embodiment of versatility and sporting excellence. His story deserves equal attention.

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Notes:

Frank Stoker’s parents were married on 12 February 1842 in St George’s parish, Dublin. His siblings were William (born c.1843/44), Edward Wisdom (1847–68), Sarah (born 1849), John Graves (1851–67), Jane (born c.1852), Sophia Henrietta (born 1853), Bessie (born 1855), Alexander (born 1857), Henry Graves (born 1859), Graves (born 1860), Mary Alexandra (born 1863) and Ernest Wilson (1864–1914).

Frank and Margaret Stoker’s children were: Mary Ada or “May” (born 1903), Florence Henrietta (born and died 1903), Norma Esmée (1905–62), Elizabeth (born 1907 and dead before 1911), Joan (c.1908–1942), Ruth Esmée Leonora (1909–23) and Monica Eliner Clare (1913–40).

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Baptismal register, Francis Owen Stoker, baptized 10 Oct 1866, born 29 May 1866, parish of St Mary, Dublin, 1866.
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