Aylings: The Racing Blade Experts

George Ayling, the son of the eponymous founder of the famous and long-lived Putney firm of oar and scull makers, Edward Ayling and Sons, pictured in 1900.

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.

Relics from Aylings at Barn Elms Boathouse.

Origins

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.

Top: 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. Below is a view of the fishing village of Putney in the 1840s.

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. 

The Oxford – Harvard Race at Putney in 1869. Both crew’s oars were made by Ayling. Picture: Bill Miller Collection.

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).

The site Aylings chose for their new premises was one steeped in rowing history. This picture shows it in use by Searle’s boatbuilders in 1851. It passed to Simmons boatbuilders before Aylings took it over.
Aylings newly arrived in Putney c.1898. The notice to the right announces the intended construction of the mansion block now called Ruvigny Mansions.
The reference to the King on the sign makes this picture post-1901, the missing extension between Aylings and Ruvigny Mansions makes it pre-1912.
Lucy Pocock and admirers outside Aylings in 1912. By this time, the original building has been extended to abut to Ruvigny Mansions – as it exists to this day.
Today, the Aylings building is shared between a boat chandlers, Chas Newens Marine, and the Putney High School for Girls Boat Club.
A return to the picture taken between 1901 and 1912 showing the same view today. A degree of elegance seems to have been lost.

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.

An extract from a Pall Mall Gazette interview with George Ayling in 1899 referring to his development of the widely adopted “girder” oars.
An idea from 1897 that seems not to have taken off: Ayling’s Perforated Oar.
Forty years on however, the perforated oar idea was still being pursued. 
Science in action, 1925.

Quality and Craftsmanship

Another extract from the Pall Mall Gazette interview with George in 1899 referring to the care that is taken in choosing the right wood.
A craftsman at work in Ayling’s workshop, 1907.
The scene was not very different twenty years after 1907.
Nor did it change by 1965.

Sixty plus years in the Boat Race

Oxford admires their new Ayling’s oars made for the 1913 Boat Race.
An advertisement in the 1928 Rowing Almanac. Possibly, Ayling’s oars were used by the Blues for another fifty years. 

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.

Norris, oar and scull makers, pictured c.1906. After the 1939 – 1945 War, the building was occupied by Jack Holt, a very important figure in affordable sailing boat design. 
Today, Norris’ is home to Crewroom, a rowing and sports clothing company (the building has no Jewish connections, the Star of David window was merely installed as decoration).
Norris’ achievements listed in the 1928 Rowing Almanac.

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.

George Ayling (d.1935), left (the son of Edward, 1830 – 1901), was the second of five generations of Aylings that ran the family business. He was succeeded by Fred (1898 – 1967), Peter (1926 – 1997) and Richard (1952 – 2016). The advertisement and caricature (along with that of Bossy Phelps, right) is from 1913.
Today, this plaque on a bench is the only reminder of Edward Ayling and Sons’ time at Putney, 1898 – 1982.

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. 

A copy of Rowing from June 1975. I also have copy number 71 from January 1959. Assuming that twelve copies a year were printed, publication would have begun in 1953, started either by Fred or by Peter Ayling.

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. 

Richard Ayling pictured in the 1970s.

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.

Famously, Aylings produced higher standard made-to-order boats for Redgrave and Pinsent’s 1996 Atlanta Olympic win and for the GB coxless four’s Olympic win at Sydney 2000. 
Steve Redgrave’s seat in the Sydney Four. The incredible story behind the making and delivery of this boat is on the Guardian’s website.

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. 

4 comments

  1. Another very informative article by Tim Koch, thank you.
    FYI , as one who learned to row at Barn Elms Boathouse in the early sixties, I can vouch that it was founded by the London County Council in 1959 , with Ted Chitty as Head Boatman. The Tank where, I believe, the Ayling oars are displayed wasn’t built until 1968.
    Rowing magazine was first published by P.G.Rowley in December 1949 with Major E.A.E. Howell as Editor. Richard Ayling rescued it from oblivion some years later, making it required reading for all enthusiasts of the sport.

  2. Interesting article. While I don’t think I ever used Aylings blades (we mostly used Sims and later Dreissigackers if I recall correctly), I rowed and sculled in several Aylings shells and always liked them. The first fine boat I learned to row in was an old Carbocraft 4+, a clapped-out old thing that I remember as being impossible to balance, although age and inexperience may be more to blame than the boat itself.

    Was rather sad to read a few years ago that Aylings had gone the way of the dodo, at least as far as rowing is concerned.

    Anyway, an interesting article, as always.

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