Christopher St John Gates - 1934 to 2015
Every successful club needs both energetic and determined oarsmen and also an equally committed team behind them to provide the support to enable them to get on with winning races. Chris Gates, who died on 21st May, was definitely in the latter group - a very committed supporter of Cygnet RC yet one who never sought to be a member of a regular racing squad.
Chris Gates was introduced to rowing during an overseas posting with the Department of the Environment to Ndola in the copper belt of Zambia and was joined in this by his wife, Margaret, who although coming from a rowing family had not rowed before going to Zambia. There were not many opportunities for competition but events were held in conjunction with the rowing club in Harare, then in Southern Rhodesia. This led to rowing on the Zambesi River, which saw then rowing along the international border, requiring crews to carry passports!
On their return to London in 1973, Chris joined Cygnet and Margaret CSLRC (the forerunner of BBLRC). Chris was the epitome of the "casual oarsman", willing to turn his hand to anything and happy to construct scratch crews around whomever was available on the night. Such qualities did not go unnoticed and Chris was soon inveigled into becoming Deputy Captain in 1982, a post he held until 1985. The photograph below was taken later in the 1980s on the occasion of a president’s supper with Chris pictured second from left.
Cygnet has often been regarded as a club of administrators first and oarsmen second. Chris Gates was very much of this mould and he was soon in demand as Chairman of the Boathouse Executive. As with rowing, so with managing the boathouse, Chris’s conciliatory yet firm approach got things done. However, his rowing days were far from over and the late 1980s found him running the Business House Head, an invitation event for business house rowing clubs including the clearing banks, major oil companies, utilities and London Transport. It was he who arranged for a (victorious) Cygnet veteran Vlll to row as number 100 in 1990 (out of a field of 30-something) on the occasion of the club’s centenary.
Chris Gates’ move to a DoE posting in Bedford in 1988, to escape the London rat race, was much regretted by the Cygnet casual squad. However, never one to let the grass grow under his feet, he and Margaret were soon immersed in St Neot’s RC, where those in authority sought him out to run St Neot’s Regatta, an event much-loved and well-attended by Cygnet. Under Chris’s five year stewardship, a competitor-friendly atmosphere coexisted with an efficient running order that took challenges such as multiple ‘doubling up’ by participating crews in its stride.
Even after Chris had passed on the reins of St Neot’s Regatta, he and Margaret remained regular visitors, always keen to meet visiting members of Cygnet and BBLRC, until illness precluded his attendance. A memorial service for Chris Gates will be held at St Neot’s Parish Church on Thursday 11th June at 2.30pm, with light refreshments afterwards at the nearby Chequers Restaurant.
Phil Brown and Paul Rawkins
A Personal Recollection
As another of the regular “casuals”, I was often in contact with Chris. A frequent evening outing was 5 oarsmen in a IV+, with cox and stroke changing halfway. This was not always appreciated by the other 3 as just when they were beginning to dream of a gentle return to the boathouse for a pint a fresh stroke could set a challenging pace. One memorable outing with Chris was in “Non-Sequitur”, we fitted well together, neither working very hard, and soon had this light pair skimming over the water. My last outing with Chris was a composite IV- from St Neots RC, when we were joined by Margaret and Rubina Curtis.
It was through Chris that I rowed in a St Neots crew in the Head of the River. One of his crew had not turned up and Chris spotted me settling down in the bar to enjoy watching the race. A plea that I had no kit was answered with “we will find you some”, as indeed they did with the final item (a pair of socks) being tossed over as the boat pushed off from the hard.
When Chris moved to St Neots he handed over the running of the Business Houses Head to me. This gave me several year's of pleasure with the opportunity to meet crews from far and wide. It was really rather easy as Chris had established a well organised process. It was from Chris that I learnt the art of organising the draw. To make matters more interesting we set up local matches rather than a strict adherence to the results from the previous year – London Transport (District Line) were not worried where they came, as long as they “beat the buses” (London Transport (DRS)).
The Head gave rise to a useful little earner for Cygnet, probably devised by Chris, – the pennant factory. Having set up a process for cutting and sewing the felt and someone prepared to print the artwork, it was possible to expand the production batch by taking orders for other local heads, notably from CSLRC (as it then was) for the Pairs Head. Clearly this was too lucrative market to continue as Cygnet was undercut and the market was taken over by others.
On winter evenings, Chris took on another task, that of timekeeping for the Club run, which was run on a handicap basis. Once the last (ie quickest) of the runners had left, Chris would set off on a short run of his own, to return in time for the first of the returning runners.
For a number of years, Rubina and I made the pilgrimage to St Neots, to support our respective Clubs and to meet Chris & Margaret. There was Chris at the centre of the organisation and Margaret helping out with the refreshments. Often we ended up in a local hostelry for a meal. Sadly in recent years, Chris' health made it difficult for him to get to the Regatta. The tradition will continue, however, and we have already accepted an invitation to meet Margaret at this year's event.
Author: Neil Pickford