29 September 2016
Tim Koch goes upriver to tell the story of the Guards Boat Club:
By the latter half of the 19th century, boating was a popular leisure activity for all classes in Britain but was it probably most keenly practiced by those who had attended Eton, Westminster and the other public (i.e. private) schools that were ‘early adopters’ of rowing as a suitable pastime for the wealthy and privileged. The vast majority of the officers of the socially elite Guards Regiments would have certainly been exposed to the sport at school and, for a lesser number, at university. In his The Social History of English Rowing (1992), Neil Wigglesworth claims:
The first gentlemen’s boat clubs were those formed by the schools of Eton and Westminster in the late eighteenth century…… The ad hoc arrangements at the schools became organised into school boat clubs in 1813 at Westminster and 1816 at Eton College, but past pupils had already formed the Funny Club and most likely the Guards Club for Officers.
In Rowing in England: A Social History (1990), Eric Halladay lists the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards as having separate boat clubs whose existence dated from between 1835 and 1840.
One of the first rowing contests between upper-class gentlemen to be recorded appeared in Bells Life in 1822. It reported on a match between seven pair-oared boats:
….for a prize of thirty pounds which was given by ‘The gentlemen of the Frederic and the Corsair,’ or in other words by the Amateur Rowing Club, which is composed of noblemen and gentlemen nearly the whole of whom are in the Life and Foot Guards.
According to The New Sporting Magazine, in 1824 six Guards officers rowed a cutter 115 miles from Oxford to Westminster in fifteen hours and forty-eight minutes. In 1831, it reported on a ‘Grand Rowing Match between ten Officers of the (then) three Regiments of Guards’, a sweepstakes match in sculls from Westminster to Chelsea and back. However, the most informative report from this period appeared in the Woolwich Advertiser on 20 July 1839 (when it was not a problem for amateurs to row for prize money or to be steered, as the Guards were, by professional watermen). The underlining is mine:
ROWING MATCH BETWEEN THE GRENADIER GUARDS AND THE ROYAL ARTILLERY
On Saturday, July 19, the town of Greenwich was a scene of much gaiety, and was more than usually crowded with fashionable dinner parties in consequence of the much talked of match having been fixed to come off in the afternoon between six officers of the first battalion of Grenadier Guards and the same number of officers of the Artillery…… The galley in which the Guards rowed belonged to their own club and that of the Artillery to the Union Club..… The Guards had slightly the advantage in going off, and betting extremely brisk in their favour. Indeed, for days past it was said, that so high an opinion was entertained of the aquatic prowess of the Guards at the Club-house, in the metropolis, that odds of 7 to 5 were in many instances laid on them. The result of the match confirmed this opinion, for the Guards maintained the lead from the start to the winning-post…. It was stated that the match was for 1,000 guineas and that an immense sum changed pockets on the occasion in the sporting circles.
Thus, not only were Guards Officers among the first ‘gentlemen amateur’ rowers, it seems that by 1839 at the latest, they had a London club house and owned at least one boat. It is most likely that they were based in a ‘subscription room’ at one of the Lambeth boatbuilders, over the river from Westminster. However, this arrangement would have had a major disadvantage for the Guards regiments as Lambeth was convenient for those who were on duty in London, but not for the battalions in barracks at Windsor Castle. Further, as Thames river traffic grew with Britain’s increasing trade, central London became more and more unsuitable for rowing. By 1860, Leander abandoned Lambeth for the unspoilt country village of Putney. Possibly, the Guards considered joining them there, but in 1865 they decided on a location that was as equally good for boating but which was also easily accessible from both London and Windsor. This was the Thames-side town of Maidenhead in Berkshire, 7 miles (8 km) from both Windsor and Henley and 30 miles (48 km) on a fast train from London. It had the added bonus of having plenty of discreet social activities suitable for young gentlemen.
The railway from London had reached Maidenhead as early as 1838 and it became one of the first ‘commuter towns’ with middle and upper-class Londoners coming to spend a weekend or more in one of the smart new hotels or to settle permanently in one of the recently built villas. Maidenhead eventually became very fashionable and developed a reputation as a place in which to ‘mess about’, both on the river and in private. In response to the former, boat yards for building, storing and renting all sorts of craft sprang up, and, in response to the latter, a popular contemporary joke went, ‘Are you married – or do you live in Maidenhead?’ It was a favourite place for ‘temporary honeymoons’ and the phrase’ ‘I’m off to Maidenhead’ was usually delivered with a wink. Certain gentlemen housed their mistresses in a local riverside terrace which came to be called ‘Gaiety Row’ as many of the women were chorus girls from London’s Gaiety Theatre. The more vulgar knew the terrace as ‘Whores’ Alley’.
By 1889, perhaps Jerome K. Jerome, he of Three Men in a Boat, was one of the vulgar crowd:
Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls…… and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.
The centre of Maidenhead’s hedonistic social life was Skindles, which was for very many years the most fashionable hotel on the Thames (and never possessed of an apostrophe). It is popularly supposed (certainly by most Internet sources) that the Brigade of Guards Boat Club (BGBC) first established their headquarters there in 1883 and a keystone over one of the hotel’s entrances engraved ‘BGBC 1883’ is usually cited a proof of this. However, some meticulous research by the South Buckinghamshire District Council for their Historic Buildings Record (HBR) in 2015 told a different story.
The HBR Report notes that Skindles grew piecemeal from a pub called the Orkney Arms (first mentioned in 1736) and that it was always ‘a sprawling complex in a vernacular style’. In 1865, the Brigade of Guards Boat Club headquarters was established in what was probably an existing building and which was next to (but not part of) the Orkney Arms/Skindles. In 1883, the year of the keystone, the Guards rebuilt and extended their premises, adding a ballroom. It was only in 1904, after the Guards moved to superior premises on the other side of the river, that Skindles acquired their former building.
By 1904 the Guards Boat Club must have outgrown the constricted premises in Mill Lane and it moved to a larger site a little upriver and on the opposite bank. It took over two large neighbouring houses, ‘Riverside’ and ‘Eskdal’, complete with their grounds. With these came an island connected by a footbridge, creating a virtually private backwater.
No doubt the Guards Club had held an annual intra-club regatta before the move in 1904 but the new premises probably allowed these contests to be much greater social occasions than the old club next to Skindles had allowed. As an example, The Times of 25 July 1909 reported:
ROWING: THE BRIGADE OF GUARDS REGATTA
The weather was on the whole favourable for this annual fixture in Bray reach on Saturday where a large party arrived by special train from London. At about 3 o’clock the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Princess Patricia, Prince Arthur, and the Crown Prince and Princess of Sweden came down from Cliveden in Mr Astor’s steam-launch and spent an hour or two watching the racing. The Royal visitors afterwards had tea at the Guards Club. The Hon. Harry Lawson kindly allowed the use of his riverside lawns, where the winning-post was fixed, and the whole space was reserved as a private enclosure for the Guards and their friends. Here too was stationed the band of the 1st Life Guards. The programme was a heavy one, notwithstanding that the preliminary heats had been decided earlier in the week.
The events in 1909 included single punting, single sculling, double punting, double Canadian canoes, double sculling with a lady coxswain, battalion fours, regimental dongolas (six people paddling a punt) and, the blue ribband event, the regimental eights.
.Military duties could impinge on the annual regatta. In 1927, The Times reported that the regimental eights and battalion fours were not held that year as two battalions were in Shanghai, sent after the British concession had been sacked by Nationalist Chinese. A regimental history of the Scots Guards notes that, in 1929, the 2nd Battalion, ‘brought a Dragon Boat back (from Shanghai) to startle the rest of the Guards Boat Club with’. Was this the first dragon boat in the UK?
Strangely, the Brigade of Guards Boat Club (a.k.a. The Household Division BC) seems to have rarely entered Henley. However, in the ‘Edwardian Summer’ that burned before the life changed forever in 1914, the Guards had among their number two men who had reached the pinnacle of amateur sculling at that time; William Harry Verelst Darell (1878 – 1954) and Charles Vincent Fox (1877 – 1928).
After Eton and then graduating as his intake’s top cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Darell was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards in 1897. At Henley in 1906, he was runner-up to the great Harry Blackstaffe of Vesta in the Diamond Sculls, but he did better the next year.
After an easy first round win in the 1907 Diamonds, Darell met Blackstaffe again. In a ‘splendid race’, the Guards Captain at first took a length lead but by half-way, he was only just in front. At the three-quarter mile, ‘Blackie’ took the lead briefly but Darell fought back to eventually win by half a length. This unexpected win could not be explained by saying that 29-year-old Darell had raced the 39-year-old Blackstaffe when he was ‘trailing off’ towards the end of his career, as in the next year the Vesta man won Olympic Gold sculling in the 1908 London Games.
In the next round, Darell had a hard race with Bernhard von Gaza of Viking Ruderclub, Berlin. They were mostly level for the first mile when the German stopped, ‘quite rowed out’. The final against Alexander McCulloch was less of a fight, Darell lead all the way and was never seriously threatened, winning by a length and a quarter.
Fox’s first big races were in 1899, in the colours of Pembroke College, Oxford. Contesting the Wingfield Sculls, he lost to winner Benjamin Hunting Howell and second placed Harry Blackstaffe, having made the novice mistake of going off at too high a pace. However, the Irish-born Fox did better in Dublin Metropolitan Regatta’s ‘Eblana Challenge Cup and the Scullers Championship of Ireland’ and also in the French Amateur Sculling Championship, the Coupe de Seine, both of which he won. Commissioned into the Scots Guards in 1900, he again entered the Wingfields, this time sculling for the Guards Brigade. He defeated Blackstaffe and St George Ashe in the preliminary heat and raced Howell once again in the final. This time, Fox finished far up on his opponent. Admittedly, Howell was ill but Fox must get credit for setting a record time of 22 minutes 54 seconds. Suitably buoyed, he set his sights on the Diamonds. However, it happened that the 1901 Diamond Sculls was a poor affair with only seven entries and once Fox had defeated an out-of-form Blackstaffe in the semis, he easily beat Ashe in the final.
As a soldier, Fox’s record was impressive. Between 1901 and 1907 he served in various campaigns in Africa where he was wounded and twice mentioned in despatches. In the 1914 – 1918 War he was wounded three times, again twice mentioned in despatches and received the D.S.O. for conspicuous gallantry. He was captured by the Germans in October 1914 and made three escape attempts, finally successful in June 1917. On his return to England, he was received by the King and he founded the Escapers’ Club. He died at the age of 50 due to ill health brought on by his war wounds.
The Guards Boat Club had thrived after its short move in 1904 and its Ascot Week balls, in particular, were important society occasions, a part of the London social season. In 1932, The Times reported that. ‘The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Gloucester, and Prince George honoured the Guards Boat Club Ascot Ball with their presence…. There were over 600 people present’.
However, the party could not go on forever and the changes in British life that followed the two World Wars even reached the backwaters of Maidenhead. In the inter-war, years many of the privileged classes had their privileges reduced and the Club’s finances suffered. In 1931, membership was opened to ladies, a sure sign of desperate times, though there was a later reference to the ‘Ladies’ Annexe’ so perhaps they were exiled to a distant part of the premises.
After the 1939 – 1945 War, austerity ruled, but the Club did not go down without a fight and for a time its Ascot Balls attracted the ‘(Princess) Margaret Set’. However, both serious and leisure boating was not as popular as it once was and the lifestyle of the ‘officer class’, even in the Guards, was changing.
In 1965, its centenary year in Maidenhead, the Guards Club gave up its lease – and a developer promptly demolished the place. However, as planning consent for redevelopment required the riverfront and the island to be accessible by the public, nothing more was done for twenty years, the grounds became overgrown and the island boathouse eventually collapsed.
In 1976, the Maidenhead Civic Society got permission to create The Guards Club Park out of the space in time for the 1977 Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Much work was carried out by volunteers and fundraising projects paid for the repair of the footbridge. The boathouse was beyond repair, but the spire was salvaged and incorporated into a shelter in the park.