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Norman Phelps, Model Boat Club President

January 11, 2011
by the gentle author

In July, it was my privilege to interview Norman Phelps in what proved to be his last Summer upon the lake at Victoria Park where he sailed boats for more than seventy years. Norman died on Christmas Eve and today I am republishing my pen portrait as a tribute to a wonderful man who became a legend in the world of model engineering.

This is Norman Phelps, President of the Victoria Steam Boat Club, proudly displaying his ratchet lubricator that he made recently – just the latest example of an enthusiasm that began in 1935 when, at the age of five years, he fell into the boating lake in Victoria Park. It might have been a tragedy but instead it was the beginning of a lifetime’s involvement with model boats, and seventy-five years later, you can still find him at the lakeside on Sundays, giving the benefit of his experience to the  junior members of the club.

Norman was understandably wary of speaking to me because the last time he gave an interview in 1951, he got taken for a ride by the News Chronicle. Although Norman spoke at length about the venerable club, all that got published was a souped-up account of how he courted his wife at the lake over the model boats. Seizing the opportunity to set the record straight, Norman generously sat down with me next to the boating lake last Sunday and spoke with lyrical ease.

“I was always known, not by my father’s name of Phelps, but as Watson – because my mother was famous as “Dolly Watson” on account of running the sweetshop in Rockmead Rd, where I grew up. I stayed in London all through the blitz and I saw the city burning and I saw this park blown apart, and our house was destroyed by a rocket in early 1945. Because of the bombing everyone knew everyone else. I saw neighbours dead on the pavement and I heard people crying out from beneath the wreckage of buildings where we could never dig them out. I saw the Home Guard practising with wooden rifles because we didn’t have real ones. It was crazy!

Funnily enough, I married a girl from Seweston Rd, on the other side of the park. I met her dancing at the Hackney Town Hall and because we were keen dancers and won prizes, we decided we would race model boats and see if we could win. We joined separately, but we did our courting through the club, and she won a lot of prizes and ruffled a few feathers. She’s been running boats her whole life and she still is at seventy-eight.

We got married in 1956, had our reception in the clubhouse and I was made secretary of the club at the same time. They gave us a presentation box of cutlery as a wedding present that we have today. In the early days, I supported my wife because she had such an enormous predilection to compete. She’s won so many prizes, we’ve got boxes full. If we turned up to compete, other people would say, “Let’s give up now!” It was the art of straight-running. I did the designing, and she did the maintenance and cleaning. My wife was the talent, and I tended to stay in the background and be the club secretary and that was enough.

To be a great straight-runner you have to know a lot about the water and the wind, and the boat itself has to be considered too. The greatest talents in the world have competed here. So many people have gone now but I saw all the greatest exponents, like Stan Pillinger of Southampton, John Benson of Blackheath, Peter Lambert of  St Albans, Jim King of Welwyn and Edgar Westbury, editor of Model Engineer. In this club we were lucky, we had pawnbrokers, jewellers, butchers, several tug skippers from the Thames – many of our members were skilled people. They didn’t have any money, so they built boats out of cocoa tins and orange boxes, producing some of the finest straight-running hulls in the club.”

Norman recognises that the flourishing of the boat club was in direct correlation with the heyday of skilled trades. He speaks passionately of the deference that existed between the members who all brought their different areas of experience and abilities to the boat club, and the culture of mutual respect that went with it, based never upon economic status but always upon skill. Tanned and lined from endless Summers on the lake, still with thick white hair and a scrawny energetic physique, he looks like a character drawn by Mervyn Peake. Possessing an eloquent tongue and a raucous laugh, Norman is engaging company too, with tender stories to tell of former members, especially his friend Bill, “even though he was a South London boy, we managed to see eye to eye.”

“So many have pegged out. I can’t get my head round it. I suppose I’m next for the chop.” he continued with a droll grimace, crossing his arms protectively. Yet Norman remains fiercely proud of the culture of the boat club and their marvellous vessels, honed to perfection over so many years. “This is still the home of straight-racing, we have the greatest talents here.” he said, indicating a pale young man in waders enjoying a quiet sandwich, who blushed readily as I was authoritatively informed he was the grandson of “a great talent”.”These skills are rare now. I spoke to the editor of Model World recently and he told me they have people ringing up because they can’t even put kits together today,” Norman declared in breathless amazement, before lowering his voice further and raising his brows to confide, “None of our members can give out their home addresses, because the boats have become too valuable and they don’t want to get turned over.”

“Who needs a computer?” asked Norman in derision, “I have a problem with the lubrication of my boat engine to solve.” But in spite of his disaffection, the contemporary world is affecting the boat club in ways that are not entirely disadvantageous, and even skills nurtured through computer games have their place here. “We have lowered the age limit for membership from twelve to ten, because nowadays ten-year-olds are better with the radio controls than we are.” declared Norman proudly.

I can understand Norman’s ambivalence when he has lived through such big times, during which the Victoria Model Steamboat Club sailed on as a beacon of civility across troubled water. Its survival today as one of only two in existence (along with Blackheath), makes it all the more important as a reminder of the best of that other world, before the computer, when just a few people sat behind desks and most possessed a skilled trade that enabled them to earn their living and achieve self-respect too.

You also like to take a look at these other stories about the Victoria Model Steam Boat Club

Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club

The Boat Club’s Photographic Collection

4 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Lovely, and I liked the way that the title of this post can be read in two ways – a model president, and resident, indeed.

  2. January 11, 2011

    Really enjoying your blog – hope to be a regular visitor this year. Happy New Year!

  3. JohnB permalink
    January 13, 2011

    I loved sailing my shop-bought toy boats on Blackheath pond as a boy in the 60s, and remember gawping with envy at the wonderful craft sailed by adults, up to fully rigged fighting galleons! A train-driving acquaintance of mine was making a 3-4 foot long scale model Royal Navy destroyer when I left the UK six years ago, and he was intending to sail it. I lost touch with him, but hope he is continuing this fine and skillful hobby/passion.

  4. tony lincoln permalink
    May 3, 2012

    i would like to know who could help me with a question about model boating on blackheath boating pond and how i can get involved with my remote control boats they are battery operated and i was told its ok to use them on the boating pond on blackheath and i was wondering if there was a model boat club near where i live as i live near blackheath i live in lewisham near to blackheath boating pond i would be very greatful for your help and advice many thanks from tony lincoln

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