One of Formby Golf Club's more unusual treasures found itself on the front line in a Second World War battle
The clubhouse at Formby Golf Club is as much a golfing museum as it is a meeting place for members.
Inside the snooker room, for example, are all sorts of priceless artefacts – including hickories made by the club’s early professionals and memorabilia from each of the Amateur Championships they have hosted.
There’s so much, in fact, that the large hippopotamus head that’s tucked away downstairs in the early 20th century building might almost pass you by.
But take a minute, if you will, to study it because it reveals a remarkable tale of arrival, skulduggery, battle and redemption.
While we’ve rightly moved on from killing animals for sport – anyone posting on twitter with a dead lion deservedly gets a total pasting – things were very different back in the late 1800s.
This poor hippo was one of many ‘trophies’ hunted for sport in Africa and it was slain by two brothers of Mr E Storey, one of the club’s early trustees and a Formby member since 1885.
When he died in 1909 his widow, who probably couldn’t wait to see the back of it, donated the head to the club and it became a prominent feature in the clubhouse.
Some three decades later, though, it would have an unexpected moment in the sun.
When the Second World War broke out, the course remained open but – as happened at many clubs up and down the country – Formby Golf Club did their bit.
The clubhouse was taken over as an officer’s mess for each branch of the armed forces.
In early 1940, some junior officers of the troop ship ‘Veteran’ – having all enjoyed a few too many gins – saw the hippo and hatched a plan to take it back to their ship.
Let’s allow Captain Jack Broome, from his book ‘Convoy is to Scatter’, to take up the tale…
“As we descended the stairs to leave, there in, a glass case, was the open mouthed for’d end of a Hippo, breaking surface through the wired reeds of a plastic swamp.
“A small brass plaque named the donor and, in case we might think it had wandered from the casual water by the 5th green, it named the beast’s home river in darkest Africa.
“We all agreed it looked sad and wan. The Army doctor diagnosed and unhesitatingly prescribed a sea voyage. The Navy’s reply: Hippo, be our guest.”
You can only imagine how they got it out of the case, or carried it out of the club – even avoiding the attention of a policeman who ordered the pilfering group’s motor off the road when they were caught in the full glare of a Liverpool air raid.
The hippo was brought aboard the Veteran, and secured onto the searchlight platform of the ship.
Where they all then went to Narvik, the site of a fierce two-month campaign over land and fjords between British, French, Norwegian, Polish and German forces.
“We had an adventurous trip to Norway,” writes Broome in rather understated fashion, “twisting into fjords wondering where to land the soldiers, accompanied by near misses from the Luftwaffe.”
One particularly close call with a bomb was deemed the cause of dislodging one of the hippo’s wisdom teeth and, having been encrusted with salt and sea water, he looked a rather different creature when the Veteran returned home.
Broome continues: “No sooner had we secured to the Liverpool oiler, however, than trouble started.
“The local Admiral, an ardent golfer and member of Formby Golf Club, had heard the story. I was summoned and threatened with Court Martial.
“Having got that off his chest, the Admiral cooled and settled for instant return of Hippo – and a personal apology to the Golf Club Committee from all concerned.”
With a glistening 1 ½ inch steel tooth installed, and a new plaque that simply read “Shot down over Narvik”, the hippo was returned and remains at the club today – placed between the two downstairs bars.
Every year, the incident is now commemorated with the playing of the ‘Hippo Competition’ for a replica trophy.
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