Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Water Boiling Aft London Rowing Club, The First 150 Years 1856-2006

Rowing is a long-standing sport and the cradle of modern rowing rocked on the River Thames. Besides the rowing at the Oxbridge universities, three old clubs by the Thames have been triumphant when it comes to matching oar power with other clubs in England and from abroad: Leander Club, Thames Rowing Club, and The London Rowing Club, the latter founded at Putney in 1856.

Many rowing clubs have reached a respectable age and celebrated 100 years or more, and in so doing, have published jubilee publications to reflect upon and commemorate their history and past and present heroes. Sadly these publications can sometimes be an incredibly dull read for anyone outside the club house. (Some brilliant exceptions are Geoffrey Page’s Hear the Boat Sing – The History of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing [1991] and Richard Burnell’s and Geoffrey Page’s The Brilliants – A History of the Leander Club [1997].)

When the London Rowing Club this year celebrates its first venerated 150 years, it is today’s leading rowing journalist and historian, Christopher Dodd, who is holding the pen. Dodd has been writing about rowing for three decades and has published highly praised books on the Boat Race, the Henley Royal Regatta, and World Rowing. His Water Boiling Aft is well-written, has wonderful illustrations, and is a truly stupendous piece of work.

To read Dodd’s story is to scull along a gallery of important rowing characters. To mention a few: A.A. Casamajor was the first star of the LRC, and died in 1861 from a breaking blood vessel at the age of twenty-eight; Steve Fairbairn, the most influential rowing coach during the twentieth century, left Thames RC in 1926 after a quarrel with Julius Beresford (father of the great Jack Beresford) to coach LRC’s oarsmen; ‘Jumbo’ Edwards of the RAF and Oxford, who did not do well coaching the LRC’s crew because of his strictness and sobriety. Among the ‘movers and shakers’ in the club was the incomparable Peter Coni, who held high offices at LRC, Henley, the Amateur Rowing Association, ARA, and the governing body for international rowing, FISA. The stories of Coni are numerous and it is easy to understand Dodd’s admiration and fondness for him.

Not only is Water Boiling Aft a ‘Festschrift’ for The London Rowing Club and its oarsmen through the years (and, since 2002, also oarswomen), but also it is a luminous book of rowing in Britain. Here are the boatbuilders from the Tyneside – Swaddle & Winship, who in 1875 built two twelve-oar boats with the new innovative sliding seat, for the club. During the 1930s another experiment was tried out by a London eight; the ‘syncopated rowing’ or ‘jazz rowing’, which meant that two blades were always in the water pulling the boat; the coxswain sat in the centre! And, of course, there are stories about the Henley Royal Regatta, this very British event that was, and still is, the most important regatta in the calendar for the home crews. But first and foremost, Dodd’s book is a grand tribute to The London Rowing Club.

Water Boiling Aft: London Rowing Club, The First 150 Years 1856-2006 by Christopher Dodd, published by The London Rowing Club, 2006.

This review was published in Maritime Life and Traditions, No. 33, Winter 2006.

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