20 Oct 2020 | Clubs and Facilities | Feature stories |

Two for one: the origins of Metro and RM

by Contributor

Turner Street Golf house image 1
The handsome house in Malvern East that spawned RM and Metro remains to this day.

By Graham Eccles, courtesy Metropolitan Golf Club Bordered on two sides by busy Burke and Wattletree Roads in Malvern East is one of Melbourne’s parkland gems. Belying a rich history, it is known simply as Central Park, home to the much-loved and used John Landy Oval together with eight hectares of Edwardian-styled gardens. But how many members of both Metropolitan and Royal Melbourne Golf Clubs would be aware that the genesis of these two famous sporting institutions sprouted from this site and the swathe of land around it that pulsates today with some of Melbourne’s finest real estate. In nearby Turner Street, a brick villa, circa 1880s, is the only remnant of what was once a vast expanse of golf course stretching south from Wattletree Road to near the Caulfield railway station and east to Malvern Road through what is now known charmingly as Hedgely Dene. Built on the western edge of the old Gascoigne Estate, this modest, double-fronted brick villa was the clubhouse of the Melbourne Golf Club founded in June 1891, granted the Royal prefix by Queen Victoria four years later and renamed Caulfield Golf Club in 1901. For passers-by, it is clear that this meticulously maintained building is of historic significance in the world of golf. In large gold lettering, a plaque bearing the words “The Old Golf House” gleams from the wall next to the front door and beside the gate is a cast iron plate detailing a brief history of its former place in our beguiling sport. Although neither plays golf, the villa’s latest owners, Lauren and Joel, are passionate about their home’s history and shortly intend restoring the roof to its former slate-tile glory and repainting the front verandah’s metal covering in its original stripes. Apart from an iron fence that has replaced the original pickets, photographs taken in its clubhouse days confirm the building’s exterior has altered very little in the ensuing 129 years. The interior, too, is largely unchanged. Even the bell above the door to a maid’s room is intact. The owners suspect their bedroom at the front of the house may have been the club bar and the room across the hall a lounge - as it is today. It’s not hard to imagine cigar smoke and whisky fumes once wafting through those two front rooms. But, in that last decade of the 19th century, 16 Turner Street was more than just a clubhouse for the members, many of whom were leaders from all walks of life in Melbourne, among them the Governor of Victoria. Early minute books show that as the senior golf club in Australia at that time, its Council assumed the role of mediating the rules and traditions of the game for emerging clubs around the country.

Former captain and author Richard Allen recalls in his impressive 125-year history of Royal Melbourne published three years ago that the Royal Melbourne Golf Club of the Caulfield era made its most enduring contribution to Australian golf in the area of sportsmanship, hospitality and etiquette.

The club “felt an almost custodial sense of responsibility towards the finer sporting and social traditions of the game”. But it is also remembered for much more and the clubhouse often was the location for decisions that have had a lasting impact on Australian golf.

For instance, in 1894, shortly before it asked for and was granted the Royal prefix, the club’s council at an extraordinary meeting in the BHP boardroom voted to create a men’s “Open” championship. For the next three years, the East Malvern course staged the Victorian Golf Cup, an event that would eventually be regarded as the Australian Amateur championship.

With a handsome trophy at stake, the tournament was an immediate success luring amateurs from around the country and New Zealand. Clearly because of its national appeal, the club felt it no longer appropriate to maintain exclusive rights to the tournament. In discussions between Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne officials, Royal Melbourne was asked to formulate a plan for a golf union.

During the 1898 championship, they all met in the Turner Street clubhouse and discussed and duly formed the Australian Golf Union, the first national body for golf in the country.

A year earlier, another innovative decision had been taken by the club to arrange the first professional match in Australia, a 72-hole contest between their own professional, a very young Richard Taylor and his counterpart from Royal Sydney, a fellow named Scott, a noted long hitter.

The plan had been to play the first two rounds at Royal Sydney, but Scott sustained a hand injury chucking a drunk out of the club. The match was eventually rescheduled in Victoria with 36 holes at Geelong and the other 36 at the East Malvern course and played during the Victorian Golf Cup.

In front of large galleries, Taylor won comfortably 4 and 2. Shortly after returning to Sydney, Taylor’s seemingly accident-prone opponent drowned in a fishing accident.

Despite Royal Melbourne’s lead role in the early affairs of the sport in Australia, playing conditions at East Malvern gradually became intolerable for both the men and the women “associates”, who by now had established their own clubhouse across the road at 9 Turner Street.

The difficulties confronting the club would not have come as a surprise because it was always on borrowed time as a consequence of its formation in 1891 - a time when Melbourne was in the grip of a devastating depression that left the city’s financial institutions in ruins and much of the population penniless and starving.

As a result, vast paddocks of suburban land lay unsold and unused but fortuitous for a fledgling golf club looking for somewhere to establish itself. Land speculator and foundation club member Sir Matthew Davies, along with other small owners, granted the club permissive occupancy of their hibernating Gascoigne estate.

The huge subdivision already had been pegged out in a pattern of streets and allotments. And a metalled Burke Road was already in existence, slicing right through the estate and carrying considerable horse-drawn traffic. So, from the first tee shot, hitting over roads was a major problem; all but three holes crossed a road and the third required a hit over three of them!

As Melbourne’s economy began to flourish again after the depression that lasted from 1890 to 1893, a new housing boom began to devour the golf course as the estate’s new owners (Sir Matthew’s companies had since collapsed) sought to capitalise on their valuable asset.

A shrinking golf course and pressures from landlords forced the club’s council to begin looking for an alternative site. After several years of hunting for the perfect territory, Royal Melbourne Golf Club finally settled on magnificent heathland in Sandringham and opened for play in 1901.

But not all members wanted to move. At the last council meeting of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club held at Turner Street a month earlier, members were asked to remove all their property from the clubhouse. However, one member, H.T. Wilson, suggested either a subsidiary club be formed at Caulfield or the course be kept as a practice ground for Royal Melbourne members.

The latter proposal was rejected, but a month later a group of members living in Toorak and Malvern vowed to stay put and form the Caulfield Golf Club. It was a momentous decision, which it could be argued, really forged the fascinating Metropolitan story.

The formidable William Knox, who lived nearby in his mansion “Ranfurlie” and is commemorated through the annual Knox “Bolters” Trophy, was a leader of the push to stay along with Wilson, whose name also lives on through Metro's annual 36-hole event. Others included J.C. Graham, J.B. McKenzie, C. McLean and G.C. Morrison, the last captain at Caulfield and the first when play began at Oakleigh.

With commendable stoicism, the new club soldiered on, its holes dwindling to 10 as building encroached relentlessly. When in 1906 Malvern Council bought up a slice of the land known today as Central Park and began planting trees and sculpting an oval, the struggle was virtually over.

One member and diarist, J.M. Joshua, wrote of the final days: “Here they still hang on, but one has to steer in and out between houses and gutters. It is a miserable remnant of a links, just a dried up desert”.

Although there was no organised search for a new property, committeemen Harold Umphelby and the energetic H.T. Wilson late in 1906 journeyed out to Oakleigh to look at a market garden they heard offered some promise. They returned empty-handed but impressed by the area’s sandy soil.

Then a miracle happened. A chance meeting with an estate agent back in Melbourne that same day led to Wilson being offered the nearby Barholme Estate of 116 acres with a substantial house and outbuildings for 3000 pounds.

But there was a catch - the offer was open for only a day. How Barholme was snapped up by Wilson and Umphelby virtually sight unseen is part of Metropolitan Golf Club’s wonderful history and is detailed in Weston Bate’s book 'Sustaining their dream – the Metropolitan Golf Club 1901-2001.'

After much preparation and wrangling over what name to give to the new club, the course was officially opened in 1908 as The Metropolitan Golf Club, seven years after Royal Melbourne had broken away. The two clubs continued for some time to have a large common membership and though this gradually diminished over the years, RM and Metropolitan have maintained a bond of friendship to this day.

Once abandoned, all traces of the old Malvern/Caulfield course quickly disappeared beneath the foundations of the many homes that now form the much-prized suburb of Malvern East. A couple of hundred metres north of Dandenong Road, 16 Turner Street remains silent witness to what had been all those years ago. However, the cottage, which had been rented to the Melbourne Golf Club as part of the permissive tenancy agreement, has seen its own challenges since those days as a golf club.

Not long after the last members departed, the premises became a brothel. Later, it became a boarding house for truckies, who irritated neighbours by parking their vehicles on the nature strip.

Evidence that the boarders played cricket in the hallway was obvious from the many ball marks found on the skirting boards. When they bought the property four years ago, the owners were told the house was later occupied for lengthy periods by owners who lived alone.

“It had never been a family-loved house, but it certainly is now,” Lauren said. “We love it along with its history, which we will always treasure.”

Turner Street golf house image 2
The plaque signifies the history of the Malvern East home.

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