The fascinating story of Thorndon Park Golf Club’s first 100 years
PUBLISHED: 10:07 19 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:33 19 May 2020
Tom Clarke has been a member of Thorndon Park Golf Club since 1981, was men’s captain in 2008 and loves the place. Here he tells the story of the club’s first 100 years
This article was written before lockdown and events mentioned may have been cancelled or rescheduled.
On Thursday, April 29, 1920, a group of businessmen, mainly members of Romford Golf Club, met at 22 Old Broad Street in London and formed Thorndon Park Golf Club Ltd.
They had a bold vision: to create a golf course on what had been the South Park of the Petre family’s vast Thorndon Hall estate at Ingrave and to build around it an exclusive residential development.
This month, 100 years later, a thanksgiving service at Brentwood School chapel opened an ambitious programme of events to mark the centenary of that meeting and celebrate the first part of the vision.
It will also celebrate that the second part of the vision never materialised on a grand scale – only five houses were built (and only one survives) and so the course remains in green and tranquil seclusion next to Thorndon Country Park.
Which does not mean the golf club in its 2020 form is isolated from the mainstream of golf. It is the only Essex course in the England section of the Top100GolfCourses.com website.
Not content to rest on that laurel, the club last year completed a major refurbishment of the course on the recommendation of the renowned design team of Ken Moodie and Ken Brown, the broadcaster and former Ryder Cup player.
Some 5,000 trees and bushes were taken out, letting in more light and opening up new vistas, and all the greenside and approach bunkers were refurbished and in some cases repositioned.
‘Our ambition has been to have the course at its very best for centenary year,’ says Gary Oatham, the club manager.
‘We are delighted to be hosting a prestigious national championship as well as the celebration events for our members and welcoming the many societies and individual players who visit us.’
The visionaries at that 1920 meeting had in mind a development on the lines of St George’s Hill in Surrey, a course designed by Harry Shapland Colt with space for houses around it.
So they went out and hired Colt, one of the great course architects of his day. Thorndon Hall and the Petre family are unbreakably linked with the golf club.
The ninth Lord Petre commissioned James Paine, one of the foremost architects of the 18th century, to design a mansion in the Palladian style.
Tragically, much of the building was destroyed in a massive fire in 1878, and after the 16th Lord Petre had died during World War I, the Petres moved to Ingatestone Hall.
That’s when Thorndon Park Golf Club Ltd stepped in and acquired a long lease on the mansion and 240 acres of parkland. The golf course was built and much of the east wing of the hall became the clubhouse – which it remained until 1974.
Sir Jeffery Bowman is the longest-serving member of the club (he was made a member by his parents in 1946, when he was 11 years old). His family has been connected with the club since his maternal grandfather, Harry Beck, paid £100 (later increased to £150) as one of the 55 debenture-holders who funded the original financing of the club. Beck was also captain in 1928.
Sir Jeffery’s father, Haverstock Bowman, was a captain and president, and his brother John was a captain. Sir Jeffery’s grandmother, Florence Beck, and his sister, June Clarkson-Webb, were lady captains.
Sir Jeffery recalls: ‘The men’s changing rooms in the old clubhouse were on the ground and first floors. This wing was, among other things, the servants’ quarters before the fire of 1878.
It also contained what must have been a very fine library and the chapel, which had to be deconsecrated before it was used as a mixed lounge by the golf club. The bar was a most sociable place and the actual wooden bar itself is still with us in the Harry Colt Bar.’
By the late 1960s, what remained of the rest of Thorndon Hall was crumbling – it had been barely tended since its use as accommodation for service personnel and Italian prisoners during World War II – and the golf club decided to sell the lease to a property developer.
It was hoping to raise £250,000; eventually, in 1975, it accepted an offer of £120,000 from Thomas Bates & Co. They went on to bring new life to the hall by converting it and adjoining buildings into 82 apartments and cottages.
In 1974, the club moved into its new home – a single-storey building no more than 100 metres from the old clubhouse – but Thorndon Hall is still the everlasting sight as players advance towards the 18th green.
Richard Collins, the men’s captain in this centenary year, is, by Thorndon Park’s standards, a newish member. He joined in 2007.
He says: ‘Every time I arrive to play here, I marvel at our fantastic setting. We still maintain our traditions, but we are forever evolving as a club and we are looking forward to a great future.’
Carol Moulder, the lady captain, adds: ‘We are specially delighted that our membership covers all generations from 80-year-olds to teenagers.
We have in Ashley Chalmers, Harriet Lynch and Sophie Wheeler young women who are national-class players and Sally Barber who has achieved just about everything in amateur golf – and they all delight in partnering any of our ladies.’
Women have been an integral part of the club since its beginning (Lady Thwaites was the lady captain in the first two years) and its members have included national champions in Jean Holmes, Sally Barber and Beverly Lewis.
Today the club is thriving with a membership of 520 men (of whom 120 have single-figure handicaps), 110 women (including seven single-figure players) and 60 cadet members.
In recognition of the centenary, the Essex Professional Golfers’ Association (coincidentally having its own 100th birthday this year) had chosen Thorndon Park for its Essex Open on May 12, and Golf England is staging the under-14 and under-16 girls’ national championships at Thorndon Park from July 27 to 30.
The first shot on the course was made on July 4, 1920. 100 years to the day later, Thorndon Park’s celebrations reach a peak with a gala ball for 320 members and guests. Here’s to the next 100 years.