The Putney Embankment – London’s ‘Boathouse Row’, Part 1

LC Putney before 1890.

In three installments, HTBS’s Tim Koch tells the story of the rowing clubs along the Putney Embankment, or what Tim calls ‘London’s Boathouse Row’.

The Putney Embankment is west of Putney Bridge on the south or ‘Surrey’ bank of the Thames. ‘The Embankment’ is the British equivalent of Philadelphia’s ‘Boathouse Row’. Listed in order from west to east, it is home to the London Rowing Club, Kings College School Boat Club, HSBC RC, Dulwich College BC, Crabtree BC, Westminster School BC, Vesta RC, Thames RC, and Imperial College BC. There are also three buildings with historic boat building connections. Originally these were Clasper’s, Searle’s and Norris’s and I will write about these at another time. An interactive 360 degree view of the Embankment can be found here.

The hamlet of Putney had boatmen operating a ferry connecting it to the north (‘Middlesex’) bank since at least 1210 when it was recorded that King John’s horses were transported across the river from Fulham. There was great consternation among the Watermen when the first bridge was opened in 1729.

At the time it was the only span crossing the Thames between London Bridge and Kingston Bridge (which were 10 miles/16 km apart). The laboriously titled ‘Putney Embankment Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Strategy Report 2010’ (hereafter referred to as ‘The PECA Report’) gives a brief history of the area:

“The Embankment itself […] was originally an unimproved strip of foreshore, backed by common pasture and the grounds of large houses along the Lower Richmond Road. (It) was used mostly by the local watermen to shore their boats until a towpath was created in the late eighteenth century. It has always been a location for public houses from as early as the Middle Ages and of commercial boatmen and boat builders from the seventeenth onwards […] The Embankment was made up as a road in 1887 but boathouses were built here before this date. The most notable today are the former Searle’s Yard […], the London Rowing Club and Thames Rowing Club buildings. All have been altered in the intervening years but are all immediately recognisable today from historic photographs. All three are proposed for the local (conservation) list for their largely unaltered exteriors and importance in the area’s unique history.”

1851 Funny by the Star and Garter pub.

Putney’s place as the centre of British amateur rowing (outside of Oxford and Cambridge Universities) for over one hundred years started in 1856 with the formation of the London Rowing Club, LRC. Initially it was based at the Star and Garter pub on the Embankment with its boats kept at Searle’s Yard (Searle’s became, at various and sometime overlapping times, Simmons, Aylings, Boyers & Phelps and is today Chas Newens Marine).

By 1859 LRC had purchased the site of the present boathouse, Finches Field, and built a rough shed to store the boats. The current boathouse dates from 1871 and was enlarged to its present size by 1906.

It was the British ‘Industrial Revolution’ that made LRC’s founders choose this part of the river as their base. Rowing in the rapidly industrialising and increasingly polluted centre of London (5 miles/8 km to the south west) where most of the original LRC members worked was becoming less and less tolerable. The Port of London was at the heart of a growing Empire, which would soon cover a quarter of the earth. River traffic carrying people and goods created great washes and bridge and embankment building increased the river’s flow. Factories and sewers poured their waste into the Thames without restriction. However, the Industrial Revolution also provided a solution. From 1846 the new railways meant that a man could work in the centre of London but be in the remote and relatively unspoilt village of Putney in twenty minutes. An early Thames RC notice read:

The rowing train will leave Waterloo (Railway Station) at 6.34 p.m. and crews will be formed at 7.00 p.m.

1851 outrigger pair by St. Mary’s Church.

Some delightful evidence that Putney was an established centre of amateur rowing by the late 1840s is given by four engravings published on 25th January 1851 ‘by Messrs. Fores at their Sporting and Finest Print Repository and Frame Manufactory, 41 Piccadilly’ showing various types of rowing boats along the Embankment. My favourites show an ‘outrigged pair’ by St Mary’s Church (seen above) and the old bridge and a ‘Funny’ (inrigged scull) by the ‘Star and Garter’.

Part 2 will continue tomorrow!

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