22 March 2021
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe recalls a golden period of rowing in the oriental east. East London that is.
The River Lea’s place in rowing history has gained far greater respect outside of its locale in recent times. No doubt, some of this is a result of the publication of Dick Anderson’s Springhill: Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing (2014) and Clive Radley’s The Radleys of the Lea (2015). Whilst Putney was home to the great and the good ‘amateur’ clubs as defined by the Amateur Rowing Association, the stretch of the River Lea between Springfield and Lea Bridge was home to several, perhaps more than 20 at any one time, ‘amateur’ clubs as defined by the National Amateur Rowing Association. The rival associations rarely crossed oars until they merged in 1956.
The NARA – established in 1890 – was subdivided into eight (expanding to ten) self-governing regional associations with the Lea clubs falling into the Lea Branch NARA also referred to as the North London ARA. Over the life of the Lea Branch and the period after the merger, around 180 different clubs came and went until Lea Rowing Club emerged as the single club for the area in 1980.
Five clubs: Crowland, City Orient, Gladstone Warwick, and Britannia rowing clubs merged with the only club for women, Stuart Ladies, to create a single club open to everyone.
City Orient R. C. was itself a merger between two clubs: City Rowing Club, a club for employees of a shirt manufacturer from the City, and Orient Rowing Club, who took their name from the nearby professional soccer club, Clapton Orient Football Club. The Clapton O’s were named after the Orient Steam Navigation Company, now part of the P&O cruise line setup.
City R. C. was a short-lived club, rowing for perhaps a few years between 1930 and 1933. An Orient R. C. club existed between 1869 and 1922. City Orient R. C. emerged c.1932 and lasted until the consolidation in 1980. The years immediately before this merger saw the City Orient club shine like a Super Trouper. Some of that success could be down to an unusual sponsor – sorry, no ‘partners’ in those days.
According to the Lea R. C. website, the sponsorship came about because the sister of Tony White, a former president of the club, was ABBA’s U.K. manager. In 1976, two years after they won the Eurovision Song Contest, ABBA generously purchased two boats for City Orient, one of Lea R.C.’s founding clubs.
The above photograph was taken during the 1978 Head of the River Race. City Orient, in their ABBA sponsored boat, complimented by their ABBA branded kit and oars, rose from a starting position of 18th to finish eight, 21 seconds behind Head Crew (winning the Steve Fairbairn Bust) and Vernon Trophy (fastest club crew normally rowing on the Thames Tideway) winners, London Rowing Club I. The London crew was based on the GBR lightweight eight, the reigning world champions.
City Orient had the big consolation of taking home the Jackson Trophy in the 1978 HORR as the fastest eligible British rowing club crew not normally rowing on the Thames or its tributaries. This begs the question, is the Lea not a tributary of the Thames? I’ll answer that later. Sandwiched between the London and City Orient eights were two A.R.A. heavyweight squad crews: sweepers and scullers, who had the misfortune of starting in the lowly positions of 309th and 357th as new entries.
City Orient’s major successes began the year before when they were victorious at 1977 Henley Royal Regatta, winning the Wyfold Challenge Cup for club standard coxless fours. Winning crew: D. G. Soan (Bow), J. J. Watling (2), A. M White (3) and D. J Carruthers (Stroke). They could easily have picked up the Jackson Trophy earlier that season, but as a new entry themselves, they started 292nd. St Neots Rowing Club who started 93rd, piped them to the post by two seconds. The following year, both City Orient and St Neots started in the top twenty at HORR and at the finish, City Orient had just over half-a-minute on their rivals to claim the unusual prize that was The Jackson Trophy – it has since been replaced by another trophy, a Victorian rose bowl.
After their success at the Head of the River in 1978, City Orient stayed together as an eight and targeted the Thames Cup at Henley Royal. They beat Saxon Boat Club in Round 1, Vesta Rowing Club in Round 2, before facing their old rivals, the London R. C. Lightweights, on Saturday. London, a selected crew, had little trouble in recording a verdict of ‘Easily’ and went on to dominate the final. At the end of the season, London racing as GBR, retained their world title.
Also, in 1978, City Orient entered a pair in the Silver Goblets & Nickalls’ Challenge Cup. G. M. A. Profitt and E. M. R. Wells, winning a couple of rounds before withdrawing owing to sickness.
I’ve been unable to source the names to the 1978 ‘ABBA’ eight, but the Thames Cup crew was: M. Cushway (Bow), D. M. Saunders (2), S. P. Collinson (3), K. Vaughan (4), G. Whan (5), A. Warn (6), A. Cushway (7), G. C. Thomas (Stroke) and J. O’Donnell (Cox).
On the way to the start of the 1979 Head of the River Race, the City Orient I crew was heard singing ‘We’ve done it all before and now we’re back to get some more’. Or is that a recent rumour started in Milton Keynes? Either way, the club put five crews on the water; they retained the Jackson Trophy (13th overall) and City Orient V, starting 306th, rose to finish 26th. This feat was no doubt possible owing to the horrific conditions for the first hour of the race. Fifteen crews failed to finish – Rowing magazine described the conditions as the worst ever for the 53-year-old race. Conditions improved after the first 100 crews had passed the finish line. City Orient’s rise of 280 places was surpassed by the Irish crew from Garda Síochana Boat Club. They took advantage of their lowly start position and rose from 357th to finish fifth. But even this huge gain was beaten by several other clubs, most notably Kingston Rowing Club’s Vet B crew that managed to gain 383 places.
The City Orient I crew named in the magazine is: M. Cushway (Bow), D. Soan (2), A. Meek (3), E. Wells (4), A. White (5), G. Thomas (6), J. Watling (7), G. C. Thomas (Stroke) and D. J. Carruthers (Cox). The 1980 British Rowing Almanack lists a similar crew with just a couple of positional changes and a few variations in name spelling.
For Henley 1979, City Orient opted for two fours, one in the Britannia Challenge Cup and one in the Wyfold. In the Britannia Cup for club standard coxed crews, City Orient used their experience to record three successive victories by verdicts of one length on the way to the final where St. Neots provided the opposition. ‘Saints’ journey to the final was far from easy; in two of their three races, they were behind at both the Barrier and Fawley and only managed to get past the first round by a canvas. City Orient went ahead early in the final and once there, eased out to a comfortable 2½ length lead, under rating their opposition all the way to the finish.
Before the 1979 season ended, City Orient had their sights set on more than pots. Earlier that year, the A.R.A. had agreed to a new national event for club eights at the National Championships of Great Britain set for July at the National Water Sports Centre in Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham. It was a unique event because it was the first event organised by the A.R.A. to carry prize money. Sponsorship money of £1,500 was provided by Whitbread, which at the time was mainly a beer business. Six regional regattas acted as qualifiers and the winners raced in Nottingham over 500 meters for the cash. City Orient picked up £1,000 and a national title beating University of London (£300) and Reading University (£200) to the jackpot.
A wonderful three years for City Orient was over and the following year they voted themselves out of existence and into the history books. Lea Rowing Club has been a huge success winning numerous national championship titles; Henley Women’s Regatta silverware; The Thames Cup, The Wyfold Challenge Cup and The Britannia Challenge Cup at Henley Royal; plus, both The Jackson Trophy (1981) and The Page Trophy (1984) at the Head of the River Race. The Page Trophy – awarded to the fastest club crew normally rowing on the Thames or its tributaries but not on the Tideway – appears on the results sheets for the first time in 1982. Those clubs now eligible for to compete for it were ‘Jackson’ clubs up to 1981 and so, City Orient were in the correct event in the late seventies.
I am sure that with the athletes that City Orient had in the late 1970s, they would have had success and may have found other ways to finance the best boats and oars needed to win events like The Jackson Trophy, The Wyfold and The Britannia. However, I cannot help but think that the initial injection of funds that came from the ABBA sponsorship contributed enormously to those achievements. For this, and contributing so much to this text, the Hör Båten Sjunga Akademien has decided to award ABBA the Buckhorn Prize for 2021. After all, anyone in the world can potentially win a rowing race but only a select few get their song lyrics on to HTBS.