Singleton’s Issette was a big driver of golf for women

Singleton Hall
Singleton Hall

This week has seen the return of the Ricoh Women’s British Open Golf Championship, to Royal Lytham and St Annes.

The event – which runs until Sunday in the resort – started in 1976.

Issette with Belle and Tommy Miller

Issette with Belle and Tommy Miller

Of course, the area has played host to the Open many times over the years, but readers may not be aware of some earlier, very strong Fylde coast connections with golf.

Singleton History Group has been carrying out research into the Miller family of Singleton, estate owners from 1853.

And its members came across the story of Issette Miller – the last of the Miller family to live at Singleton Hall and a keen golfer.

Jessica Issette Frances Miller – nee Pearson – was born on November 2, 1862, at her parents’ holiday home in Anglesey. Her father was a member of a family of well-known London publishers.

Issette Miller

Issette Miller

Issette grew up in London and took up golf in 1886, as the only female member of Wimbledon Golf Club. As interest in ladies’ golf – which was much more prevalent in Scotland at the time than England – increased, the Wimbledon Ladies Club, reformed in 1890.

Aided by investment from the railway companies, which encouraged new golf courses to be built – especially on the coast, where links courses were already established – the popularity of golf was starting to grow quickly.

Issette found a benefactor in Dr William Laidlaw-Purves, who worked with her to popularise golf in general, but especially ladies’ golf.

The Wimbledon ladies organised matches against women from other clubs, often travelling many miles to far-flung golf courses.

At this time, there was no over-arching organisation to manage the game.

Issette took it upon herself to form a Ladies’ Golf Union. She became the first secretary, she wrote to many ladies’ golf clubs and organised a meeting in April 1893 in London, to which 63 clubs sent representatives.

During the meeting, Issette announced a new course in St Annes, Lancashire, had offered to host the first Open Ladies’ Golf Tournament. The course was about a mile away from the present location.

The competition ran from June 13 to 18, 1893 and 38 ladies took part.

Issette herself competed and reached the final, playing against Lady Margaret Scott – who won the title. As few Scottish players entered the competition, Issette arranged for the 1897 open to take place in North Berwick – this time 105 entrants took part, 55 from England and Wales, 10 from Ireland and 40 from Scotland.

By the turn of the century, golf was becoming increasingly popular. The way the Ladies’ Golf Union was organised offered an opportunity for golfers of whatever ability to play.

But it meant there was no framework to assess a player’s ability. Mostly the rules of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club were followed, but they were often vague and old-fashioned.

Handicaps were not successful, as players were only judged on their ability on their own club course. It became ever more urgent to find a way of handicapping the better players.

Issette had already tried adapting a system where golfers were put into gold, silver and bronze, but came up with a much better method.

Initially, her new method was viewed with hilarity by British golfing authorities.

It was a different story in America, where golfers were impressed by her system.

Issette used the term ‘handicapping’ – taken from the horse racing world. Horses were given an extra weight to carry, which reflected their racing ability. The weight would lessen from the best horse to the poorest. The same system was used in golf, but using strokes rather than weights.

Eventually, as the American societies adopted the system, the British golfing authorities had to relent and do the same.

It was during Issette’s many journeys north to play golf at St Annes, she became friendly with local land-owning families.

She stayed frequently with the Millers at Singleton Park, where Thomas Horrocks Miller lived with his wife Belle. He was an avid followed of sport and played golf at St Annes.

In 1910, Belle Miller died and the following year Thomas married Issette.

Thomas died in 1916 – leaving Issette a life tenancy at Singleton Park. She ran the estate with an iron fist, but needed to – considering the estate covered thousands of acres with many farms, and the whole of Singleton village with a church and school to support.

• Thanks to Maxine Chew and Singleton History Group for their help with this article