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At the Eton Mission Rowing Club

July 12, 2011
by the gentle author

Robert Hall, member since 1952

Nestled beside the cut of the River Lee in Hackney Wick is a beautiful rowing club with an atmospheric old club house and a magnificent history, which the 2012 Olympics is threatening to squeeze out of existence. Starting originally in the London Docks in 1885, and then given a home on the River Lee by Eton College, generations of East Enders have learnt to row here, winning a distinguished array of medals and prizes for the Eton Mission Rowing Club.

If you should require an advocate for the benefits of rowing, look no further than club member Henry Allingham who rowed here from 1909-14 and then returned from fighting in the trenches to row again from 1919-22. He came back in 2006, as the oldest man alive, to celebrate his one hundred and thirteenth birthday at the boathouse. And I can understand why, because the boathouse is filled with treasured old wooden boats and the slipway is flanked by buttercup lawns on either side, where blackberries grow over the fence and Moorhens nest at the river bank. The Eton Mission Rowing Club is a kind of paradise, but unfortunately it faces the site of the 2012 Olympics.

After it survived the loss of a generation of rowers depleted by the First World War and its club house was strafed by enemy fire in the Second World War, the club is now facing the autocratic caprices of the Olympic Authority. The bright-eyed Club Secretary Tim Hinchcliff welcomed me graciously when I visited last Sunday, yet an air of imminent apocalypse prevailed. “The way I see it, they’ve decided what’s good for us,” he told me, widening his eyes in disillusion,“We’ve never had any input into the plans.” Along with the other members, he is bracing himself for next Monday, 18th July, when the bulldozers move in to dig up the club’s lawn and demolish a storage shed, in preparation for the building of a bridge for the media to access the Olympic site on the other side of the river.

In spite of the rhetoric of consultation, the club was presented with a fait accompli by the Olympic Authority in the form of a Compulsory Purchase Order for a significant slice of their property. “The area’s too small now for all the things that we need to do,” confessed Tim in disappointment. The pitiful irony of such destructive action by a body set up to encourage sport is not lost upon the long-term members of the Eton Mission Rowing Club, who have endured an atmosphere of uncertainty since 2005 when the idea was first mooted – discouraging rowing crews who require an assurance of continuity for years ahead. And, while the precise nature of the Olympic plans – whether for a footbridge or a road bridge – have remained frustratingly uncertain, the nadir is set to arrive next year when the river is closed for security reasons and the rowing club will be forced to shut down for the Summer of 2012.

Yet in spite of the dark clouds looming overhead, the members were enjoying the opportunity of taking their boats out on the River Lee last Sunday, as they always have done, and were eager to talk to me about the manifold wonders of their beloved club. As we stood together under the lintel commemorating the building of the clubhouse, “Presented to the Eton Mission Rowing Club by their President Hon Gilbert Johnstone in Memory of his Etonian Wet-Bob Brothers, AD 1934.”, I asked Tim Hinchliff, the benign custodian, why he took up rowing in the first place and he discreetly indicated the caliper on his leg. “It was the only sport that was open to me.” he admitted, with a dignified modest grin.

Two Robert Halls, junior and senior, father and son, were sculling together. Robert senior joined the club in 1952, an upholsterer by trade, he served his apprenticeship round the corner in Hackney Wick at George Henshaw’s factory – “I just walked in and said I wanted to learn a trade.” He brought his son Robert down to be a coxon at the age of eight and they went on to row together, reeling off the lists of championships they had won, as they carried their sculls out the the water’s edge. “We know how to win,” confirmed Tim, speaking with professional pride, “We didn’t put out a team that didn’t win.” Hale and hearty with cropped white hair and a wiry physique, thanks to a lifetime’s rowing, “No-one could race us in this country,” asserted Robert senior, sharing a grin with his son. “It’s only if it’s frozen over that it will stop us,” he added as they pulled away from the shore, gliding way across the water with a swish of the oars.

Tim told me the club gets more enquiries for membership from women than men these days, and they would like to provide separate changing facilities by building a narrow extension onto the remaining piece of land between the clubhouse and the new bridge. Unfortunately the compensation is not sufficient to cover this and all requests for assistance have been ignored by the Olympic Authority, even if this is their opportunity to leave the venerable club better, not worse than they found it.

“They have shown no clemency, no kindness, no thought for anyone else’s existence,” said Robert Hall senior, a member of the club for sixty years, his eyes glittering with emotion. I cannot avoid saying that the members of the Eton Mission Rowing Club deserve better from the Olympic Authority than this shabby treatment. Renovating the club house and supporting the club would be a way to ensure the continuity of their beautiful endeavour. It is shameful that fellow sportsmen be exposed to corporate disdain by the Olympic Executives, simply because they happen to be in the way of a master plan conceived without their involvement, when their noble rowing club should be celebrated for providing sporting facilities on an egalitarian basis in East London for over a century.

“Everyone is welcome here,” Tim Hinchliff emphasised to me as we made our goodbyes, ever hopeful and diplomatic, “We get quite a lot of people who are interested in rowing. Once people are here, we can get them rowing in half an hour.”

The Gilbert Johnstone Club House.

Gilbert Johnstone, founder of the club in 1892.

At the opening of the Gilbert Johnstone Boat House, 1934.

Robert Hall, senior & junior - “no-one could race us in this country.”

Bottomley Cup winners, 1914.

Henry Allingham, veteran of World War I and the oldest man alive, returned to his former rowing club in 2009 to celebrate his one hundred and thirteenth birthday.

Henry Allingham is recorded as winning second place in the gig handicap race  in 1914.

Henry Allingham is fourth from the left in the second row of this picture of the members in 1911.

Robert Hall, junior & senior, set out to scull on the Lee.

Members’ photograph, 1913.

Tim Hinchcliff, Club Secretary.

Annual General Meeting, 1921

For years, the Hackney Otters took a dip in the Lee on Christmas Day to compete for a Turkey.

List of rowers who went to fight in World War I.

Annual General Meeting, 1914.

Robert Hall senior rescues a moorhen’s nest before it floats off down the Lee.

Eton Mission Rowing Club, 1911.

“I don’t like watching sport, I enjoy taking part!”

Robert Hall, senior.

National Amateur Rowers’ Associtaion Cup Winners, 1911.

National Amateur Rowers’ Association & President’s Cup Winners, 1913.

Annual General Meeting 1907

The assignment of boat house keys in 1923.

A cloud hangs over the Gilbert Johnstone Boat House in Hackney Wick.

You might like to attend the 6th Annual Coracle Race at the Eton Mission Rowing Club on Sunday 31st July from 3-6pm to show your support.

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina permalink
    July 12, 2011

    Wonderful epic. Exquisite photographic record. Wish I could come along to the race to register my support.

  2. William Ewing permalink
    July 12, 2011

    How much more of our wonderful history is the so called rulers of England going to destroy. Bill Ewing.

  3. Stella permalink
    July 12, 2011

    It as terrible that such a venerable local sporting community can be swept aside by the might of international sport. It is against all the ideals of the Olympic movement. I wish I could attend to register my support.
    I know little about rowing but am active in supporting our local village cricket club in their efforts to provide first class facilities for all, especially the youth. I know from first hand experience the blood, sweat and tears that goes into running such ventures.
    I have only recently found your excellent blog, and have learnt so much already about your part of the world.

  4. July 12, 2011

    That’s truly shameful…but it’s the nature of the Olympic organisers. oddly, I cycled past there today….and glad to know the history. Thanks

  5. Adrian L McNeill permalink
    July 12, 2011

    So much for the so called legacy of the Olympics. Will remember this issue the next time Lord Coe and others are banging on about the benefits of the Olympics to the local areas.
    Would seriously consider coming down from Scotland for the regatta, where it not for the fact I will be on hols.
    Good luck

  6. July 13, 2011

    This is but one further case of how power corrupts those who wield it. 10 years ago I was threatened with litigation by the British Olympic Association (BOA), with threat of imprisonment, for allegedly associating my firm with the Olympic movement. In 2000 we had spent several £1000′s of our own money to design and provide novel equipment to help the underfunded GBR eight which then won gold in Sydney. Later we simply congratulated that crew for their achievement – we know that it is the crew which wins and the equipment simply supports them. 2 other firms which has helped similarly received identical threats. It took a year of wrangling and additional expense for the BOA to admit that its claims were false and to get off our backs. Compensation? You must be joking.

    Now fast forward to last month, when we learned that the same BOA which had spent large sums earlier this year on litigation against the 2012 organisers (in a misguided quest to win a larger slice of the same cake to which London ratepayers are being compelled to contribute through their rates), had in 2010 awarded its officers a 20% pay rise. Then there’s the sheer arrogance of the London organising committee, which had promised the earth and has since backslid on so many of its promises – by moving the rowing from the Docks out to rural Dorney Lake, by telling the kids born on 20 December 2004 they would not, after all, be able to run in the Torch Marathon, by having to admit these will not be the promised green games and, of course, sucking funding out of all types of grass-roots sport so a few thousand pampered professionals can have a perfect time, that several thousand official hangers on can make whoopee at our expense and that truly local football clubs do not get the first call on the supposed stadium legacy.

    It is all so much spin and deceit. The sponsorships of Kraft (remember what they did to Cadbury), McDonalds and Coca Cola pay but a fraction of the overall costs but falsely associate unhealthy foods with clean sport & entitle those companies to blocks of seats for their best friends at the ‘best’ events. Following News International & the corrupting of police and politicians, we should regret the follyof believing the fiction that the Olympics is about sport, especially about ‘sport for all’. It is not. Instead, consider this crippling blow to a fine local sports club, and the devious way it was landed below the belt. We should be ashamed of hosting the 2012 event, which really exists for the greater glory and financial gain of the (non tax-paying) IOC, its not always incorruptible associates, big businesses, the media, the politicos and the very rich (including that delegation coming at our expense from FIFA).

  7. Anthony Jones permalink
    July 14, 2011

    I’m very sorry to see your splendid club so shabbily treated in the name of sport of all things. I hope your excellent blog and any publicity that flows from it will help provide you with an answer to the predicament you face. Best wishes.

  8. don Vickers permalink
    July 14, 2011

    It was bittersweet reading the wonderful narrative of your club’s history and good works. It is most sad to learn of the harm planned by the corporate thinking of the Olympic barbarians. You clearly deserve better. I hope the publicity will help you get better treatment.

    Keep the faith!

  9. Richard Pratt permalink
    July 14, 2011

    Shame on you, LOCOG for this act of sheer vandalism. If one looks at the wooden plaque you will find the names of some of the greatest oarsmen in UK rowing history: Muttlebury, Lord Ampthill and so on. This is a unique part of our nation’s rowing history, to be ruined for two weeks of competition. This makes my blood boil. Is there nothing to be done?

    Also suggest you get a link put on Row2K to spread the word.

  10. July 20, 2011

    Three words Seb Coe: Where’s the legacy?

  11. Neil Richardson. Molesey Boat Club. permalink
    July 20, 2011

    This is a disgraceful way for the LOCOG to behave. They have the power to make the purchase but they should have tempered their position with offering to help the club in some way to assure that such an illustrious past is not wiped away.
    Lord Coe should be ashamed of himself.

  12. Henry Law permalink
    July 20, 2011

    I second the other comments, to the effect that this is shameful. But it’s not just that, it’s complete stupidity on the part of LOCOG.

    For the sake of an amount of money which is probably the cost of a single meeting within that august body they could amply support this tiny club, and show that they meant what they said about the legacy. And no, since this is a non-profit-making sports club there wouldn’t be a precedent affecting litigation resulting from the equally shameful way that commercial companies are being treated, which is another story.

    And if it’s not stupidity it’s arrogance.

  13. Peter Bayfield, Henley Rowing Club permalink
    July 20, 2011

    I saw your club house during a conducted walk around the periphery of the Olympic Site. Our guide gave us a brief history of the club but no mention was made of your shabby treatment by the Olympic Authority. I feel ashamed that such a bad decision is being imposed by one “sporting” group on another. Good luck with your attempt to sway their decision in a better direction.

  14. Waterboatman permalink
    July 25, 2011

    It’s a sheer disgrace but totally unsurprising.

    As with the the Marshgate Lane allotments here was a chance to incorporate real and vibrant East End life and tradition (and in this case a great sporting tradition) in Olympic planning.

    For history read ‘thorn in the neck’ since the Olympics have signaled a clearout of any indigenous culture including local architecture.
    See also the ill fated Angel Cottage on Angel Lane.
    If it’s not official vandalism then it’s tacitly sanctioned wreckage.

    And for what exactly? To line the already bulging pockets of a few cronies with great big fat smiles on their faces. Charming.

  15. Gary Foster permalink
    August 17, 2011

    Eton Mission RC is a real gem in Hackney that should preserved at all costs! I write as someone who sculled there when a student at Queen Mary College (University of London) back in the late 1980s. I have so many happy memories of the place, and of Bob Hall (Sn), Rob Hall and Tim who coached me, trained with me and helped me win races at leading regattas on the Thames and Bedford. They were like family to me. Its good to see that they are still there and looking after new members, men and women, who have also found their way to Hackney Wick for some uplifting inspiration and healthy exercise in the heart of the East End.

    I am also amazed that all this is being threated by another sporting organisation, and one with Olympic ideals! Surely a way round can be found to secure the continuity of a local club that has existed since 1885? I’m keen to lend what support I can to Eton Mission RC, even at this stage; hopefully others will be too.

  16. Terry Reed permalink
    August 31, 2011

    I’ve had my doubts about the Olympics for a while, and this sad story confirms them. The daughter of a member of the rowing club of which I am a member (North Staffordshire Rowing Club, near Leek) is in the GB rowing squad for 2012; but I have to say, these Olympians are very coy about the extent to which they are financed. From what I can see, UK athletes for 2012 are able to train full-time, as if it were a job. Presumably they get enough to pay mortgages and everything, but lack of transparency gets my goat. That makes them professional sportsmen and women in my book.

    Stories about junk food pedlars like Macdonalds, Coca Cola and Kraft being linked to the Olympics are sick, if true. I remember Tony Blair, on a visit to a third world subsistence farmer was caught offguard on a live mic, commenting these small farmers should be put out of existence, for the big mechanised ones to take over their land. Sound familiar? Bet a similar conversation happened in some boardroom at Olympics Plc.

    Wouldn’t a temporary bridge have been a solution, or am I missing something? Then again, if Olympics Plc want to stuff the little guy…

  17. Barry Williams permalink
    November 15, 2011

    Tim , it must be 40 years since I rowed with you & Bob , what a delightful surprise to see your pictures on this website . If you get this message let me have your contact No. I would like to meet up again . Last year I meandered round to the boathouse for old times sake .
    Hope you are well, best wishes , Barry

  18. December 26, 2011

    Anyone wanting to contact the club (as a few have indicated)

    Website

    http://www.etonmissionrc.org.uk

    Email

    contact@etonmissionrc.org.uk

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