Vandals In Subfusc?*

Rowing as a sport started at Eton College – though not all of its practices, such as those shown here on the 4th June Celebrations, were universally adopted.

HTBS’s Tim Koch writes,

On my way to the 2013 ‘Henley Boat Races’ at Eton College’s Dorney Lake (which was also the site of the 2012 Olympic Regatta) I  crossed the footbridge over the river from Windsor into Eton and was saddened to see that some of the boathouses on the site known as ‘Rafts’ have been demolished with the intention of replacing them with luxury apartments. This is especially significant as it was from this site that rowing at Eton College started and this is important as it is generally accepted that the school itself was the birthplace of rowing as an amateur sport.

Rafts in June 2011. The boathouses from left to right are River House, Winters (both c. 1890), Tin Shed (the red brick building, c. 1947) and Pilkington’s (c. 1900).

Rafts in March 2013. River House remains but Winters, Tin Shed and Pilkington’s are gone.

In his four-volume, 2,500-page work entitled The Sport of Rowing, Peter Mallory devotes an entire chapter to Eton. It starts:

You may be surprised to discover that the origin of the sport of rowing can be pinpointed to a single location in the English countryside. Rowing, not as a regulated guild profession of the British working class but as an organized recreational activity of the privileged British upper class, uniquely began during the last half of the 18th Century at a single site, Eton College, an English (fee paying) school.

Mallory points out that, without any support from the school authorities 250 years ago, the boys were taking to boats during the spring and summer months, renting boats from the waterman establishments along the Windsor and Eton shorelines. The most important of these ‘waterman establishments’ were at ‘Rafts’, a 200-metre site between Windsor Bridge and Brocas Meadow on the Eton side of the river.

In An Eton Camera 1920-1959 (1983), PSH Lawrence wrote:

Rafts like so many Eton institutions was for many years free enterprise. The six separate sections were at various times run by different local boatmen … Not until 1909 did the whole length come under the ownership of the Eton College Boathouse.

Searle’s were at Eton between 1850 and 1870. © Royal Windsor Website (RWWS).

By 1895 Searle’s had become Halliday’s.

 A picture of Halliday’s in 1898. © Royal Windsor Website (RWWS). 

It is undeniable that, following the construction of its world-class rowing facility at Dorney Lake, Eton will have much less use for the boathouses at Rafts which, in any case, have long been ‘unfit for purpose’ and used mostly for rowing ‘below team level’. They are not particularly old or attractive buildings – especially the ugly late 1940s red brick building strangely known as ‘Tin Shed’. Perhaps worse damage was done in the 1970s when an attractive building between the current development and Windsor Bridge was demolished and replaced by the existing soulless structure. Also near the bridge is the former Eton College Boathouse, now in residential use. A fine early 18th century red brick construction, it survives not least because it has a ‘Grade II’ Preservation Order.

Eton College and the site developers, Bewley Homes, have produced a very complex, elaborate and (naturally) self-justifying website showing their plans to provide 13 new residential units, boat shed space….. and public realm enhancements including providing public access to the river front…’.

The website includes a very full ‘Heritage Statement’. This may be a legal requirement but I think that its depth shows that Eton is taking its responsibilities as a custodian of a great historical legacy seriously. The Statement is a large document but HTBS readers may find Appendix 6 (a history of the boathouses) and Appendix 7 (Eton’s future use of non Dorney boathouses) the most interesting.

Appendix 6 concludes:

The (boathouses) broadly illustrate local social and economic trends associated with rowing, both commercial and in relation to the college, at Eton in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are not of national historic interest and do not have an exclusive historic link with the college……. They are essentially sheds for storage and manufacture that were converted and altered at different times …. Very little remains internally today, particularly in the earlier buildings, to illustrate these uses…. the buildings stand today as an unremarkable group of disparate structures built by a variety of owners for a variety of specific uses.

Reassuringly, Appendix 7 states that, for both ‘practical and emotional’ reasons:

There is a real and genuine enthusiasm within Eton College to continue a rowing presence at Rafts….

As this drawing shows, the sites of the previous four boathouses will still be distinctive and Pilkington’s will be redeveloped to include a boathouse for use by the School, at least in the near future. Fours, including the special coxed fours used in Eton’s version of ‘bump racing’ will be racked here (though the new storage will not be able to take eights).

The rear of Pilkington’s in Brocas Street in June 2011.

The site of Pilkington’s in April 2013. River House can be seen over the fencing.

My initial instinctive reaction to the development at Rafts was to be opposed to it, dismissing it as a money grabbing exercise by a very wealthy body that already enjoys enormous tax advantages. On reflection I have concluded that, while the site has great emotional appeal, the actual buildings that stood until recently were not especially important and perhaps the worst losses were suffered some time ago. The inclusion of a new Eton boathouse in the development, even with very guarded remarks about its future use, is of course to be welcomed. Importantly, rowing in some form will continue at Rafts. In his conclusion to his chapter on Eton, Peter Mallory wrote:

There is no competitive rowing program at any level on earth with such a cornucopia of facilities….. with such historic ritual…. with such a long tradition of excellence.

The school motto – Floreat Etona (May Eton flourish).

Sadly, the 20th century incarnation of Rafts is an unavoidable casualty of the ongoing development of rowing at Eton. Hopefully its twenty first century embodiment will continue to play some role in the evolution of the sport at this unique institution.

Dorney Lake – also known as The Eton College Rowing Centre. How many schools can boast such a world-class facility.
*Subfusc: Formal academic dress worn by Eton College teaching staff such as the headmaster is wearing here.

© Colour Photographs Tim Koch

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