Wimbledon Park through the centuries
What is now Wimbledon Park was originally part of the Manor of Mortlake, which in the 11th century was given by Edward the Confessor to Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. Wimbledon does not merit a special mention in the Domesday Book, but records of 1462 refer to Vyneyard Wood on what is now Vineyard Hill. The Manor became the property of the Crown under Henry VIII and successively belonged to Thomas Cromwell and Queen Catherine Parr. It then passed to the Cecil family (Sir William Cecil was the famous chief adviser and spymaster to Elizabeth I) and eventually into the hands of Sir Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter, who in 1558 built the Elizabethan Manor House on a site above and between what are now the 14th and 12th greens. The Park was first enclosed at this time and stretched from Parkside to Durnsford Road and from the Village to Southfields Station – some 400 acres in all and including eight fish ponds. A straight avenue bordered by great elm trees ran from the Manor House towards Putney Bridge roughly along the line of the present 13th, 11th and 10th fairways. At the northern end of today’s Park lies the small Horse Close Wood which existed at that time and is thus well over 400 years old.
Later Lords of the Manor included Charles the First’s wife Queen Henrietta Maria and the Cromwellian General John Lambert. Early in the 18th century came first the leading City financier Sir Theodore Janssen, who was ruined in the scandalous collapse of the South Sea Bubble and then Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, widow of Queen Anne’s great general John Churchill. Both made big changes in the area around the parish church of St Mary’s (now the site of Park Middle School) and each built a new manor house in the Georgian style, Janssen in 1720 and Sarah in 1733.
In 1744, the Park was inherited by the first Earl Spencer and his family began to come from Althorp to their summer residence in Wimbledon. In 1764, the celebrated landscape architect Launcelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned to redesign the Park which was now much enlarged all the way to Tibbett’s Corner. The Park was transformed and became a place “perhaps as beautiful as anything near London”. It was Brown who created the artificial lake by damming at the eastern end of the Park and two brooks still to be seen at the 3rd and the 7th holes. Behind the 18th green is all that remains of the ancient Ashen Grove Wood which formed the Eastern boundary.
But the barbarians were not far from the gates and by the end of the 18th century the Park was already under great threat from developers. The great anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce (who was a local resident) supported the building of a prison on the site of the present municipal tennis courts, but this was thwarted by Earl Spencer. However, in 1846 the Park was eventually sold to JA Beaumont, an insurance company director. One of the young Beaumonts wrote that they had “a splendid time – shooting parties, boating parties on the lake, fishing parties…”, but Beaumont senior began to break up the Park for building development and by the end of the 19th century, Somerset Road, Seymour Road, Arthur Road, Leopold Road, Home Park Road and Lake Road were all in place. When the extended District Line brought the first commuters to Wimbledon Park in1889, developers were planning to drain the lake to acquire extra house-building land – prevented by a group of “public-spirited gentlemen” who bought the Park for recreational purposes.
The present Park is what was finally saved from developers when Beaumont’s daughter, Lady Lane, sold it to Wimbledon Corporation in 1914. In 1925, the Council sold for housing Banky Field, a popular picnic spot on the south side of Home Park Road, to finance the refurbishment of the public part of the Park. The Mayor responsible was defeated at the next local election! Little has changed since then. In 1986 the Council granted a new lease of 55 years to the Golf Club in the face of quite vociferous opposition from some local residents. In 1994, The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club acquired the freehold of the golf course and thus became our landlord.
The history of Wimbledon Park Golf Club
There is some evidence that golf was played at Wimbledon park before 1898, but it is not very reliable. It is likely that some games were played before the new course was opened officially and this belief is given some credence by the fact that there is a record of the first professional and greenkeeper being appointed in 1897.
In the late 19th century, when the Park was under severe pressure from developers as described above, a few public-spirited residents secured a substantial part of the land for the purpose of sport. These gentlemen formed an association called the Wimbledon Park Sports Club Ltd with the object of promoting cricket, croquet, football, tennis, lacrosse, polo, skating, curling, fishing, shooting and of course GOLF. For a time, the club embraced a number of specialist clubs such as our continuing neighbours, The Wimbledon Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club, which had moved from the Common in 1889. Brian Gibbons, a former Secretary of the Club, has in his possession an elegantly bound Objects and Rules, Bye-Laws and Lists of Members of this club, the opening pages of which are reproduced above right.
The April 15th 1898 issue of Golf Magazine devotes a substantial article to the opening of the new course on Saturday 2nd April when Horace Hutchinson drove off the first ball at 3pm. General Sir Hugh Gough declared the course open and an exhibition match was then played for a purse of 10 guineas between Peter Paxton and Roland Jones. Paxton was the well-known Tooting Bec Professional who, in consultation with Mr R Peirce, the honorary secretary of the Club, had laid out the eighteen holes. Roland Jones of Littlehampton was the new professional and greenkeeper who was to go on to become one of the finest players in England. Jones won the match 2 and 1 and also won the bye! He scored 79 which included a seven at the 9th which is probably our 10th today. The greens were described as “very rough” so this was an excellent performance. The course is described as three and a half miles and “prettily situated on undulating ground surrounded on three sides by wooded hills and winding round the lake which at several points forms a fine natural hazard. Some of the holes are of a distinctly sporting character – notably the 15th, 16th and 17th. In driving the 15th, the corner of the wood has to be crossed while a foozled tee shot at either the 16th or 17th will be severely punished in the narrow end of the lake.”
Like Wimbledon Common, Berkhamstead and Royal Ashdown Forest, the new course had no bunkers. Has it been improved in this respect over a hundred years? The name and yardages of the holes were as follows:
1 The Wood - 280 yards 10 Far - 220 yards
2 Pavilion - 330 yards 11 Long - 510 yards
3 Wharncliffe - 225 yards 12 Thorn Tree – 300 yards
4 Bunker - 187 yards 13 Oak – 222 yards
5 Road – 259 yards 14 Blockade – 246 yards
6 Avenue – 325 yards 15 Spinney – 210 yards
7 Stack – 176 yards 16 Hole Across – 196 yards
8 Island – 137 yards 17 Lake – 215 yards
9 Boundary – 400 yards 18 Home – 230 yards
The first President of the Club was Lord Dartmouth; the Chairman of the Committee was General Sir Hugh Gough GCB, VC. Mr FL Rawson was Captain and, although his name does not appear on the board in the Clubhouse (which starts in 1901), he should be recognised as the first Captain of Wimbledon Park Golf Club. The number of members was rapidly approaching 100 when the course was officially opened. Mr Peter Keary presented a magnificent silver challenge cup for the gentlemen and a vase for the ladies.
The Golfing Annual for 1897/98 records that the subscriptions for original members were 3 guineas and £1 11s 6d for gentlemen and ladies respectively. New membership cost 5 guineas and £2 12s 6d. The course was open on Sunday subject to the condition that members carry their own clubs so as to give the caddies a day of rest. Ladies were not allowed to play on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays nor on gentlemen’s competition days. Sixteen months later, the number of members was nearly 400.
Thanks to Frank Ogier of Fulwell GC, successor club to Chiswick GC, we have a record of a match between Chiswick and Wimbledon Park on 13th May 1899. The (matchplay) scoring system of the day was to play the whole 18 holes, the winning player scoring a point for each hole up at the end of the round. The scores were (WPGC first):
FL Rawson (2 up) beat WT Finnis
J McHardy lost to F Castle (4 up)
GC Jobling lost to SJ Chesterton (9 up)
WS Rawson lost to SG Bignold (3 up)
R Peirce (Secretary) lost to M Castle (3 up)
PB Tubbs drew with ET Chesterton (all square)
CA Woodhouse (2 up) beat CL O’Malley
RF Eden (1 up) beat AD Brownjohn
Sir Westly Percival (6 up) beat EL Mansergh
E Christophers (6 up) beat C Waterer
LC Darbyshire (3 up) beat C Braby
TW Gilbert lost to H Pritchard (5 up)
Match result: Wimbledon Park Golf Club 20 pts, Chiswick GC 24 points. (Interestingly, under modern rules, Wimbledon Park would have won the contest by six matches to five with one match halved).
Whilst the Golfing Annual of 1897/98 refers to the Club as being instituted in 1898, the same journal of 1900/1 describes it as “reconstructed (Dec 1st 1900)”. The club of 1898 may have met with financial difficulties or the Wimbledon Sports Club may have ceased to exist in its original amalgamated form; what is certain is that the new Wimbledon Park Golf Club was started on December 7th 1900 as a members’ club with a 10-year lease of the course. An article from an unidentified journal includes a picture of an impressive clubhouse with twin towers, an extensive balcony and a large verandah. It is also reported that “much money is being spent on the course on making new greens and bunkers. It is possible that this work was supervised by the famous Willie Park Junior who laid out Sunningdale, among other great golf courses. However, the evidence is inconclusive since his publicity brochures refer only to hos work at Wimbledon Park Golf Club.
Eric Hambro KBE (1872-1947), the Conservative Member of Parliament for the Wimbledon Division of Surrey 1900-1907, is described as the “first” President. Over 290 members had already been elected and 69 to the subsidiary Ladies’ Section.
In 1902 the club was a party in a celebrated law case in the High Court and successfully defended an action brought by the Imperial Insurance Company Ltd, the insurers of the club house. This was an attempt to compel the Club’s landlord, Herbert Straker, to spend the sum of £3750 on the rebuilding and reinstating of the clubhouse which had been completely destroyed by fire on August 30th 1901. The case arose because the club and its landlord could not agree on what should built as a replacement. Neither wished the premises to be reinstated as they existed formerly.
It is not clear whether the site of the second clubhouse (by the lake near the present 18th tee) is where the first one stood, but there are numerous photographs of this second clubhouse with the corrugated iron roof eventually built as a replacement.
In 1926 the Club had been offered the freehold of the course plus some of the rest of Wimbledon Park; alas, the necessary funds could not be raised. In 1933, suggestions were put forward for alterations to the course and in 1934 proposals for a new clubhouse were submitted to the local council together with a request for a new lease. The old clubhouse was demolished in May 1935 and it is recorded that the first committee meeting in the new building took place in June. As a result of the destruction of the third clubhouse in the Second World War the Club lost nearly all its pre-1944 records.
Wimbledon Park Golf Club at War
Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler did not heed the 1939 “warning off” contained in the Suggestions Book. Although the Local Defence Volunteers, forerunners of the Home Guard, drilled regularly in the car park, the Second World War brought disaster. In common with the whole of south and east London, Wimbledon suffered heavy bombing during the Blitz and sustained severe bombardment from the V1 self-propelled flying bombs – the infamous ‘doodlebugs’. In 1940, between 24th September and 3rd December, bombs fells on the course; one created “a new bunker near the 13th green”; others hit the 5th, 6th and 8th holes; the last, on the 17th, caused extensive blast damage from Leopold Road to the High Street. Derek Rugg (a former Captain) recalls two more bombs which fell on 20th February 1944 on the 2nd and 4th holes. Then came flying bombs on 2nd and 19th June in that year. Finally, at about 9am on 21st June another was brought down by anti-aircraft fire and this wrecked the clubhouse and destroyed a great oak tree at the far end of the present practice putting green. Shortly afterwards, the building was further damaged by fire – believed to be caused by arson.
After this destruction of their third clubhouse, the golf club members were given hospitality by the Wimbledon Cricket Club. The Club’s notepaper was headed “c/o Wimbledon Cricket Club – entrance opposite All England Tennis Club (main gates)”. There exists correspondence of July 1945 between the then secretary T Stanley Perry and a Dr Philip Fabian of Ruyton-XI-Towns, Shropshire, who had sent a postal order to recover his golf clubs left at the club for storage for the duration of the war. Mr Perry says plaintively “I haven’t the faintest idea where to look for yours.” Fortunately Dr Fabian had a War Risks Policy with Harrods!
Even after this temporary tenancy ended, may present members will recall visiting the old cricket pavilion, with is wooden stud-scuffed floor, for suitable refreshment between the 10th and 11th tee; the idea of a halfway house is by no means new! It is also suggested by some that, in recognition of the kindness of the Wimbledon Cricket Club, the right was granted to its members to cross the course from Home Park Road to their clubhouse.
The present re-built clubhouse was finally opened in 1952. Since then, there have been tremendous improvements to both the clubhouse and the course made possible by the additional income generated by the Wimbledon Tennis Fortnight. The Club owes a great debt of gratitude to many past and present members who finally saw years of so much hard work to a highly successful conclusion. The war and the subsequent years of austerity damaged the Club severely. In 1968, only a handful of members had been elected before the war. At the beginning of the 1970s there was no waiting list and the Club was advertising for members. The finances seem to have been in a somewhat parlous state but the sterling efforts of a succession of determined captains and chairmen of finance transformed the situation by the early 1980s so that the Club has become the healthy organisation it is today. In 1986 the Club succeeded in negotiating a new 55-year lease from the London Borough of Merton, in spite of fierce opposition from the Wimbledon Park Residents’ Association and the Wimbledon Park Users’ Committee. In 1994 the Council announced its intention to sell the freehold of the course and invited sealed bids. After much heart searching, the Club offered £2 million. However, this was no match for the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club who became our new landlords and with whom we enjoy the most cordial relations.