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Cygnet Rowing Club
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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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  • Peter Sly - Cygnet Obituary

    Author: Neil Pickford |

    26th March 2015

    Peter Sly, President of Cygnet Rowing Club, 1975 - 2015

    In 1950, an erstwhile club historian wrote "Cygnet had ever been a club to foster the social side'. No member embodied the spirit of that remark more than Peter Sly, Cygnet's longstanding club president, who passed away on 9th March 2015 at the age of 85. He died as he had lived, surrounded by his family in the peace and tranquility of 'Old Blades', his beloved residence at Henley-on-Thames.

    Peter Sly never claimed to be an accomplished oarsman, but he was one of the sport's great extroverts. Nothing pleased him more than 'holding court' at Cygnet lunches and dinners or in the comfort of 'Old Blades', the most select enclosure on the Henley course at regatta time. Indeed, no visit to Henley Royal Regatta was complete without a pilgrimage to 'Old Blades' to be lambasted by Sly for one's shortcomings as a sportsman, a spouse, a club officer or whatever else came to mind.

    Courtship rather than sportsmanship initially enticed Peter Sly into the world of rowing. Peter was smitten with Pat Heron, a business associate at Crown Agents (a government procurement agency for governments overseas), who filled her leisure hours coxing the women's first VIII at the Civil Service Ladies Rowing Club (now BBLRC). Sly rapidly concluded that joint enterprise held the key to a deep and meaningful relationship with Ms Heron, so he joined Cygnet, the men's counterpart of CSLRC.

    More accustomed to the unscrupulous world of big business than the gentle art of pen pushing, Peter Sly took Cygnet by storm. Norman Cowling, an active member at the time, recounts "Peter had an immediate impact on all aspects of club life". In next to no time, Peter's 'can do' attitude had secured the club its first boat trailer and a new coaching launch, shaken up the club social scene and reorganized the club's finances, entrusting the boat fund to a sleek new merchant bank in the City.

    Richard du Parcq, who was doing his first stint as club Treasurer, recalls "I well remember climbing, no staggering, out of Peter's Roller in St James St, after a goodish lunch, for a spot of customer feedback to the bank." Soon afterwards the bank went bust, but not before club funds had been withdrawn in the nick-of-time, following an astute tip-off from Sly.

    Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, in 1972 Peter attained an ARA Silver Coaching Award and promptly set about putting it into practice. Success followed a few months later with an easy win for a Cygnet Novice Vlll at Worcester. While this would be his only claim to coaching fame, his greatest contribution to the sport lay in the world of women's rowing.

    By the mid-1970s, Pat was juggling multiple roles as Mrs Sly, Captain of CSLRC and Secretary for the Womens' (National) Rowing Committee. These were formative times for women's rowing: CSLRC had graduated to the nucleus of the women's national squad, while several CSLRC members would participate in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Peter was hugely supportive throughout, becoming a serial cheer leader for women's rowing, a renowned supporter at home and international regattas and a champion of Henley Women's Regatta.

    A man for all seasons, Peter Sly was the obvious choice for Cygnet club president, an office he was invited to fill in 1975 and one he held until his dying day, a time span of 40 years. Reputedly the longest serving club president on the Tideway, Peter once quipped that it was the least onerous post he had held in his life, apart from Church Warden. In reality, he moulded the presidency to suit his character and the two were ultimately indistinguishable.

    Peter Sly never won a Henley medal, but he had the next best thing: a superior piece of real estate located half way along the Henley course. Suitably lubricated with a glass of wine or two, Peter would happily recount how in 1977 he was alerted at the eleventh hour (by Len Huggett) to the auction of two riverside workmen's cottages close to Remenham. Sly subsequently 'bet the ranch' to acquire the two properties and the builders moved in to transform them into 'Old Blades'.

    A high spot of the early years of Peter's presidency was the President's Lunch held in the River Room at Old Blades where momentous decisions were taken, but none remembered. These occasions were always preceded by generous libations at the Flower Pot while Pat was slaving over a hot stove back at base.

    Always happy to imbibe with the 'Last of the Summer Wine' set, Peter was equally at home with the younger membership, or quaffing 'Alt' beer with our friends at R G Benrath in Germany. Some members were greater butts of his jokes than others, but he was a shrewd judge of character and had a warm spot in his heart for everyone. 'Old Blades' rarely turned away a deserving waif or stray.

    Latterly, Peter was often to be found taking 'walks' along Remenham Lane on his mobility buggy, wearing one of his 'trade mark' wide brim hats. This mode of transport suited him very well and allowed him to arrive in style at the President's Lunch at Remenham Club during regatta week. Following a lunch replete with port and brandy, he would happily motor back up the towpath to 'Old Blades', oblivious to all the regatta goers who had been mown down in his wake.

    In sum, to quote Norman Cowling again, "Peter Sly was a genuine life enhancer. You could not have a dull time in Peter's company; he would not allow it." The rowing world will be a poorer place without Peter Sly; at Cygnet he will be sorely missed as the club prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary, devoid of its most vociferous dignitary.

    Paul Rawkins, 20th March 2015

    peter sly x3

    (pdf version available here)

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