Early Golf in Tasmania

Myths and misconceptions regarding early golf in Tasmania

The author questions some of the claims made for the earliest known golf played at Ratho Farm in Bothwell, Tasmania. There is reliable evidence for golf first being played somewhere in the Bothwell area about 1860. The article presents primary source evidence for the earliest known dates when Ratho was used for golf and when the Bothwell Golf Club adopted Ratho as their home course.

The Australasian Golf Museum in Bothwell has been asked for comment on the research detailed below and as yet, no comment has been forthcoming.

Published in 1975, Muir MacLaren’s 5th edition of The Australian and New Zealand Golfer’s Handbook contained in a chapter on the Royal Hobart Golf Club by R C Porter was the following paragraph,

Denis Crawford, in his researches into golf history, reveals that Tasmania has the honour of introducing golf to Australia, some twenty years before Melbourne‘s first golf links. Mr Alexander Reid, a pioneer of Bothwell in the Midlands of Tasmania, brought with him his golf sticks and golf balls from Scotland in the 1820’s and the game of golf was played at Ratho and the Logan Flats during the 1830’s. Again a copy of the Colonial Times reports in 1827 a game of golf being played by two young Scotsmen. It is unfortunate that no details are given of where the game was played in Tasmania and who the young Scotsmen were.

Unfortunately R C Porter did not check Denis Crawford’s research and for 35 years the statements made were perpetuated by golf writers to the point that the above statements are generally accepted as fact. New findings dispute this.

The Importance of Primary Sources

Firstly, regarding the incident of the two Scotsmen playing
golf without details given in the report of where the game was played, the Colonial Times dated 6th April, 1827 named the game as shinty and gives a description of what is clearly a game of shinty – a lively Gaelic team sport similar to hockey. Unfortunately, the original report confuses the game with golf.

Cutting from the Colonial Times – April 6th, 1827

Secondly, Crawford’s apparent source for his research on Alexander Reid was The History of Bothwell and its Early Settlers written in 1958 by K R Von Stieglitz in which Von Stieglitz interviews Alexander Reid’s grandson, A. A. Reid. After describing his involvement in football and cricket matches, Reid talked about golf.

The first golf links were laid out at Logan, which was just over the Clyde from Ratho, but the ground was not really suitable. Then we started links at Ratho, and the club has been there ever since. I think my family must have been one of the first to introduce golf out here, and I can remember seeing some very old fashioned golf clubs and golf balls in the early {eighteen} seventies, before I went to school. They were kept in a long box with some croquet mallets, but were given to a schoolmaster who afterwards went to live in New Zealand, and I have no idea where they are now. They could have been brought out in 1822, with my grandfather’s things, but I think more likely they arrived in 1839 when my people returned from a trip to Scotland. 

From this, Von Stieglitz concludes in his summary of sport in Bothwell, that golf was played on links at Ratho and Logan Flats during the 1830s, with primitive clubs and golf balls brought out by pioneer Alexander Reid. The Australian Dictionary of Bibliography states that: “Von Stieglitz was best known for his contributions to local history. The books lacked a chronological or thematic framework, and included unverified stories …

The Williams Correspodence

In January 2010, I located a letter from Mrs Jane Williams to
The Mercury newspaper published on 28th July I890, which
puts the introduction of golf to the Bothwell district as about
1860. The letter was in response to a report in The Mercury of
22nd ]uly 1890, where the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Robert G Hamilton expressed a wish to see golf introduced to Australia.

Jane Williams’ letter 1890 to the Mercury newspaper. The spelling of Dunedin as Dumashee was corrected in the Mercury of July 31st, 1890.

The new information from Jane Williams is of great significance as she was the eldest child of the 1820s pioneer, Alexander Reid. Jane was born in 1814 at Leith, Scotland, and was eight when she arrived with her family in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. Soon afterwards the family moved to granted land at Bothwell and named the property Ratho. In 1829 she married a British Army Captain, William Williams, who at the time was the Bothwell Police magistrate. In 1830 Jane travelled with her husband to Madras, India but he died there in 1834 whilst serving with 40th Regiment. A widowed Jane returned to Bothwell in early 1835 and spent her remaining years with her parents and brother at Ratho except for the period of the family’s return to Scotland from 1838 to 1842.

Jane Williams and her brother Alexander Reid II, circa 1840

Jane was considered an authority on the history of Bothwell and her writings, journal and letters are an integral part of the Clyde Company Papers. These are reproduced in a seven volume history of The Clyde Company, which was an extensive pastoral business, and are the main reference work for the Bothwell Historical Society. Alexander Reid,  Jane’s father, died in 1858, having suffered from chronic illness for about ten years. Jane died in March 1897.

William Blackburn Wood, mentioned as the originator of golf in Tasmania, was the son of Captain Patrick Wood of the Madras Army. In 1822 Captain Wood led a party of Scots to settle in Bothwell, Tasmania. He was given a land grant and established the Dennistoun Estate and was an original partner of The Clyde Company. The Wood family left Bothwell in 1839 and returned to Edinburgh, Scotland, where William Wood and his brothers were educated at Edinburgh Academy (Caledonian Mercury, Edinburgh, 29th ]uly, 1850).  The Hobart Town Daily Mercury of the of 23rd of February 1860 gives an account of William Wood returning to Tasmania on the ship Aurora Australis. Wood settled on the famiiy’s estate, Dennistoun, where, we might reasonably assume, he played his golf. A keen sportsman, William was the opening batsman for the Bothwell cricket team and was actively involved in the Melton Mowbray Steeplechase Club and the local hunt club the Mowbray Hounds, who would often run on the Dennistoun Estate. He died suddenly on 1st August, 1866, at the age of only 30 and was buried at Dennistoun Estate.

JohnBrownParkThe state schoolmaster was John Brown Park, who was appointed as a senior teacher for Tasmania in 1855. Park was born at Strathbungo, Glasgow , Scotland on the 14th January, 1821. He was a teacher at Loanhead near Edinburgh prior to his arrival in Tasmania. After a dispute in the reduction of his teaching salary  he resigned and left Bothwell in 1864 for New Zealand to become schoolmaster at Dunedin South School. In the 1870s Park was Secretary of the Dunedin Golf Club, which when founded in 1871, earned the distinction of being the first golf club in New Zealand. John Brown Park died in Dunedin in 1891.

The letter from Jane Williams suggests that:

  1. William Wood introduced golf to Tasmania around 1860.
  2. He played in the Bothwell district, probably on the Dennistoun Estate.
  3. Alexander Reid II (Aleck) gave Wood’s clubs to the former Bothwell schoolmaster some time after Wood’s death in 1866.

The reliability of the information given in Jane Williams’ letter is further strengthened in a letter written by A. A. Reid to Harry Culliton, golf columnist, and published in the The Australasian on 8th March I930.

I thought it might be interesting to know I came upon an old letter written by my father in the early (eighteen) sixties, where he said they are forming a golf club here at Bothwell with 15 or 16 members. I myself can just remember the queer shaped old clubs which were kept in a long box and remained for a good while. They were eventually sent to a schoolmaster in New Zealand who had asked for them – for which I am extremely sorry, as they would have been great curios now.

Ratho Links and Bothwell Golf Club

It is significant that Mrs Williams’ letter does not mention
her father, Alexander Reid, playing golf; nor did it mention a
golf course at Ratho, either at the time of writing or previ-
ously. Instead she states that ‘golf ceased to be practised in
Bothwell’ and that ‘the implements of the game’ were sent to
New Zealand, these events occurring in the 1860s. Mrs
Williams’ letter states that golf was introduced to the
Bothwell area 30 years prior to 1890, i.e. about 1860. This
evidence runs counter to the belief that Ratho ‘golf links’
date back to much earlier. This led the current author to wonder how old the Ratho ‘golf links’ were.

We are indebted to AGHS member, Ross Baker, for providing the earliest known primary evidence of golf played on Ratho. This evidence was found by Ross in the diary of Frederick (Fred) McDowall. Fred McDowall was son of Archibald McDowell of Logan, and had grown up as a great friend of A. A. Reid sharing a common interest and participation in most sports. His diary records on 24th August 1901 that Fred McDowell ‘had first game of golf at Ratho links. A. Reid 67, Griffiths 76, Fred McDowall 85 for 9 holes”. Evidently these three were novice golfers.

The current Bothwell Club was formed at a meeting on 3rd ]une, 1902. From the minutes of that meeting we know this motion was carried — “That with the consent of F. McDowall The ‘Links’ be laid out on ‘Logan’.” At a club meeting at Logan on 10th June, 1902 it was agreed “That funds be applied towards making and upkeep of links “. Fred McDowall, A. A. Reid and Police Sergeant Charles Griffiths were amongst the foundation members. During that year their golf had noticeably improved since their first games at Ratho, with Reid (from the diary) getting round 18 holes in 110 and McDowall in 112; by 1903 Griffiths, McDowall and Reid had handicaps of 3, 3 and 4 respectively. The golf course remained at Logan until 1910. This is determined by the Annual General Meeting of the Club, reported in The Mercury newspaper. Up until 1905 Mr Archibald McDowall (III), owner of Logan, was given a vote of thanks for the use of ‘the links’, whereas in the period 1906 to 1910, Mr Norfolk, Wise,
Mrs Wise (Archibald McDowall’s daughter) and Miss McDowell (Mrs Wise’s sister) were thanked.

In 1911, the Tasmania Mail reports that Cluny ‘links’ were being used. Cluny Farm was owned by Lawrence Cleghorn Cockburn. It seemed to be a temporary course until the course was completed at Ratho Estate.

From July 1911 we start to get evidence of Ratho becoming established home of the Bothwell Golf Club. The Tasmanian Mail’s golf column of ]uly 20, 1911, reported that:

…next Saturday the new links on the Ratho Estate are to be opened
and a mixed foursome competition has been arranged to celebrate the event. I have been told that the natural turf is far more suited to golf than the present links, so l presume that Ratho will ultimately
become the recognised Bothwell course.

The Tasmanian Mail golf column reported the following week that the Ratho course opening had been postponed until 5th August, 1911. The formal opening did proceed and the Mercury of 8th August, 1911 gave the following report.

Mr and Mrs Reid gave a golf afternoon on the newly laid out Ratho
links at Bothwell on Saturday… The new course is a really excellent
one, the turf being naturally suitable for golf, the grass greens are all
wonderfully good. Every hole has its difficulties, and the sporting
nature of the course adds to its attractiveness. The length of the
course (9 holes) is 2551 yards. Mr and Mrs Dennistoun Wood and
other visitors were present.

From the minutes of the Bothwell club, at the Annual General Meeting on 2nd March 1912 Mr A. A. Reid offered to place the Ratho links at the disposal of the club. As a compromise it was resolved, “That for the coming season matches be played on alternate Saturdays at Logan and Ratho.” Mr N. Wise, who objected to the motion then stated, “that the club must discontinue playing as a golf club on Logan”.

The newspaper reports tally perfectly with A. A. Reid’s
recollections of golf in Bothwell in the Von Stieglitz book,
as he was talking of his time in the current Bothwell Golf
Club, and as he is quoted as saying in that book ‘and the
club has been there ever since’. So 2012 was the centenary of the Bothwell Golf Club’s move to Ratho Links.

Von Stieglitz made the error of associating Logan course (1902) and Ratho course (1911), with A. A. Reid’s conjectures about the golf clubs in his parent’s home and linking this to the return of his forebears from Scotland in what he thought was 1839. It has been perpetuated by writers since the time of MacLaren’s book, and hopefully now the error stands corrected. Bothwell still has much to
be proud of regarding its golf history; as it stands now it was the first place in Tasmania to play golf — about 1860 —and still very early for Australia. Only 1839 – Grose Farm in Sydney, in 1847 – the vicinity of  Flagstaff Hill in Melbourne, in 1852 – Homebush in Sydney and in 1857- Hyde Park in Sydney have been found to have beaten them to it. Refer to the timeline for a clear picture of events in this period

Brown, PL The Narrative of George Russell, Oxford University Press. 1935.
Brown, PL The Clyde Company Papers Volumes I-.7, Oxford University Press. 1952-71.
Kelly, GM Golf in New Zealand -A Centennial History. New Zealand Golf Assoc. 1971.
MacLaren, M (Ed) The Australian and New Zealand Golfers Handbook (5th Edition). AH & AAW Reed. 1975
Von Stieglitz, K R. The History of Bothwell and its Early Settlers. Telegraph Printery. 1958.
Additional Bibliography

Colonial Times, The Mercury, Tasmanian Mail, Launceston Examiner: The Australasian
Newspaper resources were researched using the Trove search engine of the National Library of Australia.
Minutes of The Bothwell Golf Club 1902 -1919 held at the State Library of Tasmania, Hobart.

Information on John Brown Park was given by his great great grandson Stuart Park, Kerikeri, New Zealand.

Note: This article is a revised and updated version of an article
entitled  Australia’s Honour? published in the June 2011 issue of Through the Green, magazine of the British Golf Collectors Society. It was also published in the Summer 2015 edition of The Brassie