Golf in their hands- the rise and fall of Artisan Clubs

JHTaylorGolf owes a great deal to John Henry Taylor. A five times Open Champion winner, the last- in 1913- a remarkable 19 years after the first. He was also the first Englishman to lift the famous old claret jug.

But as well as being a great champion, JH Taylor was also a great champion of golf in general feeling strongly that everyone, regardless of their financial standing, should have access to the game of golf.

He came from humble origins, born in Northam overlooking the country’s oldest golf course, Royal North Devon, and the first outside Scotland to achieve Royal status. Taylor’s father died when he was still a boy so he went to earn some money as a caddy.

Golf was a patrician game in those days although the North Devon Course was laid out on common land, which meant that everyone had access to it.

Caddies amongst the local villagers, including Taylor, lobbied for a club of their own, accepting that they would not be allowed to join the Royal club, which was dominated by retired military officers, the clergy and men of independent means.

And so, in 1888, the Northam Working Men’s Club was formed, the first ever artisan golf club, accepting 200 golfing members living in the parish.

Whilst clubs founded specifically for working men were not uncommon, the nine-hole Furness Golf Club in Lancashire had been formed in 1874 by expatriated Scots working at flax and jute mills and the local shipbuilding company, it took another four years before the second working men’s club was formed and was based as much on political expediency as any desire to see the game extended across the class divide.

At the time there was considerable local opposition to the playing of golf in the Ashdown Forest from residents of Forest Row who wished to continue the grazing of their animals and the cutting of timber undisturbed by the affluent club members.

And so a competition was held, played for by the boys of the village in order to gain popular favour. Club founder Archdeacon Scott said later, ‘Little did we think that we were laying the foundation of the Cantelupe club and that from its members would issue men who would be in the very front rank of the golfing world.’

Named after Viscount Cantelupe, eldest son of the 7th Earl De La Warr, owner of the forest and Lord of the Manor, the Cantelupe did indeed issue champions.

Men such as Abe Mitchell, said by JH Taylor to be ‘The finest player never to win the Open’, 1936 Open champion, Alf Padgham, three-times Scottish professional champion, Mark Seymour, and Jack Smith who won the 1922 long driving competition traditionally then held before the Open Championship.

And the growth of the artisan clubs, as they became known, mushroomed: after North Devon and Ashdown came Crowborough Beacon, then Buxton and beyond. The principle was honest labour undertaken on the course in return for fairway access.

Taylor, before founding the Professional Golf Association also created the Artisan Golfers’ Association in 1921, which during the 1980s still had some 200 clubs as members. Now, with social divides blurring, it has fewer than 90.

It will be fascinating to see over the next few years how many of the artisan clubs can remain robust and active or simply vanish as an anachronism of a stratified society that no longer has a part to play in 21st century golf.

Can artisan clubs survive and thrive? Let us know what you think.