Australia's golf champion prime minister

Friday, 2 July 2021

Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce is not generally remembered for being a man of the people. Widely perceived as being aloof, Bruce was mocked for his penchant for wearing upper-class spats, and even ended up becoming a British Lord. Yet if there was one thing that he shared with ordinary Australians, it was a great love of sport.

Bruce was a talented sportsman. As a student, he had captained the Melbourne Grammar cricket, football, athletics and rowing teams, and was a champion rower at Cambridge University. Bruce also excelled at golf. This was an enduring passion he inherited from his father, John Munro Bruce, who was the founding captain of Melbourne's venerable Royal Melbourne Golf Club.

Bruce himself was a founder of the Royal Canberra Golf Club, and was invited to open many other courses across Australia. At these events Bruce was not content with just cutting the ribbon: he would also impress the crowds with his own golfing ability.

As prime minister, Bruce continued to actively compete and win handicapped golf events, including the 1928 MacLeod Cup at Royal Melbourne and the 1929 J.A. Irving Cup at Royal Canberra.

Some of Bruce's supporters tried to counter negative perceptions of him by pointing to the fact that he was such a 'good sport'. Golf was also said to 'keep him in good fettle'. This makes Bruce perhaps the first in a long line of Australian prime ministers who have tried to cultivate their public image through sport.

Interestingly, Bruce's wife Ethel was no golfing widow, but a good player herself: in 1929 she won a two-round 18 hole selective competition at Royal Canberra.

The pinnacle of Bruce's golfing achievements came later in life when, in 1954, he was made captain of the world famous Royal and Ancient Club at St Andrew's in Scotland. This entitled Bruce to wear a ceremonial 'captain's coat' which is now in the National Archives' collection.

Tailored for Bruce by Henry Poole & Co of Savile Row London, this magnificent coat is bright scarlet in colour, with black velvet trim and monogrammed brass buttons. While it would have made quite an impression on formal occasions, the red coat may not have been so practical out on the green.

Today the coat, together with the corresponding trousers, is on long-term display at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, which celebrates its 130th anniversary in July 2021.

Under the loan agreement, the National Archives has worked closely with Royal Melbourne to ensure the coat is displayed under optimal conditions for its long-term preservation. Staff from the National Archives' Victoria State Office also periodically visit the club to assess the coat's condition.

Recently, the coat and trousers were sent to the National Archives' National Preservation Facility in Canberra for a more detailed check-up. This included microfade testing to detect any fading of the fabric which would have otherwise been invisible to the naked eye.

These activities will ensure that this fascinating piece of Australia's sporting and political history is appropriately preserved for the future.

Discover more about archival records associated with Stanley Melbourne Bruce on our Prime ministers page.

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