The 1947 student intake at all UK universities was, by government dictat, composed of about 90% ex-servicemen, and I considered myself lucky to be one of the few schoolboys to be offered a place in the Chemistry Department of Battersea Polytechnic. Having had a youthful interest in the University Boat Race I was interested in learning to row and, knowing that Chelsea Poly had a boat club I was disappointed to find that Battersea did not. So in my youthful ignorance, I wrote to the University of London Captain of Boats for advice on how I might be able to row. I received a very helpful letter in return explaining the collegiate arrangements in the University and suggesting that if I were to consider trying to start a club at Battersea I should contact a person named Hector Pay who might be prepared to help.
Mike Pay, it turned out, was a part-time PhD student in the Chemistry Department at Battersea who, on the basis of his rowing history/abilities, had managed to negotiate a special arrangement that enabled him to row with Chelsea Poly who, at this time, had powerful crews comparable to those of the University and Imperial College. Hector took some catching as his PhD work was very part-time but I eventually managed to approach him with the idea of starting a club from scratch with, most probably, a load of beginners. In the event, with me on a steep learning curve, Hector agreed to join me in seeing if there were enough people at Battersea interested in the idea.
We put a small notice in the Student's Union notice board announcing a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a rowing club. About twenty people turned up at the meeting and we agreed to go ahead with seeking recognition from the Student's Union. We selected a Captain, George Flint, who, I think was the only other person beyond Mike Pay present with any rowing experience, gained prior to his war service. Hector had ruled himself out of contention because of his other commitments.
Obtaining recognition as a club of the Battersea Student's Union enabled us to use the University of London facilities at Chiswick and there, coached by Mike Pay and George Flint, we started the long grind in tank and tub pairs to reach a standard where the University of London boatman regarded us as fit to be trusted in a University clinker eight. Beyond this stage the college was required to provide their own 'shells' and when it was felt we were ready to move to that stage we applied to the Battersea Student's Union Representative Council for funds to purchase such a boat. The proposal met stiff resistance from some reps (I was the Chemistry Department rep at the time), on the grounds that the SRC should only fund equipment that was available to any student at any time! (In reality I think they wasted the funds for their own clubs) Eventually we were allowed �300 to spend (cf the starting salary for a good science graduate was �350 pa) on one second hand boat from Queen Mary College that was clearly built for a much heavier crew than we had. We did, however, get some benefit from this in that the Head of the River (there was only one 'Head' in those days) was in very rough water where we achieved a higher finish than expected
The club's first success in a regatta was in the Junior Chiswick Eights at Putney Regatta in 1950.
At the end of the academic year 48/49 Mike Pay's supervisor moved to become Reader in the Chemistry Dept. at Bedford College for Women in Regent's Park. Hector moved his research there too and this ended his direct involvement with the Battersea club, and, I think, also his arrangements with Chelsea Poly, and he then joined Vesta R.C at Putney, where he had a successful rowing career and was Captain for several years. He was Guest of Honour at the 1950 Battersea BC dinner where he was introduced as the founder of the club. This was quickly rejected in his speech pointing out that I was the person who was to be credited with starting it all. I graduated in 1950 and moved to Bedford College for my PhD and, as there was no scope for me to row at a women's college, I let myself be persuaded to join Vesta RC also.
The friendship formed between Hector, Roy and George Flint as a result of their Boat Club efforts led them into other joint activities and in, I think, 1948 they became involved in restarting the Devises to Westminster canoe race in which they produced record performances in 48 and 49. However, by 1950 the military had become interested in the race, presumably as light relief in commando endurance training, and the race became a much less gentlemanly affair. By stratagems such as taking overnight stops and running around locks carrying their canoes, they shaved 24 hours off the record. Forces' teams continued to monopolise the race for many years.
George Flint's mother was a very keen knitter and was happy to knit rowing sweaters in Battersea colours for whoever in the club provided the wool. I kept mine for many years.
On graduating in the 1949 Harry Prior joined the RAF for the period of his National Service and during the latter part of this service became Captain of RAF Benson Boat Club where he was coached by a retired RAF officer and former Olympic oarsman, whose name escapes me. Friendship with Hector Pay and me encouraged Harry on demob to join Vesta RC just as I left to my time in lieu of National Service at the AERE Harwell and that was the end of my rowing.
Harry had a successful rowing career at Vesta over many years and he became Captain and later President of the Club. On the administration side he was responsible for introducing and for many years, organising the Sculler's Head of the River. He served as the ARA representative and was Chairman of the Logistics Committee of the 1980 World Championships at Holme Pierrpoint. He and Chris Davidge were the first Britons to quality as FISA international multilane umpires and he served as Chairman of the ARA Umpire's Commission. He was a UK delegate to FISA for several years, latterly becoming secretary to FISA Veteran Events Committee with responsibilities for organising the annual World Veterans Championships. He continued to row at Vesta until about a year ago!
Finally, a brief word about the ladies. A female branch of the Battersea Poly BC was started about a year after the men's club and went through similar rigors to get started. By 1950 it was making its way and supplied at least two members of the University of London 'purple' boat. These were Paddy Rusholme, Captain of the Battersea Club, and Hazel Hart (subsequently and still happily, Mrs. Harry Prior).
Battersea Polytechnic becomes the University of Surrey
(The move from Chiswick to Walton and Guildford)
The Second Start by Phil Costen
We now move forward to 1976 and the University of Surrey Boat Club. In many ways mirroring Alan's account of the first days of the club, the re-invention was down to a notice in the student newspaper, 'Barefacts', asking for "anyone interested in rowing to meet at 1400 at the Senate steps next Wednesday". Peter Levy, who had been on the GB National squad and was a mature Electronic Engineering undergraduate student and Ian Wilson, a lecturer in EE, who had rowed at Reading University, were the two instigators of the revival. I was a naive Australian who had only been in the country since September 75 to start a Master's degree in Radiation and Environmental Protection-a course that started in Battersea days of the University and it's still going strong, especially now we're going down the nuclear route-ironic that Alan spent his National Service at AERE Harwell. I was born and brought up in Ballarat, in Oz, where the rowing and canoeing 1956 Olympic events were held on Lake Wendouree, in the middle of the city. Today it's a sad sight as, because of the ongoing ten year drought you can "drive down the course in your 'ute for a dollar". I learnt to row at Ballarat College, and was stroke of the La Trobe University light weight four in 1972-in the first cohort that started the LTURC club at Hawthorn on theYarra. After coaching at my old school and finishing a degree in Applied Physics at the School of Mines in Ballarat I came over to England.
Again there were probably about 20 of us that turned up in May 1976 and we wandered down to Guildford RC where the dormant USBC club had some boats housed and had been unused for several years. From what we could gather, the previous group of rowers was fairly experienced and had bought a number of sculls and coxless pairs that were too advanced for our beginners. The other part of the 'fleet ' was at Walton RC on the big Thames. We used to go down there by coach-obviously money was no object at that time. Walton was the first time that I had ever rowed in an eight-our school being Oz schoolboys' fours champs for several years in the late 1960's and early 70's. It was also the first time that I had coxed an eight as well, and managed to get the thing broadside onto Sunbury weir first time out. Ah well, you have to learn somehow. Ian, Peter and I all coached the beginners-in various styles. At La Trobe our coach had a copy of Fairburn's book-another Aussie of course-so my style was the huge sit back at the finish-it looked great but meant that you were effectively having to do 200 sit-ups in a race. In the next couple of years the ARA (now British Rowing) would introduce their standardised style as a response to the then dominant East German machine rowers.
Those first few months in the club were fantastic. It was the drought of 76 of course and the hottest summer since the last hottest summer, so we used the river for training and entertainment. We had at that time a group of regular America exchange students, referred to as the 'Beaver Patrol' who lived in a large house in Portsmouth Road. The summer party was held there. A very riotous evening, although a number of us went down with food poisoning. In September 76 I had decided that I liked Surrey and rowing, so when Frank Moles, a lecturer in Chemical Engineering (Frank had started at Battersea following his undergrad at Sheffield and then a stint at Hawker Sidderley involved in, yes, Nuclear power), offered me a chance to undertake a Doctorate in his group, while I was having a drink in the Lower Bar, I jumped at it. Frank decided that physics was no real education for a young man and sent me off to Sheffield for a year to get some engineering experience with a furnace manufacturer, while I lived in Ranmoor House, a student's hall of residence-being officially a Surrey student-sort of. Funding for my PhD at that stage hadn't quite been sorted out-nothing much changes really.
While I was away Peter and Ian ran the club and trained everyone. Peter went on to become the first Sports Sabbatical. I returned for the start of the 77 academic year and started coaching the beginners. We still at this stage had not managed to go to any competitions as we had no means of getting the boats there, and the only races we went in for were Hampton Head and Walton Regatta.
In 1978 we bought the first USBC eight-again a real heavyweight wooden affair that we soon realised was twisted. Look at the 1981 Head of the River photo of us and you can see how bad the twist was-bow and 3 would be out of the water and 5 and 7 would be drowning. A year later for the 79/80 academic year we bought our first brand new four from Cambridge Racing Boats-a two piece wooden boat. At this stage we had a beautiful set of shovel blades as well as the normal Macons (the blade shape doesn't matter but the surface area must comply with international standards. The original blades of Alan's day were what we now refer to as 'matchsticks'). Carbon fibre was about to be introduced but we loved the whippy nature of the wooden shovels. As I now had a Union driving permit 1979-80 was the first year that we actually went off to races-the four strapped on the top of the only Union minibus-a short wheelbase red Ford Transit. We started what was to be our normal race calendar-Henley Fours Head in mid-February (usually snowing), down to Burway a couple of weeks later (usually sunny), up to Reading for the University Head (usually grey and overcast), down to Kingston for the Head (expect anything form hurricanes to heat stroke), and finally the Head of the River (windy). After Easter there was Wallingford, Walton, Twickenham etc regattas, and on one occasion Thorpe Park, where we borrowed Guildford's clinker four. At this time most clubs were burning their clinker boats, but due to a revival in the class for racing, they now became as scarce as hen's teeth so the clubs with forethought did very well.
We had a great 79-80 and thought the next one would be even better. I was President that year. However, the continual malaise of the Club is that we have never quite managed to get over that critical mass and usually end up with four keen rowers and maybe another four who would do the HORR as a social thing. I think the last Head I did (1985) we managed to get the old heavy twisted wooden boat up to speed and someone remarked that we were the slowest rating crew in the entire race. The same person also took our photograph from Hammersmith Bridge and not one us were impressed in that it showed the ravages of time on the back of our sculls. Gone were the days of long glorious locks!
The low point of the 80-81 season was the Kingston Head in March. It had been raining for quite a while-no change there-and the wind was gale force-again no change-and the event should have been called off. We had entered two fours and I was stroking the senior boat. For some reason, probably not wanting to race in such atrocious conditions, we were late to get onto the water. This is not unusual as Surrey used to have the reputation of always arriving late and having to plead with the umpires to let us compete. Anyway we were making our way to the start at Hampton Court against the high stream and a severe head wind. The race has started but no-one had let the crews downstream know. As we were making our way past Raven's Eyot and on the correct Middlesex side-you 'drive' on the opposite side of the non-tidal part of the Thames, Oxford came racing down taking the bend far too wide. With no forward speed our cox could do nothing with the steering so bowside lifted their blades and we rolled the boat deliberately. Our blades hit the bow man in the Oxford crew and their riggers sliced through our wooden four. The cox sank under the water only to be grabbed by her hair by three man. We swam the remains of the boat to the Hampton Court shore and an umpire's launch took us to Raven's Eyot to get some blankets for warmth until the race had finished. We eventually made our way down to the Kingston Rowing club only to be confronted by a very irate Dan Topolski, shouting and screaming that we had put his guys in hospital and that we shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the water again etc etc. We were eventually banned from the race for several years, all the more galling as a rowing photographer had shots of us immediately before the collision, proving that Oxford were in the wrong water. We later found out the ban was for not taking the blankets back immediately after the race, but as it was the end of term, three weeks later. I still have the smashed boat number, which Kingston no doubt will want back, even after 28 years.
The 80/81 season was the first for William Henry Algenon Powell, who went on to become Captain, with Ivan Pratt form Walton being nominated as President. Willie spent a lot of his youth at Winsor racecourse rather than the other school in the town. I was honoured to attend his wedding to Nikki, a cox of course, several years later. He was a civil engineer who spent his industrial year in South Africa and came back with a horrible accent. As with most Surrey alumni he gravitated towards Thames RC. Twenty years later, 'Big' John and Simon Granshaw would also move up to the club.
In 1979 and 1980 I completed my ARA Bronze and Silver coaching awards, respectively, at a very cold and wet Holme Pierrpoint in January-along with most of the British Olympic rowing squad of that era. The night before the exam Fred Smallbone was seen wandering about the place with a skeleton.
In 1982 Norman Kirkby arrived in Chemical Engineering from Cambridge and became head coach. My Post Doc fellowship had come to an end and I left Surrey officially in 1983, although I continued coaching until the end of 1986, by which time I was up at Imperial College as a Senior Research Fellow in Mechanical Engineering-next door to another School of Mines, but much younger than my original one!
Although asked a number of times to help coach the novices at IC, the nature of the research work meant that I couldn't guarantee my availability, so rowing, that was once the only part of my life, disappeared altogether and I spent the time working on a pilot scale combustion facility, where we polluted South Kensington with sour odors of sulphur in the name of research.
The Norman Kirkby years ran from 1987-2002
With my contract coming to an end in 2002 and a position available in Business Development at Surrey being offered, I wandered in to see Norman and asked if he didn't mind me coming back to assist him coaching. Norman had finished with coaching as he now had a young daughter's demands on his time, and was only too happy for me to take it on again. My first task was to get my Hueur rating watch reconditioned. The watch maker at Waterlooo station remarked that it was a fine antique given that there was no 'TAG' prefix to the Hueur. Some 80 later, and a warning not to use WD40 on it again, I looked the professional coach once more-although the sweep hand did drop off the next week and we were back to Waterloo.
In 2006 we won every race we entered. Of course the latest main event is the British University Regatta, held at Holme Pierrpoint on May Bank Holiday. What started out as small event is now the largest student regatta-or even just regatta-in the world with over 1000 competitors over the three days. In 2002 we won silver in the Men's Novice fours, the girls won a bronze the next year and in 2006 another Novice silver and two years later James Ancell won silver in the novice sculls. This event is now part of the club's Key Performance Indicators.
We were at Walton for over forty years. You wouldn't say it was the most salubrious of clubhouses, but it had its own charm, while the changing rooms and showers had their own unique species of organisms. But we liked it-it wasn't formal or stuffy. When we were sliced in two by Oxford, we arrived back at Walton to be cheered to the rafters as, by eliminating the Dark Blues, Walton's first eight had won Kinston Head. In the Summer of 2008 USBC and Walton put a proposal to the University for funding towards the rebuilding the WRC into a two storey affair, where, for once in its history, USBC would have its own space and a name on the door. The University were enthusiastic, but the proviso was that the paperwork, that included a realistic quantity survey of the true cost, needed to be submitted in the 2008-9 financial year, as we all knew 2009-2010 was going to be very difficult, especially as the University had gone ahead with the �30Million+ Surrey Sport Park development, that includes world class training facilities and an Olympic size swimming pool etc.
Unfortunately Walton were very slow in getting all the costs and paperwork together. The University were also not impressed with the equity arrangements whereby the boat shed remained the property of Walton RC Trust and not a joint Walton/Surrey arrangement, In the meantime Walton had secured additional Sports Aid funding based on our proposed contribution. Unfortunately the situation dragged on far too long, and in spite of last minute efforts the University didn't have the money, more to the point they had just made 65 academics redundant, so giving a quarter of a million to such a small club as ours would have not have been justified-quite rightly. Walton, sill wanting to ahead, wanted to use a formal University contribution of �20K pa as collateral for the necessary �250,000 loan, but the University Student's Union couldn't afford that. We had previously been paying significantly less, with Norman coming to an arrangement in the 1990's whereby we had paid for a sculling shed in lieu of membership fees.
The club knew that life at Walton would be very tough once they knew that the University we not going to invest, which effectively meant scuppering all the other matched funding avenues that were in place. So we started to look for alternative clubs-e.g. Desborough sailing club, at Staines BC along with Brunel University or the club next door to Staines with Royal Holloway University. While all this was going on, Vicki Hansford, a sports development officer at the University of Surrey, and a Beijing bronze and 2009 Munich World Rowing Championship gold medal winning rower in the adaptive rowing class, initiated discussions with Molesey BC where she was based. Molesey, a lock downstream from Walton, has a high performance squad that includes several Olympic rowers. The Director of the Surrey Sports Park, Jason Harborow was attracted by the possibility of Olympic rowers from Molesey using the Surrey Sports Park facilities, as part of his vision of creating an elite sports centre at Surrey. Through his efforts a number of other elite sports are now represented at the new regional facility, including netball, swimming, squash, rugby and football and now rowing.
The next few years at Molesey will be very interesting and we aim to develop our club into one of the best in the country. The long term vision of the club, however, remains as being the best University rowing club in the UK for taking absolute beginners and developing perpetual winners.