Rowing Club Stories 5 - Mutiny!

 

When I joined the club, part of the building that was later to become the clubroom was called the Blade Store. As its name suggests, it contained blades but not the ones that were for the use of ordinary members. These were special and only to be used by the most senior members of the club when they came for their Sunday morning row. These senior members were the old men who were running the club and who had long since given up any form of competition. In addition, there was a “shell” four in the boathouse which was also reserved for the seniors, as were two matching “clinker” hulled boats with canvas decks, named “Welland” and “Wreake”.

We young members, who were trying to form crews to represent the club at regattas, had to make do with two older, open decked clinker fours, named “Wyvern” and “Windsor” and old, worn out blades. Whilst the boats we were allowed out in were in fairly good condition, they were heavier than the newer ones and the lack of decks made them liable to take on a lot of water when the weather or water conditions were bad. The blades we had were worn out on the leather sleeves and the gates rocked on their pins, which didn’t help with squaring and feathering so “crabs” were fairly common even among the best of us. There was another boat which was even older and was so wide that the seats were offset to stroke and bow sides and was known as the “tub four”.  It was fitted with fixed pins (no swivel gates) and consequently required fixed pin blades to go with it. I took some of my first strokes in this boat, so I remember the art of fixed pin rowing well. The buttons were in the form of a screw which extended about ¾ of the way round the loom. If you kept this firmly pressed against the gate, the blade would square itself as you moved forward to the next stroke – automatic squaring! At least, it did when it was new. Ours were so worn, we had automatic1/2 squaring! (and more crabs!)

One very enthusiastic member was Peter Barnacle. I think he held the position of Vice Captain at the time and he took on the responsibility of coaching us novices (or “maidens”, as we were called then). Frustrated with the quality of the equipment that we were allowed to use, he checked in the committee minutes and discovered that the new blades and the better boats had been purchased with club funds with no restriction as to who would be allowed to use them. With this in mind, he produced a crowbar at the next training session and forced entry into the blade store! From that day on, good use was made of the new blades and the better boats. Clearly, the older members were not happy that “their” kit was being used by the youngsters but their assertions that the kit belonged to them had been disproved and there was nothing they could do about it. I believe that it was this incident that released the club from the stranglehold of old men and transferred power to the young ones who wanted to take the club forward to rowing success. It was to take a long time and much more had to be done, but there was a new enthusiasm in the club.

Now that I am an “old man”, I still firmly believe that the club should be run by the younger members. They will keep repeating the same old mistakes but the enthusiasm is still there and it is for them to decide on their club’s future. When they make bad decisions, they can correct them in time for the next generation and, in the meantime, the oldies can grumble and say, “We told you so!”

Barges

Sometime around 1962 we encountered a new threat to our activities. Somebody at Gimson’s woodyard (where the new Barratt development now stands) decided that it would be a good idea to use barges to deliver their timber. The idea was to bring the barges into “our” basin and unload them directly into their premises by a crane sited in the area now occupied by Mawby and King’s glassworks. This was, obviously, not good news for us.

The city council sanctioned the use of the area where The Watershed now stands but, thankfully for us, refused planning permission for a permanent crane on the far bank. The company went ahead with the scheme, I think while an appeal against the refusal of planning permission was lodged, and used a small mobile crane on our side of the river to unload the cargoes onto lorries. The lorries then made the short journey via Upperton Road and over the bridge where they were unloaded by another crane. This was clearly practically and economically unsustainable and the whole idea was abandoned when, I suppose, the appeal was rejected.

An amusing incident befell the first barge to attempt a delivery. I had gone to the club to repair a boat that someone had used as a step when breaking into the boathouse through one of the skylights. It was going to be quite a long job, so I had taken some lunch with me. It was a lovely day, so I took my lunch and sat on the bank by the landing stage to eat it. After a short time I heard the sound of a narrow boat as it began to manoeuvre into the basin. It was a very long boat and the bargee had to go backwards and forwards a few times before he could make the turn. Eventually he was on course and headed into the basin. Now, written in large letters along the far wall was “WATER 8 FEET DEEP. FOR SWIMMERS ONLY” (a legacy from the old swimming pool). I had seen scullers fall out of their boats at this point and sit on the bottom with their knees out of the water, so I knew that the sign was somewhat misleading. Being a helpful little lad, I shouted across to the bargee that he needed to move across a bit or he would run aground. This suggestion was dismissed with an account of how long he had worked the canals accompanied with a suggestion that my parent’s were unmarried and that I was not of sound mind! (Or words to that effect).

Moments later, the barge tilted and slewed across the river. The bow was firmly in the mud and the stern was very close to our bank. I thought it best not to comment and continued to eat my sandwich. I think it took about an hour before the boat was free again but I enjoyed watching the process without another word being exchanged!

A New Boathouse

With the young men now running the club came a new optimism. The confidence of youth made us believe that we were capable of achieving great things and we started to look at the state of the old boathouse. As I have already said, it was made of wood and leaned precariously to one side. It was also very insecure and the target of frequent break-ins. We started to dream of a new, larger and more permanent structure, capable of storing the new fleet of boats that we also dreamed of.

The driving force behind this new adventure was, again, Peter Barnacle. He had an arrogance and a confidence that seemed to drive him on against seemingly impossible odds. We had almost no money in the bank but he didn’t see that as a reason for not getting started. A design for the boathouse appeared. I don’t actually know who drew it up, but I seem to remember that an architect turned up now and again for a row, so maybe it was him. Sometime later, a lorry load of girders arrived. These had been produced in Frank Noake’s engineering works, which I think was in the Dysart Way area of Leicester. I’m almost certain that Frank was never paid for this and, after threatening to take us to court, abandoned all hope of getting anything from our empty bank account for the sake of the club.

Having the girders was a good start but we couldn’t begin the construction without some footings to plant them in. As we all know, our site is, like most river banks, on a gentle slope so all that was needed on the higher side was a series of concrete blocks poured straight into holes in the ground. We were all capable of doing this but the river side of the site would need footings which extended about 18 inches above ground level with a retaining brick wall between them to hold back the hardcore that was to form the base for the floor.

Peter had a plan! We collected all the bricks, sand, cement, etc. and, one Sunday morning, lay in wait for Peter Price to turn up for his weekly scull. Peter was a master bricklayer who had spent the whole week building houses and was looking forward to a couple of hours on the river. As soon as he arrived, he was handed a trowel (which he said was a load of f…… rubbish!) and politely asked if he would mind building our wall! What he said would have embarrassed Gordon Ramsey but a couple of hours later we had a 60 foot long wall. It would have been quicker if the rest of us had been able to mix the mortar fast enough for him!

After that, we erected the steel framework. I think it took us about two weeks of hard work whenever we could get together. In those days, we were not troubled by Health and Safety people and, although a couple of us fell from the roof supports (me included!) the only injuries were minor scrapes and bruises which seemed to add to the atmosphere of adventure that prevailed. I must admit, though, that as I reflect on the methods that we used to move the girders into place, we were very lucky and I would, in no way, recommend them!

The cladding for the building was corrugated asbestos and this was fitted by an outside contractor. I don’t know how we found the money for this but we must have because, for a change, I don’t remember any trouble! In fact, I went away to college at this time, so maybe I was spared the usual hassle!

When I returned from college, the new boathouse was complete. The walls and roof, the slab floor, the doors and even the lights were there. I remember standing by the doors, looking inside. Someone said, “We did it, Malc!” and a feeling of pride washed over me.

Soon after, we emptied the old boathouse for the last time and put the boats on their new racks. There was so much empty space! – but we were unstoppable now and were sure that we would soon have a new fleet of boats to fill the racks! It took a lot longer than our optimism allowed for but we filled them in the end.

There was one last job to do. The old boathouse had to be demolished. In a way, this was a sad occasion. It had served the club for many years and we were mindful of our predecessors who had built it and who were probably just as proud of their achievement as we were of ours.

As I have mentioned before, it leaned dramatically to one side and we thought that it would collapse fairly easily, given a good shove. Once again, Peter Barnacle took charge. At the time, he worked for one of the first television rental firms, “Rentaset” and he had a small company van. We fixed a rope between the boathouse and the back axle of the van and he drove away expecting the boathouse to fall down in pieces. It didn’t! The van stopped and its wheels spun uselessly on the gravel. The old boathouse was stronger than we had thought and put up a final fight but after it had been weakened by sawing through some supports it finally succumbed and gave way to a new era for the club.

 

Malcolm Neal