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Golf club making and social history- the early years.

A short account of past days in Scotland when club making was a handcraft and a trade performed by hard and tough characters with bucket loads of passion.

Bowmaker-30cm x 40cm-Woodcut

Forgan`s workshop. The old man is seated. Outside, with the beams of light streaming in, are the 18th green and first fairway of St. Andrews

It is difficult to know when the processes of making clubs became accepted as trades in themselves. A rough estimate is around the beginning of the 17th century when church registries began to show a growing number of incidents spread over the fields involving players hitting golf balls and fighting with the public.

At this time you would ask a craftsman who could work with leather about golf balls, a Bowmaker who knew all about elasticizing wood for golf shafts, and a woodworking turner for clubheads to fit on the shaft.

Blacksmiths at work-although these are men working in the early 20th century they are using the same traditional skills of past centuries.

The first of the converted bowmaking trade to have his name mentioned as a golf club maker was William Mayne who received the title of "Royal Clubmaker" from King James VI in 1603

The men who supplied bows to the armies of the early kings of Scotland, and blacksmiths that shoe'd horses for the horse regiments were the future clubmakers of driving clubs and cleeks.

The premises of Tom Stewart, circa 1895

Tom Stewart, the most famous cleek maker in club-making history, spent many years as a blacksmith before moving on to the making of iron golf clubs. Even in those early years as a horseshoe fitter, his talent was clear to see as he won many prizes at the agricultural shows.

Their skills would be needed to supply the ever-increasing fanatical golfers. Early documentative evidence of the desire to hit a golf ball or kick a football can be found in many of the old Church registers which recorded the blasphemers and their punishment for taking part.

"The Gentleman Golfers" -Acrylic on canvas. 120 x 160cm

With the Scottish royalty sharing court with England, the game continued to gain in popularity on both sides of the border for the next two hundred years. Yet, though golf seemed like such a popular pastime for many elements of society, it was to slowly fade in the second half of the 1700s. The Industrial Revolution was about to take off, towns were expanding, and the few used old links courses available were quickly being gobbled up for more industrious pursuits.

Town centers decayed, along with town finances. Epidemics swept through the countryside and many old lands used for golfing were turned into burial plots. Men slowly migrated to the numerous factories that were constantly springing up, working many overtime hours.

Sundays were the only off days, a time just long enough to rest from the back-breaking work and get ready for Mondays. No time for games like golf.

The sport might well have died altogether were it not for the Freemasons. Their enthusiasm alone virtually kept the game from extinction. For about 100 years from 1750 to 1850, they played the game with regularity.

Golf can be thankful to several groups such as the Gentleman Golfers forming societies with like-minded characteristics.

It would be the same men who wrote the rules of golf in 1744( the first of the societies) that sat down and tried to put structure into the game.

The meetings and dining were the most important aspect for these men, thanks to their available time and means (while 95% of society struggled to make ends meet). The obligatory game of golf was used to build up an appetite and have a chat.

Numerous references in their early journals are made to dinners, and less so to golf.

Their social habits and hobbies were so important in keeping the game alive.

Thanks to the societies the golfing fields were maintained and used for the sport while at the same time keeping other activities at bay.

The Edinburgh golfers. A fantastic etching depicting the early golfers living with the folk of Leith

Click for a full-size image

In 1741 a fire damaged a house in Hull. Afterward, a bundle of eight clubs (Six woods and two irons) was stored safely in a sealed unit on the newly renovated property.

Found 150 years later they became known as the Troon Clubs. The Troon clubs are probably the oldest `set` ( although the description "set of clubs" was not in use until late in the 19th century) in the world.

Photo of clubs taken directly after the find.

Close replicas of the original Troon clubs. A Driving Wood and Spur iron. The Spur iron was used to extract the ball out of the many cart tracks and rabbit holes to be found on the course.

Over the next 100 years, the shape of the heads would become more rounded and the striking faces would change from seriously concave to nearly flat, but they would still retain their long slim shape. The longnose.

Golf head evolution. From right to left longnose 1870, bulger 1890, hickory through-bore 1920, steel shaft 1930. All were built by Forgan (see above).

"McCewan`s" Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30cm

Legendary names in club and ball making of this time such as Hugh Philp, Peter McEwan, Douglas Gourlay, and a little later Allan Robertson were household names for the golfing families. They retained an almost mythological status amongst the buyers of their skills. Today, owning an example of these men's work is the ultimate golf collector's dream and costs a small fortune.

It would be the second half of the nineteenth century that saw fundamental changes in the golf industry. The industrial revolution was taking root.

At last the Industrial age was showing a kinder face.

About 1850 the Wages improved. The epidemics faded out. After 1850, the textile industries that abounded in Britain gave time off from work, two weeks was the standard, plus Saturday afternoons.

At the same time, the biggest influence in the nineteenth century on the popularity of the golf game came with the advent of the Gutty ball, taking a little over a decade to resign the feathery ball to history. The price of a ball dropped from 2/6d to 6d.

Now the clerks and office workers could take part in the game.

The names of the past clubmakers were now being replaced with a new breed. A breed that had an eye for business. Tom Stewart, Robert Simpson, Willie Park, and Robert Forgan were some of the new names.

The beauty and handwork of the longnose-headed clubs were now being replaced with function and playability. Wooden heads were becoming wider and smaller in length. Irons were replacing most of the woods and being forged with greater skill and quality by specialized craftsmen.

An old clubmaker files a longnose head for the small human production line. Small factories of this kind were appearing all over Europe.

Having found its way through several centuries, countless famines, and many bloody wars, golf, and club-making was finally being allowed to collect itself and enjoy some breathing space at the end of the nineteenth century. With both sides of the Atlantic now exporting and importing materials and goods, not to mention technical expertise and labor, the golf trade could now look forward to a few decades of significant success.

Image 1: Hot work; Image 2: Elbow grease; Image 3: The scriber

Click on the images to expand

Coming next - The machine age-1930 - 2000

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