Clive Radley, author of The Radleys of the Lea, was visiting Lea RC’s September Regatta. He writes:
There have been regattas on the river Lea in NE London since 1864. On Sunday 5 September, I went with my partner Patricia to the latest one held by Lea Rowing Club at Springhill. This was my first visit to Springhill since the 1990s and before that, as a child in the 1950s, when my father took us children to visit his brother Sid Radley, our family’s last boatbuilder. Sid Radley lived in the Radley-built bungalow at the boatyard, which was on the Essex side of the Lea.
The first thing I noticed in September was that the bungalow was surrounded by attractive greenery, which was not there when I visited it as a child.
Racing began at 9:30 a.m. and continued until 4:30 p.m. with a break for lunch. The races were held over a 600 metre-long course with the start upriver from Lea RC and the finish in front of the boathouse. As the Lea is narrow, the races are grouped in divisions comprising five or six races and the crews in each division proceed from the club to the start in a convoy after the previous divisions races have all finished. There is no room during the races to row to the start.
600 metres is the longest race the Lea at Springhill can hold on a straight stretch of the river.
Sally Lawrence, of Lea RC, hosted us during the regatta and took us upstairs in the club house where the commentators, results-takers, PA announcer and others were sitting. The races were two abreast and there was a constant stream of instructions to crews to head up to the race start up river. It was very efficiently organised with a very friendly atmosphere. Rowers in different age groups and skill levels were competing, including some mixed crews i.e. female and male which I had not seen before.
A few races were interrupted by riverboats, whose owners ignored the fact that there were races going on and they steamed past as if they were the only ones on the river. I was told that the houseboats moored on the banks of the Lea in the Springhill area have increased over the years, effectively making the regatta course narrower. The tannoy announcer gave out appropriate instructions to cope with all this and luckily there were no collisions.
Sally introduced us to Cliff Raven, whose elder brother Lou had rowed for Excel Rowing Club from Tyrells at Springhill from the late 1930s to post Second World War. Excel RC is no more (as it was one of the clubs that amalgamated to form Lea RC), but Cliff showed us a fascinating album of pictures featuring his brother and Excel.
We noticed there were pictures on the walls of the clubhouse of Lea club: crews containing descendants of my uncle Sid Radley. One was of Toni Simpole, whom I met recently at Broxbourne Rowing Club at her parents (both ex Lea rowers) June and Albert Cann’s 60th wedding anniversary party. There I also met Steve Simpole, Toni’s husband, a former international oarsman.
There was a good choice of food available for both competitors and spectators both hot and cold, including some delicious homemade cakes. Richard Anderson’s book Springhill: Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing was available for sale and I added a few copies of my The Radleys of the Lea. We had some cake and also purchased a Lea club mug and tea towel.
We took some pictures of a 60-ish-year-old Radley-built open, i.e. no bow-and-stern-covered, single scull, which was hanging from the ceiling in the clubhouse.
We also saw John Ivey’s Sid Radley-built single scull in the boathouse, but sadly we missed meeting John himself.
The first Lea rowing regattas were held in the 1860s and a lot of the races then were over a longer course than the current 600-metre one. The course then included a number of bends which were a major test of the coxes’ skills. This gave Lea-based clubs an advantage over visiting clubs. Apart from the single sculls, the bendy course meant that there were no races for coxless crews. When the Lea-based clubs entered Tideway regattas in coxless races, the Lea clubs had a steep learning curve.
An example of coxless problems was the Wyfolds at Henley, an event for coxless fours for non-university rowing clubs. A Clapton Warwick four were knocked out in the first round after getting to the finals at Marlow. They were beaten by an Oxford University boat (a crew of larger boys) and they were not helped by mucking up their steering. They were one of the first Lea crews to race coxless at Henley, as the river Lea does not lend itself to training without a cox. Prior to Marlow, they had knocked the nose off their four when they hit a barge and Sid Radley had to do a rush job to repair it in time for the race.
In the 1860s and 1870s the results of rowing regattas of most clubs appeared in the press unlike today.
Down river from Springhill on the Lea are the sites of Radleys’ other two boatyards. There are now expensive riverside apartments.
Thanks to Sally Lawrence, of Lea RC, who was a great help in producing this article.