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At Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club

April 28, 2019
by the gentle author

Contributing photographer, Lucinda Douglas-Menzies became fascinated by the Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club while out walking in the park. Over successive Sundays, her interest grew as she went back to watch the regattas, meet the members and learn the story of the oldest model boat club in the world, founded in 1904. Her photographic essay records the life of this society of gentle enthusiasts, many of whom have been making and racing boats on this lake for generations, updating the designs and means of propulsion for their intricate craft in accordance with the evolution of maritime vessels over more than a century. Starting on Easter Sunday, the club holds as many as seventeen regattas annually.

“Meet you at ten o’clock Sunday morning at the boating lake!” was the eager response of Norman Lara, the chairman, when Lucinda rang to enquire about his club. “On the morning I arrived, a group of about a dozen model boat enthusiasts were already settled in chairs by the water’s edge with a variety of handmade boats on display,” explained Lucinda, who was treated to a tour of the clubhouse by Norman. “We are very lucky, one of the few clubs to have this. Tower Hamlets are very good to us, they keep the weeds down in the lake and last year we were given a loo,” he said, adding dryly, “It only took a hundred years to get one.”

Meanwhile, the members had pulled on their waders and were preparing their vessels at the water’s edge, before launching them onto the sparkling lake. Here Norman introduced Lucinda to Keith Reynolds, the club secretary, who outlined the specific classes of model boat racing with the precision of an authority, “There are five categories of “straight running” boats. These include functional, scale boats (fishing boats, cabin cruisers, etc), scale ships (warships, cruise boats, liners, merchant ships, liners, merchant ships – boats on which you could sustain life for more than seven days), metre boats (with strict rules of engine size and length) and – we had to create a special category for this one – called “the wedge,” basically a boat made of three pieces of wood with no keel, ideal for children to start on.” In confirmation of this, as Lucinda looked around, she saw children accompanied by their parents and grandparents, each generation with their boats of varying sophistication and period design, according to their owners’ experience and age.

Readers of Model Engineering Magazine were informed in 1907 that “the Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club were performing on a Saturday afternoon before an enormous public of small boys who asked, ‘What’s it go by mister?'” It is a question that passersby still ask today, now that additional racing classes have been introduced for radio controlled boats with petrol engines and even hydroplanes.

“We have around sixty members,” continued Keith enthusiastically, “but we could with some more, as a lot don’t sail their boats any longer, they just enjoy turning up for a chat. It’s quiet today, but you should come back next Sunday to our steam rally when the bank will be thick with owners who bring their boats from all over. Some are so big they run on lawn mower engines!”

It was an invitation that Lucinda could not resist and she was rewarded with a spectacle revealing more of the finer points of model boat racing. She discovered that “straight running,” which Keith had referred to, is when one person launches a boat with a fixed rudder along a course (usually sixty yards long) where another waits at the scoring gates to catch the vessel. The closer to a straight course your boat can follow, the more points you win, defined by a series of gates around a central white gate, which scores a bull’s-eye of ten points if you can sail your boat through it. On either side of the white gate are red, yellow and orange gates each with a diminishing score, because the point of the competition is to discover whose boat can follow the truest course.

Witnessing this contest, Lucinda realised that – just like still water concealing deep currents – as well as having extraordinary patience to construct these beautiful working models, the members of the boat club also possess fiercely competitive natures. This is the paradox of sailing model boats, which appears such a lyrical pastime undertaken in the peace and quiet of the boating lake, yet when so much investment of work and ingenuity is at stake (not to mention hierarchies of  individual experience and different generations in competition), it can easily transform into a drama that is as intense as any sport has to offer.

Lucinda’s photographs capture this subtle theatre adroitly, of a social group with a shared purpose and similar concerns, both mutually supportive and mutually competitive, who all share a love of the magic of launching their boats upon the lake on Sundays in Summer. It is an activity that conjures a relaxed atmosphere – as, for over a century, walkers have paused at the lakeside to chat in the sunshine, watching as boats are put through their paces on the water and scrutinising the detail of vessels laid upon the shore, before continuing on their way.

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Ann Keil permalink
    April 28, 2019

    So nice to see that these are still running today, l did wonder because times change.
    Thank you for taking the pictures!

  2. April 28, 2019

    I always wanted to sail a model boat sadly but never did. I loved watching them when my mother took me to the boating pond as a child. Not at Vicky park though. I seem to recall seeing them being sailed at the Serpentine or the Green park or perhaps Kensington Gardens on summer Sundays We sat on deckchairs and watched the bands play in the bandstand in the park. It was the posh side of London and always a special treat for us children
    I was at school in Approach Road just down the road from the Victoria Park boating pond . We sometimes played football in the park after school. I don’t know if it’s the same pond but there were rowing boats for hire and I recall taking one out with my school friends at the end of term and ending up in the lake !. I think I stood up in the boat and Bethnal Green schoolboys, being what they are ,saw the opportunity to rock their bums on the seat and send me toppling over the side. Very funny for them but It was a very unpleasant experience for me having to take the bus home to Clapton soaking wet with squelching shoes !

  3. Gary Arber permalink
    April 28, 2019

    I can remember my father taking me to Vicky Park as a small boy in the 1930’s on Sunday mornings to see the boats.
    There were a lot of men with huge steam driven boats. Some of these boats were over six feet long, made of metal. There were also large sailing yachts with masts up to six feet high.
    Remote control was unheard of in those days and boats were often stranded out in the middle, specially the yachts. Another thing that had not been invented was waist high waders so there were many unlucky boatmen who went home very wet

  4. Bernie permalink
    April 28, 2019

    Like Paul Loften I was at school in Approach Rd (Parmiter’s) and enjoyed rowing on the Victoria Park lake, but happily was never capsized; my summer lunchtime companions (ca. 1947-9) were perhaps more civilised. We saw some traces of the model boating club, details now forgotten, but enough to spur me to try to construct my own hydrofoils, with no success, and these delightful images show me what I missed by not being there at weekends. Summer then seemed to be always warm and sunny and endless!

  5. mlaiuppa permalink
    April 28, 2019

    What a lovely passtime.

    My brother got a lovely german made sailboat as a gift as a child but I don’t believe he ever sailed it. I’m not even sure he still has it.

    There are no “lakes” suitable for model boats in my area. Our biggest and oldest park has a reflection pond, but it is full of lilies and sometimes fish or turtles and is four feet deep so unsuitable. But I surely wish we did have a suitable pond. I would go there just to watch the little boats and ships wend their way across or go in circles. Not a fan of the noisy ones so much. But a radio controlled sail boat would be absolutely lovely.

    And they have a club house? I would have liked to see that. I’ll bet it’s as nice as the boats.

    Congratulations on getting a loo after all this time. I guess Town Hamlets figured out that after a century, they weren’t going any where. Nice to see the hamlets building something constructive rather than approving the destruction of history.

  6. Martin Palmer permalink
    April 28, 2019

    I remember being at Victoria Park boating lake in the late 50’s, or maybe early 60’s. I witnessed a boat cross the lake in a couple of seconds, making a deafening racket. I recall it as a thumping vibration, and was told the boat was powered by a small pulse jet, the type 0f power unit used by the V1 rockets aimed at London in 1944. I doubt anyone could get away with something as loud and dangerous as that now!
    Were at school in Approach Road, but lived quite a distance away in Clapton? Do I guess correctly that you are an Old Parmiterian?

  7. Ian Silverton permalink
    April 29, 2019

    As a small boy living in Bethnal Green we lads used to come over to Victoria Park on a Sunday Mourning in the summer and watch these old men in there long Wellington Boots playing with there toy boats,how we all envied them,wish we had one! Could never understand why grown up men played with them,but now old maybe I do somewhat, thought the club folded some time ago when I was living near there,but nice to see in still thrives,power to its elbo

  8. April 29, 2019

    Yes Martin an OP. I left in Parmiters in 1968 !

  9. Susan permalink
    May 1, 2019

    I so love this. Real hobbies (as opposed to,say, playing Candy Crush) seem to be a dying pastime, so it is reassuring to see people actually engaging a tangible interest.

  10. Mike permalink
    July 24, 2022


    I visited Victoria Park model boating pond in June 2022 and was disappointed to see that it was NOT maintained correctly for the purpose it was built for. It was impossible use my sailing boat due to thick weed and detritus from trees, bushes and wildlife. Why have the park authority let it get to this state? There is no point trying to use the pond unless you are a duck.

  11. Paul Rambow permalink
    April 18, 2023

    Hello, I’ve long thought about building a model sidewheeler and fell in love with the boats ordered by the London County Council (1907-1907. But I cannot find any kits or plans anywhere. My guess is that they were destroyed in the fires of WW II. Do you know if such plans might exist? I have seen enough pictures to begin creating my own drawings from them. I’ve found several references that list their length as between 130 and 134 feet, but l don’t have beam or depth measurements. Can you help me in any way? I did just pick up the kit for a smaller sidewheel tug, the Vanguard, and am playing with lengthening it. I also haven’t been able to find a photo that clearly shows the boiler, although I’ve approximated it. I just want to be as accurate as possible. I wish I could cross the pond to see your boats. They are beautiful!.

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