Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Walmer Golf Club

The oldest golf club in Walmer and one of the oldest in South Africa, the Walmer Golf Club is still in existence and is prospering despite initially not possessing security of tenure as it operated on a year-to-year basis. This constraint over its first twenty years of existence made the members and the committee loath to invest in its development. Hence development lagged behind the members’ ambitions for the Club. Largely based upon FA Longworth’s book, succinctly entitled Walmer, this blog provides a comprehensive history of the trials and tribulations as well as the birth pangs of a golf course in another era.

Recognised as Port Elizabeth’s premier 9 hole golf course, Walmer Golf Club, commonly known as Little Walmer, lies in the heart of the city.

Main picture: Walmer Golf Club

From Commonage to Golf Course

When the township of Walmer was laid out in· 1852, it was surrounded by a “green belt” referred to as the commonage on which the locals were entitled to graze their animals. It was on this commonage that in 1897, the Walmer Golf Course was first laid out and the Walmer Golf Club was formed by Walmer residents.

The course consisted of eighteen holes – all shortish to reduce maintenance – and covered the area bounded by Ninth Avenue in the east, Fourteenth Avenue in the west, River Road and Newcastle Road (now Short Road) on the south and the Klein Kabega River on the north. The wood and iron clubhouse, presented to the Club by Anthony Longworth’s grandfather – Herbert Longworth – was removed from elsewhere and re-erected at the top of Tenth Avenue which was the main access road to the club. At F.A. Longworth’s special request, a small portion of the original clubhouse still. remains today as a memento from the golfing pioneers of yesteryear.

Each hole was designed, constructed, and maintained by a local family or group of families. Each hole had a name such as the Stormberg – a shortish hole on the escarpment of the Klein Kabega River – the little quarry – a short hole over a disused quarry which sometimes contained water and was also on the escarpment -and the Bay of Biscay – at one time the only bogey 5 on the course – and a water hole- also over a disused quarry at the top of Eleventh Avenue. (This quarry filled with water still exists and is the 6th hole. I hope the name will remain.) At one time, the plan of the original course with the names of the holes hung on the wall of the clubhouse, but sadly it has disappeared. Cattle and game roamed over the course in abundance – they knew no boundaries.

Legend has it that one of the families decided that clearing the scrub by hand for their particular hole was too onerous and that burning the veld would be easier and quicker. As often happens, a strong south-east wind sprang up and the fire finished up several miles west of the Walmer boundary doing considerable damage to grazing and crops. There was talk of claims being made against the golf club, but undaunted the Club decided that the fire was started by the family clearing the scrub. They also decided that that family was the Mosel family. At that time the Reverend Mosel was the parson at St John’s Church and the damage done was in his parish, and the claimants were all his parishioners. Thus, when they found that their priest was the respondent, they withdrew their claims against the Golf Club. Thank goodness for the church whose parson plays golf – although this was hardly cricket.

Rev. Mosel

The ground was covered mostly by dienie bessie (duinebessie) bushes which provided housing for· the tortoises and berries for both the tortoises and the children. Purple and white crocuses, red and white erica, waxies, avondbloems (aandblomme), brownies, and heather thrived. There were no indigenous trees or bushes. The Port Jackson Willow, the Black Wattle and the Australian Myrtle – now so plentiful – had not reared their ugly heads. As Walmer developed, the Australian Myrtle was introduced as a wind break or hedge in the private properties, but it knew no boundaries – not even the golf course. The children collected tortoises as a hobby. They nurtured them, fed them and loved them, but their parents did not. To-day it is a crime to keep tortoises. It is a pity because the tortoises on the golf course are virtually extinct having been destroyed by man and fire.

From the adjacent dairies, the cattle roamed on the Green Belt, grazing in the valleys and on the golf course. They were both an asset and a liability. They left hoof marks on the greens, tees and fairways, and stood or lay in the path of the players. The committee realised that it was not only the Queen’s yacht that came out of Cowes with a splash, so a rule was introduced enabling a ball lodged in a cow pat to be picked out and dropped without penalty. The committee also realised that the cattle provided grass cutting and fertilisers for the fairways at no cost to the club. The players were grateful.

From the quarry at the “Bay of Biscay” the clay was removed and used to construct the base of the tees and greens. The greens were circular and covered with river sand which formed the putting surface. The pin to mark the hole in the centre was formed of a steel vertical rod and a horizontal pipe about 2’0″ long welded on at right angles forming a “T”. This was used to smooth out a path in the sand between your ball and the hole. Some players carried their own wooden scrapers in their bags. At each tee was a lump of damp clay used to form a base for the ball. (No pegs in those days). Also at the head of each tee was a precast concrete slab embedded vertically in the ground and inscribed with numerals showing the number of the hole, the length in yards, and bogey for the hole. (Par was a non-existent term). Until quite recently these slabs were to be found around the Club.

In a newsletter, it was jubilantly announced that for the first time in the history of the club, there was no longer a rule permitting a player to improve his lie on the fairway. This was not true, because no such rule existed in the early days of the club. But of course, the reasons were very different. Today, the reason for the rule being removed was that the fairways were so improved that the rule was unnecessary. Yesterday the reason for the rule being non-existent was that no better lie than the one you had could be found within miles. (Cow pat lies excluded). The rule was unnecessary.

On 31 May 1910, the Union of South Africa was born. To celebrate the occasion, the Club held a mixed foursome competition known as the “Union Day Foursomes” and it was held on “Union Day” every year. It was the Club’s Gala day. In 1929, the competition became the “Rose Bowl” Competition and is still played on a day as near to 31 May as possible. Partnered by Miss Mabel Kayser, Longworth won the competition in 1934.

The First World War – 1914 to 1918 – played its part in the life of the Walmer Golf Club. Not only were loyal members lost, but also were nine of the eighteen holes. On the highest point of the course stands a concrete obelisk with “PAX 1918” inscribed on it. It is self-explanatory. After the armistice ending the First World War was signed on 11 November 1918, the locals formed a peace celebrations committee which was responsible for the construction of the obelisk and the brushwood fortress that surrounded it. The fortress measured 106 feet in diameter and the brushwood was stacked up to 12 feet in height. In the centre, reaching 27 feet total height was a brushwood effigy of a German soldier holding a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. On either side was a brushwood long-range gun and behind was a large howitzer. The whole complex was the brainchild of William John McWilliams.

Obelisk on the fairway of the Walmer Golf Course

The peace treaty was finally signed and on the evening of Saturday, 19 July 1919, a cold night with a raw wind blowing, the crowds gathered around, many brought by a specially laid-on train. The Mayor of Walmer, John Syme Neave, addressed the crowd. The torch in the soldier’s hand was then electrically lighted and at the same time, the whole fortress was set alight. As the bonfire burnt away, the concrete obelisk was revealed. The obelisk remains standing on its own small holding enclosed by a w1re fence being maintained by – nobody seems to know.

Even though nine holes had to be sacrificed with the reduction of playing members, finances were at a low ebb. As things improved, “Kimberley Blue Ground” was introduced to cover the greens instead of river sand. This ground provided a smoother putting surface and was more resistant to wind erosion. There are no records of any diamonds having been found, but the tiny rubies were always sought after.

Also later, the tees were covered with coir mats but with the clay “pegs” and after rain the coir became impregnated with clay and the surface was little better than the original clay base.

A further improvement was the acquisition of a two-donkey powered grass mower for the fairways. The donkeys were hired from the greenkeeper, John Baadjies, who lived with many other old coloured families at Fairview. Later the club acquired its own animals – firstly donkeys and later oxen. They were housed on the course and grazed on the course.

As the Club had no security of tenure over the land it occupied, there was no great incentive to incur any capital expenditure. It lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

A permanent African greenkeeper named Goldsmith was eventually employed. He was assisted by another African – named Shortie. Goldsmith’s wife, Rosie, became manageress and looked after the Club House in general and the kitchen in particular. Goldsmith and Rosie produced two boys, Wallace and John Bull, who also found themselves on the Club’s payroll as time went by. The family atmosphere that started the Club had now been perpetuated by the staff.

The period between the two World Wars saw changes in the Club and the course. Not all were progressive.

The Walmer Municipality saw fit to establish a quarry on the northern escarpment overlooking the Klein Kabega River. This was to supply the material for the construction of the roads in the fast-developing town of Walmer. Access to the quarry was by a road from the top of Tenth Avenue, across the Ninth fairway and down to the edge of the quarry.

Above: Map supplied by Franco Cilliers

The on-site transport of the quarried stone was by manhandled cocopans on rails. The excavated material was crushed and screened on site and eventually transported by truck to the sites where required. All this was a great asset to the people of Walmer, but an absolute curse to the golfers – especially when your ball landed on the stone road crossing the Ninth fairway. Fortunately, the trucks didn’t operate over the weekends. Many years later, the quarrying was abandoned. It should never have been started. Slowly it is now being filled up, but the scar on the bank of the river remains.

The inter-war years
Towards the end of the 1920s, security of tenure of the land occupied by the Golf Club was obtained. A short-term lease was granted by the municipality. This was a great step forward as the incentive for the club to progress had, at long last, been achieved.

In order to define the boundaries of the golf course and to protect the course and the quarry from wandering animals, in 1932 a wire fence was erected on the perimeter except along the river on the north.From time immemorial, vehicular access to our property was through a gate in the northwest corner. Consequently, the fence was erected so as to perpetuate this access from River Road, as it still is.

It is interesting to note that in 1938, with the death of Herbert Longworth – a new president was elected. Herbert had been president since the club was formed – a period of forty-one years. He was succeeded by Mr. A. B. Thomas, who remained president until his death in 1958 – a period of twenty years. Thus, over a period of sixty-one years, the club had only two presidents. Anthony Longworth suspects that the main consideration when electing the president each year was that he had to have long arms and shallow pockets.

The thought of another world war was in nobody’s mind. The club enjoyed security of tenure, and tremendous enthusiasm amongst the members who realised the need to expand. In the 1930’s, it was agreed that once again the course should revert to eighteen holes. The services of Charles Mcilvenny, the Port Elizabeth Golf Club professional, were obtained to assist with the design and construction of the eighteen-hole course. Although most of the existing holes remained, the new holes lay in the eastern area bound by Ninth Avenue and River Road, and in the western area bound by Fourteenth Avenue and Short Road. Money was in short supply, so progress was slow. The ground was cleared of scrub and bush, contoured for the fairways and greens. Grass was planted on the fairways only while the construction and grassing of the greens was to follow. The grass on the fairways grew well.

Confounded WW2
Alas, 1939 came and the world was plunged into another World War.

Of course, there were times when the youth were discouraged and unwelcome. Fortunately, the pendulum has now changed direction. It was a great day when in recent years, one could see the E.P. Juniors playing their championship at Walmer Golf Club.

As a post-war rehabilitation scheme, the Walmer Council fostered the formation of the Walmer Country Club which was an attempt to centralise all sport in Walmer. Like the members of the bowls and tennis clubs, the members of the Walmer Golf Club did not feel that the Walmer Country Club provided for their needs at the right price.

Consequently, they refused to be incorporated into the Country Club complex. It is worth recording that the site of the Walmer Golf Club was, at one time, considered to be a suitable site for the Country Club. Instead, the Walmer Golf Club progressed on their own with their lease being extended from time to time. In fact, one of the diagrams attached to the lease, showed Anthony’s home as being part of the ground leased to the Club by the municipality.

The nine-hole course continued with its “blue ground” greens and “coir mat” tees. Its popularity increased but alas the Port Jackson Willow and Australian Myrtle slowly took over what was to have been the additional nine holes. A disappointing scene.

In 1959 a new member was enrolled. In 1960, he became Club Captain. In 1985, he was still club captain. Now, over the years, there have been characters who have contributed to the success of the golf club in different ways – financially, administratively, physically or playing ability. But over these years, I have known no member who has contributed in all these ways, other than Buster Heugh. In later years his enthusiasm and love for the Club remained intact and unchanged. Furthermore, he monopolised the club championship for many years, for which he was admired but not always loved.

The transformation of the “Bay of Biscay” from an old disused quarry into a water bird sanctuary will always be a monument to Buster.

However, the survival of the sanctuary depends on greater co-operation from those dog owners who are unable (or unwilling) to prevent their dogs from chasing and destroying the birds which Buster nurtures.

The Club’s fate is sealed

Although the Walmer Golf Club preferred to continue functioning on its own, outside pressures persuaded the Walmer Municipality to think otherwise. In 1965, they decided that the land leased to the Golf Club should be used for housing and not recreation. Consequently, a large township was designed to cover the green belt occupied by the Golf Club.

At the end of 1966, the Walmer Municipality ceased to exist. In 1967, fresh negotiations

for the survival of the Golf Club were started between the Club and the Port Elizabeth Municipality. The discussions were protracted and lengthy. The municipality required the land for housing and the Club required the land for recreation, as it had been since 1897. A compromise was eventually reached. The Golf Club forfeited all the land west of Thirteenth Avenue and also a triangle along Short Road. This was virtually the area on · which the extra nine holes had been partially constructed before the Second World War. To the Golf Club, this compromise meant that never ever will the golf course revert to eighteen holes. Its fate had been sealed.

Although everybody is fully aware of the need for housing, in principle it is the function of the private sector to provide land for housing but not necessarily for institutional or recreational purposes.  This is the function of the public sector.  The green belt was there for the benefit of the public – not the individual. Therefore, the forfeiting of this land was the most retrograde step in the Club’s history.  It must have been a case of “Hobson’s choice” even though Hobson was not a member. As a result of all these deliberations, a lease was entered into with the municipality, thus giving the club considerably greater security of tenure.

The popularity of the club increased tremendously. The membership increased as the feeling of insecurity, which had hung over the heads of members for so many years, began to wane.

Then came that wonderful metamorphosis. After nearly seventy-five years, the clay tees and the “blue ground” greens began to disappear. This process was accelerated by the difficulty of getting “blue ground” from Kimberley. Other golf clubs in the area which also used “blue ground”‘ greens had closed down. In fact, Walmer must have been the sole and last “blue ground” importer.

It was an ill wind that blew good to the club, for as the clay tees and “blue ground” greens

disappeared, so grass tees and grass greens were constructed. It was a courageous move – courage that had been lacking in previous generations. This transitionary period was long and drawn out. Minor changes were made to some of the holes, the positions of some tees were altered, the greens were suitably bunkered, and sand traps appeared. The vision of an eighteen-hole course had gone forever. Notwithstanding the long uncertainty, the enthusiasm amongst the members remained intact for the future.

Unexplained death

About 1979, amongst all this changeover, sadness fell. The body of the club’s well-loved secretary/manager was found in the old disused quarry overlooking the Klein Kabega River. “Tommy” Thompson had been a playing member for very many years before he became involved in the administration of the Club. Although “Tommy” was quick-tempered and impatient with and intolerant towards the junior golfers, he was one of the much loved and memorable characters of the Golf Club. The reason for his death remains an unsolved mystery.

In the latter half of the 1970’s, a new member was enrolled. Like many others, he joined the club to play golf. He brought with him enthusiasm, enterprise, ingenuity, popularity and a German accent. His name was and still is “OTTO ISENBECK”. He didn’t understand Latin, so the Walmer motto “Festina Lente” (make haste slowly) didn’t mean a thing to him. He had hardly finished his first nine holes when he was elected to the committee. By 1980 he was elected president of the club – an office he held until 1985. One only must look at Otto’s achievements in those years to realise that he too had long arms and shallow pockets.

In 1980, the club’s application for a liquor licence was successful. This necessitated considerable alterations and re-construction of the clubhouse which was, at long last, able to boast its own water-loo. With the bar, the finances of the club improved and proper equipment for course maintenance· was acquired. The donkey days were past. The mastermind behind all this development was Otto.

Otto also decided that he should have his own special day once a year. The queue for invitations to the “Schnapps” day is always a long one. Otto takes charge, organises the prizes, invites the Oompah band, and makes a perfect host. Of course, he is completely bilingual. He can speak German and talk Bull.

Alterations and improvements to the course are ongoing. The first hole is a completely new hole using the old second green. The old first and second holes disappear. The short fourth hole on the escarpment of the Klein Kabega River is new. It is remarkably close to where an old hole called “The Little Quarry” used to be. The fifth has the tee re-positioned making an interesting dog leg.

As the finances improved, overhead irrigation for the fairways and greens was introduced, all computerised. The water came from municipal mains. One can’t fool these computers, for even if it is pouring with rain, and if the computer says switch on, the overhead irrigation does its work as well.

The club now has three boreholes of its own, from which water is pumped into the “Bay of Biscay” where it is stored. When required, this water can be used for irrigation instead of municipal water at a reduced cost.

Walmer by F.A. Longworth (1998, QS Publications, Port Elizabeth)

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