Herbert Fowler: the gilded gentleman

Herbert Fowler: the gilded gentleman
By Adam Lawrence

The explosion of interest in golf at the turn of the twentieth century, both in America and the UK, led to what is commonly referred to as golf design’s Golden Age. From a tiny base, golf had become a major sport on both sides of the Atlantic by the time the First World War broke out in 1914, and it continued to expand rapidly when peace returned.

Golf changed socially a great deal during those years too. From its Scottish origins, the game was adopted in large numbers by the English middle and upper classes. And a number of those upmarket golfers made a remarkable transition into, effectively, professional careers in the golf business.

Harry Colt was the most obvious, but he wasn’t the only one. Colt, a Cambridge man who trained (and briefly practiced) as a solicitor, found his way out of legal work pretty quickly, when the opportunity to become secretary of the newly formed Sunningdale club came up. But an even more spectacular transition was made by a man whose first great design work even predated Colt – William Herbert Fowler.

Colt came from a fairly anonymous middle class background, but Fowler’s family was significantly better off. Herbert’s brother, Gerald Fowler, was an Oxford man, and played cricket for the university, but he himself did not attend college. Born in 1856, Herbert first came to prominence as a cricketer in the 1880s, playing for both Essex and Somerset during the first great era of the English game (international cricket began in 1877 with the first Test match between England and Australia in Melbourne). Tall and powerful, Fowler was renowned as a hard hitter – one shot, at the home of cricket, Lord’s in London, was measured at 157 yards. Cricket historian David Foot described him as “perhaps the earliest Somerset batsman to parade the fundamental skills of slogging.”

The family was clearly extremely wealthy. Herbert was born in the north London suburb of Tottenham, but at some stage, his father William, a barrister, moved out to the then country town of Harlow in Essex. Moor Hall, his Harlow home, was demolished in the 1960s, but is cited as one of the town’s largest houses at this time.

Aged 22, in 1878, Herbert acquired a career for the first time, becoming a partner in the established private bank of Fox & Company, based in Wellington in Somerset, in England’s south-west. The firm was renamed Fox, Fowler & Company the following year, and so it remained until it was acquired by Lloyds in 1921.

The Fox family had been in business in Somerset since the early eighteenth century. One of the Quaker dynasties that played such an important role in English industrial history, the family textile business still exists, supplying high quality woollen fabrics to some of the most upmarket tailoring firms in the UK and elsewhere.

In 1787, having married the daughter of a London banker, Thomas Fox incorporated the family’s interests as Fox & Company, woollen merchants and bankers. The businesses were run jointly for over a hundred years, until Fowler (and also his younger brother Gerald) joined the bank, which became a separate entity.

Fox Fowler was a substantial enterprise. At the time of its sale to Lloyds in 1921 it had 55 branches and deposits of £3.5 million. Famously, it was also the last private bank in England allowed to issue its own banknotes, a right that had belonged to many banks until the 1844 Banking Act imposed restrictions. No new permissions were granted after this date, but banks that already issued notes retained the right to do so as long as they remained the same entity. By the late nineteenth century, though, almost all the small local banks had been absorbed into larger firms. Fox Fowler was the last holdout: the British Museum has one of the bank’s last notes, issued shortly before the 1921 merger.

Through the 1880s, Fowler settled down in Taunton, playing cricket for Somerset and living the life of a gentleman banker. He bred prize-winning Guernsey cattle, and served as a town councillor from 1886. He was involved in several other businesses, serving as a director of the well-known Castle Hotel in Taunton, the site of Judge Jeffreys’ infamous Bloody Assizes in 1685.

It’s also during this time, apparently in 1879 at Westward Ho! during a business trip to Devon, that Fowler first encountered golf. He became a member of the club, but played only sporadically during the 1880s, as cricket occupied most of his time. In 1890, he married Ethel Mary Brand, eldest daughter of James Brand, chairman of the National Telephone Company. The wedding was held at Sanderstead in Surrey, the Brand home, coincidentally not that far from Walton Heath, where Fowler would achieve his most lasting fame. It was a grand occasion: the Bishop of Rochester, the bride’s uncle, presided – he was also Queen Victoria’s chaplain – and the Taunton Courier reported the wedding saying: “The general public were most handsomely entertained, there being a liberal supply of champagne.” Ethel proved an important connection: her sister was married to Sir Cosmo Bonsor, who played a vital role in establishing Fowler’s ultimate career.

Fowler and his new wife set up home back in Taunton, where he served as the town’s Mayor for a year during the 1890s. He returned to playing golf, practising hard, rejoining the Westward Ho! club and quickly becoming a scratch player. He paid his first visit to St Andrews in 1891, reaching the last sixteen of the Amateur Championship. Unfortunately for Fowler, he than ran into Harold Hilton, one of the outstanding golfers of that, or any other age. Hilton won the first seven holes of their match, at which point Fowler retired (Hilton reached the final, his first, where he was defeated at the twentieth hole by Johnny Laidlay, the inventor of the overlapping grip).

Financially, though, his affairs went badly wrong for him during that decade. Although it’s not clear exactly how, the Fowler family fortune obviously suffered at some point, and Herbert himself was not a very successful businessman. By 1897, as he later explained in a letter to his uncle Joseph, his finances were in desperate straits: “In March 1897 the bank held no security for all my indebtedness. I was strongly advised by my brother-in-law to file my petition [for bankruptcy] at once (and he promised to put me into some new business). I felt, however, that I could not do this.” His Guernsey herd was sold at auction in 1898, raising over £1,000, but clearly this wasn’t sufficient.

And so, finally, Fowler came to his ultimate calling. In 1899, his aforementioned brother-in-law, Bonsor, whose family fortune was rather more secure – he owned a large brewery, and was a director of the Bank of England, as well as an MP – first proposed to Fowler the idea of building a golf course on the heathland of Walton- on-the-Hill in Surrey. Bonsor, at this time, lived at the nearby estate of Kingswood Warren, and purchased the manorial rights to Walton in 1902, although the site had been surveyed with the golf course in mind a year earlier.

By the standards of the day, the creation of Walton Heath was a slow, deliberate process. Fowler was working right at the sharp end: Willie Park’s two transformational courses, at Sunningdale and Huntercombe had not been conceived at the time he and Bonsor first mooted the project, though both were open before construction started at Walton, Huntercombe indeed only seven months after Park bought the property. By contrast Fowler, well funded by Bonsor and the club’s other backers, was able to take his time and explore the heath in minute detail.

The first decade of the twentieth century was a busy time for Fowler. Walton opened in the spring of 1904, having been seeded late the previous summer. A system of irrigation pipes brought water to each green and tee, surely one of if not the very first golf course to be so served. The course measured 6,424 yards, a remarkable figure bearing in mind that the Haskell ball had only just been introduced. Either Fowler laid the course out with his own long driving in mind, was remarkably prescient or he must have adjusted his proposed holes as the impact of the new ball started to become clear.

By this time Fowler was a major figure in golf. He had become a member of both the R&A and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, and is listed as one of the R&A’s representatives on the St Andrews’ Green Committee in 1903. In 1906, according to the Manchester Courier newspaper, he proposed to the R&A spring meeting ‘That in the opinion of this meeting the time has come when the best interests of the game demand that the number of greens on which the championships are held should be increased.’ “Though the names of the proposed new courses are not mentioned in the resolution, it is understood that Westward Ho!, Deal and Troon, and possibly some Irish links will have their claims strongly pressed. Influential support is promised,” the newspaper reported. It must have been influential indeed, as the Royal Cinque Ports club in Deal hosted its first Open in 1909, while the Amateur went to Royal North Devon for the first time in 1912.

After Walton, and in the rapidly-growing golf world of the time, he picked up a number of other design jobs. He redesigned his own golfing alma mater, Westward Ho!, of which work Bernard Darwin wrote: “If Westward Ho! was difficult then – albeit with a gutty ball – how difficult must it be now, when Mr Fowler has stretched it and bunkered it, so that there are some ready to rise up and call him not blessed... The twelfth and thirteenth are both good two-shot holes, the former, with a green most sternly bunkered, and the latter, with a lovely little plateau green. This plateau looks so eminently natural that I have once fallen into the error of describing it as such, thereby doing a grave injustice to Mr Fowler, who built it in the middle of a flat plain.”

He built a nine hole course at Langford Heathfield, near his former home in Somerset, in 1908, and in those same years worked on a number of courses up and down the country. Of his work at the Fixby course of the Huddersfield Golf Club in Yorkshire, Darwin wrote: “The seventh...owes its merits almost entirely to ingenuity in construction rather than to natural advantages. The green has certainly a good natural protection to the right in the shape of a ditch, to which has been added a bunker on the left; but still, if we were allowed to make a direct frontal attack upon the hole, we should have no great difficulty to contend with. A frontal attack, however, has been forbidden to us by Mr Herbert Fowler’s ingenuity. In the straight line between the tee and the green have been erected a series of formidable fortifications, wherefore we must drive out to the right and then approach the hole from the side. The further we go to the right the more difficult the approach will be, but if we can play with a judicious hook, and so ‘pinch’ the fortifications as close as we dare, we shall obtain a reasonably open and easy approach. This device of compelling people to play the hole as a ‘dog legged’ hole has made all the difference between a good and an ordinary hole.”

Tom Simpson joined Fowler’s design business in 1910. Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914, the two were commissioned to build a new course for the Real Club de San Sebastian, in Spain’s Basque region. A series of letters from one Fred Smith, presumably Fowler’s construction foreman on the job, illustrate both the challenges of building golf in that era, and the chaos caused by Europe’s descent into war in 1914. Smith writes repeatedly that he is having problems with the club, who have refused to pay his hotel bills, only covering the cost of travel to and from the site, and preventing him from felling trees located on the planned site of several greens. On 16 August 1914, Smith wrote to Fowler: “I now have permission to put down the trees on the site of greens 12, 16 and 18... With the upheaval of the continent I suppose I must not expect either yourself or Mr Simpson to visit here.” And, later that month, he writes again: “As I have not received any letter from you, I have commenced to put up a few bunker through the line of play. I shall only put up what bunkers are necessary.” The course, at Lasarte, was eighteen holes when it opened in 1915, but was reduced to nine in 1919. Simpson, by then living in Spain, was called in to renovate Fowler’s course along with his then partner Javier Arana in 1946. The club moved to a new site in the 1960s. Fowler returned to the region in 1917, to lay out a course in Santander, but it was never built.

After the war, Fowler, by now in his sixties, continued his design work. He travelled to the US in 1919 on design-related business, although he had also been there in 1913, seemingly for other reasons. His papers reveal a series of ‘investments’ in some frankly unprepossessing companies, in mining, metals, oil, seal hunting and others. He was elected a member of the board of the San Antonio and Pecos Valley Railway Company in 1913, but in general, it would seem that his aptitude for business had not improved with age, and his financial situation remained parlous throughout his life.

In the US, his two most famous achievements are the Eastward Ho! course on Cape Cod, and the extension of Pebble Beach’s eighteenth hole to create the iconic par five now known across the whole world of golf.

Darwin, though, thought his best achievement might just have been back home in England’s south-west. Saunton’s East course was first laid out in 1897, but Fowler rebuilt it in 1919, and Darwin wrote, in The Game of Golf: “The natural advantages are every bit as great as those of Sandwich, and they have been better used, because the course was made so much later. Such hills, such valleys, such wastes of sand, such plateaux blown upon by the wind. In his book on architecture Mr Simpson says that to his mind Saunton more nearly approaches the ideal golf course than any other. These are brave words, and I will not add to them.”

In 1925, Darwin was even more enthusiastic. His Times review from that year was quoted at great length in the North Devon Journal: “We can actually see the sandhills of Saunton from Westward Ho!, for they lie only a little beyond the lighthouse, but unless we endanger our lives in a flying machine or boat, we must go trapesing round by Bideford and Barnstaple to get there. Saunton, however, is worth a far longer journey than that, because – and I desire to measure my words – it is, potentially at any rate, one of the courses of the world, fit to hold up its head with St Andrews or Prestwick, Hoylake or Prince’s, the National or Pine Valley. This is not merely my own opinion, for I never heard a more unanimous chorus of delight than that poured out by the daily batch of returning explorers.

“It is only in the last two or three years that we have heard of Saunton. There have been vague rumours that Mr Herbert Fowler was at work upon a piece of wonderful, natural ground of which he thought unutterable things. We knew then that it must be good, but few of us, I think, expected it to be quite so good. The course is still new. In many places the lies are rather rough and even rather soft and damp, because in past days the water has lain there too long; but the problem of draining has now been tackled, and it should only be a matter of time, and not a very long time, before the fairways are really good. The greens are quite good already, if at present a little slow. So only the eye of a little faith is required as regards the details and none at all as to the general character of the ground. This is a wonder that explains itself. It is as if we suddenly found a giant diamond lying in the street. Tall sandhills with valleys between them stretch away into the distance, apparently to all eternity. Only at one other place, Dyffryn in Merioneth, have I seen such golfing country on such a gorgeous scale, so that it hardly seems real, but made rather out of the fabric of a dream. With the very first hole we begin to cry our delight aloud, only to be curbed by our caddies, who tell us in deprecating manner that this is nothing, we must wait until we come to the fourth or the fifth, or the sixteenth and seventeenth.”

Fowler retained his ability as a golfer until late in his life. In 1924, aged 68, he made his best ever score round St Andrews’ Old course, a remarkable 70. He died in April 1941, aged 84.

This article first appeared in issue 29 of GCA, published July 2012.

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