Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
The story of the founding of the Boat Club is said to be that a number of young men of Molesey formed a crew which they called 'The Argonauts', and tried to join up with the Kingston Rowing Club, but the latter refused them membership, whereupon they called a public meeting at the Prince of Wales Hotel, which agreed to subscribe towards the establishment of a local club. Very soon a constitution was adopted and officers elected. Within two months it was reported 'The new boat house being built on Mr Clay's ait just above the lock is fast progressing towards completion, and when it is finished the club will be well provided with the necessary requirements in that respect. The number of members is on the increase'.
The budding club quickly secured a reputation along the river. By 1874 they were competing at Henley, and in the following year reached the final of the Grand Challenge. The zenith of their success appears in the early 1890s. In 1890 they reached the finals of both the Thames and the Wyfold. They won the Thames in 1891 and the Wyfold in both the two following years.
By the end of the century the clubhouse on Ash Island became too cramped and inaccessible. The club, therefore, resolved to abandon its insular home and build grander and more commodious premises on the mainland. In 1899 a piece of land by the towpath was leased from Mr Kent.
In the same year Mr James Abraham Milner, who had been born and lived all his life in Palace Road and was honorary secretary to the regatta for over ten years, died, and it was resolved that the new boathouse should be erected as a monument to his memory. The Surrey Comet of 26 June 1901 records that 'The new boathouse which has been erected on the Surrey shore, adjoining Tagg's boathouse, to the memory of that thorough sportsman, J.A. Milner, was formally opened on Saturday. The building is a thoroughly substantial structure, measuring outside 70ft. by 26ft., and there is ample room for the housing of a large collection of racing craft. On the upper floor there is a handsome dining or club room opening out on to a deep balcony along the whole front of the building. Behind the club room there is a commodious dressing room, fitted with every convenience, with lockers, shower bath etc. From the front a capital view up and down the river can be obtained, while the western side overlooks the Molesey C.C. ground and Hurst Park race course. The club can now boast of having one of the largest and most convenient headquarters on the river'.
This building is still the headquarters of the club. Every weekend on the river bank young rowers can be seen carrying eights from the boathouse down to the water. Along the river lithesome backs sway and stretch to orders barked through a megaphone by coaches cycling correspondingly along the towpath.
The scene was described much more lyrically by Richard Jeffries: 'The oars are dipped farther back, and as the blade feels the water holding it in the hollow, the lissom wood bends to its work. Before the cut water a wave rises, and repulsed, rushes outwards. At each stroke, as the weight swings towards the prow, there is just the least feint depression at its stern as the boat travels. Whirlpool after whirlpool glides from the oars, revolving to the rear with a threefold motion, round and round, backwards and outwards. The crew impart their own life to the boats; the animate and inanimate become as one, the boat is no longer wooden but alive'.
In 1867 the club, though yet only just over one year old, ventured to run its first regatta. Supporters rallied round to subscribe prizes, and the Surrey Comet proudly announced: 'Thursday next will see the first regatta held under the management of Molesey Boat Club. The committee are working hard to do all they can to bring it off with success: should they fail it will not be from any want of zeal and energy on their part'. Alas! zeal and energy and a hard-working committee were apparently insufficient, for the enterprise was not repeated the following year. Nor in fact was an open regatta arranged by the club itself again.
After a lapse of a few years an association was formed, quite separate and distinct from the boat club, but naturally having strong affinities with it, for the specific purpose of organising an annual amateur regatta at Molesey. The first meeting under the auspices of this body was held in July 1873 and, save for three seasons in the late 1870s and the dark years of the two world wars, has been conducted ever since. The actual course over which the races have been rowed and the place of the finishing enclosure have changed positions several times over the years.
The holding of regattas by amateur rowing clubs really evolved out of the contests of skill organised between the various professional watermen who plied their craft on the river. Molesey was noted far and wide for the proficiency of its boatmen — men who made their living from the river — and a Watermen's and Fishermen's Regatta had been held here for many years prior to the amateur regatta. In 1861, for instance, the Surrey Comet reported the event: 'The annual regatta came off with great success on Thursday last, when the fineness of the weather and the attraction of the day induced one of the largest assemblages that have ever congregated on a similar occasion. The only drawback to the amusement of the day arose from a melancholy accident occurring from the wadding of a small gun exploding, whereby Richard Tappling, 78 years of age, had his left arm broken, and a lad named Cowdy was severely bruised above his right elbow. The sports concluded by the renowned Pig Hunt which was conducted by A. Kilfoyle and Thomas Tagg, and was gallantly won by T. Whatford, whose brother Charles, the celebrated amateur Blondin, walked for the fourth time across the river on a rope 1 3/4 inches in circumference at an altitude of 40 feet, in a most successful and courageous manner'. In 1885 Molesey Watermen's Regatta was described as 'rough enjoyable fun, tempered with good-humour and gaiety of spirits all round'.
In later years, at the peak of the river's popularity, at least two other regattas were held annually in Molesey: a Boat Club Regatta, restricted to members of the boat club and an Invitation Regatta, which was really a water frolic with novelty races, canoes, gondolas, and coracles.
The reputation of Molesey Amateur Regatta grew until its stature on the Thames ranked second only to that of Royal Henley. It was the event of the season, not only for the competitors, but for the entire district. By the middle of the afternoon, except for a space left in the centre of the river for the rowing course, boats of every description — skiffs, dinghies, punts, launches — were packed gunwale to gunwale as tight as it was possible to be.
In the period following 1888, after the racing had concluded, and darkness had begun to fall, a remarkable spectacle took place. Spontaneously, the owners of the launches, which were already dressed overall with flags and bunting, lit them up with brilliant illuminations, and all the small boats were imaginatively covered with ornamental decorations, or made up to represent swans, paddle streamers, fantastic animals or anything else that could be conceived, with their occupants in suitable fancy dress. Then all the craft would parade up and down the river like so many fireflies, in a sort of water carnival procession, for the benefit of the crowds on the towpath and the parties on the houseboats.
The houseboats, too, were all cheerfully illuminated with countless Chinese lanterns, fairy lights, and chandeliers, their rays flooding and gaily hung flower baskets with a glitter of vari-coloured lustre. As far as the eye could see was a fairyland of twinkling animated light, a glorious festival which was known as the Venetian Fête.
The pageant in 1895 made such a vivid impression on one newspaper reporter that he almost ran out of superlatives: 'The Venetian Fete. Following the regatta and later in the evening one of the most successful river fetes ever held in Molesey was carried out under the most favourable conditions. The illuminations on the river and along the banks from Hampton Court to Hampton were a grand spectacle, and the sight presented to the vast crowd was a splendid one and almost beyond description. The concourse of people who assembled to witness the pageant was very large. People seemed to come in shoals along the banks of the river, and long before the twilight deepened the thoroughfares were thronged with eager and anxious sightseers, who when they were able to witness the magnificent sight that was soon placed before them were unanimous in their applause and praise. Looking upstream from the lock the spectacle was charming. The river was thronged with all kinds of boats. In some instances the occupants of craft had taken a great deal of trouble to contribute their share to the festivities of the evening. All along the Barge-walk were fanciful strings of Chinese lanterns making the bank stand out very prominently in the darkness. Thomas Tagg and Son at their boathouse on the Surrey shore always have a large display. They were very successful in their efforts on the present occasion. The whole building seemed radiant with coloured lights. The front was covered with Vauxhall lamps. Near the boathouse special reserved enclosures were to be found in one of which the Molesey Band played some excellent selections of music. The old quarters of the Molesey Boat Club were effectively treated while several of the houseboats were one mass of illumination, notably Mr H.H. O'Hagan's "Grantully Castle", moored at the head of the tumbling bay; "The Shop Girl" stationed off St. Albans; Mr H. Hewitt's magnificent houseboat "Satsuma", at the foot of Platt's Ait, and Mr Wrestler's neighbouring houseboat "Siesta". The river gardens of South-view, Hampton, had received effective treatment, while the premises of the Thames Valley Sailing Club, Hampton, and the lovely river lawn of St. Albans house was one of the spectacles of the evening, arranged as it was in many coloured tints and hues. As usual a bridge of lights was suspended from Taggs Island to the Barge-walk, and a similar string was also festooned from the club-house to the end of the lock. On the Barge-walk Mr W.H. Smith of Hurstside had very prettily arranged fairy lights and flowers on a very effective background of cork. "River-view" was tastefully decorated with Japanese lanterns. The Castle Hotel was finely treated, balconies, gables, windows, archways, etc, sending forth scintillating lights. The Carnavon Castle, with its new buffet, presented a very effective appearance, small lights and flowers being used as decoration. In fact everybody seemed to have the one thought, and that was to make the fete a grand success'.
Out of the Venetian Fête developed the custom, which continued up to the start of the Second World War, of holding an evening firework display. The fireworks — rockets, Catherine wheels, coloured lights, set pieces, the lot — were lit at the head of Ash Island, just opposite the Boat Club headquarters.
We as small children lined the river bank, arriving soon after tea in order to procure a place in the forefront with a good view of the island. There we whiled away the time watching the sprightly scene. As the daylight gradually faded (not quickly enough for us of course) the crowd got thicker and thicker and noisier and noisier. From the lock to the cricket club the towpath became a seething mass of good-humoured humanity. The river too was jammed so tightly with boats of every variety that very little of the water could be seen, and it would have been easy to walk right across from the shore to the island without wetting one's feet at all.
Eventually the time arrived for the pyrotechnics to begin, the first firework was lit, and, as if by magic, a hush descended upon the assembly, a hush which was only punctuated during the whole performance when a rocket which had been shot into the air perforated into a myriad buds of falling light, or a series of coloured fires was lit among the trees, giving the island the aspect of a fairy glen — then the entire throng broke into one concerted impulsive lingering sigh of 'ahhh!'. At other times all was silent until the last set piece heralded the conclusion of the performance, and the crowd broke into the singing of the national anthem. Then the dense multitude gradually melted as the people shuffled slowly away, the boats queued once again to pass back through the lock, leaving the celebrations still going on in the clubhouse, the parties on the houseboats, and the blaring of the roundabout organs at the fair on the cricket ground.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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