Backsplash: The Rowing History Conference – Talk by Peter Mallory, Part I

17 August 1829
A Singular Day on the Thames Tideway
“a scene of animation scarcely, if ever, equalled.”
Part I

27 December 2017

Last month, HTBS contributor Peter Mallory made a presentation to the highly successful Backsplash, The Rowing History Conference, held at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames. He has graciously prepared the following extended version in three parts for HTBS readers. Here is how Peter was introduced by Marlow resident Peter Holding:

It really is a privilege and a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to introduce the next speaker. We’ve been hearing this morning and this afternoon about some circles being closed and connections being reconnected. Pete Mallory and I last saw each other before this past Henley forty-four years ago. I was frankly shocked at how little hair he had left at the time.

Pete was my first coach. At the time I was an undergraduate, and I’m delighted to hear that the bow-man is the most athletic – Was that the phrase that was used? – because I served in the bow of a very successful freshman lightweight eight at the University of Pennsylvania. We were undefeated throughout the entire year and only lost in the Eastern Sprints as the result of a crab caught with about 200 metres to go by Don Cooper . . . who I will never forgive.

But Pete taught me so much, and so many of the things that you have been hearing about this morning about what a good coach can do were exemplified by Pete. Not the Al Ulbrickson style for Peter Mallory. He was well known for his fiery nature. As I jokingly and truly said to him last night, just about the only thing that I can remember him shouting at me over and over again was not, “No, no, no, no,” but, “Holding! You’re – and I won’t fill in the expletive – late!”

And I was always late on the catch.

Peter is perhaps as well placed to be the next speaker as anyone that I can think of. Winning multiple national and international accolades at the highest level, fitted him as a highly successful rower and coach in his own right, but since then he has become one of the world’s experts on the history of rowing, and indeed I noted as we were coming back [after lunch] that his four-volume tome, The Sport of Rowing, is on sale downstairs, so you might want to grab a copy as you go out. That sort of encyclopedic knowledge makes him well placed to do this next speech.

He is also a man who is absolutely fanatical about the detail. Peter’s other famous tome has the lively title, The Optimal Force Application in Rowing, the Analysis of Force Graphs, and Force Graph Biofeedback . . . I haven’t read it.

But that gives you some flavour of the man, somebody who is absolutely interested in all aspects of the sport. His passion for the sport, his knowledge of the sport, is genuinely world renowned.

I’d like very briefly in the thirty seconds that remains to me to pay another personal tribute to Pete because his influence turns out to have spread across into this country. In my later years I have become a head teacher, and I am proud to be the head teacher of one of the most successful state-funded schools in the country, just down the road, Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow. I think I got the job partly because I’d been a rower, and that was something that they wanted to continue. When I joined, it was a successful rowing program already, with about fifteen to twenty rowers. We now have nearly 200 rowers each year. We are in partnership with Great Marlow School, which of course is Sir Steve Redgrave’s own school, and going from strength to strength.

I think it is genuinely fair to say that Pete’s influence will have extended to the fact that there are now 150 state-funded rowers just down the road from here. Three recent Olympians and something like fifty schoolboy and schoolgirl internationals have come through my school in the last twenty years. Pete’s inspiration, his understanding of what makes a good rowing program, his genuine passion for the sport and his zealotry for the way the sport can transform lives has been lived out in my own school.

So thank you for that also, Peter.

Many thanks to you as well, Peter, for your generous introduction. Renewing our friendship takes me back to my early days as a coach 44 years ago. Stories like ours explain why we are all here today discussing the sport of rowing. So let us begin.

During the 19th century, Bell’s Life in London, and Sporting Chronicle was the bible of rowing reporting and opinion, covering all matters aquatic for “amateurs”, a word which literally came into existence during this period to describe “lovers of aquatic sport.”

In its year-end summary for 1829, Bell’s Life had the following to say about the previous August the 17th: “The river presented a scene of animation scarcely, if ever, equalled, in consequence of numerous matches which were announced for that day.”

Indeed, that singular day would turn out to be arguably the summit that competitive rowing ever reached on the London Tideway, for decline was already in the air. We will examine briefly six regattas held on 17 August, but first let us conjure up what the Thames in London actually looked like 188 years ago.

Here is the river as we find it today, with myriad bridges above and tunnels below, an afterthought in a vast urban metropolis, more-or-less one hundred yards wide, often rough and treacherous, hemmed in on both sides by artificial embankments that were constructed during the Victorian era.

To get a better idea of what the river looked like before the embankments, study carefully this painting from 1750 in the Yale Center for British Art. Did you know that the renowned Venetian landscape master Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, lived and worked in London between 1746 and 1758? The Thames of his time was vastly different river, a crowded thoroughfare more than three times as wide as today . . . and bustling with all manner of boats.

This recent photo is from a vantage point similar to Canaletto’s, in front of Somerset House on the Middlesex bank. There are many more bridges limiting our view downstream, but hardly a boat in sight. Only the very top of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral remains visible, and the forest of Christopher Wren church-spires built in the years after the Great London Fire of 1666 have disappeared altogether from view.

Take another look at the Canaletto. For more than 500 years, the only bridge anywhere on the entire urban Tideway was Old London Bridge, built in 1209. In this detail, you can see it on the horizon more than a mile away . . . and look at all the water craft, including a ceremonial state barge in the middle distance.

Look at this! A panoramic view of London and its wide river as seen from the south, created by Claes Visscher in 1616, the year that Shakespeare died.

In this detail, the very distinctive-looking Old London Bridge, more than three times the length of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, spans the Thames at right. The pre-fire St. Paul’s Cathedral can be seen in the background and two theatres in the left foreground, the right-hand one being the Globe Theatre.

Incidentally, this appears to be the original Globe, which had burned down three years earlier in 1613 and was quickly rebuilt.

Buildings had been erected on Old London Bridge as early as the 1300s, and they remained there until 1762. The most famous building was the palatial Nonsuch House . . .

. . . seen here, but the principal impact that this bridge had on the riverscape came from its numerous piers and starlings, which acted to significantly impede the flow of the formidable London tides as they rose and fell up to 24 feet (!) twice per day, generating fierce currents. When the tide was running hard and fast under the bridge either way, the height differential of the water surface on the two sides could be as much as four or five feet, leading to very dangerous conditions and the expression that the bridge was . . . “for wise men to pass over and fools to pass under.”

Let us return to Canaletto’s view from Somerset House, along with a photograph of the Victoria Embankment under construction during the 1860s. The old riverfront would soon disappear under tons of landfill.

Just upstream of Somerset House, near the present Charring Cross Station, is Buckingham Street and the stone building on the right, the home of immortal 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys.

Pepys wrote of his being rowed to work daily by a Thames waterman. He reached the riverfront through the wonderful York Watergate, built in 1626 and seen through the fence at the end of the street.

Today it is a gateway no longer to the Thames but to the Victoria Embankment Gardens, with stairs to nowhere, the river now displaced more than 140 yards away.

This 1872 painting by John O’Connor in the Museum of London collection shows York Watergate as it was intended.

Let us return once more to our Yale Canaletto. Look again at the wide river and all the boats, the majority powered by oars.

Here is a second Canaletto, c. 1750-51 from the British Royal Collection, painted from just a few steps further upstream, showing in even greater detail water craft of all sorts . . .

. . . working boats, passenger wherries . . .

. . . again a state barge. With Canaletto’s help, we can begin to get a sense of all the bustle of the river in those days.

And here is a third Canaletto, c. 1750, also in the Yale Center for British Art, from the same basic vantage point but this time looking upstream towards Westminster Bridge.

And here is a close-up of the Middlesex bank at high tide. I tried counting all the wherries just in this detail . . . and quit after 40.

Note that extending from several access points leading to the river along this reach were floating wooden docks for passenger wherries rowed by licensed watermen, each permanently assigned to that specific named location.

This c. 1829 etching by Edward William Cooke shows the typical passenger craft the watermen rowed, each with a name painted on its backboard, Laura, Will o’ the Wisp, Victory and Rose in June.

And here is a contemporary replica of the Rose in June.

The Cooke image soon became ubiquitous. Here are two of the same boats inserted into an engraving of a Frank Dadd composition from the Badminton Library volume Boating in 1888. Note the name Rose in June has migrated from one boat to the other.

There is even a colorized version circulating the internet.

To the inhabitants of London since the Middle Ages, watermen in their wherries, each one unique, had been the bridges, buses, cabs, and long-haul lorries of their day.

Here is yet another Canaletto view of the Thames, c. 1747 from a private collection, this time from the vantage point of Richmond House, six-tenths of a mile further upstream from Somerset House, and this time while the tide was ebbing. Note again the many wherries with their customers, along with two more state barges proceeding upstream.

For more than 800 years the Lord Mayor of London has been required by charter to annually present himself to the monarch’s representative in Westminster, and the procession of the Lord Mayor’s ceremonial barge has been a high point of the year for all that time . . .

. . . including in 1746 when Canaletto memorialized the event with this painting now also in the Yale Center collection, showing the Mayor’s barge being saluted by the barges of city guilds representing Skinners, Goldsmiths, Fishmongers, Clothworkers, Vintners, Merchant Taylors, Mercers and Dyers . . .

. . . and this one from 1746-47, now in the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, showing ten ceremonial barges and countless smaller boats joining in.

Into the 19th century, the Lord Mayor, the Royal Family and the heads of many professional guilds still regularly traveled the Thames in ceremonial barges like this one, Gloriana, lovingly constructed in 2012 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Now let us return to the Richmond House Canaletto and examine the far bank. About 30 yards of mud flat have already been exposed by the receding waters. At least five locations to board a wherry can be noted, with the formerly floating docks now become wooden ramps across the exposed ground to protect gentlemen and ladies from soiling their clothes and shoes in the mud.

Other stretches of the river featured paved stone walkways across the flats. These could be very treacherous when wet, and watermen worked endlessly to keep them slime- and mud-free.

Each set of stairs would have had a name familiar to all and shown on all city maps. The second embarkation point from the right in this detail was known as King’s Arms Stairs . . .

. . . which can be located in this map detail from Cruchley’s New Plan of London, 1827, along with places we have already visited: Somerset House, York Building Stairs, Richmond Terrace, Westminster Bridge, and numerous additional named stairs.

Here is a 1791 engraving by J.H. Edy looking across from King’s Arms Stairs towards Richmond House, the far right-hand building on the opposite bank. This image represents a real slice of life, featuring Coade’s Stone Factory at the top of the stairs, two men playing at cards amidst onlookers, a lady and gentleman in conversation on the stairs – one might speculate on the subject of their conversation – a ceremonial barge and four wherries, a waterman with his plate-sized badge – the origin of the term “license plate” – affixed to his upper arm, and all manner of commerce being transacted by a cross section of London populace. By the look of the water, it is nearly slack tide. Unlike in the Canaletto painting of 144 years earlier, there is no longer a wooden dock/ramp.

As it had been in the time of Pepys and before, early in the 19th century the Thames was still the preferred travel route through what was then the London of Charles Dickens, a city choking with the smoke from millions of domestic coal fires. “On bad days, you could hold your hand out in front of you, wave it about and not be able to see it at all.”

As depicted here by Thomas Rowlandson, artist, cartoonist and scathing social critic, London was also a transportation nightmare of narrow streets clogged with mud and manure, wagons and coaches. This 1807 caricature is aptly titled MISERIES OF LONDON.

What Rowlandson could not portray was the incessant din of horses’ hoofs and iron wheels on cobblestones. More than once in Dickens’ writings of the same period, two characters would meet on a London street and have to retreat up a blind alley to carry on a conversation. By contrast, even with city sewage pouring straight into it, the flowing waters of the River Thames offered welcome respite from the onslaught of clamour and clatter on land. In Chaucer’s day, they called the Thames “the silent highway”. Pubs faced the river rather than the street . . .

. . . and at upwards of one hundred sets of river stairs in the City of London alone, you could hire a licensed professional to row you in his wherry up, down or across the Thames in speed and comfort unimaginable on the filthy and congested streets of the city.

Let us now turn to the remarkable 1647 panoramic view of London by Wenceslas Hollar. Old London Bridge divides the Thames in two, “above bridge” and “below bridge.”

This portion of the river below bridge was the city harbour, perhaps the busiest port in the world at the time, and to this day is referred to as the Pool of London.

A further close-up reveals numerous ships tied to piers on both banks, the water being deep enough to keep them from resting on the bottom at low tide, but the two ships anchored in midstream chose to employ licensed “lightermen” to row their flat-bottomed barges – or “lighters” – up to them and offload their cargoes by hand, thereby avoiding pier fees.

That task completed, the lightermen would then transfer out from shore English goods bound for ports round the world.

This Rowlandson watercolour gives some sense of the concentration of industry in the Pool of London: a lighter in the foreground, a ship beached at low tide to allow for work to proceed on its hull, other ships at anchor just far enough from the bank to continue floating at low tide.

This 1812 Rowlandson caricature, also titled MISERIES OF LONDON – they were part of a series – shows a similar view of the Pool in its background. Rowlandson identified the specific location he was portraying as Wapping Old Stairs . . .

. . . which can easily be found here on the 1827 Cruchley map, near the “E” of THAMES.  In fact, even this map detail of less than two miles of river identifies some 50 named locations on both banks where one could go to hail a waterman.

The Pool of London began at London Bridge and continued (with no Tower Bridge, not yet built) around the bend and even beyond. Note that a New London Bridge was under construction when the map was drawn in 1827, right beside Old London Bridge. The new bridge would be opened amidst great pomp and circumstance by King William IV in 1831 . . .

. . . as shown in these illustrations from Bell’s Life.

More to come in Part II, which will be published tomorrow.

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