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Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 11th May 2019
1931 – 2019
Peter Jeffs, who has died at the age of 88, was a member of Cygnet Rowing Club for more than fifty years. Tall, charming and debonair, his energetic demeanour defied his years, inviting the description of an eternal Peter Pan. Indeed, on hearing of his death, one fellow Cygnet aptly summed up his demise as “Peter Pan returns to never-never land”. Others have lamented the passing of “a real gent” whose evergreen attitude to life set an example to us all. He will be sorely missed.
Born in 1931, Peter was always proud to relate how he grew up on a council estate in north Barnes, little more than half a mile as the crow flies from the then newly built Civil Service Boathouse, opened in October 1930. Little did he know it at the time, but this institution and its occupants would come to play a significant and enduring part in his long and active life.
As a school boy, growing up during the Second World War, he witnessed Battle of Britain ‘dogfights’ in the skies overhead and would proudly recount the day he stood and watched in awe as a German Messerschmitt skirted the roof tops over Barnes in 1940.
A bright young lad, Peter passed his ‘eleven plus’ examination and was offered a place at Sheen Grammar School for Boys. Having ‘matriculated’ in 1947, he had brief spells in the building trade and the Bank of Australia before joining the Air Ministry as a civil servant. National Service intervened in 1949-51, when he served in the RAF.
What followed was a remarkable ascent through the ranks of the MoD from lowly clerical officer to Assistant Secretary, Defence Sales, in 1971, ‘our man’ in Washington DC in 1976-79 and Vice President, Military Affairs in 1979-83. A mention in the 1983 New Year’s Honours List, when he was appointed a member of The Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), crowned a stellar career in the civil service. When Peter left the MoD for British Aerospace in 1984, then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher apparently let it be known in no uncertain terms that she regarded his departure as ‘regrettable’.
An all-round sportsman, in his youth Peter played football to a high standard at club level, latterly at Tooting and Mitcham, and seriously considered turning professional. He was also adept at cricket and tennis. Still, life off the playing field had its attractions, not least romantic ones: Peter met Iris and they married in 1956, before heading off for an overseas posting in Aden in 1958. Then, as now, these were unsettled times in the Middle East and Iris, heavily pregnant with their first child, narrowly escaped a bomb blast on the streets of the capital.
Word-of-mouth has often proved to be one of the most effective ways of recruiting new members at Cygnet. In Peter’s case, he was introduced to the club in 1966 by one ‘Jimmy’ Baker who he had met in Aden. Baker, who was accustomed to turning up at Cygnet on short-term leave and dropping into winning crews, persuaded Peter to try his hand at rowing.
Joining Cygnet at the relatively late age of 36 labelled Peter as a ‘veteran’ or ‘Master’ in today’s parlance. Undaunted, he wasted no time reinventing himself as an oarsman, teaming up with the likes of Len Huggett, Roy Ellison and Peter Roche. Together they carved out a role for themselves as a mean racing machine, whilst forging lifelong friendships. In Peter’s own words, “the old mans’ four had some great times” and was not without the odd piece of silverware. The high spot of their racing careers came in 1973 when they triumphed over Frankfurt, Germany and Barclays Bank to secure a win at the Vesta International Veterans Regatta.
One of the most senior civil servants to grace the ranks of Cygnet Rowing Club, Peter Jeffs always lent an air of authority to proceedings and was a natural choice for club chairman and chair of the Boathouse Executive. Regrettably for the boat club, these stints were often cut short by overseas postings: the Jeffs family decamped to Washington DC in 1976-79 and again in 1984-87, initially in the service of the MoD and latterly British Aerospace.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining and some of us were fortunate enough to enjoy the legendary Jeffs’ hospitality dispensed to any passing Cygnet stray, not least myself. Iris was always the perfect hostess.
In later years, Peter succumbed to the clutches of the “Golden Oldies” and rarely missed Henley Royal Regatta, often regaling us with tales of his long and eventful career and a life well spent, not least in the company of “the old man’s four”. Yet his grandchildren kept him young and he remained physically active, playing tennis and golf well into his twilight years. Indeed, his golfing handicap was more akin to somebody 10-15 years his junior. For many of us, our last memory of Peter will have been of him striding off to Victoria Station after a Christmas lunch in the Civil Service Club in December 2017, seemingly as ageless and timeless as ever.
Peter Jeffs’ funeral will take place at Randalls Park Crematorium, Randalls Road, Leatherhead, Surrey, KT22 OAG, at 1.15pm on Friday, 24th May and afterwards at The Royal Automobile Club, Wilmerhatch Ln, Epsom, Surrey, KT18 7EW. If you are planning to attend, please contact Sally Rawson on email@example.com.
Paul Rawkins, 11th May 2019
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 13th September 2018
G.J.W. (Barney) Frith
1937 – 2018
The past few years have taken a steady toll of those whom many older Cygnets fondly remember as the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ generation. Named after the TV sitcom of the same name, these aged swans would regularly gather at the boathouse on Tuesdays and Thursdays to engage in some light training followed by a lengthy period of contemplation and reflection in the Cygnet bar. One of their number was Graham ‘Barney’ Frith who died on Tuesday, 4th September 2018, following a long battle with Motor Neurone Disease. He was 81.
Barney Frith joined Cygnet in 1961 and rowed with the likes of Mike Arnold-Gilliat, Derek Bush, Colin Dominy, John Ellis, John Hildrey and Len Huggett to name but a few. Although the sixties were not an era of huge success for Cygnet, Barney nevertheless played his part in securing such coveted trophies as the Twickenham Cup for the third time since the war, in 1962. Derek Bush recalls rowing with him in the club regatta and Len Huggett liked to relate the story of how Barney cost them a race at Kingston Regatta because he spent more time trying to swipe a swan than ‘getting on with the race’.
Blessed with a head for numbers, Barney found his professional niche in the National Audit Office and apparently displayed a keen mathematical interest in gambling. Such attributes would later be turned to good effect playing the financial markets in retirement and picking potential winners for the Last of the Summer Wine horse racing syndicate.
Barney never allowed rowing to interfere with his social life. Contemporary accounts describe him as a ‘young blade’ for whom assignations with the fairer sex always held more attraction than ‘jugging’ it up with his crew mates after an outing. In the fullness of time, Barney met Miss Right – Brenda – and they married in the late-1960s. Rather than send a telegram, his crew mates penned an ‘Ode to A Young Swan’, which lamented the fact that Barney had hung up his blade and traded his carefree days at Cygnet for a life of domestic bliss.
Soon afterwards, the newly-weds moved away and started a family and Barney retired from active rowing. It would be some years before he resurfaced at the boathouse, having escaped the clutches of the National Audit Office, courtesy of an early retirement scheme. However, no sooner had he become a paid-up member of the Last of the Summer Wine set than he fell into the clutches of club chairman Mike Arnold-Gilliat, who dragooned him into the post of club treasurer.
Despite his accounting background, Barney was not a natural treasurer; he agonized over any expenditure, wrote a long committee paper outlining a doom scenario for club finances and concluded that the club should stop buying boats until further notice. It was not a match made in heaven and he and the post of treasurer were soon parted, much to the relief of all concerned. Doom mongering tended to be Barney’s stock-in-trade and he would later emerge as a strident opponent of a proposed merger with BBLRC, condemning it as a financial accident waiting to happen.
Shorn of his official duties, Barney was free to devote himself to managing his share portfolio, honing his skills at bridge – he played a mean hand by all accounts – and entering into the full extra curricula activities of the Last of the Summer Wine set. One high spot he always enjoyed was the annual President’s lunch at Henley Royal Regatta. The Friths had lived in Henley-on-Thames for a good deal of their married life and were well known on the bridge circuit, which continued to draw them back long after they had moved to Gerrards Cross in the early 1980s.
Barney was nothing if not a creature of habit. John Hildrey recalls that on their regular lunch time visits to the William Webb Ellis in Twickenham, Barney always brought a cushion (he suffered from a bad back) and always ordered ham, egg and chips. Many will remember Barney as a heavy smoker, but he rarely imbibed to the same extent as some of his less inhibited compatriots, preferring not to put his driving license at risk. This marked him out as an obvious taxi driver, a task he always performed with dignity and aplomb, decanting the likes of Mike AG and Len Huggett home to their respective front doors at the end of a ‘heavy’ day.
In later life, Barney fretted that most of his closer associates were older than him, presaging a lonely old age. In reality, the Cygnet social safety net was always close at hand and many older members will lament his passing. Barney’s wife, Brenda, predeceased him by some years; he is survived by a married daughter, Helen, to whom the Club sends its sincere condolences.
Barney’s funeral will take place at 11.45am on Tuesday, 25th September. Details are available here.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 19th July 2018
21st May 1953–1st July 2018
None of us can ever truly know when our ‘time is up’. For Noel Davison, who died on 1st July 2018, just weeks after his 65th birthday, following a long battle with cancer, that time was far too soon.
Although most of his adult life was spent in London, Noel was a proud Irishman from County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Educated at Coleraine Inst, a local grammar school for boys, he learned to row on the River Bann, the longest river in NI, before striking out overseas to St Andrew’s University in Fife, Scotland.
Following graduation, he headed south, seeking employment with the Inland Revenue as a District Tax Inspector, and arrived in London in the early 1970s as that rarest of beings: a competent oarsman who had no rowing points – in short, a coach’s dream. As a newcomer to the metropolis, Noel wasted no time in seeking an outlet for his waterman ship skills and Cygnet RC beckoned, along with nearby lodgings at 14 Vernon Road, East Sheen, the legendary home of Mike Arnold-Gilliat, the then captain of Cygnet RC.
Life at Vernon Road was an unstoppable merry-go round of rowing, sleeping and eating with the occasional sojourn to the nearby Hare and Hounds. Noel made some lifelong friends and a taste for Young’s ‘Ordinary’, but the whole experience did little to advance his or other inmates domestic housekeeping skills.
Noel always said that his novice years at Cygnet were some of his happiest afloat. Carefree days spent paddling up and down the Chiswick reach were rewarded with several non-status wins on the River Lea, where one spectator pronounced them to be a ’tasty crew’, and the Royal Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth, before losing their rowing virginity at Curlew.
Higher status wins followed. Noel was one of the anchor men of the crews coached by George Plumtree in 1977-78, which saw the participants ascend from Senior C to Elite over two years, starting with the Senior C Pennant win in the Head of the River in 1977.
Not one to stand on ceremony, Noel nevertheless felt that it was important to introduce his future wife, Eleanor, to his crew mates quite early on in their courtship. And so it was on a cold winter’s evening at the height of disco mania that the happy couple braved the dank surroundings of the Cygnet bar. Needless to say, the bar fell well short of health and safety norms, even by 1970s standards, and the company was not much better. The look on Eleanor’s face said it all. Still, all was not lost and over time she came to love both Noel and the inner sanctum of the Cygnet bar, if not the crew.
Cygnet was Noel’s first port of call, but we cannot claim a monopoly; he also rowed at Molesey Boat Club and, latterly, Tideway Scullers. Molesey provided Noel with the springboard he craved to achieve greater things: regular wins at Elite would follow, coupled with impressive performances at Henley Royal Regatta and National Championships. On a lighter note, in 1979 Noel starred in a TV commercial that featured him stroking an Vlll as it gently slipped below the waves while the cox, Ronnie Corbett, blithely puffed away on a Hamlet Cigar. The commercial can still be viewed today on You Tube.
Noel always appreciated the importance of putting something back into the sport and in late-1983 the opportunity arose to return to Cygnet in the self-styled role of Squad Co-ordinator. The experience he had gained at Molesey proved invaluable in changing the training and racing ethos at Cygnet and laid the foundations for some of the club’s most successful years in 1984-87, not least a coxless lV that he coached virtually singlehandedly from Senior B to Elite in one season.
Family and professional commitments subsequently took priority. Noel bade farewell to the Inland Revenue, joining Arthur Andersen where he obtained a chartered accountancy qualification, before moving on to Ernst and Young in 1994. EY played to Noel’s strengths and he became a much-respected international tax partner working on some of the most prestigious accounts of the day. As a devoted family man, there was never any doubt that Noel and Eleanor made a great team, while he adored son Paul and daughter Julia, encouraging them in their every endeavor; they, in turn, embraced his unwavering work ethic, carving out their own paths as successful young people, determined to maintain the Davison traditions.
All work and no play is never a good recipe for life andthe draw of the Tideway is hard to resist. Noel returned to veteran rowing in the mid-noughties, gracing one or two heads and regattas along the way. His talents as an oarsman were much in demand and he rowed at both Cygnet and Tideway Scullers, before illness curtailed activity afloat. Even so, Noel continued to fulfil his landward duties as Honorary Examiner at Cygnet and Honorary Secretary at the Head of the River Fours until just months before his demise. Indeed, he was arguably one of the few officials who managed to get his head around the new points system – for that alone he will be sorely missed.
Irrespective of which club he rowed for, Noel always brought wisdom, dedication, a certain air of authority and sheer bonhomie to the water. Prior to writing this piece, I asked, Rhodri Walters, a longstanding friend of Noel’s, how he would describe Noel; he replied “much like his rowing style – long in the water, steady on the slide and easy to follow”. Lawrence Williams at TSS recalls: “I remember a pause in one of our earlier more catastrophic outings when he (Noel) was sitting behind me and I filled a gap in conversation by informing him that we now had two professors in the crew. His immediate response was brief and typical - "Good, we need all the intellectual firepower we can get."
Appearances can be deceptive and some will argue that Noel was a man of few words. It is true that he was certainly not one for small talk. However, all those who spent time with him will know that once you scratched the surface, he was always happy to engage in debate on all manner of subjects and often held quite strong views. An economy of words, coupled with his calm demeanour, meant that whenever Noel did hold forth, the assembled company, whoever they were, always sat up and listened.
Rowing was not Noel’s only passion. He also had a great love of literature. Retirement gave him an opportunity to cast off his professional mantle of international taxation and immerse himself in English Literature, obtaining a degree from Oxford University in 2017.
Against his better judgement, Noel also partook of several canal trips organized by Malcolm Burman and his cohorts at Cygnet. Malcolm recounts: “..not sure what he made of those. He seemed to enjoy them, despite the fact that it rained most of the time - but I seem to remember he was very keen on steering, particularly in the tunnels and we had to drag him away from the tiller [for lock-opening duties].”
For many Cygnet members, their last memory of Noel will have been of him sagely presenting his report at the February AGM in his capacity as Honorary Examiner, a post he had held jointly with Malcolm Burman for eighteen years. For the crew of 1977-78, a happier memory of Noel will have been of him sitting in the Cygnet bar reflecting on a lifetime afloat on the occasion of the 40th reunion of the Plumtree Vlll in March 2017. He will be greatly missed.