2 February 2023
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch on perhaps the most important Tideway rowing club never to win any races of merit.
HTBS Types are a knowledgeable crew and some will be aware that “Ilex” is a genus of the species of trees and shrubs with the common name “Holly”. However, fewer will know that Ilex was also a rowing club based at Chelsea and later Putney between 1846 and about 1880 and that, in the 1850s and 1860s, the Ilex Rowing Club (IRC) was frequently classed together with Leander as one of the two survivors of the earliest days of amateur rowing. Equally little known is that Ilex had close relations with the incipient London Rowing Club and that IRC was an obscure class of club that existed primarily for competition between its own members. Some context is required before I attempt to piece together the history of this pioneering amateur club.
The great Victorian coach and rowing historian, Rudie Lehmann, wrote:
(Amateur rowing’s) birth is not exactly “wrapped up in a mystery” but it is difficult to indicate with any accuracy the date it ceased to be merely an uncompetitive pastime, and was converted into something like the sport we now possess.
The briefest of summaries of the history of rowing for pleasure by amateurs in London and South East England would be that it started in the mid to late 18th century at the schools of Eton and Westminster and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge – though there is debate on who was first, the schoolboys or the undergraduates. When their formal education finished, the gentlemen oarsmen who came to London rowed out of the boatyards that existed to serve the capital’s working watermen, notably those around Lambeth, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
In Hear The Boat Sing: The History of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing (1991), Geoffrey Page states:
On the Tideway in the early 19th century there were no big clubs and no clubhouses such as we know today. Small groups of enthusiasts got together and bought or hired boats and rented changing rooms from boatyards or pubs, and those associations or groups of oarsmen often took their names from those of the boats in which they rowed: The Shark, The Star, The Arrow and many others now forgotten.
By the 1850s and 1860s, pollution and industrialisation forced London’s amateur oarsmen to either cease their sport or to move it out of the centre of the city to Putney, a riverside village on the urban outskirts but one with a good railway link to Central London. In The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club (1997), 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…”
The formation of London RC at Putney in 1856 was particularly important. Amateur rowing on the Thames had deteriorated between 1835 and 1855. In the words of Chris Dodd’s 2006 history of London RC, Water Boiling Aft: London Rowing Club, The First 150 Years, “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 and, within thirty years, scores of amateur rowing clubs had come into being, many of them still in existence today.
Where does the Ilex club fit into these developments? The standard histories of the now Grand Old Clubs and of amateur rowing in general only make passing reference to ILC – if at all – and almost all of my information on the club comes from newspaper archives.
That Ilex started in 1845 is certain. Reports of the club’s annual dinner over the years note what anniversary it was marking since its foundation. Thus, Bell’s Life of 24 December 1870 reported that the twenty-fifth anniversary dinner of the Ilex was held at its winter quarters, Anderton’s Hotel in Fleet Street. It was noted that Mr J. St Aubyn, who was present, was one of the original founders of the club (this was almost certainly James Piers St. Aubyn, 1815 – 1895, a leading church architect from an aristocratic Cornish family). The President, Mr HH Quare, said in his toast “Success to Old Ilex” that the past season had been “an expensive one on account of the many new boats and the increased number of races” but, despite this, “the balance carried to next year’s account was a substantial one.”
The first newspaper mention of the Ilex that I can find is from the Morning Chronicle of 7 July 1848 that reported on an Ilex intra-club “scratch match for silver oars and rudder” run from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Eyot.
The Morning Chronicle of 2 December 1859 said this of the then 14-year-old Ilex:
The name of the Ilex Rowing Club must be familiar to every aquatic, associated as it is with the names of the Leander, Thames, Herne, Shark and other great clubs of 20 years ago. The Ilex and the Leander are the only two clubs left, and although not so great as they once were, they still continue to exist and present their annual tribute of matches.
The “Thames” referred to by the Morning Chronicle was not today’s Thames Rowing Club, it and the other early clubs listed were the mostly Lambeth pub and boatyard based clubs, perhaps named after the boats that they rowed in.
More names of some of the clubs that pre-deceased Ilex were listed in a report on the Ilex Annual Dinner of 1856 in The Era of 12 December. The President, Mr Isles, had said:
The club had now completed its thirteenth year… It was aged for a club, so aged that few ever arrived at it. Not one of the many hospitals – Guy’s, Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’, the University Rowers, and many others in full swing twenty years ago now existed, save only the brilliant Leander; and of all the later clubs afterwards brought out, the Wearne, Meteor, Cloanthus, and others, that over which he had the honour to preside had alone maintained its footing – all of (the others) had died away.
The Sporting Life of 24 May 1862 called Ilex “the second oldest club on the river”.
To the modern mind, one of the most interesting and unusual aspects of Ilex was that it was not primarily a “racing club”, that is one that put most of its efforts into competing against individuals and crews from other rowing clubs – it was a “pleasure club”. The Era of 18 March 1860:
This excellent club, which is devoted to rowing among its own members only, and is therefore only a pleasure club, as it were…
Charles Dickens Junior wrote in his Dictionary of London (1879):
The oldest of all the London clubs except, perhaps, that of the Westminster boys, is the Leander (but) its members rarely appear at regattas. The Ilex is another old, but much smaller club, which also rarely appears in public.
In its report on the Annual Dinner of 1862, The Era of 14 December wrote that President Isles told the gathering that: “Ninety per cent of subscriptions had been spent in prizes, and that the outlay had been considerable, owing to the great number of entries.”
In 1864, the President reported that “over 200 crews had turned out to row during the summer.”
Possibly, one of the attractions of Ilex was that the prizes in the intra-club competitions were of high value silver. There seemed no problem with being a member of both a pleasure club and a racing club. The Era of 28 November 1858 said that the Ilex was a “gentleman’s rowing club, which has been established many years” and that “many of (its) members belong to the great London Rowing Club”. More of this later.
There is no evidence that Ilex was ever based in Lambeth, the original home of amateur rowing in London. The first reference to any location that I can find is in The Era of 13 March 1859 which mentions “Mr Greaves’s, the club house”. There is another mention of “the clubhouse, Greaves’s Boat Yard, Chelsea” in The Era in 1863. However, most racing seems to have taken place over parts of the Putney to Mortlake Championship course with only a few races run the five miles from Chelsea to Putney and none recorded on the Chelsea stretch itself.
Before 1864, there was a move from Chelsea to Putney. At the Club Annual Dinner of that year, the President was reported saying that “he felt convinced that the removal of headquarters to Putney had been a wise and judicious decision of the committee.” I have been told of a map showing the Ilex Rowing Club marked on a map of Putney from about 1875. It appears to be on the site now occupied by Chas Newens Marine and before that, Aylings the oar makers. Before Aylings established itself in Putney in 1898, their site was Simmons’ boat yard and newspaper reports on Ilex make frequent reference to the club buying boats from Simmons.
There was a later move along the Putney Embankment. Charles Dickens Junior’s Dictionary of the Thames for 1881 says of the Ilex Rowing Club:
Amateur. Election by ballot, one black ball in five excludes. Subscription £2 2s. per annum, and “an equal share of any further expenses which may be incurred.” The Ilex Swimming Club originated with the Ilex Rowing Club. Boat-house, Phelps, Peters & Co., Putney. Colours, black and red horizontal stripe; badge, acorns and oak-leaves; motto Labor ipse voluptas.
Phelps, Peters and Co was in the Unity Boathouse on Putney Embankment, currently home to the Ranelagh Sailing Club.
Ilex’s relationship with London Rowing Club is interesting. Returning to The Era report on the 1858 Ilex Dinner, President Isles held that:
(The Ilex) had a big brother in whom they were all interested – the London Rowing Club – a club that had in a short time done wonders in upholding the character of the London river… (The LRC was) a racing club, and by its numbers and the celebrity of its members could well afford to be so, whilst (the Ilex) was a mere pleasure club and could not afford to be (a racing club), nor could any other of similar pretension. It had been tried again and again in small clubs, but wagering generally wound them up in three or four years…
Three years after the LRC was formed, The Era of 13 March 1859, noted:
Despite the fears expressed when the London Rowing Club was formed, that it would have the effect of shutting up all the minor things of the sport, the Ilex has wonderfully progressed since its formation…
The Sporting Life of 18 December 1861 reported on Ilex’s annual dinner:
Contrary to the laws of nature, the older (the Ilex) grows, the more it appears to flourish; perhaps it not being a racing club may, in a measure, conduce to its prosperity, as its meetings appear to be a neutral ground for the reunion of all the rowing clubs of any repute on the river… (It was Ilex’s view that) the racing club of the Thames, the renowned LRC… was fighting single handed (against) Oxford and Cambridge… and to put the LRC on equal terms, it would be advisable for the Thames clubs to place their best men at the disposal of the LRC, who have unquestionably raised the character of Thames rowing.
Chris Dodd’s Water Boiling Aft notes that when Herbert Playford became LRC Captain in 1858:
(He) turned his attention to underpin the success on the water during London’s first two seasons by recruiting new blood and sustaining growth… “The club has now… taken up a position on the Thames with reference to other clubs in the neighbourhood similar to that of Oxford and Cambridge amongst their respective college clubs”, he wrote, citing Kingston, Richmond and Ilex as providing some of London’s best oarsmen for both the Henley eight and private matches.
In 1871, Bell’s Life reported on Ilex’s annual general meeting. Strangely, the officials elected were from other clubs: the President from West London RC, a vice-president from “the ARC”, and the secretary from Thames. Only the treasurer was recorded as a member of Ilex. The impression is that Ilex was less a club as we know it and more an association of oarsmen – though this is arguable.
Whatever its status, the Ilex was prospering in 1870. It had a surplus of £15 and was owed the same amount. One hundred members had joined in 1870 and “the president expressed his belief that the same number would be elected during the ensuing season.” Strangely however, within ten years, the club would cease to exist.
The last mentions of Ilex in the newspaper archives are in 1880. Bell’s Life of 3 July reports on a three boat pair-oared race between Putney and Hammersmith, one crew composed of EC St Aubyn and GP St Aubyn, presumably related to one of the club’s founders, James Piers St. Aubyn. The final newspaper report may be from Bell’s Life of 24 July 1880 which covers Molesey Regatta – Ilex lost in the first heat of the coxed fours. Charles Dickens Junior’s Dictionary of the Thames for 1885 has no mention of the Ilex Rowing Club.
I can only speculate on the reasons for the demise of the Ilex. When looking for the causes of historical events, I hold that it is always better to consider the mundane over the dramatic. Any rowing club that does not own its own property is always in danger. Possibly IRC’s landlords, the boatbuilders Phelps, Peters and Co, ended their lease, perhaps requiring more space in the Unity Boathouse, and Ilex had nowhere to go. Many IRC men were already members of London Rowing Club and perhaps they had little incentive to try and keep the old Ilex going.
Another credible theory is that, by 1880, the sport of competitive amateur rowing was thriving, as were competitive amateur rowing clubs, and that the day of the uncompetitive “pleasure club” that was just “an association of oarsmen” – such as Ilex – was done. In a 2018 article titled Sport and the Press During the Victorian Era, Martyn Cooke wrote:
…during the final three decades of the (nineteenth) century… sport underwent what has been described as a ‘sporting revolution’… Sport became codified, commercialised and institutionalised with a significant increase in the number of sports clubs, competitions, governing bodies and spectators attending events.
Ilex’s motto, Labor Ipse Voluptas (“Work itself is pleasure”) perhaps unintentionally showed how out-of-step it was with the competition-mad late-Victorian sporting world.
The name “Ilex” lived on in sporting circles after the apparent demise of IRC. I have found a reference to a “Ilex Rowing Club” on the River Lea in East London in 1894 but this may just be a coincidence of names, not least because most clubs on the Lea were for tradesmen. More prominent was the Ilex Swimming Club.
In 1860, some members of the IRC got permission from the club committee to establish a swimming club, first based at the state-of-the-art Lambeth Baths in South London. Its initial purpose was “encouraging swimming amongst the amateur oarsmen of the Thames.” Eighteen years later in 1878, Bell’s Life reported:
That the (Ilex Swimming Club, ISC) has been a great success is undoubted, for since its establishment deaths by drowning scarcely ever occur amongst rowing men, so that to a great extent the mission of its promoters had been fulfilled… Nearly every rowing man on the river is a swimmer…
At its inception, membership was open only to members of recognised amateur rowing clubs but in 1878 gentlemen amateurs from any athletic club were allowed to join and the ISC “entered a new career of usefulness” in competitive swimming, the club moving far beyond its original remit of teaching oarsmen to swim.
In 1894, the Sporting Life called the ISC, “The father, so to speak, of the present generation of swimming clubs…” Four years later, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News said that the ISC was “a time-honoured institution in the natatorial world” (I had to look it up but “natatorial” means of or related to swimming). In the same year, the Morning Post called the ISC “the oldest swimming club in the world”. There may be some hyperbole involved but the Sporting Gazette’s 1900 obituary of a once well-known oarsman and swimmer, William O’Malley, held that the ISC was “the oldest and at one time the most influential swimming club in the kingdom.”
In 1899, London RC’s Lord Ampthill became President of the Ilex Swimming Club and the press reports seemed to indicate that it was in a healthy state. However, the last newspaper archive reference to the ISC was a meeting on 27 September 1900 which included its annual 240-yard inter-rowing club team race. The regular yearly accounts of Ilex’s “Annual Costume Entertainment” suddenly stopped. The Ilex Swimming Club seemed to die as quickly and mysteriously as had the Ilex Rowing Club.
Undine Barge Club, in Philadelphia, PA, founded 1856 as a gentlemen’s club has the same motto Labor Ipse Voluptas though we translate it to mean stewardship to the Club.