In the second of three parts, Sunday Times Sports correspondent Nick Pitt explores the enduring mystery of this lady golfer.
According to the only substantial interview she ever gave, Minoprio began golf when she was recovering from the Lulworth Castle fire. “During my convalescence I picked up an old cleek and started knocking a golf ball about,” she told the Sunday Express. “I found that I could use it in many ways that it was not adapted for.”
She was to receive a strange and expensive golfing education. The identity of her first teacher is not known. It may have been ‘Uncle’ Gavin, who had a keen interest in the game. His first wife, Margaret Gavin, from whom he had recently been divorced, was an England international who had three times been runner-up in the US Women’s Open.
Once Minoprio had the basics, she began to practise assiduously, hitting balls into a net erected on the roof of her flat at 169 Piccadilly. The roof area, which is reached by an iron fire-escape, is six floors up and on the Jermyn Street side of Piccadilly so it is quite possible, though unrecorded, that balls might have escaped the net and caused some consternation below.
She also made excursions to Ashdown Forest in Sussex where she played with Alf Padgham, a leading professional of the day. Padgham, who won the Open championship in 1936, once revealed that he had “played with Miss Minoprio a lot at Ashdown Forest”. It was said that their swings were remarkably similar.
Minoprio also took formal lessons from Jim Morris, the club professional at Huntercombe, Oxfordshire. When Minoprio presented herself at the professional’s shop, Morris was expecting her, for he had already had a visit from Gavin who had told him that his ‘niece’ had taken up golf and was anxious to improve. Morris was engaged at well above his usual rates to teach and play rounds with her, daily and for the duration of the summer.
Many years later, Morris remembered Gloria as “a good-looking woman”. He felt sorry for her because her uncle made her practise and play so much, and he thought them both crazy. “How could you get the ball to hold on a green like the seventeenth with only a cleek?” he muttered.
Over the summer of 1930, Gavin rented a cottage with the forbidding name of Bleak Villa. It adjoined what was then the fourth fairway at Huntercombe, so that as well as her daily rounds with Morris, Gloria could practise as much as she liked by playing the fourth and third holes, which ran in parallel.
But what she really needed was bunker practice. Even at this early stage in Minoprio’s golfing progress, we can be sure that she and Gavin were planning for her to play in championships and realised that her greatest problem would be escaping from bunkers on seaside courses with her straight-faced cleek. Gavin made a request to the club that the rough sand in the bunkers on the seventh and seventeenth holes be replaced by fine sea-sand, at his expense. He was turned down.
Undaunted, Gavin had a bunker built in the garden of Bleak Villa, and filled it with a lorry-load of sea-sand specially brought up from the coast. Morris recalled that he often used to see Minoprio in the garden, practising bunker shots with her cleek for hours on end.
But of course the peculiarities of links golf, and its differences from inland golf, are by no means limited to bunkers. Minoprio needed to graduate to links courses and if she was to enter championships she had to join a club.
Minoprio joined Littlestone Golf Club in Kent in 1931. The subscription was six guineas. She never entered the ladies clubhouse (and certainly not the main clubhouse, from which women were excluded); nor did she play any club or county competitions. Yet she was given a handicap of four, comfortably inside the limit of nine laid down by the Ladies Golf Union for participating in national championships.
Why Kent? Because by far the greatest number of links courses within easy reach of London were in the county, mostly within a 25-mile radius of Canterbury. Littlestone, an authentic and charming links course, was the perfect base.
Weld, whose money was funding Minoprio’s golf and lifestyle, as well as Gavin’s, used to visit them down in Kent. Minoprio and Weld were spotted one day in the summer of 1933 by Joan Lauchlan (née Tassell), a member of the Canterbury Club who had a single-figure handicap for thirty years.
“We were playing a ladies’ medal competition on a Tuesday,” Lauchlan recalled more than seventy years later. “My pair was first to tee off. As we came up the second hole, I noticed a car parked in a lay-by. As we went to the third tee, two people got out. There was an elderly man carrying a canvas bag, and a much younger, distinctive woman, who was tall and wearing a skirt. She strode towards the third tee. When we appeared, she saw us and started to walk away. Her companion went back to the car and she followed. They drove down the lane. We were walking down the third when I saw them again, on the fourth tee. She was about to tee off. But she must have realised we would soon be on the third green. She left the tee and went back to the car again. They drove off. A few weeks later, I saw her picture in the paper and realised I had seen Gloria Minoprio.” It was a glimpse of Minoprio shortly before she made her championship debut.
We now return to Westward Ho!, where Minoprio has made her dramatic entrance. Gavin, the orchestrator of the whole business, was present. He stayed at the same hotel as Minoprio and was probably the driver of the limousine in which she arrived.
Also on the links that day was their benefactor, Weld. He was staying at the Cliff Hotel in Ilfracombe from where he wrote Minoprio a letter:
I could not keep away from the scene of the action so I am mingling with the crowd tomorrow (with a false beard and a red wig). Drive as I love you and you will overdrive the green every hole from the tee. What a desolate looking swamp. The course is enough to give the champion the blues.
The letter reveals the depth of Weld’s infatuation as well as his limited knowledge of golf.
On the eve of the championship, doubtless under the direction of Gavin, Minoprio made her only visit to the ladies’ clubhouse and addressed her fellow-competitors with an impromptu speech in which she declared that she would indeed compete using only one club for all strokes, including putting. Greeted by stupefaction, Minoprio strode from the room. About trousers, she said not a word.
News of Miss Minoprio’s intentions soon spread to the golfing press. Ladies championships were assiduously covered in those days and every national daily paper and many regionals were represented.
Once Minoprio had teed off on the first, to applause, Nancy Halsted took her turn. She was a scratch player of high reputation and her drive, like Minoprio’s, found the centre of the fairway.
Minoprio’s approach was short of the green but Halsted, with a splendid brassie shot, found the green and she won the hole.
All those who ever played against Minoprio testified that the experience was unnerving. She never spoke and showed no emotion. She never looked to left or right as she walked. She would play a shot, observe the result dispassionately, walk on and repeat the process. But her etiquette was beyond reproach. She played strictly in turn and stood like a statue when opponents played their strokes.
Halsted was not overly distracted. On the second, Minoprio pulled her drive left into a small clump of sea-rushes. She lost that hole and the third as well. Against all expectation, Minoprio won the fourth hole despite going into a bunker.
By the fifteenth hole, Gloria was four down and when Halsted laid a putt dead it was over. Minoprio stepped forward, offered her gloved right hand and said, “Thank you”. They were the first words she had spoken since she said, “How do you do?” on the first tee. The limousine was on hand on a nearby track. Minoprio walked across to it, climbed in and was driven away.
Minoprio had lost a match but achieved a triumph in publicity. The papers were full of it. “Miss Gloria Minoprio opened a sensational new chapter in women’s golf,” ran the report in the Daily Express, which was typical. “She is the first player (either man or woman) to play in a championship round with one club only, and no woman has ever before defied convention by playing in trousers.”
The Ladies Golf Union was not amused. Their chairman issued a statement in which she “deplored any change from the traditional golfing attire”. At a meeting of the competitors, one veteran threatened to challenge Minoprio dressed in crinolines and a poke bonnet, or alternatively to play her using a full set of clubs, each to be used in strict rotation.
But some of Minoprio’s fellow-players supported her. “There was a furore over what she wore,” said Elizabeth Borradaile, née Powell-Williams. “But many of us thought she was awfully brave. She had a very nice swing and was a very good player. I admired her, and she made her name. But to choose Westward Ho! for her debut with one club was ridiculous.”
Minoprio and ‘Uncle’ Gavin left Westward Ho! for Porthcawl and further practice. Weld, who was unwittingly funding them, wrote again to Minoprio.
“It added five years to my life when I saw you get into those outrageous bunkers, though the way you got out of them would beat a champion armed with all the niblicks and spoons that were ever invented. What idiots those women were who took exception to your dress. I expect their annoyance was due to jealousy – I heard a woman in the crowd say “Hasn’t she a lovely figure!”
In the first of three parts, Sunday Times sports correspondent Nick Pitt unravels the enduring mystery of this lady golfer.
The opening episode in the weirdest and most mystifying episode in the history of championship golf unfolded on a bright autumn day in 1933 when Gloria Minoprio, hitherto unknown, caused a double sensation by competing with only one club and wearing what no lady golfer had ever worn in competition – trousers.
Henry Longhurst, the legendary writer and broadcaster, was an eye-witness. He had no doubt that history was made that day at Westward Ho! “Miss Gloria Minoprio will go down to posterity with an immortality that is denied to kings and bishops, generals and statesmen, as ‘the lady who played in trousers’,” he wrote.
In fact she turned out to be a passing comet. For six years, Minoprio competed in trousers and with her single club, only playing in championships and with limited success. She said hardly a word, but left behind a whiff of her times, a host of rumours and an enduring mystery. Who was she? Why did she do it? Was she really a magician and did she perform for the princes and maharajahs in India? And what became of her?
The truth is stranger and more scandalous than anyone, even Longhurst, could have imagined.
At four minutes past noon on Tuesday 3 October 1933, a limousine thundered down the lane that runs alongside the clubhouse of the Royal North Devon Golf Club at Westward Ho!. It rattled over a cattle-grid and swerved left in front of the hump-back bridge that leads on to the flat expanse of the links and beyond to the sea, and came to a halt in a swirl of dust. The back door swung open and a tall, dark-haired, 25-year-old woman emerged. She was carrying a cleek, a long-handled club equivalent to a modern one- or two-iron.
Her name was Gloria Minoprio.
Miss Minoprio began to walk in measured strides towards the first tee some two hundred yards away. A crowd had gathered around the first tee, and in the clubhouse members moved to the big window in the bar that overlooked the course. All eyes were turned to Miss Minoprio. She was expected.
The reason for such interest was hardly the occasion, which was a second-round match in the English Women’s Golf Championship, Miss G Minoprio (Littlestone) versus Miss N Halsted (Banstead Downs), scheduled for 12.05pm. Rather, it was curiosity. Before the championship, nobody had heard of Miss Minoprio. Yet mystery and notoriety had already attached themselves to her exotic name. A ridiculous rumour following the practice rounds had drawn the crowd: Miss Minoprio intended to attempt the perverse and near-impossible – she would compete using only a cleek for all her shots.
It was no wonder that Minoprio was unknown. She had never before played any golf competition, let alone a championship, and had only taken up the game three years earlier. But quite apart from her lack of competitive play and the madness of using only one club, she was about to administer an even greater shock. On the first tee, the next realisation began with a murmur. As Minoprio drew closer, this realisation took hold. Never mind trying to compete with one club; this was an absolute affront: the woman was wearing trousers.
So shocking was this trouser-realisation that nobody managed speech. Communication was mostly by elbow. Minoprio wore make-up, thick white powder and bright-red lipstick. As well as her trousers, she wore a scarlet, waist-length jacket, which she removed, handing it to her caddie.
Minoprio approached her opponent. She held out her gloved right hand and said, “How do you do?” Her caddie, a local fellow named Shangle Taylor, carried her jacket, and held a spare cleek (for use if the other one broke), a bag of balls, a yellow duster to polish Minoprio’s cleek between strokes, and a cone-shaped rubber contrivance on which her ball was to be teed up. This accessory was attached to a red silk tassel, to facilitate its retrieval.
It was Minoprio’s honour. She stepped forward and touched a spot on the ground with the blade of her cleek to indicate where she wanted the ball teed up for her opening drive. Her caddie set down the rubber contrivance and placed on it a new Silver King ball.
Now Minoprio had to swing her cleek and strike the ball well, and do it, for the first time, in public. Anything other than a good shot would bring ridicule. A stream ran across the first fairway some fifty yards from the tee. If she topped the ball, a watery humiliation was certain. Instead of a practice swing, Minoprio took her stance and waved her cleek back and forth in a swishing motion, fixing her eyes on the ball as if imparting a spell. At last she was satisfied. She then held the blade of the cleek still, just off the ground, behind the ball. Minoprio swung the cleek. If she had silently prayed for a good one, the prayer was answered. She held her position in perfect balance at the conclusion of her stroke, her head high as if looking out to sea, and watched the ball fly straight and far, well beyond the stream, to the centre of the fairway.
Thus with a triumphant stroke did Gloria Minoprio conclude her entrance at Westward Ho! and initiate her enduring mystery.
Before describing the rest of her round and her subsequent golfing career, let us immediately shine some light on some elements of the mystery. Dorothy Minoprio (‘Gloria’ was a later addition) was born into a family of Italian origin who were wealthy Liverpool merchants. Her father died from TB when she was a baby, her mother suffered a mental breakdown and she and her sister were brought up by a grandmother and two aunts near Hampton Court. It was an all-female household, which might be significant, for none of the men in her life were exactly suitable.
The first and most influential was William Gavin, a gentleman chancer and West End confidence trickster who employed Minoprio as a secretary when she completed finishing school in Paris. Gavin presented himself as Minoprio’s uncle. In fact, they were married in Paris in 1929, when she was 21 and he was 64.
Unravelling Gavin’s chequered business and affairs is close to impossible. Perhaps the best summary is provided by his entry in Who’s Who?. Submitted by himself, it was lengthy, impressive and almost entirely fictitious. Like many such rogues, Gavin had a powerful, winning personality and members of Minoprio’s family believed he exerted a Svengali-like control over her.
Gavin’s primary scam in the late 1920s involved the building of cheap housing for the masses using concrete. His chief backer – and dupe – was Herbert Weld, a member of one of England’s oldest and wealthiest Roman Catholic families. Very few houses were built, but over several years a fortune was transferred from Weld to Gavin and Minoprio.
Weld, who was the second substitute father-figure in Minoprio’s life, was the owner of Lulworth Castle, a magnificent 17th Century edifice in Dorset. An amiable but gullible man in his late seventies, Weld suffered two terrible blows as the 1920s came to a close. First, in December 1928, his wife, Theodora, died at the age of 27. Secondly, the following August, the castle was destroyed by fire. After his wife died, Weld employed Minoprio as his private secretary. She was staying at the castle when the fire broke out and made a dramatic escape from the flames. By that time, Weld had become besotted with Minoprio. He took her to the best London restaurants such as Quaglino’s and to dancing clubs; he even escorted her on a cruise and tour of Spain and France. And kept ignorant of the fact that she was already married to Gavin, he proposed to her.
Minoprio refused Weld’s hand in marriage but she did not decline his generosity. This included two gifts of shares in a Manchester brewery, which Minoprio and Gavin soon sold. The proceeds, in today’s values, were well in excess of £2 million and were used to fund Minoprio’s adventures in golf and magic and a lavish lifestyle for Gavin and Minoprio.
It was at this juncture, with Minoprio, aged 22, married to an old man pretending to be her uncle, and with a fortune donated by an even older admirer, that she took up golf.