A Yorkshire-based golf professional was though, in fact, born in Branston, Lincolnshire on 17 January 1881 but his parents Arthur, a contract labourer, and Eliza née Goodwin, from Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire respectively, were clearly Yorkshire-minded as they waited until March the following year, after a younger brother was born, before having the two boys baptised at the same time to get full value for money. It is no surprise then to see the family living in Ilkley at the time of the 1891 census.
Dell was later described as a ‘boy golfer’ at Skipton in 1894 but whether that meant as a caddy or assistant or just player I don’t know. The family is unlikely to have been well off with nine children, six under the age of ten, so it was surely in a paid capacity.
His career as professional began at the coastal course of Hornsea in 1898. In 1901 he married Mary Jane Parker and the 1901 census records them living at 108 New Road, Hornsea. He was advertising his services as a ballmaker in the town in 1901 and 1902 with an offer also to re-make old balls for ninepence a dozen. He may have carried out this trade past the time he was professional as a report in February 1902 states he had left the club and ‘removed to Ilkley’ and had been replaced by a Mr Finch of Stratford.
In 1906 he moved to Hull to take up the post of professional to the Newland club.
The advert in the illustration suggest his ‘Ever Clean’ process was just a method to keep heads clean and a later 1908 advert states ‘Over 500 clubs have been treated and no failures. Any clubs treated without interfering with balance or driving power’ so presumably a coating for purchasers to apply themselves, or by him on clubs sent by customers, but he also offered ready-made Ever Clean irons of his own which he advertised in 1908 at 6s 6d each, carriage paid.
He did perfectly normal golf professional things, competed in the Northern Professionals PGA tournament in 1907, played in the Yorkshire Professional Foursomes competition between 1908 and 1911, represented Hull in an inter-club match against Bridlington in 1909, crossed the Pennines to participate in the Manchester tournament of 1910 and took part in exhibition matches such as when defeating Drewery, the Beverley professional in 1911. He played in the thunderstorm-affected 1910 Open Championship at St Andrews, drawn with defending champion J H Taylor in the first round. He had an 83, with 70 for Taylor, but the round was cancelled and a subsequent 87 in the replayed first round put paid to his chances of advancing.
In 1912 he left the Newlands club in Hull and, so far as I can tell, apart from entering the News of the World qualifier in Halifax that September as ‘unattached’, walked away from golf entirely. As is usually the case tongues wagged regarding his reasons for leaving and the golf correspondent of the Hull Daily Mail felt it necessary to state that Dell had not been sacked, he had resigned and that an official of the club had declared him a ‘most sober, industrious and willing servant of the club’ and the correspondent regretted his departure not least because most of the club members were beginners Dell had taught to play the game.
He enlisted with the Royal Naval Division very early in the First World War or even before and served with the Motor Transport Company in Belgium (and set up an exhibition of international bullets in the Hull Daily Mail office). What he did immediately after the war is not clear, neither he nor his wife appear on the 1921 census. Considering what came later my theory would be alien abduction.
Seventeen years after his only previous appearance at the Open he was back for the 1927 championship at St Andrews. And how. No longer William, he was Anconeus Dell representing the Anatomical Club. After some study of anatomy he had developed a theory that the anconeus muscle in the elbow was the key to a successful golf swing and had adopted it as his first name. (Now I may not know my gluteus from my anconeus but physios tell me the Triceps brachii is far more relevant in elbow extension.) However, it was how he applied this which literally illuminated the auld grey toon.
He appeared on the tee, and, remember, these were hickories, steel shafts not yet legal on this side of the Atlantic, with a driver which had a bright yellow head and blue shaft. His irons had blue and black shafts circled with rings of yellow and red above the head. Other shafts were bright yellow. He explained this with two theories, one fairly logical that the player knew the circles were on the club and waited to see them on the downswing thus preventing the head coming up too early. The other was rather more esoteric. Everyone has a ‘colour complex’ and this forces the concentration necessary in golf. One of the journalists observing noted that ‘indigo apparently is a colour which soothingly persuades the ball into the hole …. Mr Dell’s putter had an intriguing indigo shaft’. The colour of his language was not recorded when his ball found the Swilcan burn on the first hole and he began with a six. He finished with an 82.
Despite failing to qualify he set about spreading the anatomical message. He opened the Golf Institute in London later that year at which he guaranteed to make anybody a golfer. By a series of simple exercises, not even requiring a club, ‘the muscles which produce the perfect golf swing are so developed and coordinated that the correct swing on the course will be not merely easy but instinctive’. 45 seconds a day was guaranteed to lower a handicap. He took the show on the road too, for example teaching the technique, for golf and tennis, at the Shrub Hill GC in August 1928.
The strange thing was he did not play much golf himself. But, if you are only going to play once a year, it might as well be the Open Championship. A week before the event he would start to practice then afterwards the clubs would be put away until the following year. An exception was the Dunlop tournament in Southport in 1931 where, presumably having nothing better to do that week, he attempted unsuccessfully to qualify. He played in Open qualifying at the next seven events and told a reporter in 1934 he had only missed out by a shot the previous year (there must have been a mulligan or two in his calculation: qualification was 158 and his score 165). He also said he intended to enter every year until he was 80 which surely gladdened hearts at the R&A.
But the entries paused in 1933. He and Mary Jane had moved out of London and bought the 50 acre Ridehalgh Farm in Briercliffe near Burnley. When the local paper visited him the following year he was fattening pigs, looking after six hundred chickens and laying out a nine hole golf course, his clubs propped against the pig barn. Clearly a devotee of the penal approach to golf architecture he had holes named Devil’s Dyke and Over the Marshes and offering no sympathy to any golfer losing his ball in either declared, ‘If you only hit your ball right you won’t do it’.
In the harsh economic climate of the times he offered the use of the course to the unemployed on Wednesdays over the summer of 1935
Mary Jane died in 1936 but the sad loss did not appear to sap any energy from Anconeus.
In February 1937 he opened a golf training centre at the course, focusing on his muscle theories, a movement one could ‘plainly see’ in films of Bobby Jones and ‘which can be obtained by an exercise’. He claimed he was the world’s first golf trainer as opposed to a teacher. ‘Anyone can drive a car but you must learn the trade of engineer to be a good repairer and the same may be said of golf’.
I suspect it was not a roaring success as later that year he offered the course to Burnley Council who politely declined. But it continued and it was dear to his heart. He described it to Golf Illustrated as ‘England’s prehistoric course’ and was proud that not a single penny had been spent on the greens (did I mention he was from Yorkshire?) and no artificial hazards created. He was secretary, steward, greenkeeper and professional and offered golf for 5 pence (about $0.10 then) a week, including clubs.
He still owned the course but in 1944, at an age when most golf pros are hanging up their niblicks, Dell went back to being a club professional at the nearby Pendle Forest Golf Club. This was only for a season, he had bigger fish to fry. In November 1945 he announced was returning to his childhood home of Ilkley where the 400 acres of Yorkshire’s oldest golf course at Ilkley Moor had stood idle during the war and he took over the lease of it from the local council. He planned to be there just after Christmas and have the course open by Easter. Back in Ilkley he was once again William. Anconeus might be fine for cosmopolitan Burnley but Ilkley folk will have no truck with such affectations. He spoke about it becoming the ‘Gleneagles of Yorkshire’ and had applied for permission to build a ‘midget golf course’ where he could teach children.
The Urban District Council promised support in February 1946 but no more seems to have happened with the old course and in 1949 William was in charge of the rowing boats on the Wharfe and full of ideas to get people active, create friendly sporting rivalries between the youth of Yorkshire and Lancashire and fill the banks of the river with daffodils.
His golfing, though, was not quite done. Perhaps remembering his earlier statement of submitting an entry for the Open until he was 80, he entered the 1954 Open at Royal Birkdale and at 74 became the oldest competitor in the competition. (Actually he was ‘only’ 73: he seems to have gone through life believing he was born in 1880 rather than 1881 but we won’t split hairs.) Equally encouraged and subdued when he became too impetuous by his niece he began happily with a five then hit trouble on the second hole. Brushes with the rough, a bunker and a bush and a bolted putt meant an eight. ‘I ought to be shot,’ he exclaimed when adding his score up to 89 but clearly enjoyed himself. Asked why he had only carried seven clubs he explained that Harry Vardon carried that number when he won his championships and ‘what was good enough for Harry was good enough for me’. He took particular pride in his niblick, ‘I made it myself 50 years ago, cost me 1s 10d’. (Did I mention Yorkshire?) He sharpened up his game in the afternoon with an 82 over the Hillside course 44 years after his first appearance in the Open.
Then his story becomes enmeshed with that of another great old golfing character who built his own golf course, Sid Ball. Sid had learned of William’s exploits from the Guess My Story TV panel quiz, and challenged the Yorkshire kid, two years his junior, to a home and away match. Two down with three to play at Ilkley, Sid clawed his way back and sunk a 10 foot putt at the last for the match to end all-square. Dell was read to play another round immediately but Ball wanted to wait and arrange a game for them in Wales. I have been unable to ascertain if that took place. Perhaps all-square was the best result.
Perhaps William’s willingness to play another round immediately is not so surprising, he was always fit. On 7 July 1911 at Hull he set out to play eight rounds of golf in one day with a Cambridge undergraduate, play starting not before 3am and to end before 9pm. They completed their eight rounds shortly after 7pm so played another six holes for good measure. It was considered that their 150 holes obliterated any golf endurance record of the time. The quality was pretty good too: Whittick, the student, averaged 84 per round, Dell 78, on a course where bogey was 79.
His brother, Arthur, was also a professional who began in Yorkshire thenhad several positions with clubs in France and Switzerland in the late 1920s.
William died in Ilkley in 1961, golf undoubtedly the poorer for his passing.
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