The first croquet club in the Bowdon area was at the tennis club at the end of Winton Road, founded in 1873 as the Bowdon Bowling and Croquet Club, which is thought to make it the seventh oldest croquet club in the country. It was, incidentally, at its formation or soon afterwards, constituted as a limited company; probably one of the very earliest so created in the country. The ground had previously been used by the Bowdon Cricket Club, originally formed in the summer of 1856, by a few men who started practising on land at Rose Hill, where later a Wesleyan Chapel and then a school run by Mr. Pearce were built. However, the pitch was rough, being either cut by scythe, or cropped by sheep, so in 1865 they moved to a venue in Stamford Road. Their members included names such as Willis Mudd, son of the photographer, Sir Joseph Spencer, an M.P., and Alexander Ireland, Jnr., publisher. The club then moved to South Downs Road, where the pavilion was built in 1874. Then and on a subsequent occasion, a Miss Bickham helped financially in buying the land, in remembrance of her brother who was a player. This cricket team may be considered as the Gentleman’s team, but a player’s team, made up originally of chauffeurs, gardeners and servants from the big houses (and sometimes referred to as Lord Stamford’s team), had their ground on the Devisdale (still marked on the “A to Z” map). Only a couple of years ago, the pavilion collapsed (and the remnants may still be there), situated near to a ring of trees which surround a cottage.
The surviving minutes of the croquet club date from 1885 and although references to croquet are sparse, a few items of interest are recorded. Members were only permitted to bring individual guests on two occasions in any one year. On 12th June, 1907, the members decided to convert the croquet lawns into tennis courts. By 1909, tennis had gained predominance and at another meeting on 1st April that year, it was resolved to change the name of the club to The Bowdon Bowling and Tennis Club. It is interesting to note that part of the ground was donated by a neighbouring resident and covenanted to remain an open space to be used for sport. This decision resulted in 1911, in a group breaking away to found the Bowdon Croquet Club, on the site we still occupy, off St. Mary’s Road. A Mrs. Duggan was instrumental in suggesting the site of the new club, being elected the first President and she and her husband, Dr. Duggan, were also Ground Managers with Mr. Pearce, Secretary and Treasurer; Mrs. Graffton, Vice President, and her husband, were also created Life Members.
At their founding meeting at the St. Margaret’s Institute, a constitution was decided, including a clause which limited the membership to 60, (and 26 non-playing members), with the proviso that this could be increased to 80 if desirable. Letters were circulated to those who the committee thought might be interested in joining, resulting in a total of 75 potential playing members; the limit of 60 playing members was therefore increased to 80 (with 50 non-playing members, rising to 60 if required). This indicates a high level of enthusiasm for the game still existed in the area. The initial subscriptions were set at one guinea for entry fee; one pound and five shillings for playing membership and half a guinea for honorary, non-playing members. The cost of laying out the grounds was estimated at £188 and the cost of the pavilion, between £130 and £150. It seems that a major sideline for club members was the playing of Auction Bridge, to The Portland Club Laws; weekly competitions being held in the Assembly Rooms (and bridge continued up until 1962, when it seems to have petered out). In 1913, the permitted number of playing members was increased to 90.
Under these flourishing conditions, it was decided to hold the first tournament during the period 21st July to the 26th and for this purpose various additional croquet grounds were made use of. The Ladies Lawn Tennis Club was approached for the use of their green and (by reference to letters of apology in the minutes for subsequent years, it would seem) the greens at nearby residences were also used, including the Dunham Road end of Green Walk; High Croft at the end of Park Road; and Dunham Knoll, at the end of Devisdale Road, built after 1878. There were, additionally, at least three houses along The Firs with croquet greens. [In passing, it is worth noting that the Bowdon Ladies Lawn Tennis Club was situated on the Devisdale near Dunham Knoll (and should not be confused with the St. Margaret’s courts on Bentinck Road). They took part, by invitation, with the men’s club at the bottom of Elcho Road, in tournaments and their pavilion was moved in the 1920’s to the men’s club, on amalgamation, being the building nearest the entrance on Elcho Road, now used as the groundsman’s storage hut. The most prized trophies that the club now holds are the two cups, one for each partner, dating from 1893, awarded to the winners of the Mixed Doubles Handicap Competition].
In 1914, a field adjoining the existing croquet ground became available for sale or lease and the club approached the land agent with a view to expanding the facilities of the club. However, this proposal caused some consternation in the local Bowdon schools, as they used the grounds for drill, games and for gardening, in the form of allotments. A School Manager contacted the club, protesting strongly against the scheme. An agent for the Archdeacon telephoned to say that he had agreed to a lease on the understanding that the allotments remained. The club accepted these conditions and agreed to a rent of £10 per annum; the schools were to be offered an alternative field for their drill use. The matter does not end there, however, as the next day a deputation arrived at the club pleading that the alternative field was not suitable for their use and it was an absolute necessity for them to have continued use of the half acre field as, if they did not, the grant from the County Council, specifically for that land, would be lost. The outcome was that the Stamford Estates allowed the schools to continue their use of the field with the club having first refusal, should the Bowdon Schools Managers terminate their lease.
The fortunes of the club have varied from time to time, but they were certainly enhanced by Lord Tollemache of Peckforton Castle and his wife becoming country members in April, 1920; only resigning in March, 1940. (Lord Tollemache’s family can claim Saxon ancestors with a seat at Bentley, in Suffolk; the origin of the name is said to come from “tollmack” – “tolling the bell”). His lordship had a green at residence and through constant practice had become an enthusiastic and skilled player. As a newcomer to tournament competition, he entered the 1910 National Open Doubles, causing quite a stir by announcing before he played that he would “triple peel his opponent and peg him out”! Such confidence was vindicated by the result, when his actions proved as good as his word.
In 1914, he published a book on how he thought the game should be played, packing it full of photographs of himself demonstrating strokes and techniques. He produced another after the second world war, written for advanced players, updating the strategy and playing methods required, to keep abreast of modern developments. On joining Bowdon, he enhanced the club’s prestige and, being a talented personality, drew players to the club, but it was not until March, 1938, that he was elected to the committee. He raised the club playing standard by holding coaching sessions. Annual house parties, which he hosted to encourage the participation of top players during the annual club tournament also added to the club’s attractions, such that a waiting list developed of eager potential members. Lord Tollemache died in 1955.
During the period of WW1, all energies were devoted to the war effort and, as a consequence, the upkeep of the greens could not be sustained; in fact, during 1917, sheep grazed on the lawns, a “fowl-house” was erected on the terrace, wounded soldiers were allowed the use of one of the lawns and the club house was used to house nurses staffing the Haigh Lawn Annexe Hospital, in St. Margaret’s Road. The sheep proved a failure and were replaced by goats, the milk being sold to the Haigh Lawn Hospital for the benefit of “delicate soldiers”. In 1919, these wartime arrangements came to an end and the club’s sporting activities resumed.
In 1925, Lady Crossley was elected Club President. Between the wars, a revival produced some notable players including, in 1937, Charles Colman, who won the British Open Championship and the following year was the first club member to be invited to take part in the more prestigious event of the President’s Cup. Each year, the best eight players are invited to compete for this honour under playing conditions which are more demanding than in any other tournament; the hoops being set tighter than the usual tolerance. The players play against each other twice.
The second world war again caused a set-back, while the Nation’s activities were redirected and, again, this had an effect on the greens. Their upkeep lapsed and they deteriorated (and it should be appreciated that the conditions of the greens has to be well neigh perfect, especially for tournament and international matches). To add to these setbacks, quite a few players were lost, victims of the conflict. The situation had reached such a crisis that, in 1962, an Extraordinary General Meeting was called to decide the fate of the club. The result of lengthy discussions was that the members passed a resolution “that an effort be made to continue the club”; they, therefore, renewed the lease from the Stamford Estates. Again a revival occurred and Bowdon recovered to produce more notable players.
Some have represented Great Britain in internationals and Test Matches; namely Colin Irwin, David Maugham, Ian Lines and Keith Aiton. David Maugham has also won the President’s Cup 4 times and twice won the American World Championship, an event where entrance is by invitation of representatives picked by National Associations. Bowdon’s ladies have also been represented at the top level. In 1999 Ailsa Lines won the Barlow Bowl, the invitation event for the top 6 lady players in the country and Jenny Williams was the 2002 British Ladies Champion. In 2004 David Maugham won the President’s Cup and Ian Lines the Chairman’s Salver. In 2005 it was Keith Aiton’s turn to win the President’s Cup and Messrs. Maugham and Aiton were two of the GB MacRobertson Shield team that convincingly won the trophy in Australia in late 2006. At present Bowdon have 9 players in the world’s top 150.
Another famous name was involved in playing croquet in the Bowdon area. Either before the war or perhaps during it, (maybe to encourage greater efforts in the production of specialist equipment at a secret meeting with the engineering mandarins of Broadheath ?), Winston Churchill came to stay at “Northlands” in Grey Road and is known to have played croquet on its surviving croquet lawn. Since 1959, the area where the ground was once laid out has been part of the garden of one of the Bowdon members, a former treasurer.
The standard of players at Bowdon is comparable with the best in the country, the clubhouse has been extended, the greens are in superb condition and, generally, the facilities have been improved to make Bowdon a club to be proud of. In recent years, Bowdon has hosted International Test Matches, including the 1996 series against the USA. and the 2010 series, again against the U.S.A.