The Hurlingham Club (Argentina)

“A club is born in the style of the Hurlingham Club in London”

Towards the end of the 19th century there were very few opportunities to practice sport in Buenos Aires.

The institutionalisation of the sporting activities in our country began with the growth of international commerce, the construction of the railways by the English, and the growing number of British nationals that arrived at the shore of the River Plate.

It was then that the first sporting clubs were founded, clubs that imitated the successful institutions that already existed in England, and the sports that were played there: cricket, football, rugby, polo, golf, bat fives, racquets, tennis, bowls, shooting, riding, fox hunting and horse racing, among others.

John Ravenscroft, an Englishman that had been working on the development of the estancia “Tres Cueros” in Puán, had the idea of bringing together all the British subjects that lived in Buenos Aires so that they could meet socially and practice every type of imaginable sport within one institution.  His idea was to model the Club on the much respected Hurlingham Club in London which had been founded in 1869 and which was, at that time, the governing body of polo worldwide.

In 1886 he tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain the support of the “Buenos Aires Cricket Club”. According to the official records, at a Board meeting that was held on 17 April 1886, the Directors considered a proposal made by John Ravenscroft.  After a lengthy discussion they decided that they did not see sufficient reason to change the present locale of the club and arranged to “…convey this resolution to the gentlemen interested in the formation of the Hurlingham Club…”  

Two years later, John Ravenscroft managed to secure sufficient support to put his dream into practice without the assistance of another institution.  In addition to contributing money from his own pocket, he received financial support from John Dawson Campbell, Walter Dawson Campbell, Hugh Scott Robson, David Methven, John Ravenscroft himself, and shortly afterwards, the two John Drysdales.

At that time, the “Compañía Ferrocarril de Buenos Aires al Pacífico”, known as “The Pacific Railway” (today UGOFE S.A. – Línea San Martín), extended its lines 107 Km. to join Palermo with Mercedes in the interior of the province of Buenos Aires.  The new line passed close to a farm owned by Hugh Scott Robson, which would be very important when the time came to decide where the Club would be situated.

John Ravenscroft’s original intention had been to locate the club in Belgrano, but word got round the landowners in that area and prices rose out of all proportion.  The possibility was also investigated in Flores, Chacarita de los Colegiales, Villa Devoto and Vicente López.  Finally Mr. Hill the General Manager of the “Pacific Railway” and a keen cricket player, advised Ravenscroft that his firm (of British capital), would support the venture if the club were to be built close to the new railway line.  This inclined the balance in favour of Scott Robson’s land, a remote farm that was very difficult to get to, but which was situated very close to the new railway lines.

On 6 October 1888, a meeting was held to draw up the Legal Statutes. The following were present: John Campbell, John Drysdale jr., John Ravenscroft, John Drysdale, Hugh Scott Robson, B.W. Gardom, David Methven and, as Substitute members: Edward Casey, Alexander Hume and David Bankier.  These Statutes were subsequently presented to the Government for approval.  On the 22nd of November that year, the President, Dr. Miguel Juarez Celman signed and approved the Statutes.

The first meeting of the S. A. Hurlingham Club took place on the 1st of April 1889, the object being to accept the subscription of 124 shares.  Three days later, the members met again, this time to designate the first Board of Directors and to accept Hugh Scott Robson’s offer to sell 337.479,32 m2 of open farmland for the sum of $ 40,000.  This was a dairy farm located in a place called “La Estanzuela”, strategically situated close to the rails of the Pacific Railway, and a few metres from the recently constructed “rural tramway” which had been built by the Lacroze brothers to haul freight.

The place was barren and desolate.  Other than the occasional hut, the only building in miles around was a house belonging to the Pereyra family and a store belonging to Nicolás E. Macchiavello.  There were no automobiles, highways, or roads, just a few mud paths and tracks, and the most reliable way to get to the Club was on horseback.

The usual way of getting to the club was to ride from Flores, through Floresta, Liniers and Ramos Mejía.  From there, across open farmland to the rails of the tramway, and then follow the rails to the Club.  The journey was not easy because one had to cross open country, marshes, swamps, mires and even a shooting range, which added adventure and a touch of danger to the discomfort of the ride!

The Lacroze “rural tramway” was drawn by mules, had been built to haul freight and ran once a day. The first section between Chacarita and Luján had been inaugurated on 6th April 1888.  However, it was not used much because it was slow and suffered unpredictable delays due to the loading and unloading of freight during the journey.

The Hurlingham train station on the Pacific Railway did not exist, and in the early years it was customary for Club members to stand on the side of the line and signal the train drivers.  Although this was not according to regulations, the train drivers, with the apparent approval of the managers, would stop the trains to pick up the passengers.

 

“and William Lacey, the “Wizard of Hurlingham”, arrived”

The work on the Club began immediately. The English language newspaper “The Standard” reported on 29 March 1889: “The grounds may be seen from the railway and rural tramway, well fenced in with wire net fence and the buildings are rising rapidly.  The lodge is being roofed and the racquets court and fives court are already advancing to a state of completion, while the pavilion accommodation, brick building and the stables are being commenced…” 

William Lacey was instrumental in the construction of the Club (and what would later be the village of Hurlingham).  This cricket professional, who had recently been living in Canada, was only 28 years old when he arrived at the Club with his wife and three sons (he would later have another two sons and a daughter).  The family were installed in what is now called “La Casita de los Niños” “(The Children’s’ House”), which at that time was not yet finished.  So important was William Lacey’s history and impact on the Club that he really deserves a separate article.  

Known as “The Wizard of Hurlingham”, he was architect, builder, organiser supreme, and instigator of improvements, manager and sportsman.  He was a friend to everybody in good times and in bad times, and was frequently consulted by all who lived in the area.  He would also act as doctor and, (with the help of his wife) even midwife.   His energy, enthusiasm and capacity for organisation were legendary.  William Lacey embodied the true spirit of Hurlingham.  With his example, he taught many how to win, how to lose, and most important of all, how to play the game.   He was a superb polo and cricket player and, in addition, was the father of the legendary Lewis Lacey, Argentina’s first 10 handicap polo player.

On arrival, William Lacey set himself to supervise the various constructions.  Under his direction, the rest of the Club was fenced in, the low lying areas drained, the grounds levelled, the first trees planted, and the cricket pitch prepared.

On the 10th July 1889, the Board approved an estimate for the building of the race track.  This was situated around (what is nowadays) the cricket pitch and the Nº 1 and Nº 2 polo fields.  It was the first grass racing track built in Argentina.  Until fairly recently, one could still see part of the historic race track railings still separating the Nº 2 polo field from the fairway of the 1st hole. 

Towards the end of 1889, a letter petitioning the installation of a railway station close to the Club was presented to the Railway.  The management of the Railway and the Government gave their approval, and the station was inaugurated the following year.  The service consisted of one return train a day.  As requested, the station was named: “Hurlingham”.

 

“The initial sporting activities”

The first cricket match at Hurlingham was played on the 6th January 1890 against Buenos Aires Cricket Club.  William Lacey made the best score for Hurlingham with a 22 “not out”.  It was reported that a certain “Mr Hill” also made a good score for B.A.C.C.  It is presumed that he was the General Manager of the Pacific Railway.  This firm, as promised, supported the social and sporting event, and put on a special train for the men in the morning and another for the ladies in the afternoon.

It was the custom at that time for players to travel out the night before, and the Railway provided a special sleeping coach for the use of the players.  This practice continued till the Club built their own sleeping facilities.  This sleeping coach was left on a railway siding in Hurlingham.

By autumn it was decided that the polo grounds were ready, and the first tournament was played on the 16th of May 1890. 

Records also exist of a rugby match that was played on the 1st June of the same year where B.A.F.C. (Buenos Aires Football Club) beat Hurlingham.  There are also records of a return match that was played six years later where B.A.F.C. again beat Hurlingham by the narrow margin of 16 to 14.  William Lacey played in this match, but it was said not very well… because he did not know how to play rugby!

Also in June (some sources say October) football was played for the first time at the Club.  Buenos Aires beat Montevideo in the match.

The Hurlingham race course was inaugurated on the 9th of July.  Two days later “The Standard” published a description of the event: “… The special train carried the English Community to the scene of action…” and “…the grandstand, an imposing edifice built to accommodate 600 people was almost entirely occupied by the ladies…” The chronicle also mentioned Lewis Lacey’s impeccable work: “…The course is splendid, in fact the finest in Buenos Aires, measuring to the round 2,000 metres.  The curves are perfect…”

Two years later, on the 26th June 1982 the first golf tournament was played (the course had only 9 holes at that time); and in July the first golf match against another club.  The opponent was the Club San Martín.

 

“Progress was not halted”

In July 1893 “The Standard” reported that the Club had 300 members, each of which paid $ 50,00 a year.  The paper also reported that the construction of the “Club House” with 32 dormitories would begin next month.  Progress was not halted despite the shock to the Club’s finances caused by the economic crisis in the country.   Debentures were authorised in March 1893 and a further sum later on in the year.

The complicated financial situation did not stop the first match, of what is today known as the oldest Open Polo Championship in the World, from being played.  The match took place in October 1893, contributed greatly to the progress of the Club, and helped get it out of the crisis.

The new Club House with bedrooms was inaugurated in 1894, and in March a special four day event was held at the Club.  This included pony races, a polo tournament, and a cricket match against the crew of HMS Racer (a visiting warship).  The brand new installations were booked to overflowing, and the Pacific Railways again put on a special sleeping coach that was left on a siding in Hurlingham.

The River Plate Athletics Association organised their annual championship more than once at the Club.   On the 15th august 1895 the competition included: 100 yard race, hurdles race, long jump, high jump, shot put, throwing the hammer, and pole vault.

In the year 1900 there was a new economic crisis.  This was a very hard time when many economies had to be made, and a credit taken out with the Banco de Londres y Río de la Plata.

In spite of this, progress was again not halted, as some improvements were made to the Club.  These included the purchase of sheep (sheep were used to keep the grass cut in those days!), the construction of “…a sheep dip… to keep the sheep free from mange…” and “…the purchase of various cows…” (To provide fresh milk)

From 1904 to 1910, due to the crisis, the Jockey Club paid a cash subsidy to the Club to assist with the racing activities carried out at Hurlingham.  The only condition they set was that flat racing activities be included in the programme.

In 1910, the Club suspended all horse racing activities when the Government brought out a law prohibiting horse racing on week days.

 

“Custom and extravagance”

The Club House was enlarged and modified in 1931.

It is interesting to note that in its early years, the Hurlingham Club, as all clubs in England, was predominantly a male domain.  There were very few lady members.

As an example we can mention that up to approximately 1940, the main staircase going up to the rooms was reserved for the exclusive use of gentlemen.  Ladies had to use the small back staircase close to what is nowadays the “Ladies” restroom!  The Billiards Room was also out of bounds for ladies.

At that time, the Pacific Railway offered an excellent train service into “town” (Buenos Aires), with a number of fast, reliable and very punctual trains that made the trip from Hurlingham to Retiro in only 31 minutes. (There was a fast train on Saturdays that took 28 minutes, which in addition had a restaurant coach with bar!).  It was very comfortable to work in town and live at the Club, and a large number of members lived there all year round.  In addition to the bedrooms in the main Club House, members occupied a number of chalets dotted around the grounds (the “Casita de los Niños” was one of them) two apartments (occupied by married couples) and bedrooms for bachelors in the Pavilion (where the gymnasium is today).

This stable population of members grew steadily older and, at one moment, the Club began to take on the appearance of a geriatric institution.  Because of this, the Board was forced to limit the number of consecutive months in any one year that members over a certain age could live at the Club.

It was the custom for all men eating alone in the restaurant, when they were not in the company of a lady, to sit at a large communal table called “The bachelors’ table”.  This table was situated at the head of the room.

It was the tradition that every member should always behave like a gentleman.  Dress codes were very strict.  Men could not enter the dining room without a coat and tie (even in summer).

Sunday lunches were famous for the superb “Buffet”, the “Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding” and the “Steak and kidney pie”.

The teas were also famous, and the game of Bridge was also very popular amongst the ladies.

From the beginning, “Fêtes” were frequently held at the Club to collect funds for all sorts of charities.  During the war, funds were collected for the Allied cause and also for the Red Cross in order to send food parcels to the English prisoners of war.

Week-ends were very animated with frequent dances.  “Balls” (large formal dances) were also held a number of times a year.  A full breakfast with bacon and eggs was always served at the end of every dance.  At one time, it was customary to book an exclusive Lacroze tram (after they had been electrified) to take all participants (in black tie and long dress) back to Buenos Aires.  On those occasions there was always somebody who would pull down the “trolley” when the tram was going through a dark area, thus cutting power to the motors, and putting out the lights!

Parties, dances and “Balls” at the Club would start very formally and gradually become more noisy, animated, and occasionally uproarious.  At one formal dance, Buddy Ross, a great all round sportsman, actually rode a horse on to the dance floor in the main Club House…!

If there were breakages, (these things happen…) the items broken were inventoried carefully and invoiced to the member or members involved.  According to the Minutes of a Board meeting held on 09-10-1906, the Club would invoice “…six times the value of the object ruined…”  It was a question of honour to pay without delay or question.

At one time, if a member were to request an estimate for a private party (at the Club, or in establishments in Buenos Aires) it was usual to receive two estimates.  One was “…con Rumboll…” and the other “…sin Rumboll…”  The two brothers Bill and Dick Rumboll were stalwart pillars of the community, but when they were young so rowdy and full of fun that they automatically increased the cost of every party they attended!

 

“Times change and the Club progresses”

The (shotgun) shooting competitions for partridge, duck and snipe in the low lying areas of Hurlingham, and the dove shooting that was held close to where the cricket pitch is today, gave way to other sports as the grounds were developed.  The nine hole golf course was built and then extended to 18 holes, the race track was replaced by the Polo fields and the cricket pitch.  Members stopped playing rugby.  The fox hunt as practiced at Hurlingham without a fox, which was a chase over open country where riders had to jump or bypass all types of natural hazards, also ended.  The Pavilion ceased being the grandstand for the horse races, and was converted into the men’s changing rooms.  The present tennis courts Nº 1, 2 and 3 were converted from grass (maintenance was expensive) to clay.  The clay courts Nº 10 and 11 were built over the surface of the old Bowling Green… nobody played any more.  If one looks carefully, one can still see (between the tennis Starter’s board and the Nº 11 tennis court) a small strip of the old Bowls court with its surrounding ditch.  The old swimming pool was opened up (The entrance used to be a steel door which did not allow anybody to look inside… bathing was segregated and there were exclusive days and times for the ladies to bathe!)  The new pool was built at ground level over the pitch of the old cricket nets.  The bachelor bedrooms and the apartments in the Pavilion were converted into a gymnasium, lounge for the youth and a room for the masseur.  The bat fives and the open air squash courts were converted into a deposit, the bar and the barbecue to serve the pool area.  The racquets court was converted first into a “paleta” court, and then into a roller skating rink and general play area for the young.  One of the two billiard tables was sold to make room for the arm chairs and present television set. The house where William Lacey had once lived, which had housed the great-great grandparents and the great grandparents, and which had been, for a time, the cradle of the grandfather… of a current junior member, was converted into a nursery and is now enjoyed by everybody as “La Casita de los Niños” (“The Children’s House)”.

 

“Life continues… times change”

The economic times changed.  The British Community, the original founders of the Club, dwindled steadily.  (The 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 wars took their toll, because many of the Anglo Argentine volunteers did not return).  The nationality and ethnicity of the members also gradually changed over the years.  From being almost exclusively an “English” Club, it changed naturally into an “Anglo Argentine Club”, and then a Club with “British Tradition”.

Undoubtedly, the Hurlingham Club of Argentina is one of the nicest, most prestigious and more complete clubs that exist for the practice of sport.  But above all, it is a club where camaraderie, gentlemanly conduct, ethics and “Fair Play” are still considered to be as important as they were 120 years ago.

 

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Some important people that visited and/or played sport at the Club:

Presidents (in office):

  • Dr. Juárez Celman
  • Dr. Carlos Pellegrini
  • Dr. Roque Sáenz Peña
  • General Julio A. Roca
  • Dr. Figueroa Alcorta
  • Dr. Marcelo T. de Alvear
  • Dr. Carlos Saúl Menem
  • Dr. Fernando de la Rúa


Royalty:

  • H.R.H. Prince George, Duque of Kent – (Visited the Club in 1931.  He played squash at the Club with Totito Casares and Pedro Scoponi.  In 1938 he figured as “Patron of the Club”)
  • Edward of Windsor, Prince of Wales – (Played polo on two occasions, 22nd and 29th August 1925.  He attended Luis Lacey’s wedding reception.  He visited the Club again in 1931 when he accompanied his brother the Duque de Kent)
  • Prince Philip of Edinburgh – (Visited the Club and played polo in 1966)
  • Prince Charles, Prince of Wales – (Visited the Club and played polo in 1999)
  • Prince Harry – (Visited the Club in 2003 when he came to buy polo boots from Fagliano in Hurlingham)
  • The Maharajah of Jaipur – (Played polo)
  • Princess Marie Louise – (Social visit in the year 1930)
  • Prince Willem-Alexander of Orange (the Netherlands) – (Visited the Club together with his wife the Princess Máxima) to watch the first match of the “The Princess Máxima of the Netherlands Cup”).
  • The Princess Máxima (Née Zorreguieta) of the Netherlands – (Her father was a polo playing member, and she came to the Club as a visitor on many occasions).  Princess Máxima graciously gave the Club permission to name the yearly ladies’ polo championship: “The Princess Máxima of The Netherlands Cup”.

F. Jeremy P. Simpson
9th September 2008
First published in: 
"Hurlingham Club 120 years of history - 1888-2008"