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Cygnet Rowing Club
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  • Mike Arnold-Gilliat

    Author: Neil Pickford |

    24th June 2016

    Michael Augustine Arnold-Gilliat 

    30th April 1935 - 16th June 2016

    Michael Arnold-Gilliat, variously known as Mike AG, MAG, the Dowager Chairman or just plain Gilliat, passed away peacefully on 16th June in Charing Cross Hospital, London, after a short struggle with pneumonia. He was 81. On hearing of his death, Lawrence McVeigh, one of his contemporaries remarked that 'it would take a little time to get used to not having Mike there'. It will indeed; Mike AG was part of the very fabric of Cygnet RC, a quintessential administrator who always had his 'ear to the ground' and one who never missed an opportunity to network.

    Born in Kennington, south London on 30th April 1935, Mike was a child of the Blitz. Bombed out of Kennington in 1941, the family moved to Bournemouth, where Mike secured an education at St Peter's School before passing the Civil Service entrance exam in June 1953. No sooner had he joined the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) than he was whisked off to the RAF to do National Service. Not an obvious candidate for airborne duties, Mike was dispatched to Signals on and around Salisbury Plain where it was felt that he could do relatively little harm.

    Returning to MAFF in 1955, Mike was initially assigned to the Legal Department where he made the acquaintance of John Bull, a coach at Cygnet who introduced him to the club in 1958. Little did the rowing world know what it was letting itself in for. Over the ensuing half century or so, the name MAG would become synonymous with civil service rowing in all its administrative guises on the Tideway.

    Mike enjoyed his rowing, but he was not a natural oarsman and never won his Novices or Maidens as they were known in his day. Maidens were hotly contested in the early 1960s and Mike often recounted events like Evesham where thirty or more entries were not unusual. Still, he could always console himself with the social side of rowing and in 1972 he and a number of other Cygnets featured in a priceless advert for Double Diamond Bitter under the slogan 'I'm only here for the beer'. This billboard still enjoys pride of place in RG Benrath, Dusseldorf, an inter-club link first established by Mike together with Gordon Burden and Lawrence Mc Veigh in 1965 and one that remains very much alive to this day.

    Rowing boats were one thing, but the labyrinthine committee structure of civil service rowing was quite another and Mike revelled in it, swiftly making his mark on the Cygnet committee. Having filled virtually every committee post in the 1960s, Mike would subsequently serve six years (1970-73 and 1980-81) as club captain and 18 years as club chairman. Civil service rowing thrived under MAG's first stint as captain and he was immensely proud to put his name to the entry form for Cygnet's first ever entry (under its own name) at Henley Royal Regatta in 1972 and again in 1973. Later, in 1980, he would rally to the cause again, stepping in as captain when the club was at a very low ebb.

    Never one to take a back seat, when not commanding the higher echelons of Cygnet RC, Mike took up the reins first as boathouse secretary and subsequently as boathouse chairman, while also becoming involved in the broader Civil Service Sports Council, where he served on the Management Committee and as London Region Secretary. Mike became a vice president of Cygnet in 1978, while his services to civil service rowing and the CSSC were formally recognized in 1982 when he was awarded the Civil Service Merit Award for services to sport and recreation.

    Back on the Tideway, Mike became a qualified umpire and officiated at many local regattas and heads in the 1970-80s, as well as becoming entrenched in the organisation of Hammersmith Amateur Regatta (as Treasurer) and the Head of the River Fours (as committee member and Entries Secretary). Mike could be a very canny operator and was instrumental in securing long-term sponsorship from Fullers Brewery for both these events. Nearer to home, he transformed the Cygnet 300 club into a 600 club, greatly aiding the club boat buying programme, which would subsequently see not one, but two boats named Mike Arnold-Gilliat.

    MAG's enduring commitment to the wider world of rowing was recognized in 2002 when he received a British Olympic Association Award, by which time memories of the grass-roots revolt Mike and his Division 18 colleagues had led against perceived ARA misrule in 1976 had presumably been forgotten. However, arguably, the honour Mike coveted most was his election to Leander Club as a 'full pink' in 1998, a rare achievement for somebody who had never won his novices, yet one whose rowing CV ranked with the best of them in so many other respects.

    No obituary of Mike AG could omit mention of 14 Vernon Road in Sheen, his home for almost fifty years. Countless Cygnet members came to regard Vernon Road as tantamount to a second home and, in a good many cases, a first home, as an army of club members became paying tenants at one time or another. Indeed, the early 1970s found the whole of the captaincy residing at Vernon Road and an invitation to a drink or dinner was a little like an audience at the White House.

    No deserving body, often 'under the influence', was ever turned away from Gilliat Towers: the back bedroom was always on hand for the 'tired and emotional'; while kitchen cupboards full of canned food and drink from the local cash-and-carry mitigated the risks of starvation or dehydration. Conversely, inmates were expected to 'muck in': Norman Cowling, one of the 1970s alumni, recalls 'Mike's next door neighbour was highly amused to see that the tenants were expected to paint the house'.

    But perhaps the institution that personified MAG best was the 'Gilligram' - hand-typed or written reminders penned by Mike, first as captain and later as boathouse and club chairman, these appeared with unerring regularity in the club letter rack, the forerunner of e-mails as we know them today. Often, these missives would be a summons to the White Hart or the Hare and Hounds to discuss the issues of the day. All the big decisions were thrashed out in one or other of these public houses, infused by the Aaaaabl - the absolute b***dy last - as Mike liked to refer to the last pint(s) of the day.

    After an extensive career in MAFF, Mike's administrative skills were unleashed for one last time on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (an outpost of MAFF). Not one to hog the spotlight, he was nonetheless proud that under his stewardship Kew Gardens won an award for some of the cleanest toilets in the land! The trail of destruction wrought by the Great Storm of 1987 presented an altogether different challenge. Sometime later, ananonymous benefactor presented the club with its handsome gavel, made from a Kew Turkey Oak which had fallen victim to the storm!

    Following early retirement at 55, Mike became a fully paid-up member of the Golden Oldies, which met at the boathouse every Tuesday and Thursday under the tutelage of John Bull. Mike also took up globe-trotting, ably abetted by his travelling companion Andy Rawkins, visiting virtually every continent on the planet. Ever the socialite, many an unsuspecting co-traveller would return home only to find themselves on Mike's electronic rolodex for ever more. Less well known were his annual pilgrimages to Hosanna House, Lourdes as a hands-on helper: religious faith was always very important to Mike.

    Mike never tired of telling his GP that 'he was easily led astray' and, in truth, we were all complicit in his antics which were legendary, particularly at locations like the Flower Pot and Henley Royal Regatta. Gracious to a fault, Mike always dismissed these as apocryphal. Yet he remained an administrator to the last, helpfully penning notes for his own obituary. At Cygnet we are fond of proclaiming the demise of club grandees as the 'end of an era'; with the death of Mike Arnold-Gilliat, that epithet is amply justified, Gilligrams and all. He will be greatly missed by his multitude of friends and family. 

    Paul Rawkins,

    24th June 2016

    Mike's Funeral will take place on Wednesday 13th July 2016 at 12.30pm
    St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, Mortlake, 61 N. Worple Way, London SW14 8PR. 

    After the service the family and close friends will accompany Michael to the Crematorium.

    By Michael's request a small floral tribute will be provided.

    "Reach the Unreached" was founded by Brother Lionel, a teacher at Michael's old school, and helps poor village people in India. If you wish please make a donation, please send a cheque made payable to "Reach the Unreached", c/o Holmes & Daughters, 461 Upper Richmond Road West, East Sheen, London SW14 7PU.

    The wake will be in the River Room at the Bulls Head in Barnes.

    Please feel free to share your memories of Mike by using the comments box below.


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  • Eric Wale

    Author: Neil Pickford |

    9th March 2016

    Eric portrait

    Eric William Wale

    30th April 1931 - 11th February 2016

    Rowing often runs in families. It is not hard to think of some of the longstanding names in our sport - the Phelps and the Barrys come easily to mind. Still, such longevity remains the exception rather than the rule at Cygnet. That said, though, one family that can point to almost a century of association with Cygnet is the Wales.

    Eric William Wale, who died on 11th February 2016, was the son of W.G. (Billy) Wale, who joined Cygnet at Hammersmith in the early 1920s and remained a keen supporter in the post-war period. Minutes of annual general meetings throughout the early 1950s record the presence of both father and son and some of Eric's surviving contemporaries still recall Wale senior as an enthusiastic cheer leader at regattas, sharing in their trials and triumphs.

    Eric joined Cygnet in 1949, directly from National Service, having served in the RAF. Indeed, according to Frank Caughlin, a fellow crew member, Eric's first appearance at Cygnet was in his RAF uniform. However, Eric quickly made the transition to 'civvy' street, initially joining the Treasury Solicitor's Department, before moving to the Telephones Branch of the General Post Office (GPO), thus maintaining family tradition ('Billy' had also worked in the GPO as a postman). In later years, this branch of the GPO would be hived off as British Telecom (BT), where Eric would enjoy a highly successful career until retirement in the late-1980s.

    In 1949, Eric would have been welcomed at Cygnet as one of a new wave of 'young blood' upon whom the club's hopes of reclaiming the victorious years of the 1930s would hang. Eric took an active interest in club affairs and soon found himself on the committee. By 1950, the club was in a position to boat an Vlll for open regattas consisting entirely of the post-war intake of new members. Thereafter, Cygnet continued to build up a competitive head of steam such that by 1953, in Eric's own words (penned in the 1990s), 'there was a real feeling that the breakthrough had been achieved'.

    Eric was referring to a Junior Vllls win at Chiswick, Cygnet's first win in open competition since 1939. A photograph of the victorious crew drawn from Cygnet's digitized archives (available to view on the web site) shows Eric standing on the far right, the initials E.W.W. proudly emblazoned across his tracksuit top. Silverware aside, Eric also met Sylvia, his future wife, at Chiswick Regatta. By 1954, Cygnet was riding on a high and Eric rowed in winning Junior-Senior Vllls at Horseferry, Willesden and Kingston, followed by Maidenhead in 1955.

    Every generation retains fond memories of their competitive (and less competitive) years at Cygnet. In Eric's case, we are fortunate that he chose to devote some of his retirement to authoring 'Cygnet Rowing Club: The Fifties'. This account, which proved invaluable in the compilation of a more recent history of the club, captures the spirit of the post-war era at Cygnet and justifiably concludes that 'the fifties were by any standard a period of significant achievement'.

    Although Eric retired from active rowing in the fifties, he retained a keen interest in the club's activities for the rest of his days and regularly attended club social occasions. As club historian, I am particularly grateful for the club memorabilia that he periodically passed on to me in later years. Some of this memorabilia dated back to the time of Wale senior, like the 1922 Civil Service Regatta programe, which lists 'Billy' rowing three in Novice lVs.

    One of Eric's regrets was that he never competed at Henley Royal Regatta, although 'the intention or aim was always there'. Nonetheless, he rarely missed an opportunity to attend Henley Royal, joining Vic Reeves and Frank Caughlin for an annual visit to the Stewards Enclosure. That said, Eric was happiest picnicking with family and friends out on the towpath close to the start of the regatta, comfortable in the knowledge (as he put it) that 'everybody does Henley in their own way'.

    Eric is survived by his wife Sylvia and two daughters, Gill and Sarah. Among those who attended his funeral at Chilterns Crematorium, Amersham on 26th February were his rowing contemporaries Frank Caughlin, Maurice Hart and Brian Lovis, all of whom recalled carefree days sparring in club regattas on the Chiswick reach more than half a century ago.

    Paul Rawkins

    Club Historian

    March 2016

    EW 1953


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  • Chris Gates

    Author: Neil Pickford |

    6th June 2015

    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.

    Phil Brown

    Chris Gates

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