Later this year, in early May, Clive Radley is publishing a book about his family’s history as boatbuilders and rowers, The Radleys of the Lea. The book is 220 pages long and contains many photographs, scans of historical records and newspaper extracts about the author’s ancestors, the boatbuilding family the Radleys. Here Clive gives us the background to his book:
The book The Radleys of the Lea is the story of my ancestors whose boatyard business was founded in 1840 by my great-great-grandfather George Radley and his wife Phoebe. The business flourished by the River Lea in northeast London for 130 years and at its peak in the early twentieth century there were three boatyards, all a few miles upriver of the London Olympic Stadium site, between Lea Bridge and Springhill. From the 1880s onwards, the boatyards traded as V. Radley and Sons, named as such by my great-grandfather Vincent Radley, who ran the business from 1865 to 1932.
The book includes the history of the boatbuilding business and the rowing exploits of family members. Boatyard life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is described, as well as the way in which the social and geographic conditions of northeast London and northwest Essex influenced the founding of the Radley business and its subsequent development.
In a newspaper clipping from Sporting Life of 8 July 1862, I found the first record of Radley involvement in competitive rowing. Venus Rowing Club was founded by George Radley, who started the Radley boatyard business.
The Radleys of the Lea has its origins in the family history research I began in the late 1990s and was inspired by memories of my childhood visits to the family boatyard. I was born in 1945 and grew up in Leytonstone in northeast London and quite often my father would take us by bus to visit my uncle, Sid Radley, our last boat builder, at the V. Radley and Sons site at Springhill opposite what is now Lea Rowing Club. These visits resulted in an interest in rowing and boating which I have retained throughout my life, ultimately leading to this book.
My family history hobby had started in a broad, unfocussed manner, but fairly rapidly progressed to a more concentrated look at my father’s ancestors. He had left a number of pictures of the Radley boatyards and of family members rowing in family crews and these led to me to look more deeply into the boatbuilding and rowing aspects of the Radley family.
My research proceeded at rather a leisurely pace until one day one of my cousins said “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a book describing our heritage, and why don’t you write it?”
“Why not?” I thought. The Radley family business had operated for 130 years so it should not be difficult to gather enough information to fill a book. In addition, I was computer literate so producing a manuscript should not be too much of a problem. This inspired me to be more serious about timescales.
During my research, I contacted Chris Dodd, rowing historian at the River & Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames and contributor to HTBS. It turned out he was aware of the Radleys, as my cousin Patricia Szajer (née Radley) had deposited her father Laurie Radley’s handwritten memories of the family business at the museum. The manuscript covered the period from when Laurie was growing up at one of the boathouses in the early 1900s up to the immediate post World War I period. Chris turned Laurie’s handwritten text into an impressive document and it appears as a chapter in the book.
Contact with Chris continued sporadically, and I then discovered he was a rowing journalist and had written a number of well-received books on rowing history. After further contact, he agreed to provide advice and write the foreword. He also gave me a key piece of advice, that a book with just facts would be boring to most readers. In addition to facts, I needed to include family stories and anecdotes from those relatives who remembered the Radley boatyards and the people who worked in them.
I then began to contact my relatives, seeking facts, pictures, anecdotes and stories about our shared heritage, and they were keen to help. This involved Skype calls to South Africa, the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Italy and France, as well as traditional landline calls to U.K.-based cousins.
In gathering stories and anecdotes, I was lucky that some of my cousins were born before the Second World War. Sid Radley’s two surviving children, June and Tony, had amazing memories of events going back to the 1930s. In a similar vein my uncle Laurie Radley’s daughter, Janet, had memories of the Springhill boatyard during the Second World War and made available a number of her family pictures. Tom Boyde, the husband of Sid Radley’s older daughter Shirley Radley, an international oarswoman in the early 1950s, contributed stories as did his children Emma, Nicholas and Simon. Nicholas Boyde also made available his archive of pictures and newspaper cuttings covering his mother Shirley’s rowing career.
The crews the English women were competing against were racing in shells. The English women’s boat was a borrowed clinker-built and much heavier, perhaps a good explanation of their third place finish.
June told me that the Lea clubs were asked to enter a representative crew to row against the Thames in the 1951 Serpentine regatta. It was half Borough of Hackney, which was June’s club, and half Stuart Ladies. The Lea crew had beaten Thames easily and at one stage the umpire called out to not get too far in front, as they were trying to get both crews in shot for the cameras. It was the only race June was in where the officials told her to slow down. June missed out on joining her sister in the 1951 England women’s eight due to a back injury.
In late 2012, Roger Bean from Durham contacted me via Chris Dodd asking for help with the history of an old Radley sculling boat he had bought for £50, which he intended to restore. I was happy to oblige and by September 2014 he had completed the restoration of the boat, the J Hopper, and it completed its first short outing with Roger Bean sculling. His first outing was not a total success as the boat sprang a leak and took on some water by the time he returned to terra firma. Roger has written a chapter describing his project and provided a number of pictures.
The J Hopper is one of twelve Radley-built boats which have survived to the present day. Two are in the USA, one in Hong Kong and the rest are in England.
Once the draft of the text had been written, I realised that a number of my cousins were working or had been working in publishing and journalism and that my partner, Patricia, was brilliant at spotting inconsistencies and my poor English. She reviewed and checked the text a number of times and three publishing/journalist cousins edited and checked the whole manuscript, including the final copy. Chris Dodd had provided advice on the content and did some reviewing and Dick Anderson, the author of the recently published book on Lea rowing clubs, Springhill: Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing (2014), also provided valuable advice.
I am immensely grateful to everyone who gave me their support and a helping hand in writing this book.
A link to my blog about the book is here.