Leander: Marking the Beginnings of Its Success

On 7 June, a plaque marking the site of Searle’s boathouse, where what became Leander Club began 200 years ago in 1818, was unveiled in the Fountain Garden of St Thomas’ Hospital on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament. The Parliamentary buildings and Big Ben are currently shrouded in unsightly scaffolding, so I have taken the liberty of manipulating this picture to show how the scene will normally look.

13 June 2018

Tim Koch raises a glass of pink fizz at a special occasion.

Recently, Jeremy ‘Rass’ Randall, President of Leander Club, sent this message to LC members:

When the gentlemen from the ‘Star’ and ‘Arrow‘ crews first clambered aboard ‘The Leander’ outside Searle’s boatyard in 1818 they can scarcely have imagined what might follow. But the Leander story reaches a significant milestone [this] year when we celebrate our first 200 years. Like any club, our history has not always been straightforward, but Leander has responded to each challenge to emerge stronger, to help assume its leading position in the rowing world.

Prior to the unveiling of the plaque (or ‘memorial slab’), 200 Leander members enjoyed afternoon tea on the terrace of the House of Commons, courtesy of Lord Moynihan (who, as Colin Moynihan, coxed Oxford to victory in 1977 and the British eight to Olympic Silver in 1980).
The view from Westminster Bridge. Parliament is on the right, and the 1970s and 1860s buildings of St Thomas’ Hospital, now occupying the site that once was home to the Searle boathouses, is on the left. After their Commons tea, Leander members processed en masse over the bridge to the hospital gardens and the plaque unveiling ceremony.
The Fountain Gardens of St Thomas’ Hospital. St Thomas’ is a National Health Service teaching hospital, free at the point of use, which has its 12th-century origins in nearby Southwark but which has been on this site since Searles and other Lambeth riverside homes and businesses were swept away by the building of the Albert Embankment in the late 1860s. As Parliament is still technically a Royal Palace, the convention is that any commoner who dies there is officially recorded as having died at St Thomas’ Hospital to remove the need to convene a jury of members of the Royal Household.
Leander members gather around the plaque which is set in the ground, almost directly facing the currently scaffold clad clock tower popularly known as Big Ben sited on the opposite bank of the Thames.
Jeremy Randall, President of Leander Club, makes a short speech prior to the unveiling. He is having a very busy year with bicentennial events taking him to Downing Street, Dublin, Sydney, St Paul’s, New York and now Westminster.
Jeremy and his wife, Irene, remove the Leander flag to reveal the commemorative plaque. It was financed by private donations.

Homes of Leander: Lambeth, Putney and Henley

This graphic suggests that Leander has had three homes in 200 years but, in reality, they have had more. Graphic: Leander Club.

Leander’s founders were at Searle’s boatbuilders in Lambeth between at least 1818 and 1860, though moving between perhaps two or three sites on the Lambeth stretch in that time. In 1860, the club moved its boats to a tent in Putney (pitched on the site of the current London Rowing Club) and rented club rooms in the nearby Star and Garter. In 1866, it built a proper boathouse on adjoining land and had varying degrees of commitment to this property until 1961 (the site is now occupied by Kings College School, Wimbledon). In 1897, it built the current clubhouse in Henley.

In the splendid recent publication that I will be reviewing soon, Leander Club: The First 200 Years (2018), Peter Mallory states:

When the original crew of the Leander cutter first met around 1818, they had no idea that they were forming a rowing club as we understand the term today. Such a concept had yet to be developed… The first Leander six-oared cutter was owned, stored, maintained and leased by Searle and Sons…, the premier establishment of its kind in England.

The 2016 Lords v Commons Boat Race on the start opposite Lambeth Palace. The boats are copies of those used in the first Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race in 1829. Save that the original ‘Leander’ was a six-oar, the founders of what became Leander Club would have been very much at home in such boats. Names of boats and clubs in those days were synonymous and the same man could, for example, switch at will between rowing in boats such as “The Leander”, “The Star”, or “The Arrow”.

In Lambeth, the Searle boatyards, storage sheds and attached buildings fronting Stangate Street stretched for 150 yards on the (south) bank of the Thames from Westminster Bridge upstream to Stangate Ferry. This was a small, dense, semi-industrial neighbourhood still bordered to the east by rural farm fields and to the south by the gardens of Lambeth Palace… 

A book of 1873, London Old and New, pulled no punches in describing the area around Searle’s Yard:

[I]) had long been of ill repute, ill-looking and evil-smelling, and of evil associations. Even the (re)construction of the Houses of Parliament on the opposite shore… failed to redeem its hideous aspect, overladen as it was with dank tenements, rotten wharves, and dirty boathouses.

Boatbuilding at Lambeth had a long history. According to Old and New London (1878):

Lambeth was a great place for boat-building as far back, certainly, as the reign of Charles II. At all events, Samuel Pepys tells us in his ‘Diary’, under date August 13th, 1662, ‘To Lambeth, and there saw the little pleasure-boat in building by the king, my Lord Brouncker, and the virtuosos of the town, according to new lines, which Mr. Pett cries up mightily; but how it will prove we shall soon see’.

A map from “The Brilliants: A History of Leander Club” (1997) by Richard Burnell and Geoffrey Page, showing various Searle properties and Leander locations at Lambeth.

Over the years, Searles had four properties on the stretch between Westminster Bridge and Bishop’s Walk, near Lambeth Palace, with Leander seeming to move to the best that their landlord could offer at the time. In The Brilliants, it is recorded that Searle’s held leases at Stangate Wharf from 1729 until 1857, and at Bishop’s Walk from 1773 until after 1853. The book continues that there is some evidence that there was a time (the 1840s?) when Searle looked after Leander’s boats but the crews were changing at, and boating from, George Renshaw’s Yard, sited at 7 Bishops Walk, upstream of Searle’s (possibly to avoid the river traffic generated by the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament). A c.1860 photograph of J&W Roberts, Boatbuilders, at 6 Bishops Walk is here.

1850: Looking from Lambeth Palace, along Bishops Walk, towards Stangate and Westminster Bridge.
A painting, supposed to be c.1830, currently hanging in the Leander clubhouse. An inscription reads, ‘The above picture was presented to Leander by Miss Searle. The original quarters of the club can be seen on the right’. This building was upstream of the original Searle’s that was by Westminster Bridge.
Detail from one of the several versions of the picture presented to Leander by Miss Searle showing ‘the original quarters of the club’.
One of the Searle boathouses, c.1830.
A painting of 1851, probably showing Searl’s original site.
Searle’s boatyard on Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth, c.1840. Lambeth Palace is on the left, marked with an ‘X’.
An illustration showing ‘‘The Westminster (School) Boys at Searle’s, Lambeth’’ that must be post-1847, the year that the rebuilding of the House of Lords (opposite) was completed after the 1834 fire that destroyed the Commons and the Lords. Interestingly, Westminster School Boat Club still annually maintains an ancient right of access to the river steps at the Houses of Parliament.
A similar viewpoint as above today.
An engraving of 1791 showing the other side of Westminster Bridge from Searle’s but giving a very good idea of the area as it was until it was embanked in the late 1860s. The ‘London Eye’ now stands on this site.
New technology reported by the “Illustrated London News” of March 1845: ‘Messrs. Searle, boatbuilders at Stangate, have just constructed a boat of a very peculiar description. She is an eight-oared cutter, of the extraordinary length of 60 feet, that being 7 feet more than usual; and 2 feet 10 inches across the widest part. She is an outrigger… which has already been proved in a trial trip to Putney, where she passed several steamers’.
The building of the Albert Embankment in 1866 was the end of rowing and anything else that had previously existed along the Lambeth foreshore. In any case, rowing in central London has been suffering a slow death since the mid-1830s; water pollution and increasing commercial river traffic had made rowing in the metropolis near impossible.
The river at the rural fishing village of Putney (pictured here c.1840) was long known to be a fine place to row and race, but boating from here only became practical for gentlemen working in central London when the rail service from London’s Waterloo Station to Putney started in 1846.
Putney saw the start of London Rowing Club in 1856, and what was to become Thames Rowing Club in 1860, the same year that Leander moved there, building a boathouse in 1866. This picture dates from c.1880.
While the Henley boathouse eventually became the centre of most of Leander’s activities, the Putney boathouse (or at least a share in it) was maintained until 1961.
The newly-built Leander clubhouse at Henley pictured in 1898.

Initially, Leander still thought of itself as a Putney club with a rather spartan Henley country retreat for use in the summer. A proposal to build a clubhouse at Cookham (10 miles east of Henley) had been provisionally approved by the Leander Committee in 1886. It is interesting to speculate on what would have been the result of this move had it happened – would Leander be the force it is today?

The ‘Pink Palace’, Leander’s Henley base in modern times. Picture: @MonicaRelphGB
Back to where the world’s oldest non-collegiate rowing club began. Leander is not only the world’s most successful rowing club, it is perhaps the world’s most successful sports club. It has 112 Olympic medals and this year’s Henley Royal Regatta should, appropriately, see its 200th Henley win.

Amongst other things, Peter Mallory examined Lambeth’s rowing history in his presentation to the 2017 Rowing History Conference, take a look here.

The book, Leander Club: The First 200 Years 1818 – 2018 is available to buy from the club shop, and a small exhibition marking the bicentenary is on at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum until 15 July.

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