Zena Tessensohn



Zena Denise Tessensohn née Clarke (b. 16 December 1909, Singapore–d. 25 July 1991, Singapore) was a founder of the Girls’ Sports Club (GSC), the first recreational club for young women in Singapore. As the club’s president for over 40 years and a member of its committee for more than half a century, Tessensohn helped to popularise netball, tennis, hockey and other sports among women in Singapore.1

Early life, education and career
Tessensohn came from a Eurasian family of sports enthusiasts.2 She was born to Conrad Clarke and Augusta Clarke née Scheerden. Her father supported local sports by sponsoring many cups and trophies including the Clarke Netball Challenge Shield in 1930. Her parents had six children, and eight of their grandchildren collectively won more than 500 school sports awards.3

Educated at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Tessensohn completed the Senior Cambridge examination in 1925. She became a stenographer thereafter, and worked in various European firms.4

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), Tessensohn lived in Australia and was at a time employed by the Australian Royal Air Force. After returning to Singapore, she joined the Canadian Trade Commission, which later became the Canadian High Commission.5

Girls’ Sports Club
In the 1920s, there were virtually no sporting opportunities for non-European girls in Singapore.6 Then in 1929, Tessensohn, two of her sisters and nine other young Eurasian women established a sports club for girls.7 The club was named Goldburn Sports Club, after the home of a member whose family allowed the club to use their large grounds.8

In 1930, the club was relocated to a temporary site on St Michael’s Road and renamed Girls’ Sports Club.9 Tessensohn became the club’s secretary, a post she held until 1942.10

In August 1931, the GSC managed to get a lease for a plot of government land on Serangoon Road.11 Through appeals to philanthropists and events such as drives, draws and dances, the club’s committee raised a total of $1,750 to develop the site.12 The new grounds of the GSC were officially opened on 9 March 1932.13

The club’s principal activities were netball and hockey.14 Tessensohn played hockey, tennis and netball, which she introduced to her alma mater as its first sport after the GSC was formed. The club also saw success in badminton and athletics until World War II interrupted organised recreational activities in Singapore.15

Postwar revival
At the club’s first postwar meeting in 1947, Tessensohn was elected as president. While the eagerness to play sports again made recruiting members easy, the club’s premises had to be rebuilt. The playing field had been ruined by trenches and bombings, overgrown with lalang grass and littered with trash. The pavilion had also been demolished during the war. Tessensohn was tasked with raising $50,000 for the site’s restoration.16

The Singapore Recreation Club declined to admit GSC members, but allowed them to use its facilities while GSC site was being rebuilt.17 Meanwhile, Tessensohn worked on raising funds for the rebuilding project as well as continued to play sports and coach.18 To raise funds, the club’s committee organised events such as fun fairs, raffles, performances at the Victoria Memorial Hall, a coronation ball and New Year’s Eve dances.19

By 1952, the tennis courts were ready for use, and the pavilion was reopened two years later.20

Women’s hockey and other associations
One of the GSC’s most successful games was hockey.21 At a charity match in 1930, Tessensohn and her teammates secured a 1–1 draw against a more experienced team of British girls. Three years later, they became the first women’s team from Singapore to play hockey in Malaya and defeated Malacca 5–1.22

The GSC became affiliated with the Singapore Hockey Association in 1934, but the women hockey players wanted their own body eventually.23 In 1939, Tessensohn spearheaded the formation of the Singapore Women’s Hockey League and served as its secretary-treasurer.24 The league was suspended during World War II. When it was revived in late 1949, Tessensohn joined its committee and then served as its chairman between 1951 and 1956.25

Tessensohn helped to establish the Eurasian Women’s Association in 1939, and served as its games representative.26 After the Eurasian Association began admitting women, she joined its committee and the Eurasian Women’s Association was folded.27

In 1953, Tessensohn helped to set up the Netball League of Singapore.28

Later years and death
In 1974, the government announced plans to redevelop the GSC site on Serangoon Road. In response, Tessensohn called an emergency general meeting, during which the club members decided against disbanding. The members played the final Tessensohn Softball Challenge Cup on the last day at their grounds. Tessensohn then stored the equipment and held meetings at her house, and club members played wherever they could.29 They also found new success with football and played hockey in Europe and China. However, the club’s membership declined even though it started admitting non-Eurasians.30

During her later years, Tessensohn focused less on organising events and more on maintaining the club’s finances. She stepped down as president at the age of 81 in early 1991, and became the club’s patron.31

Tessensohn passed away a few months later. Her legacy included the nurturing of some of Singapore’s leading female athletes and successful competition at the international level, as well as the pioneering of sports for local women, leading to a transformation of the athletics scene.32

Family
Tessensohn married Geoffrey Tessensohn in 1942. He was the grandson of Edwin Tessensohn, the first Eurasian legislative councillor in the Straits Settlements.33 The couple had a son, Joseph, and a daughter, Denyse.34



Author
Duncan Sutherland



References
1. Deaths. (1991, July 26). The Straits Times, p. 40; The sporting granny who started it all. (1980, August 30). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Chew, C. K. (1986, May 11). Pioneers of Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Girls’ Sports Club. (1993). Mrs Zena Clarke Tessensohn (1909–1991). In Girls’ Sports Club: The diamond decade [Microfilm no.: NA 2328]. Singapore: Author. National Archives of Singapore.
4. Chew, C. K. (1986, May 11). Pioneers of Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Girls’ Sports Club. (1993). Mrs Zena Clarke Tessensohn (1909–1991). In Girls’ Sports Club: The diamond decade [Microfilm no.: NA 2328]. Singapore: Author. National Archives of Singapore.
5. Girls’ Sports Club. (1993). Mrs Zena Clarke Tessensohn (1909–1991). In Girls’ Sports Club: The diamond decade [Microfilm no.: NA 2328]. Singapore: Author. National Archives of Singapore.
6. Chew, C. K. (1986, May 11). Pioneers of Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN); The sporting granny who started it all. (1980, August 30). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 102–105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
9. Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
10. Leading woman official, 81, dies. (1991, July 26). The Straits Times, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Club for Singapore girls. (1932, March 11). The Malaya Tribune, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 102–105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
13. Club for Singapore girls. (1932, March 11). The Malaya Tribune, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Chew, C. K. (1986, May 11). Pioneers of Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
16. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR); Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 102–105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
17. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
18. Pioneer sportswoman. (1988, April). Sports, 16(4), p. 12. Available via PublicationSG.
19. Girls’ Sports Club again to the fore. (1948, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Singapore Recreation Club. (2008). Singapore Recreation Club celebrates 1883–2007. Singapore: Author, pp. 39–40, 78. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 SIN)
21. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
22. Chew, C. K. (1986, May 11). Pioneers of Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Chew, C. K. (1986, May 11). Pioneers of Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
25. Pioneer sportswoman. (1988, April). Sports, 16(4), p. 12. Available via PublicationSG.
26. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
27. Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
28. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
29. Barth, V. (1992). Belonging. In M. Braga-Blake (Ed.), Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
30. Tessensohn, Z., & Clarke, M. (1980). Girls’ Sports Club 1930–1980. Singapore: The Club, pp. 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 31, 41, 49. (Call no.: RSING 796.0605957 GIR)
31. Girls’ Sports Club. (1993). Mrs Zena Clarke Tessensohn (1909–1991). In Girls’ Sports Club: The diamond decade [Microfilm no.: NA 2328]. Singapore: Author. National Archives of Singapore.
32. Girls’ Sports Club. (1993). Mrs Zena Clarke Tessensohn (1909–1991). In Girls’ Sports Club: The diamond decade [Microfilm no.: NA 2328]. Singapore: Author. National Archives of Singapore.
33. Girls’ Sports Club. (1993). Mrs Zena Clarke Tessensohn (1909–1991). In Girls’ Sports Club: The diamond decade [Microfilm no.: NA 2328]. Singapore: Author. National Archives of Singapore.
34. Deaths. (1991, July 26). The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


 

Subject
Athletic clubs--Singapore
Personalities
Tessensohn, Zena, 1909 - 1991
Personalities>>Biographies
Women hockey players--Singapore--Biography