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The History of the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club

The exterior of The Old Club House, St Helens, Isle of Wight
The former clubhouse of the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club is now a holiday cottage | © National Trust / Mike Henton

One of England’s very first golf clubs, the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club, opened at St Helens Duver in the 1880s, using the existing sand dunes and gorse bushes for the hazards. Now a nature reserve and no longer in use, it was once one of the country’s most prestigious courses, receiving royal patronage and attracting celebrity visitors, as well as laying the precedent for golfing rules that still apply today.

The opening of the course

When the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club course opened in 1882, it was one of the very first in England. At that time, it had just nine holes and welcomed men only. The turf was imported from Cumbria, which may explain some of the more unexpected plants seen on this land today.

It came close to challenging the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in terms of prominence and was also the source of an authoritative set of rules of the game, which still apply today.

In 1888, losing a ball at St Andrews meant you lost the hole as well, however, on this course you just dropped another ball and took a two-stroke penalty.

Royal patronage

Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar was the club’s first president, and Queen Victoria’s eldest son, later to become Edward VII, became a member in 1883. This meant that the golf club was given 'Royal' status.

Several other European princes and monarchs were involved in The Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club, mainly because of the island’s links with Queen Victoria at Osborne House.

Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, was its president until she died in 1940. As the popularity of the course increased, the Spithead Hotel roof was raised to cope with the influx of golfing guests.

An interpretation sign next to a paved path through a flat marsh or meadow landscape on a sunny day with blue skies
The coast at St Helens Duver on the Isle of Wight | © National Trust Images/Chuck Eccleston

The rich and famous

Celebrity members of the club included Horace Rawlins, who won the first US Open golf championship in 1895, Arthur Balfour, the British Prime Minister from 1902-1905, the UK’s first pilot Lord Brabazon, members of the Guinness family, and Admiral Beatty, First Sea Lord in the 1920s. Some would sail into Bembridge Harbour at high tide and play golf at low tide.

In the 1930s, the actor and novelist David Niven was a keen golfer and an active member of the club. He didn’t care much for the retired colonels and stuffed shirts among the membership, and on one occasion stuffed cushions down the clubhouse chimney to smoke the older gentlemen out.

A course for ladies

The ladies of the area did not take kindly to having to stay at home while their men folk were out playing golf, so in 1893 a golf course for women was founded less than a mile away, on land reclaimed 13 years earlier. It’s now part of the RSPB reserve.

This course shut at the outbreak of the First World War and never reopened.

End of an era

The fortunes of the Royal Isle of Wight golf course began to wane amid post-war economic austerity, and the few remaining members decided to present their land to the National Trust in 1961 as an open space to be enjoyed by all.

The clubhouse is now let by the National Trust as a holiday cottage.

A view across the landscape at St Helens Duver to the beach

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