The Feathers: A Forgotten Centre of Early British Rowing. Part I: Preamble

A modern watercolour based on a photograph taken in the 1870s of the Feathers Tavern and Boathouse, Wandsworth, an important but largely forgotten part of the history of rowing.

5 May 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch tries to rewrite history.

Although it is little documented, it is generally accepted that the sport of rowing by “gentlemen amateurs” grew up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries around the schools of Eton and Westminster and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Neil Wigglesworth’s The Story of Sport in England (2007) claims that a boat club was formed at Westminster School in 1790 (The Isis) and at Eton in 1793 (The Monarch). The first bumping races were at Oxford in 1815 and at Cambridge in 1827. The first University Boat Race took place in 1829 and Henley Regatta started ten years later.

However, competitive and often highly remunerative professional rowing by working-class watermen, boatbuilders and the like had existed in many parts of Britain long before this, providing both a spectacle and a gambling opportunity for all social groups. Most famously, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge started in 1715 but working men had been augmenting their meagre earnings in little-regulated and hard-fought races long before this. When not racing, thousands of London watermen and lightermen were rowing people and goods along the Thames, a trade that generated much work for boat builders and their yards.

Thus, when gentlemen amateurs began to take an interest in rowing for pleasure and sport, the potential was already there. In The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club (1997) Geoffrey Page wrote:

The banks of the Thames, upstream of Old London Bridge, were lined with dozens, if not hundreds, of riverside yards, building, hiring and housing boats, and with countless watermen seeking a livelihood, ready to provide instruction to anyone wanting to learn the aquatic arts… This explains why rowing, with all the necessary facilities available, got off to a flying start on the Thames in (central) London… The owners of (boatyards) quickly responded to the demand by adding changing-rooms, club rooms and, in some cases, catering facilities…

Searle’s of Lambeth, 1831. Searle’s was one of the many boatyards in the centre of London that was home to numerous rowing “subscription clubs” (most famously, Leander). There were no rowing clubs as we know them today, in those days small groups of enthusiasts hired boats and rented changing and social rooms and they often took their names from the boats in which they rowed.

By the 1840s however, London’s heartland with its plentiful supply of boatyards and professional watermen was becoming less attractive for the amateur oarsman. The Industrial Revolution brought serious problems of pollution and the rapidly increasing population made the Thames in the centre of the capital “the largest navigable sewer in the world.” Increasing river traffic by all sorts of craft carrying passengers, goods and materials made an almost impossible environment for small rowing boats, the washes of the powered craft made worse by the newly built embankments and the buttresses of newly built bridges proving additional navigation hazards.

A painting by William Lionel Wyllie (1851 – 1931) gives a romantic view of why amateur oarsmen needed to move from an increasingly busy central London or give up rowing altogether.

One positive thing that the Industrial Revolution did bring for amateur oarsmen was to provide rapid railway transport. By 1846, anyone who lived and worked in the centre of London could be in a rural riverside village in thirty minutes. Most importantly, on its foundation in 1856, London Rowing Club could thus base itself at Putney. In The Brilliants, Geoffrey Page states that this “shifted the centre of gravity decisively from Lambeth to what was then still the country village of Putney, and sounded the death knell of the score or so of small private clubs which had hitherto catered for amateur oarsmen in the metropolis…” 

Putney, c.1840.

The formation of London RC at Putney was more than just a geographical move. Amateur rowing on the Thames had deteriorated between 1835 and 1855. In the words of Chris Dodd’s history of London RC, Water Boiling Aft (2006), “An eight from the tidal Thames had not been seen at Henley for years. Was rowing for amateurs and gentlemen dead, or could it be rekindled?” To compete against college crews from Oxford and Cambridge and other “closed” clubs, the new London RC would have to be a club “on a gigantic scale” with its own boathouse and boats. When Thames RC and Leander joined London on the Putney Embankment in the 1860s, the fightback had truly begun. 

As part of the move out of central London, the old Championship Course that ran between Westminster and Putney (or sections of it) was abandoned and events such as the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, the World Professional Sculling Championship and the Wingfield Sculls all ran upstream from Putney, most adopting the new Championship Course, Putney to Mortlake.

The Old Championship Course, Westminster to Putney. The second (1836) to the fifth (1842) Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race ran the 5 3/4 miles from Westminster to Putney. In 1846, the sixth race was the first to run from Putney to Mortlake. The Feathers Boathouse, the subject of Parts II and III, is marked in the bottom left.

Thus far, this story has followed the conventional wisdom observed among most rowing historians, that rowing as a sport arrived almost overnight in the fishing village of Putney – which had not seen anything of the like before. However, this is rather like those old history books that told us that “Columbus discovered America” – ignoring the fact that the people who already lived there were perfectly aware of its existence. Similarly, when the gentlemen amateurs arrive in Putney in the late 1850s and early 1860s, The Feathers Tavern and Boathouse (aka, Salter’s Boatyard), sited about 1,300 metres downstream of Old Putney Bridge, had been an important centre of amateur and professional rowing since perhaps the 1830s. This is a fact rarely acknowledged, and, when it is, then only very briefly or in part. In Part II, posted tomorrow, I hope to correct that.

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