17 July 2017
Tim Koch writes:
They may not be aware of it, but HTBS Types will have often seen the work of Angus Thomas, a talented photographer, who comes from a rowing family and who was a Junior International in 1981. Although busy with his photographic business (which covers not only rowing, but also corporate commissions, music events and portraiture), two months ago he started a new venture, a website called Rowing Classifieds. Angus says this about it:
Rowing Classifieds is a new digital marketplace for rowers and scullers to buy, sell and trade with each other. With a secure Member Dashboard, Google Maps and Facebook (or email) login, the platform is the only marketplace for rowers. Alongside classified advertising we are offering original photography and journalism including athlete profiles and technical articles. We also have a popular Instagram account @rowingclassifieds and Facebook page with daily posts. All this added value is aimed at driving potential buyers to the classifieds adverts platform and creating a vibrant, contemporary marketplace.
Rowing Classified’s ‘Features and Profiles’ pages contain some great writing and pictures and, of particular interest to Hear The Boat Sing, it has a ‘history’ tag. Its first article on rowing in days past concerns Angus’s father, David, and his sculling partnership with John Leathes at Harrodian, the rowing club that once existed for the employees of the famous Knightsbridge store, Harrods. Angus has kindly given HTBS permission to reproduce it.
Rowing at Harrods Remembered
Angus Thomas writes:
In the late 1950s, David Thomas joined Harrods of Knightsbridge as a graduate trainee. The eldest of four rowing sons* from Pangbourne, David learned to row at St Edwards Oxford, following which he went to Pittsburgh University before returning home to work at Harrods. It was there that he struck up a friendship with John Leathes, an assistant workroom manager who had formerly rowed for Winchester College and whose father was Harrods’ managing director.
At that time, Harrods had a thriving social club at Barnes, South West London, which included the Harrodian Rowing Club where the two young men joined forces as double scullers. The social club was quite a set-up. Formerly a country house with fourteen acres of grounds, the original building was demolished to make way for what was then a state of the art club house with its own theatre and dance hall, billiards and table tennis rooms, eight hard tennis courts, four grass courts, two football pitches, two rugby pitches, an outdoor swimming pool and a forty-seat restaurant. Harrods staff paid nothing for the use of these facilities.
For their part, Thomas and Leathes commenced their sculling campaign by commandeering the Thomas family racing shell. This was no ordinary double, having been the boat in which Jack Beresford & Dick Southwood had won the Berlin Olympics in 1936. They little appreciated the historic importance of such a boat and its eventual fate was to be left in the University of London boat house where it still languishes – or not. Of course, it really should be in the River & Rowing Museum at Henley.
Although the Harrodian RC was affiliated to the ARA (now British Rowing), there was little regular boating activity and it relied on the spontaneous enthusiasm of a few individuals to join in local regattas. Of course, rowing practice could only happen in the evening and entering a regatta relied on being able to get the Saturday morning off as Harrods at that time closed at 1pm.
Surprisingly, in the late 1950s, more ladies rowed for the club than men and, coached by Leathes, they achieved a measure of success. There was only one heavy wooden VIII and so Lord Fraiser (then chairman) put up the money for Phelps of Putney to build the Lady Fraser, the first eight designed specifically for ladies. The rowing world had not realised, until the success of the women propelling the Lady Fraser that ladies were built differently to men and afterwards there was a rush to build better designed boats.
During their competitive careers, the boat was mostly transported on Leathes’ Mini Cooper with a specially adapted roof rack. “The overhang front and back was more than the length of the car” says Leathes, “so in towns like Wallingford we had to get out and walk ahead to see what was coming at road junctions!” There were very few regattas with double sculls events but they achieved good results in those they were able to enter and so the question of rowing kit inevitably needed to be addressed.
The iconic green and gold Harrods colours were used to great effect, with the blades painted green and the club’s initials applied in gold leaf. The singlets were gold but home tie-dyed cotton white shorts presented something of a problem when the dye ran and looked most odd when they got caught in the rain. The solution came via the Harrods girls school outfitting department who supplied girls schools with wool bloomers for gym wear. Ancaster House at Bexhill had the perfect green tone and the bloomers proved very comfortable for men who rowed.
With Henley Royal Regatta looming, thoughts turned to blazers, so Italian silk was sourced from Harrods fabric department and magnificence was fashioned from gold cloth with green velvet collar and cuffs. With typical Harrods flourish, three gold body buttons and six on each cuff had the Harrods motto engraved – omnibus, omnia, ubique (anything, anytime, anywhere). Engraving on the cuff buttons was so small it was hard to read, but of course it was beautifully done because, in those days, Harrods employed skilled craftsmen who could do anything.
Suitably attired, their careers peaked on August Bank Holiday 1961 at the Henley Town Regatta. In the first round, they beat Mike Spracklen and B O Thomas, sculling for Wallingford and subsequently beat Thames Rowing Club in the final. “As Spracklen was the 1958 Commonwealth Champion” says Thomas, “we thought we must be on to something, but it wasn’t to be!’’
After further lack of success, Thomas and Leathes decided to call it a day as a Double. However, Thomas was keen to continue alone and entered himself for the Diamonds at Henley Royal Regatta in 1962, hoping he would be able to get a day off from work mid-week. “I did eventually manage to achieve that but rather dreaded going back to ask for second day should I progress, but the situation never arose! I would point out that during all this time I don’t remember ever having any coaching.”
His competitive efforts received some amusing press coverage. A Special Correspondent in The Guardian of Thursday 5th July 1962:
O Tjurin of Russia in the Diamond Sculls was not seriously troubled …but D L Thomas (Harrodian) pushed Kottman of Switzerland all the way.
Despite cries of ‘’Come on Harrow”, an expiring English sculler (Thomas) in singlet and shorts had the life and soul raced out of him by a Swiss swathed from top to toe in tights (there had been previous reference to icebergs and the unseasonably cold weather).
The story, according to The Guardian’s London Letter, the following day, Friday 6th July, 1962 reads:
Old Harrovians who read my reference to cries of “Come on Harrow” at Henley may be wondering when their alma mater took up rowing. A certain West End store has telephoned to say that Harrow does not row, which is true, and that what I heard was “Come on, Harrods” which is not true. The cry might have been “Come on, Harrer”, or just “Come on `Arrers”.
Whatever it was, the enunciation was hardly that usually heard in the Knightsbridge area. It is true that Harrods lost the race. But with what style!
Angus has made a short video of David and John’s exploits using some contemporary home movie film:
* David’s three brothers are: Richard, who rowed in the St Edwards School first eight which won the Princess Elizabeth Cup in 1959, Hugh, who, whilst at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, went Head of the River 1964/65 and who won both the Visitors and Ladies Plate at Henley Royal Regatta in 1965, and Peter, who stroked the University of London eight that won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta in 1968, the crew going onto represent Great Britain at the Mexico Olympics.
Tim Koch adds some thoughts of his own:
Even though I love history and ‘old things’, I am always suspicious of any talk of ‘the good old days’. I hold that, for most people, the best time to have lived is now. However, it is sometimes difficult to adhere to this belief when, for example, I compare how businesses once treated their staff to their attitude today. Employers in the past may have been ridiculously strict and paternalistic, but they often provided wonderful staff sports and social facilities (including rowing clubs), plus jobs for life and pensions at the end of it. Nowadays, there may be much less discrimination in the workplace and certainly much better working conditions, but there is also less job security, poor or no pensions, and certainly no company rowing clubs.
Even in the mid-1980s, when I started rowing in West London, there was still an annual Head Race for ‘Business Houses’. I recall that clubs entered in this event included Barclays Bank, Midland Bank, National Westminster Bank, Civil Service (men), Civil Service (women), London Transport (District Line), London Transport (Buses), Horseferry (Gas Board), Lensbury (Shell/British Petroleum) and Ibis (Prudential Insurance). I am sure that veteran Tideway-based HTBS readers will remember more. Most of these clubs are now gone forever and the few remaining ones are open to all, receiving little or no support from their founding organisations, each having to operate as a ‘profit centre’ and not as a ‘staff benefit’.
Going even further back, a list of long defunct Metropolitan rowing clubs taken from the 1898 Rowing Club Directory of Great Britain gives a random snapshot of London clubs set up for the employees of various companies at that time. Some examples from the list include Arundel Rowing Club (Employees of W. H. Smith and Son, Newsagents, Strand), Broadwood Rowing Club (J, Broadwood and Sons, Pianoforte Manufacturers, Soho), Caxton Rowing Club (W. Clowes and Son, Printers, Charing Cross), Comyns’ Rowing Club (W. Comyns and Sons, Silversmiths, Beak Street), Daly’s Rowing Club (Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square, W.) and Middlesex United Rowing Club (G Monro, Fruit Salesman, Covent Garden). It must be admitted that few, if any, of these tradesmen’s clubs had premises or equipment of their own.
The Harrodian Rowing Club disappeared sometime in the 1960s, and in 1988 the wonderful sports and social club for Harrod’s staff, sited near the river in Barnes, South West London, was sold to a private school by the store’s then owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed. No doubt, its existence made no sense in the company’s profit and loss account. As to when Harrods ‘employed skilled craftsmen who could do anything’, those days are gone; now, one of the store’s big concerns seems to be selling Harrods branded tat to tourists. Perhaps times past were the good old days…?