Edgbaston: Course open.
It may come as a surprise to visitors and, possibly, some members that, despite the maturity of the course and surroundings, Edgbaston Park has been the home of the Club for only 75 years.
Whilst the Club may not be unique in this respect, it must be rare for a golf club to have had three homes, especially as the first two sites (Warley Woods 1896 – 1910) and Tennal Hall, Harborne (1910 – 1935) were outside the boundaries of the location name.
Where, however, one can safely say that the Club is so unusual is in its very close proximity to the centre of a city the size of Birmingham and thanks must be accorded to the Calthorpe family, who are the Club’s freeholder, for protecting the 144 acres that the Club enjoys as an open space amenity, all of which is in a Conservation Area and part of which is an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Nature Reserve.
Edgbaston is one of the oldest Clubs in the West Midlands. Whilst Sutton Coldfield (1889) was the first, the 1890s saw a boom in new courses throughout the region led by Moseley (1892) and Harborne (1893), our closed neighbours.
The Club is fortunate that records from the date of its formation – 16th January 1896 – remain intact in the form of committee meeting minutes. Memories, even when the Club’s history was written and published in 1896 (now out of print); only stretched back to the 1930s, a nadir in the Club’s financial fortunes when the land at Tennal Hall was compulsorily purchased by the (then) Birmingham Corporation and the Club was on the brink of extinction.
The move to Edgbaston Park was well received. Mr Harry Colt, the renowned golf course architect was commissioned to design and construct the course with F.Harris Bros of Guildford, the cost of which was £6,000. Along with Ham Manor GC in Sussex, it was the last of his many creations at the age of 78. It is a credit to successive committees that the layout remained untouched, apart from an extension to several tees to cater for the increased traffic on the course and remodelling of some of the 53 bunkers to reflect Mr Colt’s wishes.
The course and clubhouse were opened in 1937 by Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the day and Member of Parliament for the Edgbaston constituency. However, the Club’s progress was temporarily halted by the onset of the Second World War. 43 members signed up of which six were killed in action. The course was not fully re-opened until 1950, because the Park suffered more than its fair share of damage from bombs because, it was thought the Germans mistook Edgbaston Pool for Cofton Reservoir, adjacent to the Austin Motor Works at Longbridge, where munitions were being made.
The ‘manor’ of Edgbaston (of five square miles), mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, was purchased by Sir Richard Gough for £20,400 in 1717. This begins the connection between Edgbaston and his family which survives to the present day, because his grandson, Sir Henry Gough, married Barbara Calthorpe. Sir Henry moved from Edgbaston in 1783 to Ampton in Suffolk and subsequently to Elvetham in Hampshire where the 12th baronet, Sir Euan Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, President of the Club, now lives.
The Georgian Hall, now Grade II listed, took seven years to build consisting of two and half storeys in red brick with a slate roof. Since its construction, the interior has been much altered, but the main staircase (leading from the off course bar) with its twisted balusters and Corinthian column newel posts is original and separately Listed. Although there is no documentation to evidence his involvement, it is widely thought that Capability Brown was commissioned to lay out the Park with much of his work concentrating on avenues and stands of trees and some of the features on the course still show his influence. In the off-course bar, there is a framed print depicting the formality of his design work. It was around this time that Edgbaston Pool reached its present form (11 acres). It is not known when the stream, which rises in Quinton, and, in parts, is called the Chad Brook was first damned but it would seem that the Pool is medieval in origin.
From 1783, the Hall was rented out for the next 150 years to a succession of well known Birmingham citizens, none more so than Dr William Withering who is best remembered for discovering that an extract of dried foxglove (the plant is still in evidence by the stream at the 17th tee) called digitalis could be used to treat dropsy and is still in use today for a certain type of heart treatment. The last tenant before the club was offered a lease was Sir James Smith who had been the City’s first Lord Mayor in 1889.
During World War II, the building was requisitioned by the War Office – the apocryphal rationale being that if a typical Birmingham resident did not know of the Hall’s existence, then there was less chance of the Luftwaffe finding it! Of particular interest, the cellars were used for initial research into the atomic bomb by a team headed up by Professor Zuckerman from Birmingham University.
Since 1950, a period which has witnessed a considerable change in most aspects of golf club life, there is one particular quality which continues to pervade Edgbaston Golf Club and that it’s atmosphere of tradition and the maintenance of high standards. Membership has grown steadily and is currently at just under 1000 bolstered by 250 non playing members who join to enjoy the timeless surroundings with the catering, a very active bridge section and other social activities.
For more than 20 years, the Club has been privileged to have the headquarters of the English Ladies (now Women’s) Golf Association situated on the top floor of the Hall, but due to lack of space, the Association has recently been obliged to move, but still within Edgbaston.
The course, included in Peter Alliss’s book, ‘The Top 200 Courses in the UK’ has hosted the English Girls Championship (1989) and many county events. Whilst its modest length, in today’s terms, restricts the par to 69, the professional course record has not been bettered since 1961 when Peter Butler, a Ryder Cup player, scored a 64. The Club has enjoyed the membership of several amateurs of distinction, namely John and Veronica (nee Anstey) Beharrell, Bridget Jackson, Michael and Stanley Lunt and Lewine Mair (nee Guermont), latterly the golf correspondent of the The Daily Telegraph.
In conclusion, the Club, now in its 115th year, does not underestimate the challenges ahead for private members’ clubs generally but, with a first class course, a delightful clubhouse, a contented and flourishing membership and a supportive landlord, the future should augur well.