Hurlingham - Riverside Gem

The Hurlingham Club is set in 42 acres of grounds, including sports pitches and gardens.

HAZELLE JACKSON on the Trust's recent visit ...

On a fine spring day in May, Trust members enjoyed a conducted tour of the gardens of the Hurlingham Club on the banks of the River Thames in Fulharn.

Founded in the 19th century as a gentlemen's shooting club - see the separate box for some history notes - the club offers its 12,000 members outstanding facilities for tennis, croquet, cricket, bowls, swimming and other sports as well as rather more staid activities like bridge, backgammon and chess. Surrounding the historic clubhouse and all this sporting activity are some fine ornamental grounds. Head Gardener Mike Batie and his wife Helen, a senior gardener, were our hosts for the afternoon.

We met at the Main Gate to the west of the clubhouse and in front of the four-acre lake, believed to have been constructed in 1740 from a natural creek in the River Thames. Mike told us that, contrary to some reports, there is no historical evidence of Capability Brown's reported involvement in its design. The lake was originally in the grounds of Mulgrave House to the north-west of the lake itself, where Captain Cook is reported to have stayed on a regular basis. Mulgrave House itself was demolished in 1927. In 1928 a disastrous flood saw the lake rise and over six feet of water flood in the grounds where it even reached the clubhouse. Boards inscribed 'H.W.M. 7/1/28' can be seen in different parts of the grounds recording the flood levels.

The lake was originally formed from an inlet of the Thames.
The lake was originally formed from an inlet of the Thames.

The lake now acts as a reservoir for irrigation and the club has recently sunk two boreholes to feed it. It is an important location for wildlife local and visiting fowl, including snipe and little egrets from nearby Barnes Wetland Centre. Sadly the 20-foot fountain in the lake was not working at the time of our visit and a pair of coots had taken the opportunity to build a nest over it.

We crossed the lake over the 1929 bridge, built after the flood, and arrived at the tennis pavilion, originally named 'The Tea House', on the site of the old pigeon-shooting pavilion, used when the club first opened in 1869. Later, golf was introduced and at one time, Mike told us, golfers used to tee off from its roof. Now it is used as offices and changing rooms. The flowerbeds here are planted with a blue and gold theme.

Continuing towards the main house we next arrived at the splendid herbaceous border. Helen Batie explained that the herbaceous border, originally in the grounds of Hurlingham House, was relocated in 1990-1, when the new fitness centre was built. Everything was moved to a new south-facing wall, including, Helen added ruefully, the weeds. So they replanted it 10 years ago. Helen records its progress in season, when the flowers are cut, and maintains it in the winter. In the spring it is forked through with horse manure and staked with hazel sticks.

Beyond the herbaceous border is a magnificent wisteria-clad walk leading to the main house, where a beautiful set of bronze dolphins entwine on a fountain outside the refreshment rooms. The dolphins are the work of the sculptor David Wynne, who presented them to the club in 1995.

The main house at Hurlingham
The main house at Hurlingham overlooks the club's croquet grounds.

Overlooking the lawns leading down to the river, we finally arrived at Hurlingham House itself, an imposing 18th-century mansion. Originally, Mike told us, Repton had proposed allowing cows to graze there, to enhance the rus in urbe landscape. Today the lawns are used for croquet and bowling and social activities. On one side is the rebuilt conservatory. Helen explained that they use biological pest management and non-harmful sprays on the plants growing in it. We admired the conservatory from outside, as it is a popular sitting area for club members.

Near the main entrance is the new function wing, officially opened by His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh, in 2004. Mike recalled that there were two openings, one by the Duke and another for members. To ensure the borders were at their best, they grew two sets of bulbs in pots and planted them out for each occasion.

The restored garden pavilion with Lutyens-style wooden benches
The restored garden pavilion with Lutyens-style wooden benches

In 1906 the leading architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was employed to make improvements to the house. He designed a terrace for the river façade, which is now planted with David Austin roses. Nearby an original pavilion has been rebuilt in a small glade and three Lutyens-style wooden benches, donated by members, have been placed there. The cricket field, now to the east of the house, was originally sited on the south side in the grounds of Broom House, which was purchased by the club and demolished in 1912. The armillary sphere on the East Terrace dates from 1997 and commemorates the 2nd and 3rd Viscounts Cowdray, who did so much for the Club in its polo days.

Turning down towards the river, we strolled through the Lilac Walk to enter a small clearing containing a pigeon house on a post and two large wooden sheep, a ewe and a ram. These are carvings by Rees Ingram, called Little Fluffy Angel and Big Old Devil Ram Runs Away With Your Fancy respectively These are very popular with children and get moved around the grounds at intervals.

Mature Plane Trees

Alongside the Thames is the River Walk, constructed after the flood of 1929, with a jetty built in 1939. There are mature London plane trees here that probably date back to the 18th century. In places the path has been diverted round the trees, which include a copper beech and an elm. There are also younger trees planted by the croquet lawns and elsewhere. Mike said they lost 40 mature trees and a great many other specimens during the great storm of October 1987.

Trust members stroll along the River Walk
Trust members stroll along the River Walk

At this stage we had reached full circle and returned to the lake. We stopped to thank Mike and Helen Batie for being our guides and to congratulate them on all the hard work and care lavished on the gardens to bring them to such a high state of maintenance. Mike told us there are five full-time gardening staff and three seasonal gardeners, who work on the gardens. Mike himself has been at the Hurlingham Club for over 21 years now.

It only remained to return to the clubhouse in search of refreshment, having completed our tour of the grounds and enjoyed, in the words of the first owner of Hurlingham House, Dr Cadogan, "temperance, activity and ease of mind."

A Brief History of Hurlingham

The Hurlingham Club is situated on land which once was part of the estate of the Bishops of London. The Bishops had their summer residence at nearby Fulharn Palace. Up to the 19th century the area here was principally water meadows and nursery gardens.

An early print of the main house at Hurlingham
An early print of the main house at Hurlingham

In 1760, Dr William Cadogan, a leading physician and gout expert, leased nine acres from the Bishop and built a small house fronting the River Thames. In 1797 John Ellis, scion of a family of wealthy sugar planters from Jamaica, took over the lease and in 1800 he purchased the freehold with an additional 11 acres. John Ellis employed the architect George Byfield to enlarge the original cottage into today's neo-classic mansion and Humphry Repton for landscaping advice. Later distinguished owners, who continued to enlarge and improve the estate, included the 3rd Earl of Egremont, John Horsley Palmer, a Governor of the Bank of England, and Richard Naylor, builder of the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. Several of the owners were sporting men and patrons of the turf.

Pigeon Shooting

In 1867 Frank Heathcote came to an arrangement with then owner Richard Naylor to promote pigeon-shooting matches at Hurlingham and formed the Hurlingham Club for this purpose and to be 'an agreeable country resort'. In 1869 the club leased the estate from Mr. Naylor and in 1874 acquired the freehold. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), was an early patron. Until 1905 clouds of live pigeons were released in the summer from an enclosure near the present tennis pavilion. A pigeon still features on the Club's crest.

Polo arrived in England in 1869 and two of the Hurlingham Club's first trustees, Lords De L'Isle and Dudley, and its manager, Captain the Hon. J. D. (later Lord) Monson, established the game there in 1874. The club became and remained, until WW2, the headquarters of polo for the British Empire. Many international matches were played there, including the Westchester Cup matches between England and the United States.

Club Expands

The start of a balloon race at Hurlingham in 1909
The start of a balloon race at Hurlingham in 1909

The club was popular from its inception and soon expanded, buying up the neighbouring property, Mulgrave House (which covered the area to the north and west of the present lake and the lake itself) in 1879. The club operated in a flurry of social activity with fêtes, balls, pony shows, balloon ascents, archery and even cycling competitions. Tennis was popular and croquet was introduced in around 1900. In 1906 the Club hired Sir Edwin Lutyens, the leading architect of the day, to improve the buildings and grounds. Further expansion came with the purchase of Broom House in 1912. 

Broom House
Broom House

Broom House was demolished shortly after it was purchased. The grounds are now the site of the cricket field and the lawns to the east of the Clubhouse. Mulgrave House was demolished in 1927.

Urban Development

By the time of WW1 the surrounding area had been developed with residential terraces and the club remained an oasis of open space in the midst of urban development. During WW1 forces and a balloon detachment were based at the club. Afterwards, although there were straitened times between the wars, the club managed to survive. A disastrous Thames flood in 1928 saw the water rise to six feet in the grounds and flood water even entered the clubhouse. Finding another location was briefly considered. But after some-soul searching the trustees decided to remain. The swimming pool was added in the 1930s, as well as squash courts and bowling greens. Following the construction of a nine-hole golf course the club opened in the winter.

During WW2 an anti-aircraft battery and barrage balloon unit were based at the Club and the main polo ground was turned into allotments for growing vegetables. The club buildings suffered considerable bomb damage and the magnificent crystal dome of the conservatory was destroyed.

After the war the polo grounds were compulsorily purchased by the LCC and became a recreation ground, Hurlingham Park, a school and council flats, Sulivan Court, leaving the club with the 42-acre site it occupies today.

Tennis & Croquet

Tennis and croquet still flourish and today there are 20 tennis courts and 10 croquet lawns and bowling greens. Membership has grown by leaps and bounds and recent developments include a new conservatory on the original site of Byfield's 1798 conservatory, new bars in the west end of the clubhouse and a modern fitness centre with a half-Olympic-size indoor pool and gymnasium. The Terrace Room was reconstructed in 1990.

Today the club has grown from its original 1800 members to more than 12,500. There is a long waiting list to join and enjoy the splendid setting and wide range of social, artistic and sporting facilities the Club offers.