ROLLING ALONG WITH ROYCE
If it is true, as they say, that age feeds on memory, then Kenneth Stoker still lives well. He has as fine and all-round sporting record to chew over as any man in Cheshire. It blends with experiences from a notably successful career in the shipping world. Famous names, and connected anecdotes, drop easily and unaffectedly out of a life- diary which this month opens on its ninety-second page.
His return to life in Knutsford after an absence of some seventy years makes a story in itself - a story I greatly enjoyed hearing in the comfort of his home, meeting him again after many years. He wears no age-stoop; he still carries himself well, and although he protests that dates elude him, an ever-ready smile reveals that characters, in memory, are still very much with him.
Golf has played an important part in his life, and, typically, he has returned distinguished service to the game. lt was at the Knutsford club - less than a four-iron shot from his present home - that he became a boy-member at the age of ten, and first threatened a ball with a club on the rolling turf of Tatton Park. The Stoker family had just moved into the village; father, who had come North to found Manchester Liners, was later to become Tory MP for the Rusholme Division of Manchester. Young Kenneth showed immediate golf aptitude, won a boys' competition and still proudly owns a tournament cup he won at Knutsford in 19O5 - greatly helped by a hole-in-one. When, three years ago he returned to live in 'Cranford' and sought to rejoin the golf club, he met the usual Club secretary's parry about 'long waiting lists'. But, butted Mr. Stoker, surely former members had some preferential treatment? "Maybe," said Mr. Secretary "and how long ago were you a member?" "Look up 1896" suggested Kenneth Stoker . . . and moved into one more position of seniority - as the club's oldest member.
When you add to that the honours of being the oldest-surviving Captain of the Royal Liverpool Club, co founder and former Captain and President of the Cheshire Golf Union, and founder-member of the famous Hittites Club, a fine sporting record, to which I will return later, begins to fill out.
But whilst we are talking of Knutsford, a famous name enters the story - that of Henry Royce. That's right - the mechanical-genius half of the Rolls-Royce combination. The Stoker home stood on one side of Knutsford's Legh Road, the Royce's on the opposite hill. Every weekend Henry Royce brought home from his factory in Hulme a chassis, string-and-soap-box-mounted for its sporting test out in the Cheshire/Derbyshire hills beyond Macclesfield. And every weekend young Stoker needed no second invitation to leap aboard and share a motoring thrill. "l never owned a Rolls", Kenneth Stoker recalls "but neither did I lose from that moment the thrill of motoring".
More than fifty years ago he drove a sleek aluminium Vauxhall from Hoylake to Hyde Park Corner in 3% hours - an average speed of 55 miles per hour. "True", he reflects, "we had the roads much to ourselves … but what roads . . . and the punctures!" He still holds his driving licence, but takes a winter lay-off and avoids driving in the dark a reasonably acceptable piece of self-denial at ninety-one?
Another of his memories of Henry Royce concerns the famous engineer's love of speed. ln those early days, not far removed from the red-flag-leader image, Henry Royce's departures from Knutsford would be timed by the local police, who would send a telephoned alert to the Altrincham cops. (Was this the fore-runner of the radar trap?) Kenneth Stoker often saw the wily Royce, breaking his journey for a pipe-smoking and time-wasting interlude near the church at Bowdon, before a glance at his watch confirmed that it was safe for him to proceed without risk of a speeding prosecution.
To the thrill of speed on wheels Kenneth Stoker later added speed on skis. He became a First-Class runner and a Second-Class judge for the Ski Club of Great Britain, and was one of the founders of the noted D.H.O. (Down Hill Only) Club. lt was a time - (was there ever any other time?) - when adventurous young men could give pleasure priority if business interfered. Kenneth Stoker was by profession an average-adjuster, and was then living on Wirral. What average-adjusting entails is too complicated to explain and unimportant to this story, but it deals with shipping law. His partner-adjuster was a golf addict who sought the sands of Egypt for his winter golf, and, as his boat left, Kenneth Stoker shoved his skis into the guard's van of the Wengen Express and the averages were left for a time to adjust themselves.
There had been a war, of course, through which Kenneth Stoker, a Liverpool Scottish officer, came unharmed, but he broke more than one bone on the ski slopes of Switzerland. His shipping career, and his golf career, both took off after the war. He became a director of Manchester Liners, destined later to serve as managing director and subsequently chairman over a period of tremendous expansion. Additionally he became a director of the Ship Canal and of the Furness Withy Group, and he chaired the Manchester Steamship Owners' Association.
There were few sports which did not hold some interest lor him. He was an accomplished wildfowler - and was to be seen out with a gun as recently as last Spring. But golf has always held his prime sporting interest. Boyhood golf at Knutsford had been f ollowed by a formative spell at the Timperley Club, where he came under the style-influence of the club pro, the famous George Duncan. He qualified as a scratch golfer one day in 19O8, when he became the first holder of the Manchester and District Challenge Cup. "lt was a blazing hot day" he recalls "and not only did we play morning and afternoon rounds, but a third and deciding round in the evening, which I managed to win . . . and I remember keeping cool by wearing a rhubarb leaf for a cap!"
That famous home of golf, Hoylake, became his hunting ground in the later days of goliing immortals like John Ball and the prime of T. Froes Ellison, and he captained the Royal Liverpool Club in 1929. At a recent captains' dinner there, as the oldest living captain, he was warmly greeted by a roomful of successors who included former Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd. lt was in association with a former secretary of Royal Liverpool - Guy Farrar, at the enthusiastic prodding of Dan Milray of Sale, that Kenneth Stoker played a leading part in the formation of the Cheshire Golf union in 1920. A well-known Wilmslow golfing figure, Geoffrey Tweedale, joined forces with them, and the organisation of county competitions and championships, and the standard score- rating of the county's many fine courses, was for the first time properly regularised.
Kenneth Stoker represented his county in no fewer than seventy games, he captained the side for five years, and subsequently became its president; but he ruefully admits that he had little success in the county championships ". . . there was usually a little chap in the way, called lsrael Sidebottom, a remarkably successful golfer from Stockport and Disley, who always and politely raised his cap to the ball when a putt dropped - which happened with monotonous regularity".
Kenneth Stoker was an early member of the English Golf Union, and he helped to found the well-known and widely-toured Hittites Golfing Society - (hit first and get tight later). He played both for - and against - the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, once against the first American group brought over by Bobby Jones to compete in the British Open. He was runner-up in the Welsh Championship, and had so many successes at Hoylake and in Chester that his present retirement home - to which he moved when widowed three years go - was not big enough to house his trophies. So, sadly (though he tells it with a grin) he had to turn his beaten silver into solid brass.
Strangely, not one of his many golfing successes brought him the publicity which followed a Game That Never Was. "Chap I knew called Schofield rang me up" he recounts. "Said he had fixed a game for me at Delamere. I was to bring along the fourth - lvor Novello, then starring in Manchester. Picked him up, but a blasted tram turned right across our path near the Stretford terminus, I got in the tramlines, the brakes would not hold, and we had a fearful crash into the side of the tram. Finished up, both heavily bandaged, in the lnfirmary, where all the nurses rushed to look after Novello. I never got a look-in. Plucky chap, though - he appeared, still bandaged, on stage that night . . .We never had that game. . ."
"Reproduced by kind permission of Cheshire Life magazine" - from article published January 1977