Tim Koch writes:
To those who give the matter any thought at all, there is a tendency to think that the story of amateur rowing in Britain has been, until comparatively recently at least, the story of about half-a-dozen clubs, all of them big, old and rather grand, their membership continuously refreshed by the products of long-established private schools and ancient elite universities. This view, while understandable, does a great disservice to those many hundreds of rowing clubs that emerged as a result of increasing leisure time that became available to many in the late Victorian age (many of which even had the impertinence to be based outside of London and the South East of England). They provided immeasurable hours of pleasure to those who were never going to seriously challenge the ‘big beasts’ of Putney and Henley or the Isis and the Cam but who were none the worse for that. One such club was Cygnet Rowing Club (CRC), who has just published the club’s 125-year history, a preview of which is available to view on the club website.
While every club’s history is unique, like Cygnet each one ‘has been and remains a microcosm of life, reflecting changing professional, sporting and social mores over more than a century’. Formed in 1890 by ten employees of the General Post Office (GPO), who were ‘enthused with a desire to cultivate the art and practice of rowing’, the thriving young club soon had to deal with one of the ‘sporting and social mores’ that bedevilled rowing for half a century, that of the arcane distinction between ‘amateur and professional’. Membership of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) was needed to race at its regattas but the ARA hierarchy, all drawn from the larger Tideway clubs, held the strange idea that ‘manual labourers’ could not be amateurs. Interestingly, Cygnet ‘aspired to a degree of gentility’ and was not above such discrimination itself as it admitted GPO ‘clerical grades’ as members but not ‘uniform grades’ such as postmen. Despite this, the ARA ruled that, while GPO clerks may not be manual workers in the strict sense, they still did not qualify as ‘gentlemen amateurs’. The club made unsuccessful applications to join the ARA in 1911, 1913 and 1914 but it was not until 1923 that pressure from the Civil Service Sports Council and the personal intervention of the Duke of York (later King George VI) caused the Association to relent.
Cygnet also provided an interesting example of the ‘tail wagging the dog’. In 1922, the formation of the Civil Service Rowing Association (CSRA) was part of an attempt to bring all civil service rowing clubs (which included the General Post Office) under one umbrella but, by the 1950s, CRC’s dominance over the other clubs in the CSRA made the Association rather redundant and Cygnet and civil service rowing became synonymous.
This record of the six generations of Cygnet’s history is written in a simple but very readable way, aided by the polished layout of a well-illustrated book. Author and club stalwart, Paul Rawkins admits that his research was made considerably easier by the impeccable records kept by a club that has been run by civil servants for most of its existence; ‘scribes first, oarsmen second’. When I was a regatta secretary in the pre-personal computer age, I was always very grateful for the immaculate and accurate entry forms from Cygnet, they never scribbled crew lists on the back of beer mats as did so many other clubs. The book’s writing is ultimately driven by chronology but the author avoids skimming over ‘so much of the fabric and human input that have made Cygnet what it is today’ by regularly inserting into the timeline chapters that are little essays or asides on their own, some providing historical background, some dwelling on some unique or quirky aspect of the club’s story such as its ownership an ‘up river base’ on an island near Shepperton or its relationship with its co-tenants at Chiswick, Barnes Bridge Ladies (formerly Civil Service Ladies). Several times over the years, marriage between the two clubs has been considered and rejected but, on a more personal level, there have been many cases of matrimony and in 1981 Cygnet and Civil Service Ladies were respectively captained by a husband and wife.
I hope that Paul’s entertaining and informative work will inspire other small clubs to record their history for posterity. Why should the ‘big beasts’ have all the best (or, indeed, the only) books?
A History of Cygnet Rowing Club 1890 – 2015 is a high-quality hardback book with 84 full-colour pages. It is available via the Cygnet website and Rock the Boat. The price is £18.50 including post and packaging.
A shorter version of this book review was published in the Rowing & Regatta January/February 2016 issue.