At The Pictures: A Hundred Thousand Oarsmen

In the summer of 1961, a short documentary on amateur rowing in Britain was made by the Rank Organisation for showing in their nationwide chain of cinemas.

3 December 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch takes a three-shilling seat in the stalls.

In the 1930s and 1940s, “Going to the pictures” was one of the main forms of entertainment in Britain, peaking at over 1.64 billion cinema admissions in 1946. However, there was a gradual decline in these numbers in the 1950s, before a more dramatic drop throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Increasing affluence was one reason for the fall-off but the rise in television ownership also played a large part. Naturally, the cinemas tried to adapt to these social and economic changes.

One part of the cinema programme that played before the main feature had long been the “newsreel”, a topical film programme showing the previous week’s newsworthy events. However, the immediacy of television news made this redundant and, in 1959, Britain’s biggest cinema company, the Rank Organisation, owners of the Odeon and Gaumont cinemas, decided to replace its newsreels with a series of 8-minute, light-hearted documentaries that examined all aspects of life in a rapidly changing Britain. In the next ten years, over 500 of these were produced under the series title Look at Life. They were all made to a very high standard, all shot on 35mm film using the Eastmancolour process that had superseded Technicolour.

Many of the Look at Life films are now available on DVD and these are listed on Wikipedia. The subject title for each of the disc sets illustrates the range of topics that the series covered: Transport, Military, Science, Sport, Culture, World Affairs, Business and Industry, People and Places.

The films included in the 3-disc DVD set that covers sport. The set is available for £8 new on eBay but is also sold by Amazon.

Initially, Look at Life was a popular format but, as the 1960s went on, people demanded documentaries that were a little more questioning than the “ain’t life grand” attitude that prevailed in most of the Look films, even those dealing with fairly serious topics. People filmed for the programmes were seldom allowed to speak and the sometimes patronising narrator generally implied that the status quo may be the best. 

The last Look at Life was produced in 1969 but, fortunately for HTBS Types, eight years earlier in 1961, a film in the series had been made about the state of amateur rowing in Britain at the time: A Hundred Thousand Oarsmen (henceforth referred to as Oarsmen). 

In Britain in 1961, the Second World War had been over for sixteen years and post-war austerity had given way to widespread prosperity for the middle class and also to a large extent for the working class. Full employment, increasing ownership of consumer goods and the welfare state allowed Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to declare in 1957 that, “most of our people have never had it so good”. However, the ‘60s had certainly not yet started to swing and, both inside and outside of the rowing world, many attitudes and practices were still more pre-war than post-Chatterly.

The title for Oarsmen had a background scene from across the Thames from Molesey Boat Club and featured a crew probably from the club.

The pictures reproduced here are rather soft as I obtained them simply by photographing the screen of my computer while playing the DVD (hence the control panel in the bottom right). The original 35mm film produced very sharp feature film quality images.

The “BBC English” tones of the narrator, Antony Bilbow, began the commentary over scenes from the 1961 Boat Race.

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is as traditional as roast beef. But, rowing in Britain is no longer a sport exclusive to a few schools and colleges. Today, about a hundred thousand amateur oarsmen row on rivers, lakes, reservoirs, gravel pits, the open sea – anywhere there is enough water to float a boat…. 

We are not told where the 100,000 figure comes from and, perhaps churlishly, I would question its accuracy. In 2012, British Rowing membership was 33,000. Some beginner, student and veteran rowers are not BR members but the number of active rowers in Britain today can be nowhere near 100,000 and it seems unlikely that there was a two-thirds drop in numbers between the years 1961 to 2012.

This shot of three clinker coxed fours racing in a dockside setting (possibly Manchester) was included in the opening montage but no more of it made it into the final edit. Does the unused film from Oarsmen still exists, languishing in some forgotten archive, a lost snapshot of British club rowing in the early 1960s?

Nor is rowing just a sport for men. One of the best known women’s clubs is the Stuart Ladies at Clapton in London. They’ve won many races, no mean feat as their members will keep getting married and leaving.

Rowing is a uniquely amateur sport and no-one need pay to watch a regatta so the full cost of boats and equipment falls on the clubs themselves. There are not many big sporting spectacles left where the public doesn’t contribute in one way or another – but then, rowing is unique altogether….

More on Stuart Ladies is on the Rowing Story site, subtitled A History of GB Women’s International Rowing from 1951. In 1952, Stuart Ladies were the first women to represent British rowing internationally when, at a FISA regatta in Amsterdam, they won the eights. Rowing Story claims that: 

One of the reasons why the Stuart Ladies four did so much better than all of the other British crews… was the way they trained; they were coached by the Lutz brothers… who were “fitness fanatics” and had the crews doing land training similar to what club crews would do today with weights, circuits and ergos, albeit without erg scores, unlike the Thames-based clubs who – to their detriment – had no contact with the much more advanced east end rowing scene.

A Stuart Ladies crew prepares to go afloat from the Springhill site in Clapton, East London. In 1980, they merged with five other clubs that were based on this stretch (Crowland, Gladstone Warwick, City Orient and Britannia) to form today’s Lea Rowing Club.
Greasing the oars before an outing.
Rowing on the Lea.
A Stuart Ladies eight from above.

To the credit of the Oarsmen production team, they did not just stay around London and the south, they also went to the north-west of England and visited the Agecroft Rowing Club based in Salford, near Manchester, who were then rowing on the Irwell, a tributary of the River Mersey.

(The) Agecroft Rowing Club has been rowing on the River Irwell for a hundred years and they say that the river is far cleaner now than it was fifty years ago. There was a time when it was so thick with debris that rowing was almost abandoned….

A coxed pair steered by a young lad in shirt and tie makes its way along the River Irwell past one of the factory chimneys that symbolise “The Industrial North”.

On their way back from Salford, the Oarsmen crew visited Nottingham in the English Midlands and took some shots of members of Nottingham and Union Boat Club self-consciously polishing their trophies outside their boathouse, the voiceover saying that they have never won at Henley, “the ambition of every oarsman”. Cut to a shot of a Notts and Union coxless four beating a Henley Rowing Club crew at Marlow Regatta in preparation for racing in the Wyfolds at Henley.

At Marlow Regatta, Notts and Union, closest to the camera, are winning not “at Henley” but at least “against Henley”.
The film then cuts to a dockside scene showing what Americans call longshoremen but what the British call dockers loading barges with ships’ cargo.

Another crew entered for the Wyfolds at Henley is from the Argosies, the national rowing club of dockers from ports all over Britain. Until a few years ago, these men would not have been eligible to compete in amateur regattas. An old ruling was that no “mechanic, artisan or labourer” could be an amateur. But now, the definition of an amateur in rowing is in line with that in other sports.

Cut to shots of the Argosies’ Wyfold Four going afloat from the Putney Embankment in London. An “argosy” is a merchant ship, and the Argosies Rowing Club was formed under the auspices of the National Dock Labour Board as part of its sport and recreation activities. The Board was concerned with ending casual labour in dock work.

The Amateur Rowing Association code excluding manual workers from rowing with and against those in more genteel trades and professions had ended before the 1939-45 War but its legacy lingered on for many years after.

This Argosies crew is out to prove the theory that the traditional style of rowing used by lightermen is the foundation of successful oarsmanship. 

Thus, even in 1961, “The Lighterman’s Style” or “The Thames Waterman’s Style” was still in use for racing. It was developed by men who rowed heavy boats all day for a living, men who needed to preserve their strength using an efficient stroke without wasting time, motion or effort. The stroke looked effortless as the oars were kept very close to the water on the recovery and there was little vertical movement between the catch and the release. Most peculiarly, putting the squared blade in the water before driving with the legs was not part of the Waterman’s Style, the blades were actually still feathered at the catch position. The famous George Pocock explained:

When the blades catch the water for a stroke and the blades have to turn from the horizontal, do not for a moment think that the wrists do it all. It is the same principle as when the blades leave the water: let the water do it, turn the wrists slightly, relax the grip and start the leg drive. The water will square the blades if given a chance. Remember the water is constant; use it.

George Pocock (1891 – 1976), an enormously influential coach and boatbuilder, and the professional sculler and coach, Bert Haines (1879 – 1957) allegedly introduced the Thames Waterman’s Stroke to North American amateur oarsmen. Pocock apparently modelled his stroke on that of world-champion sculler Ernest Barry (1882 – 1968).

Two years after this film was taken, Argosies were finalists in the 1963 Thames Cup at Henley. Whether they achieved this using the Lighterman’s Style, I do not know. 

A wonderful shot of the Argosies with some period vehicles parked in front of the old Leander boathouse which was sited next to London RC.

London Rowing Club hosted the National Dock Labour Board Regatta for many years and the event peaked in 1955 when 82 crews from 17 ports competed. However, port closures and redundancies caused a decline in the regatta, and it was ended in 1977.

The Argosies’ Wyfold crew (complete with a deferential boatman, fixed pin rowlocks and shorts with a leather reinforced seat) on the Putney Embankment.

From Putney, the film crew made the short upriver trip to Hammersmith and to the Rutland Boathouse, a boatbuilders sited behind what is now Auriol Kensington Rowing Club (though, more importantly for the boatmen, it was also next to the Rutland Arms pub). Boatbuilder “Young” Bill Colley recalls that the building was erected in the 1880s by the famous boat firm of  Biffen and that many Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race craft were made there. Since at least 1933, it had been run by various people called Sims, though not all related: George, Bill and Frankie (there was also Roland Sims who built boats at Putney). The last boats that came out of the Rutland were made by Young Bill Colley in the early 1970s.

The narrator confidently tells us:

In spite of tremendous technological advances with other materials, there is still nothing better than the traditional wood for building these strong, delicate craft.     

Inside the Rutland Boathouse.

From Hammersmith, the film cuts to the Christening of a new boat at Molesey and then returns to Marlow Regatta.

For most clubs, Marlow Regatta is considered a final tryout before Henley – so here is a good place to test the strength of the opposition. Every Saturday throughout the summer months, there are regattas all over the country. 

Now the annual migration (to Henley) begins…

Shots follow of local crews rowing upriver through the locks to Henley. “But others” the narrator tells us “must come from as far afield as Japan, America and Russia”.

Boats that could not be rowed to Henley came on the back of trucks; there did not seem to be any boat trailers at the time.
The Russian Grand Crew, officially “The Central Sport Club of the USSR Navy”.
One of the Japanese Furukawa Wyfold Four. They were beaten by Vesta in the first round.
The great Australian sculler, Sam Mackenzie. In 1961, he achieved his fifth of what would eventually be six Diamond Sculls victories.
The Argosies Wyfold Four outside what was then the Five Horseshoes pub in Henley. The narrator informs us that, “In the old days, rowing men used to say that the only training needed for racing was lots of rowing and plenty of beer. But now, even the thirstiest of oarsmen take it easy on the beer till the rowing is over”.
Narrator: “The Argosies crew get some expert advice before their first race”. The expert looks familiar, but I cannot name him. His advice may have been good, but the crew were still beaten in the first round.
The Henley course seen from the top of the funfair’s “Big Wheel”.

Film of young women in Henley fashions and old gentlemen in moth-eaten blazers are followed by shots of various heats of the Wyfolds: Crowland v Argosies, Marlow v 1st and 3rd Trinity, Notts and Union v Corpus Christi. The finals recorded by the Look at Life crew showed the National Provincial Bank winning the Wyfolds, Sam Mackenzie winning the Diamonds and the Soviets winning the Grand.   

The Russians defeat Leander and win the Grand.
Leander after letting the Grand go behind the Iron Curtain.

Commenting on the end of Henley 1961, the narrator concludes:

Up and down the country, a hundred thousand oarsmen look at the results and decide that next year they’ll have another try to keep more of those trophies at home.

Every Look at Life concluded with this caption, here superimposed over film of the Saturday night fireworks that were a feature of Henley Regatta for many years.

Copyright Disclaimer: Fair Use under the Copyright Act 1976. Commentary and images © Granada Ventures.

Update: The caption for the third illustration has been changed to reflect Bob Wilson’s comment.


  1. The background scene to the title ‘A Hundred Thousand Oarsmen’ appears to be the view across the Thames from Molesey Boat Club, not a scene at Marlow Regatta. Taggs Island is on the left, Ash Island on the right and Molesey Weir in the background. The eight is correctly identified as a Molesey crew.

      • The crew appear to be the Molesey Grand eight, with Colin Porter at 6, Dick Knight at 5 and John Tilbury at bow.

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