A full history of the Club has been written by Christopher Dodd to mark its first 150 years – “Water Boiling Aft — London Rowing Club, The First 150 Years, 1856–2006”. Here is a brief synopsis of the London story, originally written by Christopher for the 2006 British Rowing Almanack, and updated to cover some of our successes since…
London Rowing Club made its debut on the bosom of old Father Thames on the evening of Thursday 22 May 1856. This bald, proud birth announcement followed a six week pregnancy after conception at a meeting at the Craven Hotel, Strand, where those summoned by a circular letter from Josias Nottidge resolved to ‘form themselves into an association to be called the London Rowing Club, having for its object the encouragement of rowing on the River Thames, and the bringing together of gentlemen interested in that sport.’
Three reasons for this move came together. First was the density of river traffic connecting London, Southwark and Westminster — barges lightening the load of ships in the pool of London, steam tugs and ferries, passenger wherries by the hundreds, processional barges, sailing barges from the estuary and their relatives which shifted life’s necessities and the spoils of empire inland via the Thames. Secondly, while the tidal river scene may have looked like a great moving Canaletto, in reality it was more in the mood of a Turner brooding sunset, a Monet dusk or a Whistler fog at night on Battersea reach — accompanied in the mid nineteenth century by a big stink of raw sewage. The third was the declining state of amateur rowing against the background of the other two. A combination of traffic and steaming summer pong was not conducive to taking to the river for pleasure. Leander, for example, was restricted to 25 members in London Rowing Club’s foundation year of 1856, and confined its activity to rowing down to Greenwich to dine or rowing up to Eton for a brush with their younger brothers.
Most amateur clubs were small, comprising a group of friends who bought or hired a boat and often burned a hole in their pockets to maintain it. Keen rowing men saw their sport in terminal decline, and a handful had the foresight to suggest a club that would recruit many members at a low annual fee, without hidden extras. Their aim was to beat the university crews which dominated Henley Regatta at that time, and their base would be in rural Putney, where the skies were clear, the water was relatively clean, and the traffic was light. And a fast, reliable and frequent train service from Waterloo to the top of the High Street enabled city types to attend practice, summer and winter alike.
The start was spectacularly successful. The club obtained rooms at the Star & Garter, attracted nearly 200 members and won the Grand and the Stewards’ in its first full year. It introduced winter training and twelve-oar boats for coaching and selection of eights. It soon had a boatshed on its present site — the present building opened in 1871 (and underwent several upgrades, the most recent in 2006-7). Like any club, London has had ups and downs, but it won the Grand 16 times before the trophy slipped from the grasp of genuine club crews, not to mention many successes in the Stewards’, Wyfold, and Thames. The founders — such men as Alexander Alcée Casamajor, the Playford brothers Frank and Herbert, James Paine — did the club proud on the water. Another golden age began in the late 1860s — just after the motto ‘From Strength to Strength’ was adopted — under the captaincy of Francis Stepney Gulston. Gulston was outstanding on fixed seats and slides and renowned as a steersman. He was captain for ten years and won twenty Henley medals in eights, fours and pairs, adding up to the most outstanding record in rowing to date – all the more remarkable if, as ‘Guts’ Woodgate once remarked, London ignored him when he first appeared. The most famous of his fours — LeBlanc-Smith, Gulston, de Lande Long and Stout — is depicted on Henley reach in a painting by Alfred de Prades commissioned by Long and presented in 1880. Gulston applied thoroughness to everything he undertook. With the editor of the Field, John Henry Walsh, he tested the new-fangled sliding seat and calculated that a nine-inch slide gave 18 additional inches of movement on the blade. London were quick to move to slides as a result.
The 1920s and 1930s were another golden period for the club after Steve Fairbairn, the legendary coach of Jesus College, Cambridge, abandoned arch-rivals Thames after falling out with their committee. He moved to London at the behest of Archie Nisbet, and soon there were spectacular results at Henley again. London won the Grand four times in the 1930s, the Thames Cup three times, the Stewards’ twice, the Wyfold six times plus once in the 1920s, and the Goblets in 1927. Nisbet, Terry O’Brien, Farn Carpmael and Jumbo Edwards were among the oarsmen who contributed to these achievements. An important experiment took place in 1929 when ‘Two Legs’ Hellyer tried syncopated rowing. The theory that an eight would go faster if each pair of oarsmen pulled in sequence instead of together was put to the test by extending the staterooms of a shell into the bow and stern, and seating the cox in the middle. The crew succeeded in the technique, but not in going faster.
After the second world war the club’s performance, in company with others, was eclipsed by rising international standards. But in the fifties a strong sculling group emerged at Putney which included Tony Fox, John Marsden, Doug Melvin and several veterans. Meanwhile, wholesale dissatisfaction with the ARA and particularly its head-in-the-sand selection policy erupted when the major clubs, including London under the captaincy of Peter Coni, put a gun to the association’s head. London’s Jumbo Edwards became the first national coach in charge of the new Nautilus scheme, Melvin became a selector, and Coni was sent to the ARA council as the only member under 40 years of age. Since then London members have been prominent in the rowing world as officials and organisers, and LRC’s regatta, the Metropolitan, has risen in stature as it has moved from the Tideway to Dorney via Thorpe Water Park and the Royal Albert Dock.
There were wins in the Wyfold in 1969, the Britannia in 1970. Then came a sensational decade in which the club financed and equipped a lightweight squad which first won the world light fours silver medal in 1975 and the world lightweight eights title in 1977, 1978 and 1980, and many other medals besides. A heavyweight four, coached by David Tanner, achieved medals at the Olympics and world championships at this time. Success continued during the 1990s when Robin Williams was the club’s first professional coach. The first female rowing member joined in 2002. The club has enjoyed success under coaches Paul Reedy and Phil Bourguignon in the last decade, with wins in the Thames and Wyfold (the latter most recently in 2011), and shared wins in composite crews including the Grand, at Henley; the women’s Wingfields race (Sophie Hosking, twice); and the men’s Scullers Head of the River Race (Stephen Feeney); and now the women's title (Imogen Walsh). Most especially, Club members have secured medals once more at international level in the FISA World Championships, including golds for James Clarke and James Lindsay-Fynn in 2007, Rob Williams in 2010 and Steph Cullen and Imogen Walsh in 2011.
The Boustead Cup was founded in 1947 by Guy Boustead as an Annual Race between London Rowing Club and Thames Rowing Club. He presented the trophy in memory of his father, J M Boustead, who rowed three times for Oxford in the University Boat Race, including the year of the famous “dead heat” (1877).
The race is usually rowed in the early Spring on the ebb tide between Mortlake and Putney, the reverse of the University Boat Race course. On a few occasions, because of adverse weather conditions, a shortened course has had to be used, or it has been raced on the flood tide.
The 50th race was held in 2007, when Guy’s great-grandson, Nicholas, presented the trophy to the winning London crew. The total number of races rowed to date has been 54, with London winning 30 and Thames 24 times. There has been no race in 11 of the years since 1947.