Eltham Lodge’s Royal Heritage

Etlham Lodge & Royal Blackheath Golf Club

Eltham Lodge has a long and colourful history. A splendid example of mid – 17th century Restoration architecture, it was built in 1664 to the design of Hugh May for John Shaw, banker to King Charles II. No expense was spared in its construction, hence its inclusion in Simon Jenkin’s book, ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, where it is described as ‘a gem of Restoration architecture’. The Lodge still retains its elegant staircase and much of the original ceilings, fireplaces and paintings, together with its own unique collection of golf portraits.

Now home to Royal Blackheath Golf Club, the Lodge features a splendid 19th hole bar as well as a Lounge Bar with stunning views overlooking the 18th green.

As well as providing ideal locations for weddings and private parties, the handsomely appointed reception and dining rooms are used throughout the year by the Club for various traditional functions. Dating back to the late 18th Century and the days of ‘The Knuckle Club’ – a gentlemen’s club within the Blackheath golfing community, dining was almost a sport in itself.

Reassuringly, the ‘knuckles’ refers not to ‘fisticuffs’, but the dish of soup and beef knuckles served during meetings, for, as well as ‘the very healthful Exercise of the Golf’, club members’ winter interests included much ‘eating, drinking and merrymaking’.

It followed, that when the Club was reorganised in 1843, dining arrangements were formalised into ‘Wee Dinners’. And so the custom continues to this day, celebrated quarterly in our elegant main dining room and involving haggis, a Quaich of whisky, much toasting and often a song or two.

Golf at Blackheath through the centuries

In 1501, the Treaty of Glasgow was signed and a truce was declared between Henry VII of England and James IV of Scotland. At the end of the century, when it became obvious that Queen Elizabeth I of England would never marry, James VI of Scotland was recognised as being heir presumptive to the throne of England. Elizabeth died in 1603, and accordingly James VI of Scotland proceeded with his Scottish court to London, taking up residence at the Royal Palace in Greenwich (Elizabeth I’s birthplace) as James I of England. Since the sport had by then been played in Scotland for some 150 years, James’s entourage would inevitably have contained a number of golfers and, by climbing to the higher ground at Blackheath above the palace, these courtiers were able to find what space they needed in which to pursue their sport. We are lucky enough to have documentary evidence that they did indeed play, and of one royal player in particular – Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and James I’s son, who is known to have been golfing in 1606.

It should be remembered that the Scottish court arrived in larger numbers than might be imagined: records show that there were in excess of 50 noblemen who came south with James, and each of them was accompanied by a large retinue of servants and household officers, and so the number must have run into several thousands.

Although the crowns of England and Scotland were now held by James, the two countries were not to be fully united for another 100 years and the old hatred between them was still strong, which meant that the Scots tended to keep their own company in London. Their common interest in the sport of golf (few, if any, Englishmen at the time would ever have seen golf, let alone played it themselves) would have given them the ideal vehicle with which to do so!

These, therefore, are the circumstances which first brought golf to Blackheath, and it was from these Scottish nobility and their followers that the golfers of Blackheath are descended. We are, by birth, a Scottish club!

Blackheath Golf Club is known wherever golf is played as having been instituted in 1608. Whilst we know that golf was being played on Blackheath prior to that time by individuals with a uniquely common bond – and thus, to all intents and purposes, constituted a ‘club’ – no documentary evidence of this inception date has yet been unearthed (and no explanation offered for the selection of 1608 rather than 1603) since the Club’s accounts prior to 1787, and the minutes prior to 1800, are missing.

Nevertheless, the Club’s own artefacts evidence its existence as early as 1745, and the Edinburgh Almanac – which has listed the dates of formation of the leading golfing societies since the early 1800s – records Blackheath as having been established “prior to 1745″ as far back as 1830. Our claim to be the world’s oldest golf club has thus remained unchallenged for over 175 years.

Indeed, no less an authority than Bernard Darwin, grandson of Charles Darwin, golf correspondent of The Times for 46 years, past Captain of the Royal & Ancient and the most revered of all golf writers, began his introduction to a guide to the Club published in the 1940s with the following words:

“The Royal Blackheath Golf Club, as all the world knows, is the oldest golf club in the world.”

It is a claim of which we are justifiably proud.