29 November 2022
By Tim Koch
Rowers from Britain and many other countries who date from when boats and oars were made of nature’s wood and not chemists’ plastic will remember pulling on Ayling’s oars and sculls. My memory was jogged recently when I revisited the rowing tank at Barn Elms Boathouse, a community rowing facility established in 1967 under the auspices of Wandsworth Council and sited on the Surrey bank downstream of Putney. It has on display examples of wooden oars in various stages of production, items that originated a few hundred metres downriver in the Putney workshop of Edward Ayling and Sons.
The origins of Aylings is a classic Victorian story of a poor boy who made his fortune through innovation and hard work combined with “British craftsmanship” but whose products eventually became outmoded. Edward Ayling’s obituary in the South London Chronicle of 3 August 1901 describes him as a Lambeth “charity boy” (a student in a private charitable school for the very poor), who “rose to become a vestryman and guardian of that parish, a master of his Freemasons’ lodge, and gained the distinction of being the first oar and scull maker of the day…”
Edward Ayling (1830 – 1901) started his oar and scull making business at Lambeth in 1859, which was possibly an unfortunate time to establish such a trade in the centre of London.
Since the 1840s, London’s heartland had become less attractive for the amateur oarsman. The Industrial Revolution brought serious problems of pollution. Further, increasing river traffic by all sorts of craft carrying goods and passengers made an almost impossible environment for small rowing boats. The washes of powered craft were made worse by the new embankments and additional navigation hazards came from the buttresses of new bridges.
Significantly, on its foundation in 1856, London Rowing Club based itself at Putney. Rowing historian 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…”
In the 1860s, Ayling moved his business a little upriver to Vauxhall (probably forced out of Lambeth by the redevelopment of the waterfront), an area still a long way from the amateur oarsmen increasingly basing themselves at Putney – though some of his trade could still have been come from the professional watermen of central London.
In his obituary in the Windsor and Eton Express in 1901, it was stated:
As a maker, Mr Ayling first came into prominence in 1869 when he made the oars used by both crews in the famous race between Oxford and Harvard Universities, a fitting start to a business career (that) supplied the oars and sculls for all the winning crews at the recent Henley gathering…
(In 1865) he was a prominent figure as a sculler and amongst others that he defeated was a Doggett’s Coat and Badge winner…
The Putney Premises
In 1898, Aylings finally moved to Putney, then the undisputed centre of British amateur rowing (by those from the South of England at least).
Excellence and Innovation
Like most Victorian entrepreneurs, Edward and many of his successors were great innovators and below are some examples of this forward-thinking mindset.
Quality and Craftsmanship
Sixty plus years in the Boat Race
Norris: The other show in town
Despite appearances, Aylings did not have a monopoly of blade manufacture on the Putney Embankment. Oar and scull makers, Edmund Norris, operated out of a building next to what is now Imperial College Boat Club from perhaps the late 1870s to the start of the 1939 – 1945 War.
Easy oars: The end of an era
Aylings stopped blade production in 1982. Wooden blades still had a few years of life left – but not many (the company had experimented with producing aluminium shaft blades in the 1970s, possibly on cost grounds, but with limited success).
As a timeline on the Concept2 website shows, their first carbon fibre oars were used in the U.S. in 1977 and, within a couple of years, “Orders substantially increase.” In 1980, Concept employed eight people, this rose to twelve by 1984. By 1990, “The majority of crews are now rowing with Concept2 oars world wide” and in 1991 the Concept Big Blade was introduced, “an asymmetric hatchet-shaped blade that appeared to be 1–2% faster than existing designs.” At the 1992 Olympics, the Big Blade was the predominant oar type in use.
Afterlife: Peter and Richard
Peter Ayling and his son, Richard, had a significant impact on the rowing world outside of running the family blade making business. Peter edited Rowing magazine which he proclaimed was “the independent magazine for enthusiasts everywhere.” Editorship eventually passed to Richard and Rowing lasted until the late 1980s when the then Amateur Rowing Association started producing a free monthly magazine for its members.
Richard Ayling fitted much into an all too short lifespan. On his death aged 64 in 2016, Martin Cross had the difficult task of summarising his life for the British Rowing website:
He was a giant of a man, who loved, just loved, the sport – every bit of it… Make no mistake… British rowing owes a debt to Richard Ayling.
The briefest list that follows only really scratches the surface of his impact. As a top international rower, he was in the British eight that won the Grand in 1975. He narrowly missed a medal in the coxed four that year at the Worlds. At the Montreal Olympics, Richard raced in the coxless four.
In between training sessions he worked for the family business and crafted the wooden blades that, back then, most of the world used to race with. Later Richard moved into making boats. Redgrave, Holmes, Pinsent, Cracknell were just some of the names that won Olympic gold in Aylings shells.
That might be enough for most people but not for Richard. In 1978 he started to coach. Armed with the experience of Janousek’s programme and a knowledge of how the top German crews then trained he developed a generation of international stars.
From his beloved Kingston RC, he took a club crew to the 1979 World Championships. Two years later his boat… not only made the final but gave the ‘unbeatable’ East Germans a huge shock by leading them right through to the final part of the race…
He continued to coach internationally through to 1986 and until recently was still an active coach to club, university and school students up and down the Thames…
In 1984, Richard began building racing boats when Aylings took over the Carbocraft business. In their day, Carbocraft products were exceptional and pioneering craft and the company made important breakthroughs in the manufacture of carbon-honeycomb boats. They had a monocoque hull in which the strength and rigidity came from the hull itself rather than having a thin skin wrapped over a rigid internal framework. Aylings (together with Janousek) made popular “club standard” boats in Britain for nearly twenty years.
Aylings as a boat builder was sold to Lola Group (a racing car/composite engineering company) in 2001 but they ceased production in 2007. Today, the Aylings Group Ltd is (weirdly):
…a UK-based luxury lifestyle events and online marketing specialist, with a strong connection to the private aviation and marine industries. Our events business is focused on providing bespoke luxury lifestyle events that provide our clients with the ideal platform to reach a highly targeted audience of high-net-worth individuals.
It’s a long way from making wooden oars in a draughty workshop on the Putney riverfront.