Friday, 19 August 2022

I was no good at it, but my family have been rowing for generations

I was no good at it, but my family have been rowing for generations

ROWING runs in Ken Arlett’s blood. The Henley town councillor’s family has been connected with the sport for at least six generations and is widely recognised in the rowing community for its contributions and achievements.

Mr Arlett, 69, who lives in Elizabeth Road with his wife Dorothy, says he is proud of his forebears’ accomplishments and delighted that his own descendants have followed in their footsteps.

Two of his uncles were international coaches while his granddaughter Jess, 16, has chalked up numerous wins since she took up rowing four years ago.

The family’s links with the River Thames started with Mr Arlett’s great great grandfather James, who grew up in Newbury and took over as publican of the Flower Pot at Aston in 1861, when he was 40.

He remained at the pub for at least 20 years and his duties included ferrying people across the river from the embankment at Ferry Lane.

His son George, who was born in 1859, grew up at the pub and learned to fish as a teenager, which led to a career as a fishing teacher. He also ran a pub — the Hope Inn, which was at the junction of Bell Street and Northfield End, Henley, during the 1880s.

George was probably a member of the now defunct Henley United Rowing Club, which was next door to Henley Rowing Club’s old headquarters in Thames Side and was for professionals.

He is said to have been an accomplished sculler who won a good deal of money from racing.

George, who died in 1926, had at least four children by his wife Eleanor Smith, one of whom was John Arlett , who was born in 1883.

Like his father, John trained as a fisherman but also became a professional sculler. By the early 1900s he was second in the UK sculling league only to Ernest Barry, the five-time world champion.

He won the Sir Frank Crisp Cup, which the wealthy philanthropist donated to Henley United Rowing Club in 1905, three years running.

He was allowed to keep the trophy following his third victory and Sir Frank, a lawyer and scientist who lived at Friar Park, donated another cup which was still being competed for by clubs along the Thames until 2003.

John also won the Staines Shield for sculling nine times between 1906 and 1924, which put him in same league as the renowned Phelps and Barry rowing dynasties. In the early Twenties he started a boat-building firm named Arlett & Sons, which built wooden skiffs, punts and the occasional motor boat.

The company was based in Thames Side before moving to beneath the old Carpenter’s Arms pub, now the site of the Henley Royal Regatta headquarters .

There is still a stone marker at the water’s edge in Thames Side marked “J A & S, 1924” which identified the company’s moorings.

John wound up the business with the outbreak of the Second World War, when his five sons Harry, Ernie, Ken’s father Jack, Reg and Jim were called up to fight with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

Reg and Jim were killed in action at the French-Belgian border in 1940 but the other three survived and carried on the family tradition following their father’s death in 1959.

Harry, who was born in 1906, was an accomplished sculler who won a Borough of Hammersmith Coat and Badge in 1927 and a Kingston-upon-Thames Coat and Badge two years later. He also won the Sir Frank Crisp Cup in 1931.

In his youth he was a boatman at Leander Club and later in life he coached the national crews in Austria, Greece and Canada.

He returned to the UK in the late Sixties and became a boatman and rowing coach at Reading University. He was made a Queen’s Waterman in honour of his contributions to rowing in his fifties.

Harry died in 1987, leaving his widow Eleanor and children Anne and John. John had four sons, none of whom pursued a rowing career.

Ernie, whom Ken proudly describes as “a legend in his own lifetime”, was born in 1912 and was also a boatman at Leander from the age of 17 until the outbreak of the war. He won the Sir Frank Crisp Cup in 1935.

After the war, he had numerous coaching jobs and trained John B Kelley to win the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley in 1946.

He then coached at National Westminster Rowing Club, which was based at Hammersmith and was one of the first clubs to use an indoor rowing tank.

Ernie moved to America in 1959, where he coached at Bachelors Barge Club on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia. The following season he was freshman at Rutgers in New Jersey and two years later his crew finished second at the Eastern Sprints.

He was offered a job by Harvard, where he spent two years before being headhunted by Northeastern University in Boston, which wanted to start a rowing programme.

He found a boathouse on the River Charles and borrowed an eight boat to put his first crew together.

With poor weather approaching in the autumn, he realised the crew needed a rowing tank as all the top American universities had eight-oar tanks.

Ernie improvised and created one that could take a two-man boat by erecting a temporary swimming pool with plastic sides and reinforcing it with a timber frame.

In 1965 he coached a lightweight crew that won the Dad Vail Regatta and competed at Henley. He also co-founded the Head of the Charles race, which is now the largest head of the river event in the world.

In 1972 and 1973 his heavyweight crews reached the final of the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley.

Ernie was inducted into the Northeastern Hall of Fame in 1976 and retired in 1980.

In 1982, he was lured out of retirement by Connecticut College in New England, where he coached for a few years before retiring for good.

He died in Atlanta in 1999. He and his wife Edith Looker, who grew up in Checkendon, left two children, Bob, who died about 15 years ago in New Orleans, and Brenda, who is still alive.

Bob entered the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley under his uncle Harry’s tutelage but never won.

Ken’s father Jack, who was born in 1910, could not pursue a rowing career as he contracted pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs, at a very early age.

Instead he became a boatman at Leander and started a racing boat transport business in 1957.

As teenagers, Ken and his older brother David, now 71, would travel all over Europe with their father delivering boats to regattas.

The boys grew up in King’s Road, where the family owned an orchard which is now the site of the car park behind Waitrose. They attended Trinity Primary School and Gillotts School.

Ken says: “I was 12 when our grandfather died so I don’t have many memories but I remember he was often out on the Thames in his punt. He was very strong and would row it with an oar instead of standing and using a pole.

“On one occasion, my father and I were driving back to Leander Club from Remenham while he was returning at the same time by punt . He got there well before us so he must have been going incredibly fast.

“Even in his seventies, he was a powerful, well-built man with massive shoulders so he must have been strong as an ox in his day.

“Many years later I lived in my grandmother’s house in King’s Road, which had a cellar with a brick floor. I found an Aladdin’s cave of rowing prizes that my grandfather had won: decanter sets, clocks, cups and other memorabilia. I have a bone-handled carving set dating back to 1903, which we still use.

“Unfortunately, most of the prizes had wooden bases and surrounds which had rotted away as they had been standing on a damp brick floor for many years.

“By the time I was born, he largely kept himself to himself and spent most of his time in the orchard tending his vegetables.”

Ken and David joined Henley Rowing Club in 1961 and rowed as part of a four with John and Tony Hooper, whose family still own a boat hire firm and moorings in Thames Side, and cox George Bushnell.

They were coached by George Bowsher, who now lives in Cromwell Road, Henley, and Roy Spatcher, now living in Wallingford, but after two years the brothers realised they were not good enough to make the grade and gave up rowing.

Instead they turned their attention to football and joined Henley YMCA FC when it reformed in 1963, playing together for many years and helping the club win the Reading Combination’s Premier Division for three consecutive years from 1968.

Ken says: “The Hoopers had been river folk for years and so had we, so our dad suggested that we row and when I was 14 he bought us a four which we kept at Henley Rowing Club.

“We always did okay in training sessions but when we were racing one of us would always catch a crab, fall off our slide or something similar. It was probably a kind of stage fright!

“We reached a point where we felt we ought to be doing better and that frustration was probably a big part of the reason for quitting, especially as rowing was such a massive commitment. It didn’t seem worth it after a while. In those days, amateurs like us trained most evenings of the week then did regattas on Saturdays so it was a lot to balance with our football as well. I remember competing in lots of events but never getting past the novice stage.

“At that age we didn’t really know anything about our family’s history. Looking back, I guess we might have tried harder if we’d been more aware but we’d have to have sacrificed a lot.

“Our dad was probably a bit disappointed that we packed up rowing but he very rarely missed one of our football matches. He was a hard taskmaster and quick to point out our mistakes but he was very proud and always happy to come and support us — as long as he could get home and watch the wrestling afterwards!”

Ken’s father owned several lorries which he used to transport eight boats and the brothers would often help him load and unload them in the summer.

He said: “We went to all sorts of places, like Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Italy as well as regattas across Britain. It was fun as the international events usually took place in capital cities so you would really get to see the world.

“Dad really enjoyed mixing with the rowing fraternity and knew a lot of people. Although it was a business, it was also a source of great pleasure and I think that was actually more important to him.”

In 1969, Ken travelled to work in Australia as a builder and carpenter for two years. Here he met Dorothy, a New Zealander, and the couple married in Perth before returning to the UK together in 1971.

By this point, his father was beginning to wind up his business as the new eight boats could then be broken down into sections so no longer required lorries to transport them and clubs would transport them on trailers instead. He retired in 1973.

Ken and his wife hosted Ernie and his crews when they came to row at Henley and on both occasions the couple were mobbed by American reporters who wanted to interview them. They later visited Ernie in America.

Ken says: “We very rarely saw him and even then only for a week or so but he would often write. He probably wouldn’t have come back here at all if it wasn’t for the rowing .

“He loved English food like lardy cakes and pork pies, though. On one occasion he stocked up on them from Melletts , the old bakers in Reading Road, as he was leaving but was stopped at the airport and the customs officers wouldn’t let him take them through. I’m told he stood there scoffing as many as he could so that they wouldn’t go to waste! He was a very friendly, outgoing man who loved children and was very generous.

“I’m proud that he was part of the family and, of course, he is an absolute hero to Northeastern University because he built up their rowing from nothing.

“They always contact me when their crews come over and a few years ago, during the royal regatta, I met them over breakfast at the Red Lion Hotel.

“I gave a short talk about the family and the river, which they found really fascinating as they think the world of him. Some of the old Northeastern crews that he actually coached have also been in touch and visited over the years.

“Harry also achieved great things, although he was quite a solitary character. He also lived on King’s Road but he was very much his own person and, sadly, I never had the chance to socialise with him all that often.”

Ken continued working in the building trade until his retirement in 2014 and was first elected to the town council in 1991 as a representative of Henley Residents’ Group, which he helped found.

He was mayor in his first year then remained on the council until 2007, having quit HRG to sit as an independent two years earlier. He then contested a number of council and district elections for the UK Independence Party.

He rejoined HRG earlier this year and won a town council by-election in May.

Ken and his wife regularly attend Henley Royal Regatta and usually watch the racing from either the river bank or the grandstand at Phyllis Court Club. The couple have two children, Dan, 43, and Scott, 46.

Ken is also distantly related to Maddie Arlett, a senior GB lightweight sculler from Edinburgh.

The 22-year-old, whom he is yet to meet, has won the national championships at under-23 level as a pair for three years running and made her international debut at the world cup in Belgrade this year.

She is thought to be descended from Ken’s great-grandfather George.

Dan, who is an RAF fighter pilot, joined Upper Thames Rowing Club at age 16 and qualified as an Amateur Rowing Association coach when he was 19. He coached students from The Henley College at Henley Rowing Club for a year then briefly rowed
for the University of London as a

Scott, of Whitehouse Road, Woodcote, was more interested in canoeing and cricket in his youth.

However, his 16-year-old daughter Jess is part of a Henley Rowing Club quadruple scull that has won tankards and trophies at numerous events, including the National Schools Regatta, the Weybridge Ladies’ Regatta, the Henley Fours and Eights Head and the Henley Schools Head.

She has also competed at junior
level in several British Rowing

Her father, who is managing director of a clothing company in Stoke Row, says: “Jess was born on the day that Sir Steve Redgrave won his fifth Olympic gold medal in Sydney and I can remember leaving the delivery suite to watch the rowing!

“She’s likely to continue at university level and from there nobody knows where it will take her.

“However, we’re mindful that she’s in the middle of her GCSEs and, for the time being, her studies have to come first.”

Ken says: “When Jess asked me to come and watch when she was rowing in Weybridge I thought, ‘Do I really want to watch a few girls splashing around?’

“However, I was very impressed at how good her crew were. Many of the other crews were just splashing about but they had a great rhythm and looked very much like they knew what they were doing.

“I’ve always been proud of her but, having recently spent so much time looking into my family history, I’m very pleased that one of us is carrying on a tradition established well over 100 years ago — and is enjoying it, which is just as important.

“She usually trains three nights a week, plus Saturday and Sunday mornings, which is an incredible amount of hours, although she’s having to ease back a bit at the moment so that she can focus on her exams.

“Jess is very dedicated and I’m sure she will take any future achievements in her stride. With plenty of honours to date, I’m sure all the Arletts of the past would wish her well for the future.”

• Mr Arlett wishes to thank Tony Hobbs, Dick Charlton and his brother David for helping him research the family.

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