Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Wargrave Local History Society

MEMBERS visited Leander Club in Henley for their April meeting.

The event began with an illustrated presentation on the 200-year history of the club in White Hill given by society member Brian Armstrong, who was head coach for the British rowing team at 12 world championships and three Olympic Games and later a Leander coach.

In the 18th century, the River Thames through London was not confined with concrete walls as it is now. Most goods were moved by boat and London Bridge was the only fixed crossing of the river below Kingston.

By early 19th century, several other bridges had been built, such as at Putney and Richmond. It was in this period that Leander was formed — although there seems to be little formal record, it appears to have been founded between 1816 and 1818.

There were two existing clubs that later became associated with Leander — Star, which had merged with Leander by 1818, and the Arrow. The men of Arrow and Leander were rowing together by the late 1820s and the two clubs then merged.

The crest for Leander includes both a star and an arrow in recognition of its ancestry.

The Leander part of the crest is a hippo as in African tradition a hippo is “king of the river” and equally at home in water or on land.

Some people also considered a hippo to be the only aquatic animal that keeps its nose in the air.

The reason for the adoption of Leander as a club name was maybe from Greek mythology or because the first boat used by the club, hired from Searle’s Yard, bore that name. Searle’s Yard, just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament and now the site of St Thomas’ Hospital, became the club’s first base.

Initially, membership was limited to 15, with an entry fee of £5 and an annual subscription also of £5. The club rowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays and if sufficient members were not available, a waterman would be paid a fee to row with them.

In the early days they trained in long distance rowing, such as from Lambeth to Gravesend and Richmond and back again, and it was several years before they participated in side-by-side racing against other teams.

This arose when Christchurch College Oxford challenged others to race against them between Westminster and Putney, which Leander won.

In 1829 the Guard’s Club challenged them to race between Vauxhall and Kew. Not only did Leander win comfortably, they continued to Richmond, where they stayed overnight. Several hundred spectators welcoming them as they rowed back to Lambeth the following day.

The next year Leander raced against Eton College, which had formed a rowing club in 1815, and beat them convincingly.

In 1831, when the Boat Race was cancelled due to an outbreak of cholera in London, Oxford University challenged Leander to race from Hambleden Lock to Henley. Leander was triumphant again.

By 1854, the limit on membership had risen to 22 and there were a further 23 retired members. From 1860 the limit on numbers was removed.

That year was another milestone in the club’s history as it moved to Putney. A tent was erected to house equipment and rooms rented at the Star and Garter.

A purpose-built clubhouse followed in 1866.

The club so dominated the races at that time that they were called “the Brilliants” or “the Invincibles”. About 20 years later, the club discussed a move to either Molesey, Cookham or Henley.

Cookham was the favoured location but nothing happened at that time. Membership had risen to 440 by 1889 and during this period Leander won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta for 12 years out of 15.

A special general meeting in 1893 created new rules for membership. To be eligible, an applicant had to have rowed for Oxford or Cambridge in eights or trial eights in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley or have been in one of the first three boats over the line at the major Oxford or Cambridge events.

The result was that Leander changed from a small club to a really big one that would go on to dominate rowing.

A new clubhouse was opened in 1897 on land initially leased from Henley Corporation and popularly called the “Pink Palace”.

It included sleeping accommodation for members, which was increased with extensions in the late 1990s.

In 1902, the club was invited to an international regatta at Cork, where they beat a German crew in the final.

The 1908 Olympic rowing events were held at Henley, with two Leander crews representing Great Britain and winning two gold medals.

In 1912, the King and Queen attended Henley Regatta, while at that year’s Olympics in Stockholm Leander’s team beat Germany in the final.

Little rowing was possible during the First World War but there was a resurgence in the Twenties, with membership up to 1,500 by 1929.

Royal patronage was obtained in 1936 and the Queen remains as patron. 

After the Second World War, the freehold of the clubhouse site was bought from Henley Town Council for £3,000.

A motion in 1987 to allow women to become members was defeated but they were accepted a decade later.

An outstanding feature of the post-war era has been the Olympic successes.

In 1948 the Great Britain crews included 12 Leander athletes and they achieved three gold and eight silver medals.

By 1992, 16 Leander men, three coaches and the chef-de-mission came from Leander and a similar contingent were in the GB team at Atlanta, including Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, who remained unbeaten for many years.

For the London Olympics in 2012, Leander provided 27 athletes and three coaches for Team GB and gained 14 medals, making Leander the only club in any sport in the world to win 100 Olympic medals.

For the 2016 Olympics, 23 Leander athletes, 14 men nine women, and three coaches represented their country, winning seven golds and five silvers.

Last year’s bicentenary of the club was marked with a series of special events.

Coincidentally, the year included the 200th win for a Leander crew at Henley Royal Regatta, with the six wins that year taking the total to 205.

Other celebratory events included a special service in St Paul’s Cathedral and the unveiling of a commemorative stone on the St Thomas’ Hospital site.

After this presentation, members of the society were given a tour of the clubhouse.

The boats are made of Kevlar and fibreglass and the eights are about 17m long and cost £38,000 each.

Other facilities include a large gymnasium, meeting rooms and accommodation. Notable in the entrance hall is a large board, designed by Mr Armstrong and featuring the Olympic rings, in which are recorded the names of all Leander athletes who have competed in the Olympics and won medals.

The society’s next meeting will be on Tuesday May 14, when the Wargrave churchyard excavations will be the subject of the talk by archaeologists who carried out the exploration in early 2018.

They will explain what they found and what it shows about Wargrave and its inhabitants in centuries past.

In June, the society will be participating in the Wargrave Village Festival, with a historic village walk on Sunday, June 16, and will host an auction evening with antiques expert Thomas Plant on Tuesday, June 18.

Tickets for both events will be available at the festival ticket sales event at the recreation ground on Saturday, April 27.

Meetings are held at the Old Pavilion on the recreation ground, starting at 8pm. For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit 
www.wargravehistory.org.uk

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