25 May 2020
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd on works inspired by two of the most important rivers in British rowing.
There is of course no such thing as history of rowing without a habitat to set it in. Three books that I have written introduced me to riverscapes that are significant in the English story. They are the championship course from Putney to Mortlake (Water Boiling Aft: London Rowing Club, The first 150 years 1856-2006, London RC, 2006); the tidal Thames from the estuary to Teddington (Unto the Tideway Born, 500 years of Thames Watermen and Lightermen, The Company of Watermen and Lightermen, 2014); and the Tyne from Tynemouth to Hexham (Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers, the Heroes, Seers and Songsters of the Tyne, AuthorHouse, 2014).
The watermen’s story comprises 500 years of working the river, during which the Thames transformed from a royal highway linking palaces to a dirty backwater with its back turned against London when its banks were enclosed behind dock walls and an exclusive ‘dockology’ culture was invented. Now it has come full cycle, welcoming commuters and tourists to view its wonders. Life under oars encompassed struggles with the Navy over press gangs, servicing the merchant fleet, ferrying the population upstream and downstream, servicing the bear pits, theatres and pleasure gardens of Southwark, racing for prizes of coats, badges and wherries, and being undermined by wheels, sailing barges, macadam roads, bridges, horse-drawn omnibuses, docks, steam boats, internal combustion engines and underground railways.
In short, the estuary and tidal river is a rich mosaic. There are dozens of matt and glossy books on the Thames, but some lesser known or more interesting accounts can be found in the following:
Samuel Pepys is the obvious embarkation point, a diary written by the secretary of the Admiralty who spent his life in wherries or walking the towpath, including a dramatic account of being afloat during the Great Fire of 1666. His contemporary John Evelyn also kept a worthwhile diary, and another contemporary, John Taylor, a waterman turned ‘Water Poet’, wrote lively and sometimes subversive pamphlets in support of the watermen’s interests.
For description and context of the river, try David Kynaston on the City (The City of London, a World of its Own 1815-1890, Pimlico, 1994), Stephen Croad’s book of the Thames through time (Liquid History, the Thames Through Time, English Heritage and Batsford, 2003), a superb pictorial history of the docks by Chris Ellmers and Alex Werner (Docklands Life, a pictorial history of London’s docks 1860-1970, Museum of London, 1991) or Michael Leapman’s history of the river (London’s River, a history of the Thames, Pavilion and Olympia & York, 1991).
For dockology and life on the water, there is Jack Gaster’s autobiography (The Life of a Thames Watermen, Amberley, 2010), Harry Gosling’s lively Up and Down Stream (Methuen, 1927), Harry Harris’s adventures of rowing and poling lighters (Under Oars, Centerprise Trust, 1978), and Maurice Phelps’s story of his family of Putney watermen – Doggett’s winners, boat builders, barge masters, scullers and coaches (The Phelps Dynasty, a story of a riverside family, Words by Design, 2012).
Theodore Andreas Cook and Guy Nickalls’s biography of Thomas Doggett, the Irish actor who founded the sculling race from London Bridge to Chelsea named after him, is revealing about the race and the theatre world of the eighteenth century (Thomas Doggett Deceased, a famous comedian, Constable, 1908). For accounts of more recent Doggett’s races, see Robert John Cottrell’s works (Thomas Doggett Coat and Badge, Cottrell, 2009), or Dodd’s Unto the Tideway Born. Many Doggett’s winners become royal watermen, including Robert Crouch, a past master of the Watermen’s Company and a past royal bargemaster. With co-author Beryl Pendleton, he has written about eight centuries of watermen in the service of the crown (Royal Bargemasters, 800 Years at the Prow of Royal History, The History Press, 2019).
Finally, on watermen, their Company has published five volumes of its activities, a chronological reference work which hides many gems if you know where to look (History of the Origin and Progress of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames 1514-1924). Volume 6 is under preparation.
Putney to Mortlake, known as the Championship Course, came into more frequent use by professionals as the river downstream became less and less suitable for rowing. Steam boats and pollution culminating in the Great Stink that suspended Parliament in 1853 made rowing unpleasant. A painting by William Lionel Wyllie in Water Boiling Aft shows why the founders of London RC chose the quieter waters of Putney in 1856, a village by then connected to the City by rail, for their venture. LRC arguably saved amateur rowing from extinction in London, and its story is as much about the upper end of the tideway as about the club itself.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that rowing was incredibly popular throughout the country in the mid-19th century. Navigable rivers everywhere had rowing clubs and liveries with boats for hire, great houses cultivated lakes in their parks where guests could go rowing, and seaside resorts and Lowry-esque mill towns built public boating lakes. The social history of the time can be found in Neil Wigglesworth’s volume on 19th-century rowing (Victorian and Edwardian Rowing from Old Photographs, Batsford, 1988) and histories by Wigglesworth (The Social History of English Rowing, Frank Cass, 1992) and Eric Halladay (Rowing in England, a social history, Manchester University Press, 1990). For background to traditional English sport, see the Earl of Wilton’s tome (Sports and Pursuits of the English, Harrison, 1869).
I mentioned Peter Mallory’s chapter in Leander’s 200-year history on the club’s progression from Searles boathouse in Lambeth to Putney in my last fixed seat reading column. Other club histories that record aspects of the P-M course are Burnell and Page’s earlier history of Leander (Richard Burnell and Geoffrey Page, The Brilliants, Leander Club, 1997), histories of the Boat Race, Geoffrey Page’s history of Thames RC (Hear the Boat Sing, Kingswood (1991), and Elizabeth Carter’s history of Furnivall (A History of Furnivall Sculling Club 1896-2004, The Elmore Press, 2006). Good stories about the club’s founder are to be found in a memorial collection by John Munro and others (Frederick James Furnivall, a volume of personal record, Henry Fronde, OUP, 1911).
Charles Dickens Junior, son of the writer and journalist, was a member of LRC and wrote an excellent reference work on the Thames for boating types (Dictionary of the Thames from its Source to the Nore, Macmillan, 1885). For detail in Putney, see Dorian Gerhold (Putney and Roehampton Past, Wandsworth Historical Society, 1994).
The North East of England was a hotbed of champion rowers, innovative boat designers and enthusiastic supporters in the second half of the 19th century. This was also a boom time in music halls and popular entertainment, and the rowing heroes were often celebrated by balladeers. Biographies of champions include David Clasper on Harry Clasper (Harry Clasper, Hero of the North, Gateshead Books, 1994) and Ian Whitehead on James Renforth (James Renforth of Gateshead, Champion Sculler of the World, Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2004). Whitehead also wrote a scholarly history of professional rowing in the North (The Sporting Tyne, Gateshead Council, 2002), and further information is to be found in Peter Dillon’s book (The Tyne Oarsmen, Keepdate, 1993).
For accounts of the city of Newcastle and its river, consult R J Charleton (A History of Newcastle-on-Tyne, W H Robinson, 1885) and T H Rowlands (Waters of Tyne, a River Journey through History, Sandhill Press, 1991). And for rip-roaring Geordie songs and satire, see Thomas Dibdin (Dibdin’s Songs, 1841), Keith Gregson (Corvan, a Victorian Entertainer and his Songs, Kemble Press, 1983), and Joe Wilson (Tyneside Songs and Drolleries, Thos. and Geo. Allan, c1890).
There is also a CD of songs performed by Benny Graham, Johnny Hindle and Colin Ross (Champion Oars, songs and tunes from the Golden Age of North East Rowing 1840-1875, Tyne & Weir Museums).
Come forward – Read!