Wednesday, 27 October 2021

How Leander Club’s move to Henley heralded golden age

How Leander Club’s move to Henley heralded golden age

IN 1896 Leander moved from its previous base in Putney to a newly built clubhouse on the Berkshire bank just below Henley Bridge.

This simple description of Leander’s relocation to Henley — so often repeated over the years — hides a complex story of politics and practicalities which spanned the club’s initial glory days on the world rowing stage, glory days which were sadly brought to an abrupt end by the outbreak of the Great War.

Although the move upstream from Lambeth had been undertaken for good reasons and with the best of intentions, Leander’s tenure on Putney Embankment had witnessed a decline in the club’s performances on the water.

Since the famous win in the Grand Challenge Cup in 1840, there ensued a dramatic reduction in Leander’s success rate at Henley, with only two further wins coming over the next 50 years. Perhaps escaping London’s urban sprawl could revive Leander’s fortunes?

The first record of the committee’s intentions to move occurred at a special general meeting in 1886, when it was resolved that a new “upriver” clubhouse be established.

Several possible locations were considered, including Molesey, but a close vote resulted in Cookham being chosen instead of Henley.

Despite this resolution, no action appears to have taken place until 10 years later when another special general meeting was informed that “the committee had been engaged for some months in preparing a scheme for building a clubhouse and boathouse at Henley”.

Perhaps the decision on the club’s destination was swayed by the fact that Leander’s fortunes at Henley had finally undergone something of a renaissance under the captaincy of Guy Nickalls, who led Leander to successive victories in the Grand in 1891 and 1892.

Indeed, he might have led the club for longer had not his loyalties been divided by Magdalen College, Oxford, who insisted that he race for them in 1893.

Nickalls accordingly won the Stewards’ Challenge Cup with his college as well as the Diamond Challenge Sculls that year, thus becoming one of the very few men to have won both sweep and sculling trophies at Henley on the same day.

However, despite his absence, Leander continued their winning streak in the Grand for two more years.

It might have been five in a row had not Leander suffered a disastrous start during their first heat of the Grand against Cornell University in 1895.

The umpire called “Are you ready?” to which several members of the Leander crew shouted “No.” In the breezy conditions the umpire failed to hear them and dropped his flag. The Americans powered off the start while Leander waited, still attached, expecting the official to recall the race. He did not and the contest was soon over.

The moment was recalled at the annual general meeting the following spring, when C M Pitman was unanimously elected captain for the upcoming year. The minutes record that “in acknowledging the compliment, he promised that, in 1896, the crew would start!”

Other elections that evening were no less remarkable. The annual meeting and dinner took place at the Café Royal, Regent Street, as usual on the same night in an effort to generate a quorum. We might assume that staging the dinner before the business meeting had some effect on proceedings.

The minutes cheerily show that “Mr F I Pitman was unanimously elected treasurer but, being ill in bed, did not respond” while “Mr G D Rowe was unanimously elected secretary, having refused to tender his resignation.”

It is helpful to remember that Henley in the late 19th century was a very different place from the town we know today, while the regatta took place over a different course and the land along Henley Reach was still primarily agricultural in nature.

However, as the first Olympic Games of the modern era did not take place until 1896 and it would be many more years before major events such as the European and world championships would be established, competing at Henley was indisputably the pinnacle of the rowing calendar each year.

Until 1886 the Henley course started on the Buckinghamshire side of Temple Island and extended all the way around Poplar Point (the current finish line) to end at Red Lion Lawn, where grandstands were erected to allow spectators to view the course.

The towpath along the Berkshire bank was simply a muddy track and photographs from the 1870s show cows standing up to their hocks on the muddy beach while taking a drink from the river in front of Leander’s present location.

The area now occupied by the boat tents was a field that extended all the way across to the toll house at Henley Bridge.

The stewards’ enclosure had yet to be invented, so clubs rented areas along the course to enjoy the spectacle.

Leander regularly rented Temple Island so that members could view the start, which was otherwise invisible from the Berkshire side.

Remenham Piece, situated in front of Remenham Court (which nowadays is popularly known as “the White House” and hosts late-night discos), was the regular venue for the Leander enclosure, where the club erected grandstands for its members to view the racing.

In those days the Leander captain was appointed with the sole objective of assembling crews to race in the Grand and the Stewards’ Challenge Cups at Henley.

The captain himself was always a recent Blue who would go talent-spotting at Oxford and Cambridge during the winter months, with promising individuals being invited to row at weekends in either Putney or Henley.

For those competing at Henley Royal Regatta it was a matter of “taking a house” in the local area for the period leading up to the regatta.

This was not a cheap business. In 1892 the club rented rooms at the Royal Hotel (nowadays converted into flats opposite the Hobbs of Henley Boatyard) but it seems that in subsequent years the athletes preferred somewhere exclusive.

In 1893 they rented Everley House in Hart Street (these days the home of a restaurant), at a cost of £52 and 10 shillings for the fortnight — about £5,000 in today’s money.

In 1894 the costs went up again as they rented a house at £100 for three weeks, along with “plate, linen and servants”, before moving to Leicester House the following year (on the site of the modern Leicester Close) for a slightly more moderate £90.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the club’s finances had been strongly put to the test by such behaviour, with Leander boasting a deficit of £486 in 1893, and prior to the relocation to Henley the committee would spend the major part of each meeting discussing what actions should be considered to address this shortfall, especially regarding those members in arrears.

Could the move to pastures new be pulled off without plunging the club further into debt?

In 1896, Henley Town Council offered Leander a 70-year lease on a piece of land known as The Nook, immediately next to the Henley Bridge toll house.

This would have been on the regatta finish line until 1886 and although there is no known
historical evidence of a council-run hospitality operation we might infer that the council concluded that it no longer had need of the area once the course had been shortened.

With Leander having taken on the lease, plans were put in place to develop the new clubhouse.

Even so, some amendments were necessary after W D Mackenzie, owner of Fawley Court, refused to release part of Lion Meadow without an outrageous annual rent.

The club suffered another setback during development when the Great Western Railway announced plans to connect the termini at Marlow and Henley. The line would run on an embankment along the line of Remenham Lane, with a river crossing upstream of Henley Bridge, but it would pass within 200 yards of Leander.

Despite the attraction of having a steam train chuffing along the riverbank in the distance, it seems that this prospect did not find favour with local landowners, including many influential people, such as Viscount Hambleden, owner of Greenlands, the famous country house that is now the home of Henley Business School, who began lobbying against the scheme in parliament and the plans were quickly withdrawn.

The capital costs of the new clubhouse added up to £2,500, of which members had already pledged some £1,800.

Running costs were estimated at £65 a year, which the committee proposed to raise by means of entry fees.

Leander president H T “Herbert” Steward, a professional architect, took charge of the building design and may have offered a discount on his services or done the work pro bono.

Furnishings and wines were bought at trade prices, but despite these economies the project still resulted in a shortfall of £700 and an overdraft of £500 was arranged.

The accommodation at the clubhouse included a ladies’ drawing room and ladies’ water closet, though these were situated at the back of the building, overlooking what is now the car park.

The bedrooms included space for 21 members, but these were spartan by modern standards, with no heating or running water.

In 1897 the committee agreed that members should be asked to “refrain from inviting ladies to sit on that part of the balcony in front of the members’ smoking rooms”.

Despite the changing face of the world, this rule would remain in place for another 80 years!

That same year it was recognised that someone on the spot was needed to supervise operations in Henley and a Captain Sullivan was engaged as honorary secretary at £100 a year.

It took another year for him to be invited to attend committee meetings and then only when matters concerning the Henley clubhouse appeared on the agenda. Perhaps predictably, given the restrictive circumstances, he resigned in 1899.

It is evident that the issues surrounding athletes’ expenditure continued to plague the club. The crews’ stay at Henley that year was severely criticised for costing £380 (almost £40,000 today) and the committee called for “a thorough reform in the personnel of the establishment”.

However, on the water Leander’s fortunes were certainly improving.

Following the debacle of 1895 the new captain was true to his word — not only did his crew start but they duly regained the Grand Challenge Cup, with Nickalls back in the crew at six and Harcourt Gilbey Gold, the first man to be knighted for services to rowing, at stroke. Gold had stroked Eton to three successive victories in the Ladies’ Plate and would go on to become one of Leander’s legends.

He had gone up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1895 and after stroking Oxford to victory in the next three Boat Races he was made captain of Leander from 1898 to 1900.

Having then stroked Leander to victory in three finals of the Grand, he turned his hand to coaching, where he once again proved successful, overseeing 18 Oxford crews and the Leander eight which won gold in the 1908 Olympics.

This was indeed a golden age for Leander at Henley where, over a period of 15 years, the club won the Grand no fewer than 12 times, a feat never achieved by any other club before or since.

These wins featured a number of true rowing greats, such as Don Burnell, Raymond “Ethel” Etherington-Smith and cox
Gilchrist Maclagan, all of whom would go on to claim gold at the 1908 London Olympics.

Back at the clubhouse, things were a little less glorious as the newly completed building proved to be a spartan affair indeed. Without heating or running water, the place initially operated as a country retreat for the summer months, with Leander still in many respects regarding itself as a London club.

In fact, despite its prestigious architect, the clubhouse alarmingly did not appear to have been well-built and just 20 years after its construction major repairs were required to bring it up to scratch.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, had a keen interest in many sports, including rowing.

He admired the way in which the stewards, men who had a deep understanding of the sport, were the custodians of Henley Royal Regatta and, accordingly, he modelled membership of the International Olympic Committee along similar lines when the modern Games were established in 1896.

It was therefore hardly surprising that when London hosted the Olympics for the first time in 1908 the regatta course at Henley should be chosen as the venue for the rowing events.

Each country was allowed to enter more than one crew for each of the four events and the Leander eight, with the 42-year-old Guy Nickalls on board, duly dispatched Belgium in the final to take gold for Great Britain, while Cambridge University, the other British crew, won the bronze medal. In fact, British crews won gold in all four events on the card, with four Leander members fighting it out for gold and silver in the men’s pairs.

Burnell’s Olympic gold medal, on permanent loan from his family, is now proudly displayed in the members’ drawing room, along with his many other medals won at Eton, Oxford and Henley. Less shiny, but just as valuable, is another Olympic gold medal won by his son Richard.

While the 1908 medals are pure gold, the 1948 version, from the so-called “austerity” Olympics, contains not a trace of that metal.

The Burnell story is the only instance of father and son both winning Olympic gold in any sport.

The next four years were not among Leander’s finest at Henley, where two wins in the Goblets in 1909 and 1910 were considered an anti-climax after the glories that had gone before.

The following year was even worse — Leander could raise no crews for Henley and no captain was elected.

However, this lull was not to last. The royal visit to Henley by George V and Queen Mary in 1912 heralded a very special year, in which the regatta took place just two weeks before the Olympics in Stockholm.

In a tense final, witnessed by the royal party on the umpire’s launch, Leander and the Australians maintained the overlap all the way down the course before the Sydney men squeezed ahead to win by just under a length.

Two weeks later, and with one change to the line-up, Leander got the better of the Australians in their opening Olympic heat before going on to win an easier race against Germany and then beating New College, Oxford, in the all-British final.

The two Leander wins of 1908 and 1912 dented an otherwise unbroken run of American success, the US winning gold in the men’s eights at every other Olympics between 1900 and 1956.

Back at Putney, the club’s old base remained in constant use, especially during the winter months when the Henley clubhouse was deemed unsuitable.

It would not be until 1938, when after much deliberation the building’s lease was sold to Barclays Bank, that Leander would abandon a full-time presence in the capital.

For the next couple of years it was very much business as usual at Leander, who regained the Grand Challenge Cup in 1913 for the first time in eight years, having based their crew on four men from the Olympic eight with Guy Nickalls as coach.

That same year the Prince of Wales (who became Edward VIII) was elected an honorary life member.

All told, the years following the club’s relocation to Henley — the pitfalls of the clubhouse construction and athlete expenses aside — constitute an idyllic time, graced by some of the most iconic figures the sport has known.

It is a period perhaps best summed up by the poignant image of the 15 athletes and coaches who won Olympic medals in 1908 standing on the steps of the 12-year-old clubhouse, whose walls are already covered in ivy.

In the centre of the picture is Don Burnell, winner of four consecutive Grand Challenge Cups. He is flanked by the talented musician Frederick Kelly and the trainee surgeon Raymond Etherington-Smith, captain of the Club in 1903, 1905, 1906 and 1908.

Standing to one side is cox Gilchrist Maclagan, while Guy Nickalls, who after retiring from competitive rowing took up a coaching role at Yale University, sits casually on the steps beneath them all. The collective talent on display is breathtaking.

Sadly, all good things eventually come to an end. In 1914 the world was plunged into chaos as the tensions that had been simmering across the Balkans boiled over. Summers would never be the same again.

• Leander’s bicentenary book The First 200 Years is a fully illustrated and informative book compiled by some of the world’s most authoritative rowing historians and photographers. It took hundreds of hours of painstaking research and work and is a wonderful tribute to the club, past and present. To quote the editor, Andy Trotman: “You will meet many inspirational men and women who have contributed to the club and to British rowing over 200 years. Many are superb athletes — from near-mythical figures of the early days through to the more familiar names of heroes and heroines of recent Olympiads and world champions.” Copies are available from Leander Club at £40 plus postage and packing.

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