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Elie & Earlsferry History Society

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The Earlsferry Golf Club Makers and Professional Golfers

Researched and compiled by Graham Johnston

By the  middle of the 19th Century golf had started to become a sport of aristocrats.  It was expensive since all golf clubs were hand made by craftsmen usually joiners and golf course facilities were likely to be more available to the moneyed and landed classes rather than the local inhabitants.  There were some exceptions to that which started to have a significant effect on the development of golf from mid 19th century onwards.  St. Andrews, North Berwick and Earlsferry, and to some extent Musselburgh, had much in common.  Not least of course was that they were beside the sea. But the most significant was that there was a piece of common ground on which the local inhabitants practiced  and played their golf.  

The links area close to the sea was suitable for little else other than recreation. In all these places golf was not an elitist game and it did not require expensive membership or land ownership for participation. Most golfers in these towns made their own clubs usually from briar stems for the shafts or wood available locally to form the heads. No Iron clubs were at that stage of the game developed. The equipment consisted of a driving club and putting club and not much more besides. Golf balls were originally “featheries”, which meant that feathers from birds were tightly stuffed into leather coverings. Later there emerged the “gutty”, which was gutta percha and later still the wound rubber balls that were the forerunner of today. 

The inhabitants of these towns became quite proficient at the game and especially in Earlsferry where there was an extensive tract of publicly owned land which was used, not exclusively perhaps, for golf but it became an important part of the culture of young men growing up in that area.  As a result of  the increased popularity of the game among the locals  some former joiners specialised in making golf clubs for their villagers. By this time Forgan in St. Andrews, Forrester in Earlsferry and various producers in North Berwick and slightly later Gibson in Kinghorn set up business to make clubs on a commercial basis.  They supplied the aristocracy and the local young men with their clubs.

These makers also employed many of the local people in their “shops” and they became apprenticed to the makers.  At that time, mid to late 19th century, certainly  in Earlsferry, there was a falling off of openings for employment locally. The weaving trade, so long the Earlsferry staple, was declining with imports from abroad supplanting the need for expensive linen.  The building trade, which had employed and trained many masons, had become less important as the large houses along the sea front had been built and many young men previously masons perhaps were glad of an apprenticeship making golf clubs.  Fishing had become hazardous and no so rewarding. At the same time the makers of these clubs had started to innovate in the design and manufacture of them and the process started to become more automated although most clubs were still carefully finished by hand. The development of iron clubs – firstly the niblick and then the mashie – increased the number of different clubs available and whilst they were usually of metal cast by a blacksmith the shafts (usually hickory) and finish of the clubs were the province of the golf club makers.  

At the same time there was a large increase in the interest in golf by many of the upper echelons of society encouraged by the playing of the game by Royalty. Elie as a favourite golfing venue of the Duchess of Connaught (one of Queen Victoria’s daughters-in-law) and her daughter Princess Patricia.  This also increased demand.

There was, of course, a limit to the number of former apprentices of the golf club makers who could set up in competition to their masters. Many of the Earlsferry young men had become very proficient at the game as well as the manufacture of clubs. These young men, often for want of an alternative career, would become golf club makers in different parts of the country.  In due course, as the popularity of the game continued exponentially, these young men found that a living of sorts could be earned by playing in competitive and exhibition matches.  

The clear distinction nowadays between professional and amateur had yet to be formulated but it was recognised that if your main source of income was golf you could be designated a professional. More than one controversy emanated from this distinction (see Rolland). Then the Open golf championship on this side of the Atlantic started to attract these professionals and very often when they were “in town”, as it were, golf clubs would promote matches and provide a purse for these professionals to play for. Challenges would be offered by the top class players and money matches arranged on that basis. Sometimes the watching members were charged for the privilege, other times they watched for free, but it became a very good way of advertising your course and club. 

They still had to make clubs, so they often became attached to fledgling golf clubs initially as teachers or club makers but in addition to advise and plan layout of courses. Their skill at greenkeeping was also a factor to be considered. They became jacks of all trades, teaching, making clubs, selling equipment looking after the course and designing others. It was not unusual for professionals/teachers to winter in warmer climes at another club and there seemed to be much exchanging of golf courses for those plying their trade as teacher or golf clubmaker. Some were peripatetic moving to where the business was and others anchored themselves to one club and some became the club manager eventually. There was indeed substantial reward for the well-known professional and thus winning tournaments added to the appearance fees they could demand.

Another important development was the growth of the game in America.  Again still to some extent a game played by the moneyed classes but nevertheless there seemed to be enough money and enough land for people to get together and acquire land, build a golf course and establish a golf club. It seems that the trend started in New Jersey and rapidly spread to most of the eastern seaboard.

By the turn of the century James Braid in particular had become the icon of the game – although he never travelled to America – many of his contemporaries in Earlsferry having learnt their club-making skill and being proficient golfers themselves were attractive to those across the Atlantic seeking to establish a golf club. The employment of a Scottish golf professional became de rigeur.  Thus many young men from Earlsferry made the trip ,some on spec and some already engaged by clubs in America. There was no shortage of work and the word filtered back to Earlsferry that a good living was to be made in the land of opportunity.  It is intriguing to see that often an experienced Earlsferry golfer in America would chaperone a younger man from Earlsferry on one of his trips back home and then employ the youngster initially at his club and then wherever there was a job. It was often the case that when one Earlsferry-born professional moved clubs he would encourage his former club to employ one of these Earlsferry men. Most of these young men born and brought up in Earlsferry had been apprentice to George Forrester or Andrew Scott before seeking wider horizons. Research which is ongoing suggests as many as 30 or so young men went across the world having learnt their trade and their golf in Earlsferry.

There follows biographies and information on some of them (click on name to open biography in new window (you may have to adjust your browser settings) or ‘Download’ button to save a copy to your computer).

Comments

  1. Ron Oliver

    22 February 2021 at 22:25

    Great article Graham. You mentioned “featherless” in your article, which I understood were an expensive piece of kit and which originally resulted in the employment of 2 “cadets” one to watch the route of the ball and one to mark where it landed. Nearest to the tee was the “Fore caddy” giving rise to the shout “fore” which the feathery came towards him. Is this true?

  2. Alan Crombie

    23 February 2021 at 18:04

    Excellent article Graham – informative, interesting and enlightening. Sheer stupidity on my part, but in all the years I have enjoyed Elie and Earlsferry, I have only associated James Braid with golf in the town. Every day is a school day!! Are there any Streets named after these other illustrious figures?

  3. Ian Edward

    6 May 2021 at 10:25

    Are you Sheriff A. Graham Johnston? If so you’ll remember me from SUGS and Aberdeen days. I find your writing fascinating as I had to do a bit of research into Archie Simpson’s years at Royal Aberdeen when I wrote the Club history 16 years ago.

  4. grahamjohnston

    21 May 2021 at 10:56

    Yes Ian it is I. Hope you are ok graham

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