5 March 2016
Clive Radley, author of The Radleys of the Lea, continues his quest to get the River Lea its rightful recognition in the history of British rowing. He writes:
Largely due to Arthur Crump, an early 20th century rowing historian, the River Lea has been undervalued compared with the Tideway, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and NE England.
Some words about the background history from rowing historian Chris Dodd:
One of the joys of the River & Rowing Museum is the growth in inquiries addressed to curators since the museum opened in 1998. It is especially thrilling when such inquiries come from outside the golden rowing country of the Thames Valley. The sport’s important roots among professionals and amateurs of the River Thames and students at Britain’s older universities are immeasurably important while sometimes obscuring their geographical spread in the British Isles.
The River Lea in NE London is near but outside the Thames Valley and a few years ago I received two enquiries about the history of Lea rowing and boat building from Dick Anderson and Clive Radley respectively. They were both writing books about the Lea and I was able to put them in touch with other to exchange research information.
Their books have since been published: The Radleys of the Lea by Clive Radley, book about the most prominent boatbuilding family in East London, and Richard Anderson’s Springhill – Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing.
A further example of this process occurred when Roger Bean, who was restoring a Radley-built wooden sculler, contacted the museum in 2012 to ask if we had information about the maker of boat he had acquired in Hexham. The boat was named the J Hopper. By coincidence I had interviewed Jack Hopper, the professional sculler whose name appeared on the bow of Mr Bean’s boat, 25 years previously, and Laurie Radley’s unpublished memoir of growing up round the Radley family boathouse was in the museum’s archive. I put him in touch with Clive Radley and this also led to my exploration of Tyneside champions and boat builders in Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers (2014).
Further research revealed that the J Hopper was the Maxwell, one of six boats built by Sid Radley for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Races in the 1950s – these six were the last wooden committee single sculls built for the Doggett’s.
My aim in writing this article is to modify current accepted wisdom regarding the early development of UK rowing and boatbuilding and to highlight the previously under-reported importance of the River Lea in these matters.
Arthur Crump’s legacy
It is well known in rowing history circles that Arthur Crump’s book A History of Amateur Rowing on the River Lee from 1913 concentrated on gentleman amateurs and ignored the professional and tradesman clubs despite them being consistently the dominant force on the Lea. Neil Wigglesworth’s book The Social History of English Rowing (1992) highlights this, as does Dick Anderson’s Springhill: Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing (2014).
Recent research by Anderson and myself reveals that both rowing for pleasure and competitive rowing started at least 30 years earlier than Crump stated; pleasure boating starting before 1810 and competitive rowing about 1830 or slightly earlier. Crump’s book refers to the early 1860s for the earliest competitive rowing and slightly earlier for rowing for pleasure. However, to be fair, he had limited records available to him unlike modern researchers.
It is my contention that as a result of Crump’s rather limited research, the relative importance of the Lea in the early English rowing history has been undervalued compared with the Tideway, the rowing by crews from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and NE England.
So because of this, not surprisingly, the River and Rowing Museum’s view of the roots of English rowing pays little attention to the Lea (apart from selling Anderson’s and my books in the museum shop).
The key elements of the importance of the Lea are as follows:
- Early pleasure boat rowing in the early 1800s
- Early competitive rowing in 1830s
- The emergence of Lea based boat building in the second half of the 19th century
- The enormous popularity of pleasure boating and competitive regattas on the Lea in the second half of the 19th century
- The Mission movement in east London
- Lea-based racing professionals at the top level, Silver, Verdon and others
- Lea in the development of open rowing through the NLARA and the fight by such as Charles Tugwell
- The success of Lea based working men’s rowing clubs after the Second World War
- Strength of women’s clubs based on the Lea
- The emergence of Sid Radley in the 1950s, as one of the leading and most innovative wooden racing boat builders.
Early River Lea (Lee) History (based on research by Anderson and myself)
The original natural River Lea was developed in the 18th century with the building of the Lee Navigation and locks at Tottenham, Lea Bridge and Old Ford. This created a long stretch of water with a towpath. By 1800 most of the conditions for boating on the Lee were in place.
The evidence of early boating comes from numerous press articles of pleasure boat accidents on the Lea. The earliest of these reported accidents was from 1801 and refers to a boat being hired and subsequent deaths from drowning. In those days, very few people knew how to swim. These articles continued at intervals throughout the 19th century with many fatal pleasure boat accidents occurring.
It was in one such article that the first documented evidence is found of my family’s involvement in boat hire on the Lea in 1844. My great-great-great-grandmother, Phoebe Radley, is described as a hirer of boats at an inquest at Lea Bridge.
The earliest known record of competitive rowing on the Lea is to be found in an article from 1830.
In 1830, the Lea boat yards were situated south of High Hill Ferry to just south of Lea Bridge and this was before the ancestors of my family first got involved in boat hire in 1840.
I am not sure what type of boats they raced in 1830 on the Lea – probably wherries?
The early pleasure boats on the Lea were hired out by ferry and beer house owners and were based around Lea Bridge. The earliest hirers were the Hammonds, Wicks and Green families followed by the Radleys, the Days at Lea Bridge and Meggs, north of Lea Bridge at Lea dock.
Dick Anderson’s book reveals that in 1804, there were concerns over the possible use of the Lea as part of a plan by Napoleon to invade London. These concerns led to a large barge being sunk at the mouth of the river at high tide where it meets the Thames in East London. This blocked the mouth. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and the Duke of York apparently rode up to Lea Bridge to observe the river being turned into a giant moat to protect London.
In the 19th century, boat hire began up river at Springhill with the Solomans, the Verdons, the Tozers, the Tyrells and the Radleys. Springhill was unusual in that there was no pub, but some wealthy families lived there and were keen on pleasure boating.
Also at Springhill was Springfield Park, which was a very pleasant place for family outings. Springfield Park was created in 1905, after the original dock had been filled in. Lots of people travelled to Springhill at weekends to visit the Park and hire a pleasure boat for rowing. The Radleys had a successful Tea Room at Springhill, which became a place for people to meet in a non-pub environment. This meant that groups of ladies took tea and cakes prepared by my great-grandmother Martha Radley. Some of my relatives say that the Tea Rooms were more profitable than the boat and facilities hire side of the Radley businesses on the Lea.
Below is a quote from Laurie Radley, who had interesting memories of his grandmother Martha Radley, as recorded by Chris Dodd in his summary of Laurie’s childhood memories of the early 19th century growing up by the Lea:
Grandma ran two large refreshment rooms, one at the main boat house at Lea dock and a busy tea room upriver at Springhill. She was a marvellous lady, serving tea in china cups until after the Great War when customers started to take a fancy to them.
Laurie was a rowing member of Lea Bridge United Rowing Club, which was part of the Tradesman’s Rowing Clubs Association. As a member of a boat building family, membership of an amateur club was not open to him. My older relatives say he was a superb sculler and that he won a number of prizes in sculling races.
In Springhill: Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing, Anderson reveals that Jerome K Jerome of Three Men in a Boat fame took part in pleasure boating on the Lea in the 19th century. He was brought up in poverty in London’s East End and describes a Saturday afternoon on the Lea as follows:
Being out on a boat the river Lea especially on a Saturday afternoon, soon makes you handy at handling a craft and spry at escaping being run down by roughs or being swamped by barges.
After making some money, Jerome was able to move to the more placid Tideway for recreational boating.
The origins of rowing in England overall
I will now look at the origins of rowing in England overall, based on the rowing tradition in England and the Friends of Rowing History website (www.rowinghistory.net) to see how the Lea compares.
The earliest continually held rowing race on record is the well-known Doggett’s Coat and Badge for Waterman apprentices on the Thames, which began in 1715. It happens every year and is regarded as a common ancestor of organised competitive rowing in England and the USA.
Coincidentally, in 1900, my grandfather Wallis George Radley commenced a waterman’s apprenticeship under John Thomas Phelps, known as ‘Bossie’, and completed it in 1906. Bossie Phelps was part of the famous Phelps family dynasty of Thames watermen and had himself taken part in 1899 Doggett’s Race, finishing third.
In 1906, eight watermen entered but the field was limited to six. It seems Wallis may have been eliminated in a qualifying heat, as suggested by Susan Fenwick of the Watermen’s Hall.
By the early 19th century, England’s leading public schools Eton, Westminster and Radley had boating clubs.
Eton’s boating goes back to 1790, and by the late 19th century the school employed a boat builder and other staff under him to maintain the large fleet of boats. The rowing boys from these schools then went on to Oxford and Cambridge colleges and rowed. Inter school racing began in 1829 with Eton versus Westminster on the Tideway from Putney Bridge to Hammersmith.
Dick Anderson’s book identifies 150 rowing clubs on the Lea over as many years that range from schools and colleges, works clubs and guilds, missions and bus garages and from bluish-blooded amateurs to hard-line professionals, and everybody in between.
Rowing at Oxford began in the 1790s and St. John’s purchased their first eight shell in 1826 and at Cambridge the university boat club was started by 1828.
However, most early student rowing was for fun in stable pleasure boats and professional watermen were a source of boating instruction and acted as coxswains.
The first Oxford Cambridge Boat Race was in 1829 on the Thames at Henley and was an annual event by 1856. The university boat clubs stopped using professional watermen as coxes in the 1870s as they were not amateurs and gentlemen.
By the 1830s, the frequent watermen’s racing involving wagers led to an adapted version of their work boats being developed known as wager boats or wager wherries.
The first outrigged boat was developed by Tyne-based Harry Clasper in 1843. A year later, it was raced in Thames regattas. Outriggers gave extra leverage. Clasper also introduced the first keel-less shell in the 1840s. Another famous boat builder, Matt Taylor, built a keel-less four for the Royal Chester Rowing Club which brought two victories to the club in the Stewards and the Wyfolds at Henley Royal Regatta in 1855. The year after, the club returned to Henley with a Taylor-built keel-less eight to take the cups in the Grand and the Ladies.
It appears early pleasure boating and competitive rowing grew in parallel on the Lea and on the Tideway at schools and clubs and at Oxford and Cambridge.
In the late 19th century pleasure boating and competitive rowing had also started on the Severn at Shrewsbury both at Shrewsbury school and Pengwern Boat Club and at other nearby schools and boat clubs.
Returning to the Lea, as far as boat building is concerned, it developed firstly with pleasure boat repair in the early 19th century, then building and then evolved into racing boat building later in the 19th century.
The V. Radley business employed a qualified boat builder from 1881, Daniel Silver, and he taught Sid Radley as a boat building apprentice to become a master boat builder.
Silver became the firm’s leading boat builder until he retired in the 1930s. In his younger years, he sculled in professional races on the Thames. In 1882, this article appeared in the Western Times, Exeter, on 21 March.
However, as far as I know, there was no boat building innovation on the Lea until after the Second World War, when Sid Radley took over the Radley boat yard at Springhill. Amongst the boat building community, Sid was regarded as a major innovator when it came to wooden racing boats post-1949-1950.
June Cann, née Radley, had these recollections of her father Sid Radley:
After returning to Spring Hill in 1949 Dad built skiffs, dinghies, sculling boats, pairs and fours. During this time Dad put two apprentices through to boat builder status; as a master craftsman he was qualified to do this.
Dad’s name as a racing boat builder attracted both local clubs and some from Oxford and Cambridge; young men arrived from there with innovative ideas that they wanted to discuss. He also did conversion on cabin cruisers; built whalers for Sea Rangers (Narvik); converted a barge into a house boat and any other work that paid.
Dad was featured several times in local papers and also in the national press.
Here are Tony Radley’s recollections of his father, Sid Radley:
Tony told me an innovation Sid introduced was always to set up a jig before building a boat, an idea Sid got from the aircraft industry through talking to Tony when he was an apprentice at Hawker aircraft at Kingston just after World War II. Tony Radley also recalls that Eddie Gomme, one of the Gomme family who started the G Plan furniture business, became aware of Sid’s use of resins to glue together thin veneers. He visited Sid at Springhill and told him he believed Sid’s technique had an application in furniture manufacture. Sid agreed and the Gomme Company adopted Sid’s techniques in their manufacturing business. The application was successful and was applied to their then new G Plan range successfully and Sid received a coffee table as a thank-you gesture.
Memories of working with Sid by Nicholas Boyde, son of Shirley Boyde and Sid’s grandson:
While I was a Saturday Morning Apprentice (Jan-Aug ’69), Sid built a fine shell sculler and a restricted four. Restricted boats were clinker- or shell-built boat with a full-length keel and very stable. They are now mostly used as training boats. The four took quite a long time and involved lots of sanding, so I remember it well. I wasn’t allowed to do very much to the shell once it was built. Sanding that hull wasn’t a job for a clumsy teenager. Instead of the old seven coats of varnish, the new polyurethane varnishes only needed three coats, the first two sanded almost away. As a result, the shell was mostly varnish, on the thinnest-imaginable framework of wood. I think I remember Sid saying the boat, by weight, was one third varnish, and that’s including the riggers and seat.
The four also involved much sanding, and three coats of polyurethane, but the planks were never that thin that Sid had to worry about me putting my fist straight through.
Anyway, while I was there a ladies’ scull bench was being set up, because this was how Sid built a boat. He’d measure up a bench, put little supporting chips of retaining wood in the surface of the bench, and the line through the faces of these little chips would be the boat’s gunwales. Lots of squinting, and not much measurement: the lines were set up by a mixture of science and black art, and the apprentice’s job was hammering in the nails that kept the chips in place.
And meanwhile the job of softening the wood for the supporting struts in the steamer, and the final selection and seasoning of the wood for the hull would take place. The actual building time was about six weeks, if memory serves, but the preparation took longer; time could be saved if there were multiple-boat orders. And of course Sid had a boatyard to run, which he would try to do in between coats of varnish drying etc, or while unworthy grandsons were allowed to do tedious sanding jobs.
Sid built a single scull in the 1950s for his daughter Shirley. The shell weighted 7.25 kg without and 9 kg with riggers; her husband, Tom Boyde, actually weighed it himself. Current composite racing single sculls weigh 14 kg, the minimum weight as decreed by FISA. So the wooden boat Sid built for Shirley was lighter than the shells current scullers used in international regattas.
When Tom sought out the single scull and tried to acquire it in around 1978 for his daughter, Emma, he was just too late. It had been destroyed by vandals at the club where it was stored a few months earlier and he had to get Edwin Phelps to build a new boat for his daughter. At the same time, Tom bought a second hand Sid-built sculler for himself in the UK which eventually ended up in Hong Kong.
Tom owns a Sid Radley single sculler, which is stored at Thames RC where he is an honorary member. He believes that the boat was built by Sid in 1968-1969. It is a beautiful-looking boat, made of cedar wood but it has some quite bad damage to the hull which Tom hopes to get repaired so he can take to the water in it again.
Tom Boyde remembers that when the Phelps family boat building company was contracted to supply wooden clinker boats, they would often pass the work on to Sid. They would then take off the Radley nameplate and replace it with their own before delivery to the customer. This went on for some years until Sid invented the restricted boat method and clinkers went out altogether.
At the River and Rowing Museum’s “Rocking the Boat” event in late 2015, Amy Constance Gentry (26 July 1903–11 June 1976) was celebrated as a pioneer of women’s rowing in England, starting at Weybridge RC where she founded a lady’s section in 1920. She founded a separate Weybridge ladies’ rowing club in 1926 and later became its Chair – a position she retained until her death.
She competed in a variety of styles and was the undefeated champion of the women’s single scull from 1932 to 1934. She then became a successful administrator of the sport. By the time she died in 1976, Amy had played a central role in establishing women’s rowing, both in Britain and internationally at the Olympics.
Amy Gentry was obviously an important person in rowing history but her Weybridge RC’s ladies section began after Cecil ladies and had less mention in the national press. Also Miss Yvonne Stuart, the sister of the Cambridge rowing Blue Douglas Stuart, elected to join Ceil ladies and not Weybridge or Furnivall. Miss Stuart was the driving force behind their success.
However, the two top highlights of Amy Gentry’s rowing career were more important than anything Cecil and Stuart ladies achieved pre Second World War: wining in a European regatta with a Weybridge club eight crew in Brussels and winning the first women’s head of the river race again with a Weybridge club crew.
Distinguished Crews and Rowers from the Lea
This list may not be completely comprehensive and may have omitted some key Lea-based clubs and people.
Cecil Ladies competitive rowing club, based at Radleys on the Lea, was founded just before the First World War by my great-aunt Phoebe Radley. It was the second non university women’s club, the first being Furnivall for ladies. In the 1920s, Cecil Ladies were mentioned on many occasions in the national press.
During the 1930s, Yvonne Stuart left Cecil Ladies and set up her own women’s club less than half a mile away upriver at Tyrells at Springhill. Stuart Ladies was dissolved when the Second World War started and by that time Miss Stuart was 37 years old and had married.
Post Second World War Stuart Ladies, effectively a new club, Miss Stuart had retired from rowing.
Extract from Dick Anderson’s book:
Shirley proved to be an accomplished rower and sculler. Of course, she had one-on-one training from her dad, Sid Radley, who had raced competitively before the Second World War as a professional. Soon Shirley was asked to attend a trial for a place in a GB women’s eight which was to compete abroad at Macon, France, in 1951, at an international FISA regatta, held the day before the men’s European rowing championships. She was picked and rowed at bow.
June Cann’s recollections of Sidney (Sid) Rand, the distinguished GB sculler of the 1950s and 1960s in his early days on the Lea:
Once we were back living at Springhill in 1949 and Shirley and I started rowing seriously Sid Rand was always around in the general Lea rowing scene. I used to train by Sid Rand giving me a start and I would try to get to Lea Bridge from Springhill before he caught me. He even then was a complete athlete, good at everything including athletics. I also trained with Dad who came out in another sculler to teach me starts off the mark.
Although he was a member of Crowland under Wally Lutz’s patronage he preferred to spend the summer holidays with the rest of us playing table tennis in the clubroom and generally messing about in boats.
Sid encouraged Sid Rand he made rapid progress. Sid Radley him helped by building him his own single scull in 1952 just before he joined the RAF for National Service. He was posted to Benson and using the sculler Sid had built, won the London Cup for single sculls at the Metropolitan regatta, an event then second in prestige to the Henley Royal Regatta. My brother Tony also remembers rowing with Sidney Rand on the Lea.
June Cann’s daughter Toni was a champion junior rower in a four and she married the then Lea-based Steve Simpole, who was a world class oarsman in the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. Steve won the Wyfolds at the age of 20 and then stroked the GB lightweight eight winning three golds, two silvers and one bronze in the world championships. Among the guests at their wedding were Dan Topolski, who coached the Oxford university crew for the Boat Race, and Colin Moynihan, MP and silver-medal-winning eights oarsman in the 1980 Olympics.
Lea Rowing Club International Honours since the 1980s:
1994 – Commonwealth Regatta, Ontario, Canada. Silver medal Women’s coxless pair – Patricia (Tish) Reid.
1992 – Olympic Games, Banyoles, Spain. Men’s coxless four – S Hassan. Women’s single scull – Patricia (Tish) Reid.
1989 – World Rowing Championships. Men’s coxless four – S Hassan.
1988 – Olympic Games, Seoul, S Korea. S Hassan 4th.
World Rowing Championships. Silver medal Men’s lightweight coxless four – Richard Metcalf.
1986 – Match Des Seniors. Bronze medal Men’s lightweight coxless four – Richard Metcalf and Jerry Michalitsianos.
1985 – World Rowing Championships, Belgium. Quadruple Sculls – S Hassan and J Scrivener.
1984 – Olympic Games, Los Angeles, USA. Women’s coxed four – Jean Genchi and Kate Ball. 5th Men’s eight – S Hassan.
1983 – World Rowing Championships, Belgium. Men’s coxless pair – S Hassan and J Scrivener. Coach Bob Michaels.
Lea Rowing Club Henley Royal Regatta Honours:
1995 – Wyfold Challenge Cup. P. Brett, C. Collerton, J. Michalitsianos and R. Metcalf.
1992 – Thames Challenge Cup. C. Long, P. Brett, C. Collerton, T. Collerton, G. Campbell, J. Scrivener, J. McTeague, T. Purnell and T. Slade.
1987 – Britannia Challenge Cup. H. Bass, A. Johnson, K. Lynch, A. Kennedy, C. Collerton.
1984 – Grand Challenge Cup. S Hassan.
1983 – Britannia Challenge Cup. A. Jones, A. Johnson, P. Carter, J. McTeague and R. Milligan.
1983 – Wyfold Challenge Cup. S. Simpole, S. Hassan, J. Scrivener and S. Redwood.
Lea Rowing Club Women’s Henley Regatta Honours:
2013 Women’s Intermediate club 8s Rebecca Goyder-Smith, Lucy Dewey, Bridget Snaith, Katie Martin, Maddy Foster, Anna Bindler, Nicki Vanstone, Ali Irving, Jonathan Barnett (cox)
2015 Women’s 8
Lea Rowing Club National Championship Honours:
1997 – Men’s coxed four.
1995 – Men’s coxed four.
1991 – Men’s eight.
1987 – Men’s double, coxless four and coxed four.
1986 – Men’s lightweight coxless four and quad.
1984 – Men’s lightweight eight and coxed pair.
1982 – Women’s Junior coxless pair.
1981 – Men’s eight.
1980 – Men’s quad.
Men’s Head of the River Honours:
1990 – Page Trophy and 7th Overall. C. Jones, J. Michalitsianos, R. Metcalf, R. Thain, A. Slemeck, A. Johnson, C. Collerton, T. Collerton and G. Campbell.
1986 – Page Trophy and 12th Overall.
1983 – Page Trophy and 3rd Overall.
Women’s Head of the River Honours:
2013 – W. Mas.8+. Rachel Lund, Amanda Benson-Skailes, Lucy Dewey, Bridget Snaith, Katie Martin, Maddy Foster, Ruth Ward-Jackson, Nicki Vanstone, Jonathan Barnett (cox)
W.Nov.8+. Lucy Clarke, Alice Draper, Donna Eastlake, Elizabeth Wilson, Nicola Hurley, Su Toman, Rebecca Goyder-Smith, Florence Morton, Harriet Stewart (cox)
2012 – Novice Pennant Winner. A. Bindler, G. Weaver, M. Forster, N. Vanstone, A. Irving, L. Simpson, L. Ziari, R. Ward-Jackson; cox: J. Bell
I believe this article shows that pleasure and competitive rowing developed in parallel on the Tideway, in the NE England, in leading public schools and on the Lea.
Early innovative boatbuilding development occurred on the Thames, in NE England and the USA. It also occurred on the Lea but not until the 1950s when Sid Radley, a Master Boat Builder, returned to the Radley Springhill Boat yard in 1949. Amongst the boatbuilding community Sid was regarded as a major innovator regarding wooden racing boats post 1949-1950.
I respectfully suggest that the accepted versions of the UK’s rowing and boat building history be modified to include the River Lea.