Politicians

The War is Being Conducted from Walton

Lloyd George, Churchill and Co. make the Club a political annexe
(An extract from the club's centenary history - Heather & Heaven)

We must make the British people understand that we are at war,' thundered Lord Kitchener in 1914, three days after the start of World War I, at a meeting attended by Sir George Riddell. ‘They should give up playing and watching games,' the Minister for War continued, ‘War is the game now!' Two days later Riddell was playing golf at Walton Heath.

What is more, he was accompanied by David Lloyd George - Chancellor of the Exchequer, soon to be made Minister for Munitions and destined to become Prime Minister.

The scene no doubt would have incensed Kitchener had he witnessed it. So would the knowledge that not long ago, as war threatened, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had been golfing on the heath once or twice a week for a year. ‘The war is obviously being conducted from Walton's 19th hole,' someone said after Lloyd George became prime minister of the coalition government in 1916. ‘Clearly, far more of the business of Britain was done on Walton Heath than in the House of Commons,' another author commented in retrospect.

Angrily as Kitchener might have fixed these golfing politicians with the same stern eyes and pointing finger of his recruiting posters (‘Your country needs YOU'), Lloyd George and Churchill could have mounted a spirited defence. Walton Heath had become their haven; a safe house, a refuge for relaxation, where the fresh air might clear the mind, the game act as therapy and the clubhouse serve as a chamber for chat among friends and colleagues.

And there was a phalanx of those friends and colleagues. On the eve of war the membership included four past or future Prime Ministers (Balfour and Bonar Law as well as Lloyd George and Churchill), the Chancellor and First Lord, the Home Secretary (Reginald McKenna), the Secretary of State for War (Jack Seely), the Lord Chief Justice of England (Rufus Isaacs), the Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Charles Masterman), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Home Office (Ellis Griffith), the Secretary of State for India (the Earl of Crewe), a former Conservative Lord Chancellor (Lord Halsbury), the Liberal Chief Whip (Percy Illingworth), his predecessor (Alex Murray) and two of Lloyd George's private secretaries, plus others.

The Club boasted at least 24 MPs and 21 members of the Upper House and no party had exclusivity. Cosmo Bonsor, Gathorne-Hardy and Mallaby-Deeley, leading figures when the club began, all became Tory MPs. Now the Liberals were in power and had joined Walton Heath in droves. One day, Riddell and Seely, both Liberals, bumped into Bonar Law, who had recently succeeded Balfour as leader of the Conservatives. ‘We were wondering whether it would be consistent with the decencies of political life if you and your partner were to play a foursome with us this afternoon,' said Riddell. Law smiled, but disappointingly made an excuse!

Churchill, who crossed the floor of the House twice in his career, had defected to the Liberals. He and Lloyd George once arrived at the final hole all-square. ‘Right,' said Winston, ‘Now I'll putt you for the premiership.' So the story goes - and as it was told by a clergyman it may even be true!

There are no prizes for guessing the prime mover in mobilising this political invasion of Walton Heath. Bonsor may have helped begin it, but Riddell emphatically took over - as he took over almost everything and everyone he touched. Golf had become a fashionable fad for parliamentarians and Riddell manipulated the situation to his and the club's advantage.

He had first met Lloyd George as a solicitor, almost certainly through Lascelles Carr and the Western Mail. Now, helped by his rise at the News of the World and increasing wealth, he reeled in the dynamic Welshman as his prize catch and as a result soon had the ear of other leading politicians.

More to the point, they had his ear, for Riddell was consumed with curiosity about them, thirsted for information from them, revelled in their company and hung on their every word. As he was nobody's political rival great figures divulged opinions, even secrets to him that they would have reserved in other company.

Riddell persuaded Lloyd George, then 44, to join the club at the end of 1907. He became his audience, listening post, sounding board, informant, occasional adviser and general confidant. His Rolls could be placed at the politician's disposal and so could his elegant London house, 20 Queen Anne's Gate. Early in their friendship he gave him a gold watch, but later it would be a car and between times he built him a house - Cliftondown, which was promptly bombed and damaged by the Suffragettes a few days before its completion.

At golf Lloyd George was steady rather than stylish but no pushover, particularly when partnered and protected by Braid. He was playing off 15 when war broke out and claimed that he once got down to 13. That is quite believable - particularly if you trust his word on golf more than many did in politics. ‘I could never hit a long ball at golf,' he said, ‘but, unlike what might be imagined, I was always straight!'

Above all he was enthusiastic. On the day of a big debate in the Commons prime minister Asquith showed surprise at seeing his chancellor in golfing gear - ‘but I told him I'd be back in time to take part.' In October 1918, when he was prime minister and sweating on peace, he phoned Riddell and invited him to lunch at 10 Downing Street. ‘One o'clock sharp,' he stressed, ‘so that we can go to Walton and play golf.'

The only day he would not play, in this country at least, was Sunday. Indeed, he did not actually play with Riddell that day during the first week of war. August 9 was a Sunday so he compromised: he walked the holes but left his clubs indoors.

One day in March 1915, keen for an antidote to the bulletins from the trenches, he was avidly looking forward to his Saturday game and Sunday rest at Walton when a message arrived from Buckingham Palace requesting his presence at a Saturday meeting with King George V. ‘Damn the King,' he said. When he sent back a reply that he had planned to go away but that if the king wanted to see him he would of course cancel, the monarch said that he certainly would not wish to interfere with the chancellor's weekend. ‘God save the King,' said Lloyd George.

When he was prime minister his golfing schedule was inevitably disrupted and he might go three or four months without playing. He would come to Walton but remain in his repaired Cliftondown, secluded with his then mistress, Frances Stevenson, and imagining that he could hear the guns from the French battlefields. On the afternoon of June 7, 1917, he walked across to the eighth hole and there apparently heard the explosion caused by the blowing apart of the Messines Ridge, timed to take place at a particular hour.

When he did get out on the course impromptu and protracted political conferences would take place on fairways or greens. Did any impatient members, Conservatives perhaps, ever try to drive through him? No such breach of etiquette or patriotism is on record; I mean, would a Walton Heath man ever...!

Some did bristle at their prime minister's warped sense of priorities. One day LG joined Riddell, who was playing in a three-ball. A big battle was raging and he had been unable to relax. There were lengthy conversations. Then a detective arrived with a reassuring message from the Front. This made LG happier but not the three-ball behind. ‘Look here, old chap,' said one of them, ‘Are we playing golf, or are we not?'

If Riddell and Walton Heath were profiting from the presence of Lloyd George, LG was profiting from Walton Heath. He was, in the view of journalist-author Frank Owen, ‘making full use of golf... not only for exercise but for developing political friendships, mellowing opposition and generally extending his personal activities.'

Churchill, who joined in 1910 when he was 36 and home secretary, was by contrast often a reluctant player, inclined to regard golf as a mere adjunct to conversation. At times he had to be dug out from the clubhouse, where he might be studying the trial of Charles I or rehearsing aloud the proclamation he was to deliver at the investiture of Edward, Prince of Wales. Golf took low priority in his life. Lloyd George said that he had never met anyone with such a passion for politics and that after his marriage ceremony Winston began discussing world events in the vestry, oblivious to the need to escort his bride Clementine from the church. 

But even Churchill recognised the game's therapeutic qualities. ‘My Darling One,' he wrote to Clemmie, ‘I shall be back tomorrow between 11 and 12 and I thought it would do us both good to play a little golf at Walton Heath.' Once, on an afternoon of sunshine and showers, he called his playing partner to his side and recited:

Why am I loth to leave this earthly scene?
Have I so found it full of pleasing charms?
Some drops of joy with draughts of ill between;
Some gleams of sunshine ‘mid renewing storms.

Another day Britain's most notorious war leader picked up a worm from the fairway and tenderly placed it on some bracken. ‘Poor fellow,' he said, ‘If I'd left you there some ruthless boot would have trampled on you.'

According to the novelist Somerset Maugham (credentials as a golf critic uncertain), Churchill was not only a reluctant player but a poor one - an assessment that will perturb those readers who play off 18, as Winston claimed to do. Braid, reluctant to describe his game, awarded him a place in golf history, apparently declaring that the great man actually invented the greensome. Perhaps Sir Frederic Hamilton, club chairman in a later era, was alluding to that format when he said that ‘by selecting Braid as his partner Churchill was able to win a fair proportion of his matches while not unduly hampering the efforts of others.'

Churchill and Lloyd George both found time to serve on the club's wartime committees and were made honorary members. Clemmie also became a Walton Heath member. With the ladies' membership virtually full, she was offered only ‘provisional' entry. How embarrassing. Imagine Riddell's reaction! She was rapidly fast-tracked into the permanent category.

Bonar Law was less robust than Churchill and LG, more prone to personal and professional pressures, and Riddell once found him with tears coursing down his cheeks. He did not play as much as he might have done, but for all that claimed to have accepted the leadership of the Conservatives only on the understanding that he would continue life in his own way: ‘I like my golf, it keeps me in health and I don't mean to give it up,' he said. Out on the heath he told a partner that he didn't know how he could have withstood the strains of life without it.

How are we privy to all these conversational titbits? Through Riddell, of course! The clubhouse, the fairways, the dormy house and Cliftondown joined Downing Street, Queen Anne's Gate, country houses, the Savoy dining table and the plush seats of his Rolls as venues for talk with the great, the good and the not-so-good. Strikes, conspiracies, scandals, budgets, Ireland, the war - these were the topics. And everywhere Riddell was listening, memorising, transcribing; nibbling up morsels for the News of the World and later repaying the talkers, who didn't seem to mind, by publishing three volumes of his diaries. He gave instructions that the full, handwritten versions should be kept from the public until 50 years after his death - and then came a fourth book, edited by Professor John McEwen.

The diaries are overwhelmingly political, but viewed in a golf club context the gossip quoted elevates criticism of members by fellow members to an art form! Thus, ‘Winston has acted like an extravagant boy given a bank account for the first time' - Lloyd George at the club, referring to Churchill's demands for the Royal Navy. ‘Lloyd George is a nice man but the most dangerous little rascal who ever lived' - Bonar Law during a golfing day. ‘Masterman is incompetent... unfit to organise a Sunday School' - Riddell's own comment. As for Robert Donald, The Daily Chronicle editor and playing partner of the politicians, he was eventually seen by Lloyd George as ‘an enemy who must be destroyed,' and his newspaper, which had been critical, was bought from under him. 

The spice, the ingredient that for years established the club's character and lent drama, intrigue and secrecy to the place, was this gathering of great political figures using Walton Heath as an extension of their offices and debating chambers. Longhurst recalled how this character reached its zenith during that first world war:

...a kind of political eminence which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, attained by any other golf club in the world...Historic decisions were made there, Cabinet ministers appointed and the fate of millions decided.

Dispatch boxes were locked in the safe as the great figures went out to play. At least one political secret was unwittingly disclosed here and found its way into the headlines. For most of the time, though, we may be sure that such disclosures were delivered in huddles and hushed tones in bar or lounge, in the isolation of heath and heather, within the privacy of Riddell's room in the dormy house or at meetings and dinners at Cliftondown.

Secrets? Consider Lloyd George, covered in soap suds after a game, being told by Churchill that he had let drop to Riddell that he was leaving the Home Office and going to the Admiralty (‘You must tell no one!')... Churchill reporting that, with war on the horizon, our ammunition stores were practically unprotected... LG saying that unless our military methods changed we would be beaten and admitting that the public could not be told the truth... and as late as March 1918, on ‘Black Saturday,' having to rush back to London, confiding that the Germans had broken through our lines and that the Third and Fifth Armies had been defeated... all these disclosures were whispered at Walton.

Melodramatic thoughts arise. What if a spy had infiltrated the membership? What if the clubhouse had been ‘bugged'! What might our enemies have learned! Mercifully, on November 11, 1918, Riddell's diary records ‘Armistice Day. Peace at last.'

What a vibrant membership this was! These were interesting men, with stories to recount and the intelligence and wit to tell them well. It is circa 1913/14. Enter the clubhouse. Conjure up a composite scene like the old paintings in which all the worthies are present at one time.

Lloyd George and Riddell outside Cliftontown

Exercising his renowned wit may be F.E. Smith, the future Lord Birkenhead, soon to become attorney general... and the central figure in the group over there is Rufus Isaacs, KC, or Lord Reading as he will become, the Lord Chief Justice. He is Jewish and therefore, having avoided the ‘one-black-ball-in-seven-or-two-in-any-number' that spelt exclusion to applicants, a rarity in a golf club at this time. Earlier, out on the course, he has been bewailing the bad lies that have afflicted him. ‘Bad lies?‘ Lloyd George exclaims, ‘As a cross-examiner, you should be an expert at them!' Should you see the two in muffled discourse with Murray, the former Liberal chief whip, the subject may even be the Marconi insider-trading affair controversy, in which all were involved.

This pre-war atmosphere is convivial - less exclusive than in the country houses where the Victorian political elite had sought recreation. But it is not riotous. There is a considerable teetotal influence; Lloyd George, Law and Isaacs, to name but three, join those who, like Riddell and Fowler, drink little or not at all.

But not all these men in this composite clubhouse scene are politicians. If the entire membership were to be lined up you could now find 21 dukes, marquesses and earls, nine barons, three baronets, 22 knights, two bishops, an admiral and four clergy. A host of them, like many of the parliamentarians, have been attracted in through the board's special deals variously described in the minute books, where Mr. X is a ‘special' member, Colonel Y is ‘honorary' and Sir XYZ has been ‘elected without fee.'

That group in the corner includes Press lords and newspapermen (Sir Max Aitken, Sir Harold Harmsworth and others)... this one embraces Lord Knollys, private secretary to George V... over there sits the Lord Mayor of London... and the Bishop of London is there, too. Heroism is also represented, indeed anticipated. Sir Ernest Shackleton's election has been minuted on July 4, 1914. Six months hence, with Endurance crushed in the Antarctic ice, he will be drifting on ice floes prior to his 800-mile open-boat journey to South Georgia and the crossing of its mountainous interior. Admiral David Beatty will lead the Battle of Jutland and command the Grand Fleet.

The less recognisable figures? They are probably merely golfers! High status seems as important as a low handicap. Look at your membership book. According to this only half the 758 male members have handicaps - which can not be completely true but emphasises that Walton Heath is not exclusively concerned with golf.

Nevertheless some top internationals can be spotted, past heroes resting on their laurels. Horace Hutchinson was twice Amateur champion and now, at 54, writes prolifically and perceptively about the game, not least in Country Life. Edward Blackwell, it is claimed, once drove from the 18th tee at St. Andrews to the clubhouse steps with a gutta percha ball, and according to who tells you the story that meant 340 or 366 yards and the longest-ever strike with a guttty. The erudite John Low, whom we have met in connection with Fowler, had the temerity a few years ago to predict that Americans would soon be invading and perhaps winning on British courses (‘Already I hear the hooting of their steamers in the Mersey').

Two of the group are younger. John Graham has several times been leading amateur in the Open and can still win the Amateur title his talent deserves. How are we to know that he will be killed in the war? As to Bernard Darwin, his literary career has scarcely begun and he plays off plus-two. He will eventually bring his tally of England appearances to eight; also go to the States to report the first Walker Cup for The Times and find himself whisked into the team as captain when Robert Harris, another Walton member, falls ill.

One senses the hand of Fowler in attracting some of these golfers, but the prime recruiter of the fashionable and famous has obviously been Riddell. Other clubs can have the runners-up and also-rans of life; the Walton Heath policy is elitist. The members have to be the best; everything first class.

This multi-charactered membership forms a web, and its strands cross, tying together different factions: a collusive network, well hyped from without, strong within its own boundaries and profoundly influencing the area and people outside them.

We have met the politicians... The Press barons, editors and writers are their potential allies or enemies and mutual interests are involved. As the politicians ascend, businessmen in the club find important jobs. One is Stephenson Kent. When he gave evidence in the case of the dead caddie back in 1905 he was described as a coal contractor; surely he is the same Stephenson Kent who will become director-general of munitions labour supply under Lloyd George's premiership (and, incidentally, warn the government that the country is on the verge of revolution)? Another businessman member, James Stevenson, will also go to the ministry of munitions and eventually become Lord Stevenson.

Occasionally, in this mishmash of more than 900 male and female members, individuals may find that their interests and ambitions conflict. Will not McKenna, the home secretary, be a factor in the Riddell-Le Bas feud previously described? Le Bas, so it is reported, has allied himself to McKenna in his rivalry with Riddell for Lloyd George's friendship. McKenna lives in a Lutyens house and is thus also part of the Country Life clique - which is yet another thread in the web, endowing the club with prestigious publicity, touching it with aestheticism and conspiring with it to influence the village.

I should, perhaps, complete the story of Lloyd George and Riddell. After the war LG appointed his friend Britain's press liaison officer at the various peace conferences and it was at this stage that their association ended.

Their partnership had benefited both, probably in equal measures. The politician had received largesse, hospitality, inside information about others' thoughts and actions, sensible opinions and invaluable advice on press and publicity; Riddell had been swept up the ladder, making valuable contacts, garnering privileged information and progressing through knighthood and baronetcy to peerage. There was huge opposition to his peerage because he was divorced, but his friend bulldozed it through. The payment-for-honours scandal was weighing heavily on Lloyd George's flowing white mane, but nobody could show that Riddell doled out to anyone for his honours, despite nudges and winks from the cynics.

They fell out over international politics (LG bitterly anti-French and anti-Turk, Riddell the opposite), assisted by a deteriorating personal relationship (Riddell perhaps a little too big for his boots, LG autocratic and sensitive to criticism). The first rupture came in 1920 and, if you believe tittle-tattle, was rendered incurable once the politician's dog - according to whom you listen, a black chow or Bill the Airedale - pinned His Petrified Lordship to a chair for an hour while LG strolled in his garden in ignorance.

After 1922, when Lloyd George lost the premiership, they rarely met. The News of the World had supported Bonar Law in the election and some felt, perhaps unfairly, that Riddell now had less time for his old friend. LG sold Cliftondown, which had cost Riddell £2,000, for £7,000, moving first to Chobham, then Churt. The cord between him and Walton Heath loosened and lengthened, though his son Gwylm was soon to join the club, and the directors decided that he should come off the committee. Riddell and LG apparently played their last games not on the heath but at clubs like St. George's Hill, Coombe Hill, Burhill and Hindhead.