History of Walton Heath Artisans
Artisan golf can trace its origins back to the highly regarded Royal North Devon (RND) Golf Club in Westward Ho!, which was founded in 1864 by the Reverend Issac Henry Gosset, and is the oldest golf course in England. Said to be the St Andrews of England, golf was first played here in 1853 when a relative of Reverend Gosset remarked on the suitability of the area for golf (the game was becoming very popular in Scotland!). At this time it was mostly a family affair with the Gosset family and friends enjoying the sea air and scenery. A rudimentary golf course was already in existence when "Old Tom Morris" came to visit the vicarage in 1863. He made recommendations on a remodelled layout (at that time the holes were cut with a pocket knife and marked with a feather!).
It was here in 1888 that the Northam Golf Club (NGC) was formed by members of the Northam Working Men’s Club (of which Reverend Gosset was a trustee). The RND considered that because of the ancient right to recreation for Northam people that it was fitting that any members of the NGC played free of any charge provided they lived in the ancient or ecclesiastical parish of Northam.
A Founder member of Northam Golf Club was the former greenskeeper turned legendary professional, J. H. Taylor, who won the British Open five times. His aim was simple enough:
"Everyone, regardless of their financial standing,
should have access to the game of golf".
If golf had an early social revolutionary, it was Taylor. He would go on to help form the Artisan Golfer's Association in 1921 and was instrumental in creating what is believed to be England's first public courses, at Richmond Park just outside London. (Taylor is also usually credited with founding the first Professional Golfers Association.). After Royal North Devon, an artisan section was formed at Royal Ashdown Forest, then Buxton and beyond. The principle throughout was honest labour in return for fairway access.
Walton Heath Golf Club was founded in 1903 and opened for play in May 1904, with an exhibition match between the legendary Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, J.H.Taylor and James Braid (Braid had already become the Club's professional and was to remain in that capacity until his death in 1950). The New course opened in 1907 (both were designed by Herbert Fowler.). The club attracted titled gentlemen and wealthy arrivistes; it was an enclave of leisure-proud Edwardian men comfortably rubbing shoulders with an emergent class dismissed elsewhere as "business money." This was a club where Prime Minister David Lloyd George would play his golf (with his mistress ensconced nearby) and where Winston Churchill was a member from 1910 to 1965.
The club had been open barely two years when the local villagers decided that they wanted some of the golf action. (It's worth noting that this was the period just after Queen Victoria's reign, when the British aristocracy was beginning to see its position challenged by an emergent working class suddenly realizing the political power of sticking together). In Walton's equivalent of storming the Bastille, the village rebels either stood directly in the way of the wealthy new members or actually tried to play on the course without permission. Barristers were summoned, and in due time, "divide and rule" was dismissed in favour of "If we can't beat them, let them (sort of) join us."
The founder owner of Walton Heath, the grandly named Henry Cosmo Orme Bonsor, helped cut a deal: The locals were told to form their own village club, and in return for maintenance work done mostly on the course—repairing divots and raking bunkers, patrolling fairways for unauthorized players and so forth—the locals would be allowed to play at times when most members didn't want to. Walton Heath's bylaws still state that "members should live within the confines of Walton-on-the-Hill village or otherwise as expressly permitted by the board.
The current membership is limited to 100 members drawn from the local community, and in return for carrying out various duties around the club, Walton Heath Artisans can enjoy the two world class golf courses at a reduced rate. Many of the top clubs in the UK still have artisan sections and Walton Heath is one of the oldest (having celebrated their centenary in 2006).
Sir Michael Bonallack, the former captain and secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, said of the artisan movement:
"It might be an anachronism,
but it is a part of golf here
that I would not like to see lost."
Thomas Mitchell Morris (Old Tom)
Reverend Isaac Henry Gosset
John Henry Taylor
Sir Henry Cosmo Orme Bonsor