Tuesday, 14 August 2018

My part in the Storming of the Pink Palace

My part in the Storming of the Pink Palace

IT’S hard to imagine that 35 years ago Leander Club was underperforming on the water and on the brink of bankruptcy.

This led to a members’ revolt and the overthrow of the club’s committee in what has become known as The Storming of the Pink Palace.

One of the ringleaders was Jeremy “Rass” Randall who, together with two accomplices, devised the takeover in response to a proposed hike in subscription fees.

The events of the evening of September 25, 1983 swept away the old guard, with Mr Randall being appointed the new secretary, and heralded the start of several years of overhaul and rebuilding.

Now the club is celebrating its 200th year with the finances the best they’ve ever been and its athletes having brought home 124 Olympic medals and won almost 200 Henley Royal Regatta titles.

Mr Randall, 66, says: “Within three years we had completely changed the fortunes of Leander.

“It had begun to trade profitably and we had a maintenance plan for the clubhouse and rowing results to be proud of — we had started to win again.”

Yet that transformation may never have happened had he not been persuaded to take up rowing at university or been introduced to Henley as a child.

Mr Randall was born in Solihull in 1952 and is one of three children to Dennis, who served as a cavalry officer in the army, and Monica, who is now aged 94 and lives at the Thamesfield retirement village in Wargrave Road, Henley.

His parents were married just before D-Day because his father wasn’t expected to survive the war. He served in the Middle East and France.

Mr Randall recalls that his first visit to Henley was a fleeting one.

“It was when I was five or six and going on holiday with my parents,” he says. “We drove over Henley Bridge and my dad pointed out the course and the tents.

“My parents didn’t get a honeymoon because of the war so when my father was demobbed they bought an ex-war department motorbike and drove from Cheshire to Henley and spent their first night in the Catherine Wheel.”

At this time the family had just moved to London where young Jeremy attended Highgate School, which was then not a rowing school.

He then attended the University of Reading, where he studied agriculture.

It was here that he was first persuaded to get into a boat.

Mr Randall recalls: “I turned up at Reading determined to carry on my sport of target shooting but I was ambushed by someone who asked how tall I was (6ft 3in) and how much I weighed and whether I had considered rowing.

“I, very reluctantly, gave him my name but thought no more of it as I certainly didn’t want to follow this up — it looked like hard work.

“A few days later a chemist in his final year moved into the room next to mine. He was mad keen on rowing and said that a man of my height should be rowing. He persuaded me to go down for the first day of the season as he said he could get me a lift.

“Saturday, September 17, 1970 — that day changed my life. From the first day I was completely hooked. The remarkable thing for me was that I could actually do it.”

He admits that his decision to stick with it was down to an “inspiring” coach called Don Butters and his instant attraction to the boats.

Mr Randall says: “I just loved the boats, their beautiful lines and their incredibly frail construction. I just wanted to be able to go faster.”

The university put him in the novice eight to begin with and they won their first two regattas at Thames Ditton and Cambridge.

After only six months of rowing, coach Mike Walker put the then 19-year-old in the university first eight for the Marlow and Henley regattas.

Mr Randall recalls: “In my first race at Henley we were knocked out on the first day.

“It was an unbelievable experience that left me desperate to do better at Henley so I kept rowing and during the vacation period I would go out in a coxless pair.”

His crew never did win at Henley but when he graduated (with a 2:2), his coach told him to go to Leander Club in Henley and trial for its development squad or “cadet” scheme.

Mr Randall says: “Like at Reading, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel I was good enough and, to be honest, I felt a bit scared.

“I wasn’t going to go but Mike told me he had called Leander and that they were expecting me and I didn’t want to let him down.

“I had been there once before when I attended a university dinner. I was very impressed and, frankly, overwhelmed. I was mad about boats and they had this wonderful fleet.

“I also found myself surrounded by people who rowed at school and I was the only one who hadn’t.

“It was my good luck that I was strong and the club greatly improved my fitness so I managed to hang on in there.”

In his first year he rowed in the Thames Cup eight but was knocked out by Ghent by a third of a length. The following year they split the eight into two fours.

The coxed four comprised himself, Phil Gregory, David Tatten, Nigel Hardinglam and cox Robert Lee.

They competed in the Britannia Cup and in their first heat broke the record to the barrier, reaching it in under two minutes. They then went on to win the event.

“We weren’t really pushed to be honest,” says Mr Randall. “We were much too comfortable — we cruised to finals day where we raced Tideway Scullers.”

Still only 23, there was potential for more honours in the sport but he decided to retire to focus on his burgeoning career in the wine industry. Mr Randall says: “Having achieved a win at Henley I stopped rowing — all I wanted was to win here. Henley is very special, everyone wants to win at Henley.”

He had begun working for a wine seller in London the previous year and ended up running it. He then expanded to create six companies, including Wine Direct, of which he was chief executive.

They would sell to the very best restaurants but also to the public through shops and supermarkets.

Although he had retired from rowing, Mr Randall would still help out at Leander.

On the rowing side, he would drive the trailers transporting the boats and as a result was asked to help with transport for the Great Britain rowing squad.

“I ended up looking after all the equipment,” says Mr Randall.

“I was transporting and ordering the new boats, that sort of thing, as a volunteer and I did that for two or three years.”

In 1976 he was asked to join a working party at Leander Club to rewrite the club’s rules but felt like the “token” young person.

“I found it absolutely terrifying,” says Mr Randall. “It was a group of wonderful establishment people, led by John Garton, who was a fairly dictatorial president.

“I was really concerned when I discovered just how out of touch they were with the club and its members.

“In one meeting they spent two-and-a-half hours discussing whether or not it should be ‘Leander Club’ or ‘The Leander Club’.

“Bearing in mind that by then the clubhouse was beginning to fall down, I felt there were more important issues to discuss.”

The committee recommended raising the membership subscription from £38 to £69 in order to tackle “deep-seated and long established difficulties” that included an overdraft costing £15,000 a year in interest charges.

Many members were unhappy at the proposal because they had already taken out seven-year covenants with the Leander Trust Appeal, the club’s fund-raising arm, aimed at sorting out its financial problems. Many resignations were expected.

Mr Randall and his best friend Tom Boswell were worried about the direction the club was taking as well as the divide that existed between those athletes that had gone to public school and those who hadn’t.

He recalls: “Tom and I were extremely worried about the committee’s plan to try to raise the subscription fee to prop up the club’s failing finances.

“I was lucky enough to go to a public school, although it didn’t row, but at the club there was a culture of ‘them and us’ and I didn’t like it.

“It was being run as an ex-public school social club — I wasn’t even allowed upstairs.”

Mr Randall and Mr Boswell spoke to Peter Coni, the then chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, and wrote to the whole membership — at their own expense — suggesting an alternative route for the club which did not include a large increase in subscription fees.

The committee then called a special general meeting to which an unprecedented 234 members turned up.

The meeting had to be held in the garden as there wasn’t enough room in the clubhouse.

For the 12-member committee to have its way, 156 of those members present would have to vote in favour of its motion. The result was 127 in favour and 107 against. Mr Randall recalls: “The committee members got themselves into trouble. They said that if the subscription fees were not accepted they would all resign.

“The members voted to accept our plan and that’s what happened.

“The Henley Standard published a very funny cartoon where some of the old committee had their feet set in concrete and they were about to be pushed into the Thames by us, even though [the cartoonist] Cookson made us out to be aged about 60!”

Before the meeting, people had already been earmarked to fill the committee posts.

Among them was Mr Boswell as chairman and Maurice Buxton, a director of Barclays Bank and a royal regatta steward, as treasurer.

Mr Randall explains: “Having Maurice as treasurer was a clever move because the club was all but bust. It was very close to the £100,000 overdraft limit. The previous committee had called the bank [Barclays] and said there was this maverick group trying to take over and they said they wouldn’t accept our cheques.

“So that’s why I put Maurice there as he could pull rank. It was all quite Machiavellian.”

The final officer vacancy on the committee had been earmarked for Ken Hylton-Smyth, who had agreed to take the role, but then he changed his mind.

When his name was called he stood up and said the trio’s plans were “doomed to failure” and said he wanted nothing to do with it.

“We had been nobbled,” recalls Mr Randall. “He was definitely got at by the committee and I felt so let down as the secretary is a key role.

“It was never my intention to get involved but Peter then proposed me and I was voted in. I am sure that, at 31, I was the youngest secretary the club has ever had.”

After being voted in, the new committee then set about bringing the clubhouse up to modern-day standards. Among the problems was the worrying state of electrics and the lack of a fire alarm system.

On the second floor the bedrooms were furnished with two old-fashioned single beds. Each bed had a chamber pot underneath which was collected each morning by a member of staff who would then wash them in a floor-level lead-lined sink known as “back passage”.

Mr Randall says: “We had a desperately crumbling clubhouse, which was a huge job.

“The problem was there had been no investment in the building and the committee would spend money only when they were forced to, such as when new legislation came in.

“There was no long-term plan to look after the crumbling Victorian building. So what did we do? We did raise the fees — but only by 10 per cent.

“Then we set about sorting out the two major problems, the clubhouse and its offering and then the rowing. The club had been overtaken on the water and we wanted to put that right.

“The first thing we had to do was recruit more members and we went from 1,800 to 2,400. Membership is our biggest source of income.

“On the rowing side we needed to attract more talented rowers from a wider background than the club had been looking at previously.”

Ivor Lloyd, who would later serve as chairman, was brought in to oversee recruitment and Olympic rowing coach Mike Spracklen brought in a young Steve Redgrave and Great Britain coach Jurgen Grobler to the club.

“And the rest is history,” adds Mr Randall, who now splits his week between London and Ibstone.

In 1991 Mr Boswell died, aged 47, and he was followed two years later by Mr Coni, aged 57, so they never saw much of Leander’s transformation into what it is today.

“I am the only one of our gang of three left,” says Mr Randall. “That’s very sad as they should have seen what Leander has become.

“I am not saying that we didn’t make mistakes but now the offering to members is of a very high standard and the clubhouse is incredible.

“We now have 3,600 members and the major rebuild we did 20 years ago showed how supportive our members are as we needed to raise £2million in order to get a Lottery grant of £1.7million.

“Leander, as an institution, is much bigger than any one person but few will love it as much as I do.”

Despite never wanting to get too involved in club affairs, he has been secretary twice, once for six years and then for an interim period of two years, treasurer for seven years and chairman for four years.

He is the club’s current president and his five-year term ends in September.

Mr Randall says: “If I do something I put my heart and soul into it but that doesn’t mean that I wanted to do it in the first place. I never let people down and that is what matters to me.

“I am immensely proud of the way the club is run and we are also the greatest rowing club in the world by a long way. For me, it’s ‘job done’.”

He says the most enjoyable part of his role now is seeing the rowers on the water.

Mr Randall says: “To watch the athletes develop and, with so many of them turning out to be champions, it’s a great feeling.

“The only problem is we have about 60 new recruits each year. I can be out with my wife and someone can come up to me and say ‘Rass, Rass’ and shake my hand. My wife will then ask who that was and I’ll say ‘I have no idea but they rowed at Leander’.

“It’s like being a schoolmaster — you know people’s faces but it’s difficult to learn all the names.”

Mr Randall, who is now semi-retired, has been married to Irene for 18 years. He has three children from a previous marriage.

He says that when he retires from the Leander committee he will keep “some distance” to allow his successor to run it their way.

Before then, he can enjoy the continuing celebrations of the club’s bicentenary — on and off the water.

Mr Randall says: “This year has been amazing. I have been lucky enough to travel to events in Dublin, Sydney and New York.

“At the royal regatta we have won 199 events, so we are more than determined — as you might expect in our 200th year — to reach that figure.

“It is why we called our new book The First 200 Years — it is just the first 200 years. Leander must and will go on and go for more than another 200 years.”

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