16 May 2016
Tim Koch has been looking at eBay:
Confession is good for the soul and, in an article that I wrote in 2014 about the boat builders of Newcastle, I admitted that:
To the casual observer of British rowing history, it would be easy to get the idea that very little has happened beyond Putney and Henley or Oxford and Cambridge and I am probably one of those who are guilty of promulgating this idea.
I was recently reminded of this when I came across some magazine articles dating from 1911 and which were offered for sale on eBay. They were part of a series of at least nine parts called ‘Famous Rowing Clubs at Home’ and they were published in The Bystander.
The most notable and unusual thing about these charming articles is that the clubs visited by Bystander journalist Leonard Willoughby were not the usual ‘Grand Old Clubs’ strung along the Thames from Putney to Henley, they were in fact small provincial clubs, mostly from the English Midlands. Thames RC was the only club featured that you would normally expect to find in a series titled ‘Famous Rowing Clubs’. The photographs that illustrate the articles are very evocative of the time and place and seem more relaxed than the usual stiff, formal portraits of the period. Some of those pictured seem somewhat self-conscious but the majority were perhaps a little proud and flattered to be receiving the attention of a national publication. To us, the series seems to be a snapshot of British provincial rowing in the ‘Edwardian Summer’, a time when senior local worthies maintained neat little clubs providing character building sport for the young, manly fellows of the town. However, as we will see, parts of the original text seem to indicate that all is not well and that some old oarsmen doubt the moral fibre of the upcoming generation.
Below is a selection of pictures from each of the featured clubs, their names linked to their eBay page. At the time of writing, only the article on Royal Chester RC has been sold.
The Bystander magazine article on the Avon Rowing Club (two images below; like all HTBS pictures, click to enlarge).
Willoughby notes that the club had many successes in the 1870s but that ‘in recent years, I am sorry to say, there has been a backwards tendency’.
Founded in 1865, The Avon Rowing Club is still located on the River Avon in Saltford, about half-way between Bath and Bristol, though, since its merger with Bristol Rowing Club in 1973, it has been called Avon County Rowing Club. Further history is here.
Leonard Willoughby’s take on Bristol Ariel Rowing Club, based at St Anne’s Park, Bristol (two images below):
Bristol Ariel, founded in 1870, is the oldest of the city’s three clubs. Its first home was a barge made from a French frigate captured in the Napoleonic wars and renamed Ariel. According to the club’s history, since then the club has always had boats named after characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Proving that things are never as good as they once were, Willoughby writes that Bristol Ariel could have a great future
..…if only the young men of the city do not get obsessed with the spirit of the age, which, unfortunately, appears, in most sports and games, to be one of slackness. The spectator’s role is nowadays deplorably popular.
The idea that the sports spectator should be ‘deplored’ for his chosen amusement is one totally alien to us today when the more dedicated a ‘sports fan’ is, the more he or she is usually admired. In Willoughby’s time there was even a contemptuous term for those who watched sport but did not take part – ‘spectatorism’. This theme was apparently taken up by The Bystander and it published a leading article titled “The Decadence of Provincial Rowing”. ‘Decadence’ is here used in its original meaning of ‘decline’. Several club captains responded to this, all in broad agreement with Willoughby, all with ideas on how things could be improved. The Captain of Bristol Ariel, Mr J. Holloway, had no doubts as to the causes of the perceived drop in the popularity of rowing as a sport:
DECADENCE DUE TO GOLF AND MOTORING.
There can be no doubt that the falling-off of rowing is largely due to golf and motoring. It is, unfortunately, the less strenuous forms of sport which appeal most to the modern man, and I am afraid that there is also a disinclination to submit to discipline. In golf, for example, there is no coach with his eyes on every stroke, insisting that you shall put in so many hours every evening, that you shall forswear ‘My Lady Nicotine’ and keep regular hours and strict training. The usual reply that I get when I ask a man to take up rowing is, ‘No thanks, it’s too much like hard work’.
As to how to improve matters, Holloway suggests:
….. the London daily papers might help us to a large extent by giving longer and more interesting accounts of regattas…… Secondly, I should like to suggest that the Henley committee consider… a race for provincial crews four oars with coxswains. The reason many clubs with a good senior four never enter for Henley is that races in the provinces are…. in boat with coxswains…..
The Burton Rowing Club gets the Willoughby treatment (two images below):
The Burton Rowing Club was established in 1865, around the same time as another local club, Trent RC. The famous brewing town was already home to The Leander Boat Club which had been formed early in 1847. Willingly or not, it changed its name to the ‘Burton Leander Rowing Club’ (BLRC) when joining the Amateur Rowing Association in 1899. In 1920, Burton RC was either disbanded or was taken over by Burton Leander (depending on your source) and BLRC took over its clubhouse. Although Burton RC had won the Wyfolds at Henley in 1902, nine years earlier, Willoughby complained that:
Of recent years the Club has not met with a large amount of success owing chiefly to the inroads of golf, tennis and licensing legislation….. Beyond any manner of doubt the Burton could occupy a much higher position in the rowing world were it better supported numerically….. Unless the young athletes of Burton join in greater numbers and practice with greater assiduity, the Club, hard though the few labour, may cease to be worthy of the river.
Willoughby claims that Hereford was founded in 1872 but, more authoritatively, this 200-page official club history proves the foundation year as 1861. The original club house was built in 1886 and enlarged in 1909. It was, Willoughby noted approvingly, ‘commodious, with a large dressing room and a ladies’ waiting room…’ Even though ‘it has been represented with a fair amount of success until the last three years’, it is one of the few clubs whose efforts and achievements get the Willoughby seal of approval.
Royal Chester has an important place in the history of British rowing and Willoughby gives a summary – followed by an appeal for more aquatic activity by the local citizens.
The Royal Chester Rowing Club was established in its present form in the year 1838, and shortly after its establishment received from Her late Majesty Queen Victoria the favour of her Royal patronage, and also permission to use the title ‘Royal’…… The Club is an institution of considerable antiquity, having existed long prior to its reconstruction in 1838…… [It has] on several occasions won the principal events at Henley Regatta, and …….the first keel-less boat which appeared at Henley was sent by the Club, and won the Stewards’ Challenge Cup in 1855. The following year [they sent] an eight-oared keel-less boat, with which they won the Grand Challenge Cup… The Bystander would like to see more of the residents of Chester taking active part in the doings of the Club…
A more modern take of the important history of Royal Chester is on the club’s website.
Served by the River Trent, Nottingham Rowing Club (1862) and Nottingham Union Rowing Club (1871) amalgamated in 1946 after the Union’s clubhouse and boats were destroyed in a bombing raid in 1941. Today they form the Nottingham and Union Rowing Club. Nottingham Boat Club (1894) and Nottingham Britannia Rowing Club (1869) amalgamated in 2006 to form Nottingham Rowing Club (along with the Nottingham Schools Rowing Association and the Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association).
Willoughby describes the NRC boathouse as
……capital…. with an excellent dressing room which is also used as a gymnasium and boxing saloon…. The course is about one and a quarter miles, perfectly straight, and ranks among the best in England.
However, the rowers of the Trent do not escape a telling off:
[The town] has now four rowing clubs….. Taking the members as a whole, they are keen, but appear disinclined to train, and as a result very few senior trophies have recently found their way to Nottingham.
Stratford-on-Avon gets a visit from the Bystander Bard (two images below):
Visiting Stratford-on-Avon Boat Club, Willoughby suggests that they look to their past glories to encourage them to ‘wake up’:
…at this moment there appears to be a lull, and the Club is not doing much in the way of adding further laurels to its (past) record. Still The Bystander feels confident that…. when once the order to move goes forth, this gallant little Club will again be in the van – a credit to itself, its historic town and its beautiful county.
The Stratford Captain, AB Smith, knew what the problem was:
YOUTH TO-DAY PREFERS THE PUNT CUSHIONS.
I am reluctantly compelled to say that the increase of pleasure boating shows a corresponding decrease in serious rowing, and that the cushions of a punt seem to have far more interest to the youths of the present day than the slide of a four or a tub pair….. I think it is high time that old rowing men in the provinces came to realise that rowing is here threatened by a serious slump, if not in many places a complete disappearance and that they rallied to the assistance of their old or nearest club…. and that all ladies interested should do all they could to prevail on their brothers or male friends to take up the oar as a serious pastime.
While the older oarsmen’s cry of O tempora! O mores! in 1911 was hardly unique to that time, their fear that provincial rowing was in decline due to the failings of the young was mirrored by the high ups in the Putney/Leander/Oxbridge dominated Amateur Rowing Association. In Rowing in England: A Social History: The Amateur Debate (1990), Eric Halliday states:
The decade or so before the [1914 -1918 War] was a period of substantial tension both at home and abroad……. In miniature, the world of the elite group of oarsmen seemed in some ways to mirror these strains…… Among many there was a tendency to look back over their shoulders to the 1880s and the 1890s and to compare the oarsmen and crews of the immediate pre-1914 period unfavourably to those who had gone before them.
In all the reasons for, and the solutions to, the decline of British rowing given in the Bystander articles, no one mentions the pachyderm in the boathouse – the subject of ‘amateurism’. Willoughby is only interested in clubs affiliated to the Amateur Rowing Association and which therefore exclude ‘mechanics, artisans and labourers’ from their membership. The problems that must result from a club in a small town excluding a sizeable proportion of the local population are not acknowledged.
Sadly, three years after the publication of The Bystander series, the young men of Britain, their mettle previously doubted by many of their elders, did have their fortitude tested – not by rowing at provincial regattas but by fighting in ‘The War to End All Wars’.
In my next post, I will look at the article Leonard Willoughby wrote on Thames RC, the ‘grandest’ of the club’s that he covered, and see what some of those on Thames Tideway thought of the ‘Decadence of Provincial Rowing’ in 1911.