K N K B W e b m u s e u m
     
1200-1450 | 1450-1700 | 1700-1885 | 1885-now
   
     
Colf - Kolf - Golf
 
 
     
History of colf and kolf
Low Countries and Scotland
14th century: the first charters
15th century: Growth
16th century: Further growth and extension
 
17th century: The zenith and the end of colf
 
Game of kolf
History of golf
Colf (early golf) in America
 
 
 
 
 
Kolf video in english (1984 | 8:14 min)
   
     
6. 17th century: The zenith and the end of colf  
 
In the course of the 17th century the game reached its zenith. We find the game being played in more and more places. The passion for colf went so far that players took their clubs and balls with them when going abroad. There is a pen drawing of Cornelis Poelenburgh, then in Rome where so many Dutch painters went to improve their skill. It is dated 'in Rome, 1622' and shows two players: one has landed in the rough and the other is giving him a 'line' in the same manner as this is done today. Knowing that Cornelis teamed up with Paul Bril, then 68, and Bartholomeus Breenbergh, then 22, it is not so difficult to recognize Bartholomeus as the player in trouble and Paul Bril as the helper to get out of it. The ruins of ancient Rome provide a scenic background.
 
A drawing of Gerrit Berckheyde of about 1660 shows two Dutch colvers playing on the market at Cleve in Germany.
 
The game even went across the Atlantic. The 'Small Bench of Justice' of Fort Orange and the village of Beverwyck (now Albany, N.Y.) saw fit to issue an ordinance in 1659 for that area, forbidding colf along the roads at a fine of 25 guilders. The reasons, you can quess them by now!, were damage to windowpanes in houses, the chance of hurting passers-by and the blocking of the streets.
 
In the first half of the 17th century several cities started to construct mail-courses (maliebanen). Anything French became fashionable and so the authorities may have hoped that the game of mail, which was restricted to the course on which it was played, would replace the more roving game of colf (but it did not). The following courses were built:
• 1609 The Hague - length 1073 m.
• 1637 Leyden - length 696 m.
• 1637 Utrecht - length 752 m.
• 1651 Amsterdam - length 650 m.
Beside the mail course in The Hague there was also an ample mail field. This field, which is still in existance, had two trees at one of its long sides to serve as targets.
 
Some interesting facts:
The French word ‘mail’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘pallemaille’, which probably refers to the Italian word ‘pallamaglio’ (= ball and mail club).
Mail was very popular in Europe. Many French cities possessed a ‘Champs de Mail’. London still owns its Pall Mall (= pallemaille). In the 18th century Washington D.C. also gets a ‘National Mail’, thanks to French architect Pierre l’Enfant.
It is curious how the word ‘Mail’ in the meaning of a public shadowed lane, nowadays has the meaning of a shopping street or a shopping mall in the U.S.A., Canada and Australia.
 
A mail course consisted of a long and not too wide stretch of level ground with low boards on either side and a decorative post at either end, some distance from the high end-boards (rabat). In the middle of the course was a small iron gate (archet) through which the ball had to pass on its way from one post to the other. The game, played with flexible wooden mallets (maille) and wooden balls, had no less than 58 rules some of the rather similar to the rules of golf today.
 
Enthusiasm for playing mail has never been very great. Why should it have been? Colf clubs and balls were by then much better implements than their equivalents for mail. Although the regulations for the mail-courses specifically forbade the playing of colf there, the authorities may well have turned a blind eye to the trespassers. (At least it kept them out of the cities!) In some cases where a specific colf-field have been designated there were other drawbacks. In Naarden there was an official colf-field, mentioned in the ordinance book of 1623, but since in the same book there is a passage reading that carcases of dead animals were to be burried there it is easily onderstood that the colfers sought their pleasure elsewhere.
 
Including the mail-courses there were by that time 9 cities in the Low Countries that had provided some sort playing area for colf: Antwerp, Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem, The Hague, Leyden, Naarden, Schiedam and Utrecht.
 
The increase in the number of players led to an increased demand for clubs and balls. Except for an odd ballmaker in Rotterdam balls were still only produced in quantity in Goirle, Steenbergen, Bergen op Zoom, Delft and Amsterdam. Some impression of the volume of production may be derived from some of the transaction on record. Bergen op Zoom registered a transaction of sale of 40.000 balls in one deal as early as 1502. In 1631 three ballmakers at Goirle committed a consignment op 17.700 balls, which they and their apprentices had made, to a waggoner to be taken to Maastricht to be sold in the market there (probably for export to Paris). In Brabant balls were produced by individual masters with apprentices. In Delft the ballmakers were united in a guild: a charter of that guild from 1626 restricts the number of apprentices of each master ballmaker to one. When production of balls in Delft proved insufficient to meet the demand they were contracted from Goirle.A contract of that nature was registered before the Sheriffs of Tilburg in 1669. Two citizens of Delft bought the entire production of 9 ballmakers of Goirle for a period of 9 years. The contract contains many interesting details. An apprenticeship at Goirle lasted two years at that time; in Delft three. The museum at Goirle possesses two sets of ancient ballmaking tools and some old balls.
 
Clubmaking is more difficult to trace. It is certain that most of the clubs came from in and around Leyden, where the master clubmakers formed guild in 1660. The clubs they made were of the type which had a head of lead cast around the end of the shaft. This type of clubs is already mentioned in 1429 and was thus in use for more than 250 years. Clubs with iron heads also existed, probably made locally by the blacksmiths after the lead-head models. Finally wooden clubs were imported from Scotland. Whatever type one chose, one played with one club only. On none of the hundreds of pictures does one see a player with more than one club.
 
The lead-headed clubs made and traded in Leyden had to be stamped with the stamp of the city where they were made and the stamp of the master who had made them. There is one clubhead of that type in a private collection in Haarlem. The city-stamp is defaced but the master's stamp is a very clear capital letter 'D'. Sadly, of all the thousands of clubs made, not a single complete specimen has survived. Only a few clubheads remain.
 
And then, almost exactly at 1700, the game of colf, which had enjoyed such an immense popularity over such a wide area for over 400 years, comes to an abrupt end. No more ordinances against playing it, the mail-courses are closed: in short it disappears without a trace in a matter of years. It is not easy to find an explanation for this phenomenon. Social historians like the famous Le Francq van Berkhey could not find one. Neither could the anonymous author of 'A Treatise on Kolf' in 1769 and 1792, both of them living one or two genrations from the end. In the 19th century Jan ter Gouw ascribes it to be more effeminate and refined way of life of the 18th century and the concurrent rising interest in indoor games such as billiards and the like. Many sports disappeared. 18th century clothes were indeed more delicate than their earlier counterparts and there is no denying that one could well become soiled in playing a good game of colf. So we must accept it at that.
 
It is in fact a miracle that golf, now the world's biggest sport, survived the 18th century at all. Contrary to what used to be common belief in earlier days, recent research in Scotland has established that golf was never a very popular sport there before the arrival of the gutta-percha rubber ball in 1848. In fact it never reached the west coast of Scotland before 1850. Had it not been for the few golfing societies, all of them formed by freemasons, who thought the game a good exercise before sitting down for their sumptuous meals (between them not more than 500 players at any one time between 1750 and 1850), there would have no golf today.
 
Read more:
History of colf and kolf
Low Countries and Scotland
14th century: the first charters
15th century: Growth
16th century: Further growth and extension
Game of kolf
History of golf
Colf (early golf) in America
 
By courtesy of the Early Golf Foundation (Steven J.H. van Hengel's book Early Golf, 1982). 
     
     
Royal Dutch Kolf Union | St. Eloy's Hospice | Early Golf Foundation
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