Before the invention of the golf bag in the 1890s it was impractical for players to carry their own clubs, but even after that there was the social implication that the manual labour associated with a round of golf should be done by someone other than the player. From less than 100 in the 1870s the number of golf clubs in Britain rose to almost 3000 by 1914 with an estimated aggregate membership of over 350,000 golfers. Such an expansion considerably increased the demand for caddies to carry the bags of the players; at a minimum some 12,000 were ‘employed regularly’. The majority were boys or young men with a leavening of adults and, at weekends, a staple of schoolboys to meet the peak demand.
The bulk of the caddies were labelled second-class whose duties were essentially to carry clubs, make sand tees, replace divots, and clean clubs after the round. Below them were the forecaddies, a hangover from the era when balls were expensive and terrain was hilly and rough. These were boys sent ahead with a flag to indicate when the fairway was clear and where balls had landed. Both these duties became of reduced importance as courses began to be laid out without natural obstacles and also as balls became mass-produced with their loss much less of a financial cost. Above them were first-class caddies, (usually) men who knew the intricacies of the local course and gave counsel to their employer of the day, based on their knowledge of both the course and the player.
The rise in demand was in specific local labour markets, often in areas where there had been no club before. These new clubs tapped fresh supplies from a reserve army of boy labour rather than competing against existing clubs. Hence the expansion did not force up caddying fees. On the other hand the situation was probably not one of an oversupply of labour. Pairs, trios and quartets of golfers setting out at regular intervals over a 18-hole course demanded a large supply of bag carriers. The pay rates were set by the club not the golfer or the caddie. At large clubs it was possible for caddies to earn 15 shillings a week. Tips and food allowances could raise this by three shillings. Such earnings provided a much needed injection of money into many rural households.
Yet, despite the fact that caddies were relatively well paid for what they did – or perhaps because of it – there was concern for the welfare of the boy caddie. Critics considered such earnings encouraged youths to have false expectations of future income but caddying, with few transferable skills, offered little gateway to other gainful skilled employment. At very few clubs was there any definite career structure, even as regards promotion to first class caddie. Some caddies might secure apprenticeships in the pro shop learning to make clubs or as members of the greens staff. A small minority – perhaps one per cent – would go on to become a club professional, and an even smaller one would break through to the ranks of the tournament player. For most, however, caddying proved to be a dead end job.
The caddie operated in a casual labour market where the demand for his services was dependent on the number of players on a particular day. Bad weather, transport disruptions and the change in seasons meant that no guaranteed employment. Moreover golfers tee off at intervals so potential caddies could wait around before picking up a bag. Such enforced idleness was seen as demoralising, especially when it took place in the company of adults, many of whom – except at long-established clubs – were regarded as little more than loafers who inculcated the boys into bad habits, particularly gambling. As well as this moral issue there was the physical health matter of caddies being out in all weathers without the waterproofing clothes worn by the players. Some clubs provided a shelter for caddies to wait in prior to beginning a round but out on the course there was no protection from the wind or rain. That the welfare of the caddies lay with the clubs meant that provision was sporadic and certainly not comprehensive.
Two aspects of government legislation had an influence on the labour market for caddies. The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw childhood progressively lengthened as compulsory full-time schooling, introduced in 1870, replaced wage-earning as the accepted activity for many children. The age to which a child had to attend school had been first set at 10, raised to 11 in 1893 and to 12 in 1899. However, even as late as 1902 Chief Inspector Willis of the school inspectorate reported on ‘children of nine, eight and even seven years old having been employed to drag clubs round the links.’ Eventually, however, particularly following the 1902, Education Act, school boards increasingly intervened and clubs had to employ boy caddies only outside school hours. Compulsory national insurance was introduced in 1912 as part of the Liberal Government’s social welfare policy. All workers aged 16 or over and their employers had to make contributions to funds which were to provide unemployment and medical benefits. Legally the clubs, not individual players, were the employers of caddies, and thus all liabilities and responsibilities devolved upon them. Clubs responded by either adding a penny per round to the usual booking fee or not employing caddies once they reached the age of 16 and became subject to the legislation
All caddies lacked power in the master-servant relationship of golf club employment, but additionally child caddies also experienced the impotence of the age relationship. Others, always older people, made decisions for them and about them.