In the cupboard, under the stairs: Meroogal and golf

Tucked away in the hall cupboard under the stairs at Meroogal is one of the house's 'unsung' gems: a set of four, hickory-shafted golf sticks, held in a slim, cylindrical, dark brown leather golf bag. 

New research1 has thrown light on the clubs' origins and ownership, provided a glimpse of the original Nowra Golf Club, and evokes the connection between one of Meroogal's earliest residents and the foundation of the club in the early years of the 20th century.

  • 1. Personal communication to the author from Vicki Stanton of the Australian Golf Heritage Society Museum / South Coast Register Historical archives.

Dating Tottie’s clubs

The manufacturers' stamps and other insignia, and the fact that all the irons are smooth-faced, enabled the reliable dating of the clubs to the period between 1881 and 1906, the transition from the late Victorian to the Edwardian period, and prior to the outbreak of WWI.

The four clubs include a fairway wood, known as a ‘brassie’ and manufactured by the British Golf Company Ltd. circa 1906, and three irons: a ‘mashie’ developed for the approach shot, by the British firm of J.H. Taylor during the 1890s; a ‘niblick’ (equivalent to a No 8 iron) by George Nicoll, whose clubs were highly sought after between 1881 and 1898, and the toe of which is stamped with an ‘L’ indicating it was a ladies’ club; and lastly, an iron made by USA Connecticut based manufacturer, Bridgeport Gun & Implement Co.(BGI), probably a Carruther’s Model cleek, and made ca.1900.

Vicki Stanton from the Australian Golf Heritage Society Museum describes this as ‘a reasonably desirable bit of gear from a collector’s point of view.’

Closeup of four metal golf club heads.
Detail of golf clubs in the bag by the door, showing 4 heads. Photo © Sue Lenne for Sydney Living Museums

Tottie Thorburn

Meroogal was built for the Thorburn family in 1885 on the edge of the new town of Nowra, and originally occupied a five-acre block bounded by West, Worrigee and Plunkett Streets, with the Shoalhaven River escarpment to the West. The youngest daughter Kennina (1865–1956), known to her family as Tottie and who was then caring for her grandparents at nearby Cambewarra, did not join her widowed mother and sisters at Meroogal, and make it her permanent home, until 1893. Then aged 28, she was an accomplished horsewoman, bushwalker, and tennis player, later described by her great niece, June Wallace, as "lively and sparkling... the very best of dispositions having a song and a smile in her voice; Titian-hair and pale-skinned... a great beauty in her youth."

Woman reclining in chair.
Tot Thorburn in the garden at Meroogal, around 1905. Unknown photographer. June Wallace Papers, Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

THE GAME OF GOLF. The growing interest in this game is most encouraging. Golf is essentially a health bringing sport, because it cannot be played without the player taking HEAPS OF EXERCISE in the open air, and to those whose business compels them to keep indoors for long spells, open air exercise is of first importance.

From an advertisement for Anthony Hordern & Sons, Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 14 September 1901

The growing sport of golf

In the opening years of the 1900s golf was a rapidly growing sport. On the South Coast, clubs were formed at Wollongong and Kiama and, following a public meeting on 25 May 1904, a club was formed at Nowra.

“The annual subscription was fixed at 2s 6d. New members may be proposed at any meeting of the club. …Play will be taken up immediately” announced the Shoalhaven Telegraph.2

Tottie was well-placed to join the inaugural club. The original course was established that year on the land directly opposite Meroogal known as the Recreation Ground, and today occupied by the Nowra Showground and neighbouring Shoalhaven Hospital. We know from reports of inter-club golf competitions printed in the local newspapers between 1905 and 1906, that Miss Tottie Thorburn was both an active member of Nowra Golf Club as well as being an office bearer - the Associate Secretary on the club’s Executive Committee.

  • 2. The Shoalhaven Telegraph; 1st June, 1904. Source: Trove Newspapers Online
Newsprint article.
Excerpt from Shoalhaven Advocate from 1905. Source: Trove.

A folio in the Meroogal collection contains a series of humorous sketches satirizing the perils of playing golf on a country course: dodging cows and even a runaway car! They were copied from the book John Henry Smith; A Humorous Romance of Outdoor Life (1905), by Frederick Upham Adams.

Could they be by Tottie? 

All the pieces of the jigsaw fit: the proximity of Meroogal to the original Nowra Golf Course, the timing of the establishment of the course in the early part of the 20th century, and the dates attributed to the manufacture of the golf clubs found at Meroogal; aligning with the period in which Tottie played golf at the new Nowra Golf Club.

Sketch of golfers looking into pond.
‘And throw it in the pond.’ Humorous sketch after John Henry Smith [actually Frederick Upham Adams] ca1910 Meroogal collection, Sydney Living Museums
Sketch of men running from bull.
‘Run! Run boys!’ Humorous sketch after John Henry Smith [actually Frederick Upham Adams] ca1910. Meroogal collection, Sydney Living Museums

Fore! Remembering Tottie at the Nowra club’s annual charity day  

On Thursday 25 May, in conjunction with its annual Hospital Charity Day, the Nowra Women's Golf Association will honour Tottie Thorburn's historic connection to their club by holding a Four Ball Irish Countdown, with players restricted to four clubs of their choice. The modern woman's golf bag may hold up to 13 clubs, so restricting play to only four clubs, as in Tottie's day, will be a real challenge for the Shoalhaven’s women golfers. 

Story by Susan Lenné

Volunteer Guide, Meroogal

Susan is a keen golfer who became hooked on the sport in her teens. Susan continues to play regularly on courses around the Shoalhaven and her interest in the sport, combined with her role as a Sydney Living Museums Volunteer Guide led to her investigating the story of the golf clubs under the stairs at Meroogal.

Sydney Living Museums Image

More information

You can read Tottie’s diaries, written between 1888–1893 and 1895–1896.

Learn more about Nowra Golf Club.

Read ‘Golf on the Recreation Ground’, an online story from the South Coast Register on history of the club.