Scottish Croquet: The English Golf Boom, 1880-1914

John Lowerson shows how, at the turn of the century, the English middle class seized with enthusiasm on the sport of golf, for it was leisurely, sociable - and affordable.

 Pub sign of the Golf Tavern on Bruntsfield Links, one of the oldest links in Scotland. Photo / Kim TraynorIt seems a major paradox that turn-of-the-century England, with its powerful cult of athleticism, should have developed a golf craze, yet golf has probably had a more lasting significance as a middle-class legacy than pounding running tracks or playing rugby. Derided-in the mid-nineteenth century as the recreation of an essentially barbaric subject race, 'Scottish croquet' enjoyed more than its fair share of the late Victorian enthusiasm for things north of the border. In so doing it illustrated major shifts in English middle-class attitudes and reflected a growing pattern of investment in providing for leisure.

The figures of the resulting boom are impressive. In 1850 England boasted only one golf club, the two-hundred-year old Blackheath, by 1880 the figure had reached twelve or so, by 1887 fifty and by 1914 over 1,200, playing over 1,000 courses. Probably over 200,000 golfers used these courses by 1914.

The whole phenomenon was a display of considerable energy by members of the middle classes far from exhausted by their efforts at creating a mature industrial society but, nonetheless, often uncertain about their place in the new world; they were anxious to define their role, delimit some boundaries of class membership more precisely and were reasonably certain that their hard work had earned them some relaxation. From the clerk with his £100 a year upwards there were several million potential consumers of new recreational facilities and golf attracted the largest single group of these, offering both the apparent exclusiveness of expense and the modest outgoings of a pastime below those most favoured by the new plutocracy. The middle class was offered, for the first time, an activity in which possible expenditure could be defined reasonably well in advance and which catered for a wide age range as well as both sexes. The growth of athletic sports as such was really only suitable for the under thirties and most other activities, such as lawn tennis, itself invented for a Victorian public, had the additional disadvantage of being seasonal: golf could be played in most weathers.

Traditionally, socially mobile upper-middle-class men had joined the field sports of the gentry and these grew rapidly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but their high costs and heavy physical demands were too much for many older men, coming to their enjoyments from sedentary backgrounds. For them golf was a boon; relatively gentle, it could be played at reasonable cost, £18 a year on average by 1911 (a third of many working-class family incomes). Its organisation allowed for a sharper definition of local social boundaries in the way that members were accepted for clubs and it also fitted well into the individualist 'inner-directed' work ethic of Samuel Smiles' England. Although it caters for sociability and competition, golf is essentially a game played against one's self, one's own previous performance on a given course, and against 'par’, the ideal performance. Despite its subsequent reputation for promoting apoplexy in the players, it was popularised as providing healthy open air activity for social groups concerned increasingly with their own well-being and drawn steadily to the use of the countryside to satisfy both that need and a nostalgia for a rural world from which they felt divorced and on which they no longer relied for a living. It was perhaps no accident that doctors were often key figures in establishing local clubs.

The game was centuries old when it was imported from Scotland. Although, once transplanted, it was strongly associated with English suburbs, this link can be misleading. Resorts were often important, as in the case of Devon's Westward Ho Club, founded in 1864, but so also were market towns, such as Louth, which acquired a club in 1900, small town tradesmen and professionals leaping as happily on to the bandwagon as their city counterparts. Exiled commercial and medical Scots were often behind the initial moves but, as the pace grew in the later 1880s, a more general pattern of introduction emerged. Usually, a few individuals would see the game played on a holiday or business trip, perhaps making a few attempts themselves. Returning home, after acquiring a few 'tools' and an instruction book, they would knock about local waste or pastures until, joined by interested friends, the idea of a club would be mooted. A public meeting of 'influential individuals' invariably followed, a committee was formed and an agreement reached with a local farmer or landowner to rent a piece of land. In some urban areas, high fashion and calculated opportunity had a sharper role, as did copying another part of the town, and it soon became possible; in the larger centres to distinguish a social hierarchy between the clubs themselves. Few were quite as clearly defined as the Bramshot Golf Club which numbered 73 gentlemen amongst its 134 founding members in 1912.

This process of formation happened almost once a week somewhere in England in the 1890s and early 1900s. Not all the attempts lasted and quite a few early clubs disappeared quickly, leaving few traces; the small Sussex town of Battle saw a club founded in 1894, resuscitated in 1898 and 1904, then dying because nearby Hastings had far better facilities. With the right backing, however, things could be far more successful; after a shaky start when only two people answered a newspaper advertisement, the Eastbourne Golf Club took off in 1887, with encouragement from the town's great landlord and developer, the Duke of Devonshire, in the form of a lease of nearby sheep pasture. Thenceforth, its success was assured, becoming 'Royal' and limiting its membership to an inner 500 of the firmly exclusive 'Empress of Watering Places'. Aristocracy could help in other ways, providing for instance a small course in Burghley Park for the burgesses of Stamford in 1889. But the usual story was emphatically one of self-help, modified by useful contacts. In this context, the venture by Bournemouth into 'municipal socialism' when it provided municipal links in 1893 (and was copied by Brighton in 1908) appears incongruous until it is remembered that this was a carefully calculated attempt to keep its place in the hierarchy of resorts when golfing facilities were becoming essential to maintain social tone.

The credentials of club pioneers did not guarantee smooth progress. The use of common or grazing land was frequently resented by tenants who lost their grazing rights, and on Lincoln's South Common they fought back by driving cattle into the middle of golf tournaments, eventually forcing the golfers to go elsewhere. The tide was in favour of the latter in almost every case but the battle between golfers and those who valued the recreational uses of common land, particularly for London's working class" took much longer to resolve. It took almost a decade of costly litigation before the courts finally imposed a settlement protecting the rights of walkers, council and golfers on Mitcham Common just before the First World War. On another occasion 1,000 people invaded the Weybridge links, in 1909, to emphasise the rights of way. Even so, the hazards of flying golf balls were generally added to the prospect of a country walk in many areas.

Unless they were isolated most clubs grew rapidly once formed, with a huge hunger for land; as they had zoned built-up areas socially, so now the golfers divided open land. Most early courses had 9 holes but these were almost invariably extended to 18. Since a full course took on average 100 acres, the size of a small farm, the equivalent of over 1,000 farms went out of production by 1914, and an area greater than that of the Isle of Wight was devoted to one activity. In many cases, once the game's popularity became apparent, land prices went up steeply as the owners sought to cash in on assets they had previously let cheaply. Around the cities the clubs competed with speculative suburban builders and some were forced to move further out as their lease expired and they lost out to developers. To this was added another pressure, the members' own penchant for better facilities.

The first English courses used the existing landscape, ditches and hedges as 'natural hazards', barns or farm cottages served as stores for the simple kit of players who wore old clothes, usually Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers. As the clubs grew many began to invest in buildings, usually at first prefabricated iron huts supplied for £150 by firms such as Cooper's of South London, whose range also included churches and tropical trading posts. Some, Brighton included, still keep these but there was a growing Edwardian pressure towards luxury as fashion brought members for whom the social were often as important as the playing facilities. Hand in hand with locker space went bars, restaurants, billiard rooms and separate accommodation for ladies. The Royal Liverpool spent £8,000 on its new Hoylake clubhouse in the 1890s and the progression at Leeds was far from unusual; it adapted its original cottage for £3 in 1896, extended it for £853 in 1901 and replaced it for £3,500 in 1909. Land costs accentuated this; long leases such as that taken by the Woking club from the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company in 1901 were added to rising ground bills.

'Golf architecture' providing challenging courses with pleasing vistas, and landscapes sculpted in the manner of Humphrey Repton or Capability Brown to give members the illusion of playing in a country house park, added K£200 a hole by 1910. A growing number of clubs turned outside their subscriptions to meet these costs, becoming limited liability companies to raise capital, usually privately from their own members, many of whom reinforced their social respectability by providing large sums at low rates of interest. Powerful as this trend was, England saw surprisingly few examples of 'country club' golf, so influential in the United States by the 1890s, although there were some spectacular proprietary ventures. In 1912 the St. George's Hill Club was founded at a cost of £25,000 on land once used by the Diggers at Weybridge; Lord Eldon's former house, Shirley Park at Croydon, was converted in 1914 and opened by the Lord Mayor of London, whilst the Royal Automobile Club spent £75,000 on a similar development at Epsom.

With expenses on this scale the simple Scottish game had become an industry, with the clubs as firms as well as outlets. Behind them lay a network of producers and retailers, ranging from small craft workshops in the traditional mould to a growing number of larger manufacturers. These were particularly important as a revolution in golf technology developed. The first stage of popularity had depended on the availability, from small producers, of balls stuffed with gutta-percha. When the rubber-cored ball appeared from America in 1902 it increased the distances an average golfer could reach, changed the shape of courses and added substantially to the rubber industry's profits with the halfcrown ball. Dunlop and others shared in a UK market worth possibly £2,000,000 annually by 1914 (matching that of another boom in Edwardian consumption, the banana); where attempts were made to break the price level they almost invariably failed. For all the promise of wealth, golf production and retailing was a risky market to enter.

Golf provided avenues of direct employment for others beside producers and retailers. Most clubs acquired a professional early in their history, to instruct novices and maintain equipment. The richer bodies brought in the famous – James Braid to Walton Heath, for instance – but others had to cast a wider net. For many a young Scot, competent as a part-time golfer and working as a carpenter or mason, a better if hardly abundant living was to be found in England, and they came in droves until native talent could be found. A few professionals, such as the great Harry Vardon, progressed into tournament playing and course design but most found a level of income rather less than that of a schoolmaster or skilled worker.

Below the 1,000 or so professionals was a much larger number of caddies for whom golf was yet another source of casual employment. Many were mature men, often unemployable elsewhere because they were insufficiently strong for heavy work but most seem to have been teenage boys, filling in between school and adult work; their six shillings a week, if they got enough rounds, were an essential boost in income for many labouring families. For this they waited around in all weathers, usually with little shelter, a ready target for exploitation, caricature and the attentions of reformers. The risks of 'dead end' employment were dealt with in a handful of clubs led by Sunningdale by autocratic caddie masters and committees which provided proper shelters, cheap warm food and compulsory evening classes designed to equip them for a later life of joinery or market gardening, a pill sweetened with an annual trip to the seaside. These experiments and the plight of those not reached by them attracted the attentions of a quasi-Fabian group, the Agenda Club, whose only publication, The Rough and the Fairway (1912), illustrated the extent of the problems and demanded much greater voluntary involvement on the above lines. This fell largely on the stony ground of a golf-playing class given to interpreting its limits of responsibility to its employees by the size of its tips.

The game's attractions were swelled and maintained by a spate of golf writing and publication. Newspapers and magazines such as The Field soon saw the advantages of having golf correspondents and a breed of specialists emerged whose doyen was Horace G. Hutchinson, an all-rounder, English Amateur Open Champion and editor of the ‘Golf' volume in the Badminton series, the publication of which in 1890 was a recognition of the game's importance. That book was one of a vast range of works sold for 6d and upwards, which sought to explain golf s mysteries in easy stages, well provided with exhortation and drawings, and superior books in which photography showed the styles of the game's giants. This was reinforced by the growth of related yearbooks, such as the Golfing Annual which first appeared in 1887 and by specialist magazines. Golf , founded in 1890, was absorbed by the new Golf Illustrated in 1899; for 6d a month, the standard price, Golf Monthly, an even glossier venture, was offered in 1911 and survived in a market which saw many failures.

The staple diet of the new journals included product news, course descriptions, tournament reports, biographies of founding fathers and heroes and, increasingly, humour. Golf, as the occasional cartoons in Punch demonstrate, moved from being largely laughed at to being laughed in orwith . The miserable caddie with his fund of scornful folk wisdom became a staple, as did golfing stories and doggerel; the arcane language of the game ('mashie', 'cleek', 'bogey' and so on) allowed the development of an almost Masonic cult reinforced by laughter as the faintly ridiculous activities involved were dressed in powerful social rituals. Thrillers set on the links came rather later but the game produced its own contribution to the flood of utopian writing of the 1890s. If J.A.C.K.'s Golf in the year 2000 has long hidden in the shadows of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards or William Morris' News from Nowhere , its vision of a world devoted primarily to sport, with high speed transport, televised competitions and games replacing warfare, not to mention women dominating business and politics, seem far less absurd now than they did when it appeared in I892. Subsequent images of semi-literate golfers are hardly borne out by the amount of literature they consumed during the boom.

There were many tensions and crises during the period of growth. Developments beyond the local club level, with competitions and the growth of handicapping, moved the game towards the more tightly defined status of a sport. The formulation of rules to provide acceptable national standards still allowed for Scottish domination by the Rules of Golf Committee of the Royal and Ancient Club at St. Andrews and this remained the case despite a number of attempts to usurp this hegemony with a 'democratic' and largely English federation. But the spread of tournaments at all levels brought in a repeated spectre, that of professionalism, defined as a corruption by material rewards rather than a recognition of playing skills. As annual seasons came to be punctuated by a round of competitions with prizes as well as prestige, the shadows of the 'shamateur' and the 'pothunter' loomed. Golf shared with most other middle-class games the problem of defining 'amateur status', although it learned, like cricket, to cope with the professional employee. It never achieved a definition as socially exclusive as rowing which barred all manual workers, whatever their trade, from amateur competitions, but the Rules of Golf Committee faced an agonising problem when it became apparent that some honorary club secretaries and other officers were collecting substantial fees for advising on new course layout. Despite the fact that some of them clearly made more from this or from golf journalism than their club professionals received as wages, they were still allowed to keep their amateur status when the interpretations of the rules were fudged.

These problems paled, however, when compared with those of coping with the game's popularity with women. From the 1860s they were allowed to accompany their men-folk to courses, but were then expected to potter about on small putting greens. Demands to be treated more seriously encountered stiff male resistance. It was claimed that they were too weak and slow to play properly, and that their inevitable chatter would disturb the seriousness of the men's game; in addition the sway of the figure and the sight of exposed ankles would put men off their stroke. Slowly, separate women's clubs emerged, 20 of them forming the Ladies' Golf Union in 1893 and providing the first national ladies' tournament. Although some of these clubs managed to provide their own 9-hole courses, or 'hen runs', most subsisted on the tolerance of a men's club, with committees effectively controlled by the male officers. They could only play at inconvenient weekday times, rarely on Sundays, and never when male competitions were being held; women playing had to give way to men on the greens.

Not surprisingly, some suffragettes poured vitriol on the greens and attacked Lloyd George's golf cottage in 1913. But the tight male hold weakened steadily before 1914, because golf became one of the few major games where, with handicapping, both sexes could play together and younger lady members fought hard for their own committees and independence. Worries that 'rational dress' would invade the courses, that women would lose their femininity, gave way slowly to some grudging acceptance and even admiration as the championships produced such dedicated heroines as Lady Margaret Scott. Social emulation and fashion operated rapidly to popularise women's golf and they obtained a firm hold in most clubs, no longer solely as tea-makers for competitions. Not least, the drive towards more sophisticated accommodation for them boosted the great clubhouse rebuilding.

Despite the obstacles, women proved far more fortunate with men of their own class than did English working-class golfers. Whereas, at least in tradition, Scottish artisans had enjoyed free golf, their Sassenach counterparts were firmly excluded. In 1897 the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club, in Sussex, formed an artisan offshoot, to be copied by Crowborough and Hoylake among others, the latter providing a Village Play Committee. The drive behind this was twofold: in return for limited playing rights over the main links the artisan members would maintain the greens and buildings, and it was openly stated that such satellite clubs were a useful means of buying off local opposition to the loss of common and recreational space. The artisan clubs eventually provided a useful source of English groundsmen and professionals but the numbers involved remained very small indeed – even at the lowest cost, it could take a month's wages for a worker to play regularly.

Golf, then, provided an additional avenue for the core members of the English middle class to establish themselves socially and geographically in late Victorian and Edwardian society, to monitor acceptance of newcomers into their ranks and to lead lesser beings in a new fashion. Humble clerks with ambitions could add membership of a fringe suburban club to the symbols that could mark upward progress.

Yet the game's remarkable popularity also made it a central part of the dilemmas that marked the progress of English society in the decade or so before the First World War. From being a hard-earned recreation it acquired value as a means of entertaining business clients, and its very attractions were held'. to be dragging men to waste their energies away from the work to which. they should have been attending: golf bags in the office and frequent absences 'on business' became a staple joke .in the City. Although its introduction south of the border had depended largely on an older following it proved very alluring to young men and was frequently identified, by Lord Roberts and others, as one factor in contributing to the degeneracy and effeminacy which, it was held, was corrupting potential fighting men in the scares following the Boer War.

Having gained credit as a healthy means of filling well-deserved leisure time it came also to be identified as sapping the moral leadership of the middle classes. Its spread amongst thousands, tied to the rhythms of a working week which often involved Saturday, made it a strong force in the attack on Sabbatarianism. This was a battle often fought out in local councils, pulpits and newspapers – when could and should the businessman and office worker play their games? Despite appeals from such churchmen as the Bishop of London and suggestions that a short service should be held first in the clubhouse, by 1914 over a third of English clubs allowed Sunday play, without a compulsory religious start, although half of those would not allow their caddies to be contaminated by their masters' bad example. Prom being a fad the game had become inextricably linked with the fabric of urban society, mirroring many of its problems and indicating some of the directions in which it would move rapidly after 1918.

John Lowerson teaches history at the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex.

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