Good Times in a Rat Infested Shack – Tom Green’s Boathouse

Female rowers with their ‘cute purses’ (‘purses’ are ‘handbags’ or ‘shoulder bags’ in British-English.)

Tim Koch writes:

The recent HTBS posting ‘Female Rowers With Their Cute Purses’ showed a 1939 photograph of a group of women taking their oars to the river’s edge while carrying cardboard boxes containing gas masks strung around their necks. Britain officially declared war on 3 September 1939 but ‘Air Raid Precautions’ to protect the civilian population had been going on for some time before that. There was a real fear that gas bombs would be used in air raids on cities and the distribution of civilian gas masks had started in June 1939. By September, 38 million masks had been issued.

A poster of 1939.

As the war progressed, the risk of gas attack diminished and masks were carried less and less. However, some men found that being able to carry a socially acceptable ‘manbag’ was too convenient a thing to give up and kept their cigarettes, spectacles, wallet, sandwiches etc. in their gas mask case. While gas bombs were never used in air raids, some people allegedly died when they ‘tested’ their masks by wearing them and putting their head in a gas oven. The mask filters (which contained white asbestos) were not designed to deal with the coal-gas used in heating and cooking.

Some of the boxes in the picture have been decorated by their owners and other women even knitted covers for their gas mask container.

A knitting pattern of 1940 for gloves, scarf and gas mask container. It is strange that there were concerns about such things when, by June 1940, the Nazis were in France poised for invasion across the English Channel. Perhaps it says something about the British ‘stiff upper lip’ and the spirit of Mrs. Miniver

A range of commercial gas mask bags were produced for sale by enterprising manufacturers, though not all were as sophisticated as these

Following the posting of the 1939 picture, rowing historian Colin Cracknell wrote in the comments section:

Any idea where this was taken? It looks as if it could be the foreshore at Tom Green’s Boathouse, Barnes Bridge. Alpha Ladies boated from there, but I’m informed that those are not their blades.

I do not know which club the blades belonged to, but I can confirm that it was taken on the Thames outside Tom Green’s Boathouse next to Barnes Bridge, half a mile from the finish of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race course. The recent picture posted below shows the same spot – though it covers a much wider angle.

The double steps in the top right of the 1939 picture are shown above the coaching launch here. They were to gain access to the police launches that were moored opposite Tom Green’s, one of which can be seen in the old photograph. Also in the black and white picture, the windows of the red brick mansion (apartment) block opposite are reflected in the water. The colour picture shows Barnes Bridge on the left and next to it the distinctive ‘Tower House’ which was once the home of Geoffrey Page, rowing historian and rowing correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

Boat Christening at Tom Green’s showing much the same view across the river as today. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

Tom Green’s Boathouse, c.1937.

The core of the boathouse that was to become Tom Green’s existed before 1876, but it was in this year that it was taken over by the Thomas George Green and it stayed in the family until its demise ninety-nine years later. By accident or design, it seems to have attracted those whom most of the amateur rowing world marginalised. In the words of a 1947 newspaper ‘Green’s boat-house provides for “homeless” tradesmen, artisans and women who like the river’.

Some ‘women who like the river’ at Tom Green’s sometime in the 1930s. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

Tom Green’s, sometime between the Wars. The women wearing the ‘club’ symbol are members of Alpha Rowing Club, based at Green’s. I think that the woman standing second from the right is Amy Gentry, a famous advocate of women’s rowing. She and the other non-Alpha RC women would be members of Weybridge Ladies Amateur Rowing Club. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

The ever fascinating Pathe Newsreel website has a couple of wonderful films showing women rowing out of Green’s in the 1920s and 1930s. Eve on the River was shot in 1921 and River Girls in 1931. I think we see Tom Senior in the first film and Tom Junior in the second. There is also a 1927 film of Bert Barry training out of Green’s for the World Championship.

Before I attempt a brief history of Tom Green’s Boathouse, I would like to finish off the ‘wartime’ aspect that started this story. In the Cygnet Rowing Club newsletter of 2004, Rene Rawkins gave a wonderfully frank account of rowing out of Green’s during the 1939-1945 War. I reproduce it here with the permission of her son, Paul, who has written a history of Cygnet RC (click here and then on the ‘history’ link on the left).

Rene wrote:

Tom Green’s Boathouse was a rat infested wooden shack situated immediately adjacent to Barnes Bridge on the Chiswick side, close to the site where Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club now stands. There were no showers… Ma Green – Tom Green’s wife – cooked on a large (bottled gas) stove, there being no electricity either. Needless to say, no insurance company would touch the place…. For all that, we had some good times there.

A large number of clubs boated out of Tom Green’s during the war, some of them refugees from the Civil Service Boathouse, which had been requisitioned as a morgue in 1939. My own club, the Savings Bank…. moved to Green’s in 1935. Other incumbents were Alpha and St George’s [both women’s clubs, TK]. Come the war, we were joined by the likes of the Ministry of Pensions and the Ministry of Health.

Tom Green was one of the river’s great characters; a professional boatmen, he was given to binge drinking and frequently disappeared for days at a time, before being brought back much the worse for wear on the ferry that ran between Barnes and Chiswick. Ma Green was forever purloining our sweaters and shoes while we were out on the water. Yet, if you enquired about the whereabouts of a missing item of clothing she’d swear blind that she’d never seen it, even when she was standing before you actually wearing it….

Ma Green: ‘I don’t know anything about a missing beret…. or earrings’. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

Despite the war, rowing at Tom Green’s followed a very familiar pattern with outings during the week and on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. On just one such Sunday morning in mid May 1940, I remember standing on the foreshore and watching a whole flotilla of brightly decorated craft…. heading down river…. Two weeks later less than half their number made their way back up river, all painted in battle grey and very battered – the remnants of Dunkirk.

Women’s rowing flourished during the war, most men having been called up….. There was a very full regatta programme right the way through the war…… mostly held in aid of the services and the Red Cross. We ventured as far afield as Torquay. I still have the trophy to show for our first encounter with coastal rowing and damned hard work it was too!

A pre-war picture of Green’s and Barnes Bridge.

The same view today. Green’s was where the trees now are. The modern boathouse belongs to Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club.

The story of this historic boat house starts with Tom Green Senior, that is Thomas George Green. At age 16, in 1864, he was apprenticed as a waterman to his father. He completed his apprenticeship and became a member of the Watermen’s Company in 1871 and won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1872. He had a successful rowing career including winning the Champion Fours (‘The Championship of England’) at the Thames Regatta at least four times in the early 1870s. In September 1876 Tom’s waterman’s four went to the United States where they raced on the Schuykill in Philadelphia and beat crews from New York and Halifax for a prize of $2,500. Tom also got $500 for second place in the Open Sculls. In later life he became a King’s Waterman.

Perhaps using his American prize money, in 1876, Tom Green bought a rundown boathouse next to Barnes Bridge and set to rebuilding it while also building a fleet of boats. Green’s eventually had sixty boats to hire to serious and not so serious rowers and it became the headquarters of several rowing clubs and the base for a number of regatta committees. In those days a rowing club did not have to own any boats, many survived by hiring craft as they were needed and this made the sport accessible to ordinary working people. In a short history of Green’s written by John Powell, a copy of which is with the River and Rowing Museum, it is recoded that the clubs using the boathouse at one time included: Cobden, Gaiety, Nelson, Temple, Metropolitan Police, Helen Smith’s, The Times, Daily Mail, News Chronicle and Star, University of London Medical School, The Ladies Boat Club of the UC Hospital, The Ladies Boat Club, Simpson’s on the Strand and Grosvenor. Powell later quotes from a history of Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club which adds that ‘Barnes Bridge, Amalgamated Press, Alpha Ladies, London Transport and St George’s Ladies made their home with Tom Green.’

Tom Senior was also an accomplished coach. He trained Bill Beach, the Australian who was undefeated as World Professional Sculling Champion from 1884 to 1887, when he undertook a series of challenges over the Thames Championship Course, Putney to Mortlake, in 1886. In his book A History of Rowing (1957), Hylton Cleaver reports the extraordinary story of Beach’s race against the Canadian, Jacob Gaudaur, when each sculler in turn stopped from exhaustion and slumped in his boat:

At Barnes Bridge…. Beach was exhausted. (Tom Green Snr.) the man who trained him…. shouted to his man to stop and to come to him at the raft – rather like a naughty schoolboy. Beach wearily pulled in as ordered; his trainer splashed him full in the face with water and spoke these words: ‘Now, Bill! Think of your wife and children, and go after him, for he’s as bad as you!’ Such were the effect of the cold shower and these orders that, in an unforgetable finish, Beach did win on the post.

A great story – a pity that it is not true. The Times carried a full report on the race and does not mention this incident. What it does say is that Beach led by half a length passing Green’s boathouse and extended this to three lengths at the finish. Further, Tom was not on the bank but was following the Australian in a pilot boat, acting as his steersman. However, the report does acknowledge that Tom’s motivational calls aided Beach greatly and that the sculler acted ‘in obedience to the earnest entreaties of Green’.

Tom Green Senior in later life. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

Cleaver also records that Tom Senior trained Charles ‘Wag’ Harding to victory in both his races against the considerably larger Tom Sullivan of New Zealand for the English Sculling Championship in 1895. Many other professionals used Green’s as a base when preparing for Tideway races. The great Ned Hanlan trained from there in his race against Trickett for the World Professional Championship in 1880, and Ernest Barry often used Green’s, first in his race against Towns for the English Championship in 1908. No doubt all received the benefit of Tom’s advice and, in their races, many were steered by him from a pilot boat. Tom steered amateurs as well as professionals, notably in the Wingfield Sculls of 1887 when he guided Steve Fairbairn.

Tom Senior had five sons and six daughters. Three of the boys became Watermen, but it was Thomas George Edward Green (‘Tom Green Junior’ or ‘Young Tom’) who took over the boathouse on the death of his father aged 77, in 1925. Young Tom never weighed more than 8 1/2 stone / 120 lbs / 54 kg but came second in the Doggett’s of 1897. Cleaver says that he had a Clasper boat made that was 31ft / 9.44 m long, 8.5 ins / 22 cms wide and which weighed 21 lbs / 9.5 kg. In this he won the London Coat and Badge.

A rare picture of Young Tom Green (centre) without his cap. The man on the left is B.C. Fisher, described by Hylton Cleaver as ‘a devout and long standing disciple of Steve’s [Steve Fairbairn]’. He was involved with Fairbairn in establishing the Head of the River Race. The man on the right is Geoffrey Carr, an Anglian RC cox from 1903 to 1914. He won the Thames Cup with Anglian at Henley Royal in 1910 and a silver medal steering a famous Thames four in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

In the fifty years between 1925 and 1975 Green’s seemed to have carried on as if the world was not changing, particularly as regards health and safety and ideas on basic sanitation. The history of Thames Tradesmen’s notes that at some time:

Toilet facilities were very primitive consisting only of a canvas enclosure ‘out in the woods’. Guests were confronted by a board with two apertures and the entertainment provided by the birds, bees, and other denizens of the trees.

Rita Cramp (née Dennis) joined Alpha as a schoolgirl in the early 1950s. She recalls:

I used to take a filled hot water bottle so I could have a warm wash after our outings or evening runs. It was then used for others to wash their feet in. It was all so taken for granted, it’s amazing when one thinks of it now.

A contemporary of Rita’s, Nina Padwick, remembers’ the cold water and big sink and the oil heater on which we could stand a kettle (and) the way that the leathers we used on the boats got ‘eaten by rats’ (though John Hart found many tucked away after Mrs. Green died)’.

John Hart was responsible for rescuing the extensive ‘Green archive’ (now held by the River and Rowing Museum) from certain destruction after Ma Green died.

Young Tom and his redoubtable wife, Kate, universally known as ‘Ma and Pa’, continued regardless, the premises decaying around them. Even so, in 1957 rowing journalist Hylton Cleaver wrote that ‘today sixteen men’s clubs and two women’s clubs use the quarters’.

When Tom became infirm in his late seventies, Ma continued the business, personally dragging the boats for hire in and out of the boathouse. Colin Cracknell recalls Ma making him stand outside in the rain when he arrived early one day because ‘Anglian’s time is two o’clock’. Colin continues:

I boated from Tom Green’s in 1961/62, before Anglian and Mortlake merged and moved into their new premises by the crematorium. By that time the accommodation at Green’s was rather Spartan, (perhaps it always was), but Anglian had a reasonably comfortably club room and bar…. there were showers although they were rarely used. People just sluiced down out of old enamel bowls after an outing. The mud on the foreshore was something to behold, (not like the gas mask picture, when it seems to have been well cared for with shingle etc.), and you could easily lose your (boots) there.

Young Tom died in 1958 in the rooms about the boat racks where he was born 84 years earlier.

Young Tom Green, possibly just back from the pub… Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

In 1923 the land upon which Green’s stood had been purchased from the Duke of Devonshire by the local government body, Chiswick Urban District Council, who became Tom’s landlord. Shortly after the Second World War, the council had made an effort to close down Green’s, so they could build a communal boathouse on the site. However, it would take more than the massed resources of local government to shift Ma Green and it was only on her death in 1975 that the authorities got their way. Sadly, they were assisted by the fact that the boathouse burnt down in 1977. It was, until then, as it was twenty years earlier when Hylton Cleaver wrote ‘Tom Green’s Boathouse today is a relic of the days when Putney Bridge was wooden and horse-drawn coaches crossed it…’

The trees mark where Tom Green’s stood. Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club boat from the undistinguished boat house in the centre. Across the river are the distinctive white double balconies of the 1899 White Hart pub in Barnes, a fine viewing point for races on the Championship Course and once the temporary base of many professionals training out of Green’s.

I found this decorative ironwork in the undergrowth alongside the railway embankment that ran alongside the boathouse. Is this the last, sad remains of Tom Green’s, a relic of Victorian rowing that lasted until 1975?

If you wish to find out more about Tom Green’s Boathouse, the River and Rowing Museum has put their extensive Green archive online.

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