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A BRIEF HISTORY OF BISHOP AUCKLAND GOLF CLUB

Excerpts taken from the book 'Bishop Auckland Golf Club Centenary 1894-1994' by J R Longstaff

THE BEGINNING

Bishop Auckland Golf Club is situated on the High Plains, an area of parkland surrounding the Bishop of Durham's Palace. The Palace dates back to Norman times when the mediaeval Prince Bishops were rich and powerful. They ruled over the Palatinate of Durham, commanding their own armies and defending the north of England against the marauding Scots.

In 1347 the park itself was used as a mustering point for King Edward III's armies prior to the battle of Neville's Cross. The Palatine power of the Bishops dwindled as peace came to the north and authority was finally returned to the crown in 1836. But the Palace remains the principal country residence of the Bishops of Durham, with the estate managed by the Church Commissioners.

Golf was introduced to the North East at Alnmouth in 1868 and spread down the coast via Newbiggin, Ryton, Seaton Carew and Cleveland. These coastal courses had the distinct advantage of having natural golfing terrain which needed the minimum of preparation. Establishing inland courses posed problems for pioneering clubs who first had to find suitable land which they could afford to rent or buy.

Around 1890 golf was played in the outer park at Bishop Auckland by theological students training at the Castle. No doubt they lacked the expertise to improve the ground and simply played over it in its natural state, but they were the first evidence that golf fever had reached Bishop Auckland and they paved the way for the development of a proper course.

On 28 July 1894 a group of business and professional men met in the Market Place in the office of Mr F Badcock, a solicitor, to discuss the establishment of a golf club in the town.

Mr William Burkitt, manager of Grange Hill Farm for Bolckow Vaughan & Company Ltd, the local colliery owners, was at the meeting. He rented the outer park for grazing pit ponies and under his tenancy allowed the free use of the High Plains for the golf course. Votes of thanks to Mr. Burkitt at annual meetings confirm this, while the first available balance sheets, in 1908 and 1909, show no evidence of a ground rent being paid (although this was rectified shortly afterwards).

At this inaugural meeting the Bishop of Durham was unanimously elected as President of the Club. Brooke Foss Westcott was the incumbent at the time and the office has always been held by successive Bishops.

So Bishop Auckland Golf Club began on land eminently suited to the game, completely free of charge and with the Bishop as its senior officer.

In August 1894, James Kay of Seaton Carew was employed as professional/groundsman "at an upstanding wage of 15s 0d per week and that he be paid by members playing with him 6d a game of nine holes and that the caddie boys be paid 3d a round. "The caddie boys registered in the Clubhouse and had to wear a red cap provided by the Club. They were not allowed to sell found balls but had to give them to the professional to be returned to the secretary”.

By 1896 caddies were issued with badges and anyone appearing on the links without his badge was to be paid only 2d per round. Their lot improved in 1903 when the groundsman, Matt Aisbitt, was instructed to buy found balls from caddies - "1d for a gutta and 2d for a rubber cored ball”.

Dr G W Ellis donated the first Club trophy, the Ellis Cup, at the 1897 AGM. Initially any person winning the cup three times would be allowed to keep it, but as this had not occurred by January 1903, when the doctor died, the rule was changed to award the trophy on an annual basis. (Today it is the prize for the Men's Matchplay Champion.) The doctor's death was one of the first recorded road traffic fatalities when he fell from his pony and trap and fractured his skull.

At the AGM in September 1900, Dr T A McCullagh was proposed as the first Club Captain with Dr Ellis as his Vice-Captain. The first three Captains were doctors but it was common practice for them to play under assumed names if they were to receive any publicity as it was considered "unseemly" for medical men to indulge in sporting activities! The position of Captain has been occupied every year since 1900, including both World Wars, and the Centenary Captain, Len Oughton, is the eighty-eighth man to hold this office.

The High Plains had its most famous visitors in August 1906 when the secretary, Hugh Roddam, engaged James Braid and Harry Vardon to play 36 holes of exhibition golf. Braid was the reigning Open Champion, having retained the title at Muirfield earlier that year. Vardon was one of the world's top players with the 1900 American Open title added to his four Open victories. More than 20 spectators paid 2s 6d each and the Auckland Times carried a full report. Expenses amounted to around £25 and the Club made a profit of between £3 and £4. The Committee was highly delighted with the venture and a vote of thanks was given to the ladies who provided luncheon and tea.

The Durham County Golf Union was established in July 1908 at a meeting in Wearside Golf Club. The founder Clubs were Birtley Black Fell, Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Dinsdale Spa, Durham, Hartlepool, Ravensworth, Seaton Carew, South Shields, Teesside and Wearside, showing how quickly interest in the game had spread throughout the region. Bishop Auckland entered two teams in the first DCGU meeting at Seaton Carew in October that year, when the host club were the winners.

Growth in membership brought problems of congestion, both on the course and in the Clubhouse. The latter was solved in 1909 with a Clubhouse extension and membership was limited to 160 men and 40 ladies in September 1910. However, in 1913 it was decided to ask James Kay to extend the course to 18 holes. There was ample land available as the original course had mainly followed the perimeter of the outer park and Kay was able to utilise the whole area to establish his eighteen hole design. Unfortunately, no record can be found of the exact date of the change as newspapers of the time were fully occupied with the impending war.

The first minute book ends with a meeting on the 14th September 1911 and the final entry is a proposal to ask the AGM to approve a rise in annual subscriptions from £1 1s 0d to £1 11s 6d. If approved this would be the first increase since the Club's formation seventeen years ago.

1911 to 1948

Unfortunately, neither minutes nor playing records can be found for this period of the Club's history and so information has been gathered from newspaper cuttings, Club handbooks and some fascinating evenings listening to older members reminisce about their involvement with the Club.

There was little growth in membership, from 210 in 1911 to 290 in 1948. The social and financial climate of the time meant that members were invariably business or professional people. In the first half of the Century golf did not encompass the ordinary working man who would have found it impossible to achieve membership of a private golf club.

The Cummins Brothers, whose family had a printing business in the town, were involved with the Club from around 1900 and made significant contributions to its development, serving on the Committee and playing in team, foursome and single events. Each became Captain of the Club; C E (Charlie) in 1909, W H (Bertie) in 1913 and A P (Pip) in 1921. Bertie, who won the DCGU Championship in his Captain's year, was sadly killed in action in the Great War. Charlie, a Colonel in the war was secretary from 1923 to 1933 and then a Vice-President until his death in 1954. Pip played much of his later golf at Brancepeth Castle and is best remembered as the proprietor of a shop in Newgate Street, which achieved world-wide recognition for its fishing rods and tackle.

Members were generous in their support of the Club and none more so than Thomas W Braithwaite, a local business man. He was twice Club Captain and, on his death in November 1929, bequeathed £250 to Club funds, an amount which cleared all debts and left a healthy balance at the bank. In 1930 the Braithwaite Bowl was inaugurated in his honour and was the major medal trophy prior to the Club Championship beginning in 1955.

Despite the period between the wars being one of national austerity the Club was a happy place for its members. Conditions in the Clubhouse were spartan with no mains supply of water, electricity or gas. Heating was by solid fuel or oil stoves and lighting by oil lamps, while water had to be carried from a spring. But the atmosphere was friendly and enthusiastic and the social side of the Club flourished.

Members who provided information of this period include John Lodge who joined in 1921, Brian Manners in 1929, Doctors Donald Prescott and Tony Ferguson in 1935, cousins John and Harry Tuer in the 1930's and Brian Kelly in the late 1930's. There are others too numerous to mention but whose memories helped to build up a picture of pre-war conditions.

What was it like during the 1930's with ponies and sheep grazing freely over the course? A ball coming to rest in their droppings was treated under the rule for casual water. The greens were not so closely mown and were circled with wire to restrict the animals. When they needed cutting the professional would walk over each in turn with the lawn mower but they looked to be in good condition and no one could recall members complaining about them which is probably the best indication of their trueness. The fairways were narrow and any ball hit off line could easily be lost in heavy ungraded rough.

The doctors maintain that golf at that time consisted mainly of friendly four balls, keenly fought but in good humour, played at a brisk pace on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. There were some medal rounds but not the endless number of competitive rounds that are now played, while large visiting parties were unheard of. The medals were poorly supported and silver spoons were given as prizes to encourage entries. It was social golf, nothing like so serious as today, and players were expected "to get on with it". Tom Yeoman, Latin master at King James I Grammar School, and Dr Donald, the Medical Officer for Health at Bishop Auckland UDC, proudly boasted that a full round, with caddies, regularly took less than two hours.

The better Club golfers played to handicaps of around 11 to 14 and the emphasis was on straight hitting to keep the ball in play. Those playing to a single figure handicap included Archie Ritchie, Alf Law and Brian Kelly, but few members achieved this level before 1939. Alf Law was renowned for his putting and Archie Ritchie for his long hitting. Brain Manners recalls a foursomes game in which Ritchie and his partner, Summerson, were taken to extra holes. Playing the par five 2nd hole again as the 20th, Summerson drove and Ritchie hit an iron to the heart of the green to win the match. They had done this the first time round and such an achievement became a major talking point in the Clubhouse! It has to be bourne in mind that the fairway was only thirty yards wide and the equipment then in use restricted the length of shots.

In 1933 Percy Ewbank was able to enjoy the facilities of two clubs for the annual sum of four guineas. He paid three guineas to join Bishop Auckland as a full member and became a country member at Barnard Castle for one guinea. Steel shafted clubs were not sanctioned by the R & A when first presented but Percy recalled that when he began playing, the Professional, Tom Lamb, sold irons for 12s 6d while a wood cost one guinea. Golf balls were 1s 0d each with a discount for five or more.

After Colonel Cummins resigned as secretary in 1933 the post was occupied until 1939, first by C H (Pa) Wrightson and then by J D Headley (Percy's father-in-law). P. J. M. Loft, a local solicitor, was a committee member for almost thirty years from 1917. He was Captain three times, in 1918, 1930 and 1944 and a member of the first full post war committee in 1946. He joined the Club in 1901 and was an active member until his death in 1954.

Albert Fawcett began his association with the Club as a schoolboy caddie in 1937 when the basic fee for caddying a round was 1s.3d. Caddies had to be "still and silent on the greens and take turns tending the flag". The Professional, Syd Hyde, organised them but would have problems finding one if certain "mean characters" were seen approaching. The old Clubhouse was built on wooden stilts to make it level and the lads quickly crawled underneath and disappeared round the back among the trees and long grass to avoid unpopular players. However, the majority of members treated their caddies well and Albert recalls that Bill Potts, the manager of Doggart's store, was a particular favourite. He paid 2s 6d a round, a 2s 6d tip and an extra 2s 6d for a further ten holes after tea - a grand total of 7s 6d, which was a princely sum for any caddie at that time. Mr Potts hardly ever seemed to lose a ball and his lie, even in deep rough, was always playable. The caddies fully understood the unwritten terms of this agreement!

When a caddie became accepted he was allocated to a particular golfer and Albert caddied for Dr Cecil McCullagh. The doctor gave him his first few clubs including a "jigger" for running up, and a "mashie-niblick" for chipping. The caddies would play for pennies along the bottom of the course out of sight of the members, or practice their short game behind the Clubhouse.

Alf and Bill Stott started caddying in the 1920's and continued until the 1950's. By then both had become playing members and their names are on the honours boards as competition winners. Alf maintained his interest in golf after he gave up playing and was a familiar figure on the course, supporting the Club in Teesside Union and Clark Cup matches until his death in the summer of 1991.

The leading character among the post-war caddies was Bluey Dobson from Coundon who caddied on most days of the week and was very knowledgeable about distances and course conditions. Although it was a useful way to earn extra money most of the caddies took a pride in their work, jealously guarding and caring for their patrons.

The Club was fortunate during both wars that the Ministry of Defence did not take over parts of the course for cultivation to help the war effort. Several clubs suffered this fate and some, like Spennymoor, did not re-open afterwards.

During World War II older members did their best to keep the Club ticking over but some were employed part-time or did voluntary work and their free time was limited.

Jack Manners, Billy Gill, John Lodge, Andrew Jameson, Bert Vale, Ernest Pickering, P J M Loft and others helped out and the Ladies' Section was prominent in maintaining Club activities. Bills would be paid by members when Club funds became low and the course suffered from lack of staff. Ernest Pickering acted as war-time secretary, having served on the committee previously, and became the first post-war Captain in 1946.

War-time golf had special rules decreed by the ruling body "to give relief, without penalty, from bombs, shells, gunfire or any effects from these", but fortunately there was no need for such rules to be applied at Bishop Auckland. However, Albert Fawcett vividly remembers a day-time aerial battle over the town. From his vantage point, behind the thickest tree he could find near the Clubhouse, he could also hear machine-gun fire and bombs whistling as they dropped.

Bill Johnson recorded an enemy raid in his A R P log book at 23.15 on the night of 1st May 1941. A heavy explosion was heard as a bomb landed in soft ground in the field between the Golf Club drive and the railway. Brian Manners who lived nearby recalls seeing a red flash and the impact was sufficient to blow out windows in Durham Road and Park Avenue. David Hall, who still rents Bracks Farm, remembers the mammoth task of filling in the hole after the area had been declared safe by an army bomb unit, but happily this was the nearest the Club came to being damaged by air offensive.

Although many players would have preferred it, Sunday golf was not common practice before the war. Bishop Henley Henson had met a deputation from the Club in December 1936 but said he would never sanction Sunday play within the Bishop's Park. However, in 1941 his successor, Bishop Williams, reported to the Church Commissioners that he had no objection to Sunday afternoon golf provided the hours of play did not clash with church services. The Bishop mentioned that the war had limited the opportunities for playing golf and forced a neighbouring club to close; transport difficulties made it hard for people to go far and many soldiers could only play on Sundays. In view of the above the Commissioners approved the granting of a licence for Sunday golf on the following conditions:

1 the Course and the Clubhouse were not to open until 1pm in winter, 2pm in summer;

2 no caddies or paid labour to be employed;

3 no competitions or inter-club matches to be played;

4 the Clubhouse was to close once play had ended; and

5 the licence could be revoked at any time.

Thus the one benefit the war brought was to enable Sunday play for the first time. Peace brought families back together and it is regrettable that there is no Roll of Honour for those members who did not return. Petrol rationing and other shortages meant activity was quiet and by 1948, when records became available again, the Club was still recovering and membership remained at less than 300 with no waiting list.

Excerpts taken from the book
'Bishop Auckland Golf Club Centenary 1894-1994' by J R Longstaff

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