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Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 3rd December 2020
1950 – 2020
It is with great sadness that we record the death of Greg Steene, who died suddenly on 20th November at the age of 70.
Greg joined Cygnet in the 1970s; a solid stroke or bow side man (see photo below), he powered several Vllls over the head course and proved to be a timely addition to the Plumtree Vlll of 1977, securing several senior B pots in the process at Staines and St Neots regattas.
For a club steeped in the ways of the Civil Service – most members were still public sector employees – Greg was a breath of fresh air hailing, as he did, from the world of boxing. Henceforward, après rowing took on a whole new meaning. Contemporaries, myself included, recall an action-packed night at the ring side in Clapham Town Hall, where Chairman Nick Wylie emerged speckled with blood, and he was only a spectator. Phil Beckett tried to engage an attractive young woman in conversation, only to be informed that her boxing beau was not best pleased.
On hearing the sad news, Dave Wynne, another contemporary, said ‘I was thinking about Greg only the other day, about sharing a flat and rowing a novice four with him’. Others recollect a weekend at Stourport Regatta where Greg kept the whole camp site awake all night recounting jokes and bawdy tales that nobody could remember the following morning. Few pots were won on that day.
Jackie, Greg’s wife, who survives him, was not above joining the fray, steering Greg and Mike Evans in non-status pairs at Llandaff regatta, notwithstanding warnings that she would need a stomach pump if she fell in. Still, as Mike wryly reflected, it was ‘a trip noted more for the visit to Barry Island for the 2.00am bar rather than the rowing’.
Mike reminded us all of Greg’s wedding reception where we rubbed shoulders with all the great and the good of the sparring fraternity. Evans sat on a table for non-family guests: ‘Conteh, Ted Moult and some other long forgotten show biz types, lots of former boxers and a couple of Krays (but not the twins!). Conteh felt that rowers had much to learn from the boxing community, but not on the drinking front where there was an unmistakable meeting of minds.
A legendary boxing manager and match maker, Greg drifted away from the club and we had not seen him for some years. However, for those of us who were lucky enough to know him, they were memorable times indeed. Greg’s son Aleck would be pleased to hear from anybody who would like to share their memories of Greg by posting in the comments below and they will be forwarded to his family.
Paul Rawkins, 2nd December 2020
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 2nd December 2020
1943 – 2020
Once in a while, the death of a Cygnet alumnus mines a deep seam of contemporary consciousness: David Webb, an irrepressible ‘wet-bob’ of Olympian repute, who has died at the age of 77, was just such a man. In early July, his son Nicolas wrote to inform us of his father’s sad demise in the hope that someone might remember him; he was not disappointed – within hours a tsunami of memories poured forth from his fellow crewmen, some of whom had not been in contact with each other for decades.
David (Anthony) Webb joined Cygnet in 1970, his short stature and well-honed vocal cords marking him out as a coxswain from the outset. He was initially let loose on a novice lV – Gary Fettis, Jeremy Berrisford, Stuart Fraser and Richard du Parcq – subsequently steering a host of club crews to victory, culminating in Cygnet’s first post-war entry (in Thames Cup) at Henley Royal Regatta in 1972 and again in 1973.
Official club photos of the time (below) show David immaculately turned out in his coxswain’s regalia (front row, second from right), his inventive mind always thinking ahead. Gary Fettis recalls ‘I remember his sartorial elegance which carried through to everything he did. There were no built-in speaker systems in the ‘70s, so David took it upon himself to install one in our Vlll and very neat it was too with all the speakers placed inside Harrods’ plastic bags to keep them dry’.
Other Cygnet contemporaries remember an insatiable socialite who always knew where the best parties were and, more to the point, how to gain entry to them. Norman Cowling wistfully recounted how ‘he frequently tried to get us to drink what he called an Evelyn Waugh noonday reviver – a lethal mix of Guinness, gin and ginger beer – I never knew if it was his own invention’. By the time of my era in the 1980s it had become the Tideway tonic.
Then, as now, ‘club hopping’ was not uncommon. David decamped to Thames Tradesmen RC in 1973 and thence to London RC where he steered the well-known and successful pair of McLeod and Christie, which gave him his entrée to the 1976 Montreal Olympics. A second Olympic appearance with the same duo followed in Moscow in 1980. At Cygnet, it remains a source of enduring pride that the 1972-3 crews produced two world-class GB competitors: David in the Olympics and Stuart Fraser in the World Championships (1975-76).
Aside from rowing and gate-crashing all the best venues in town, David retained a lifelong interest in music and the arts. He played violin and piano to a high standard early in life, mastered the art of conducting and went on to play percussion in the National Youth Orchestra. At Oxford, he read Greats/Classics at Hertford College, albeit without much enthusiasm, before heading north to complete a degree at Hull (where he apparently made Larkin’s acquaintance).
The world of work brought new challenges, initially as a manager for the Festival Ballet/English National Ballet, followed by careers in the Civil Service and British Telecom. Retirement in East Sussex with wife Veronica held many happy hours playing the piano, watching sport, smoking his pipe and cigars and quaffing the occasional ale or two.
But perhaps the last word should go to son, Nicolas: “many thanks for passing on the message (of his passing) to his Cygnet contemporaries, it’s been enormously heart-warming to read the anecdotes and memories. Old teammates are more than welcome to post their memories in the comments below and they will be forwarded to David's family.
Paul Rawkins, November 2020
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 16th October 2019
David ‘Stan’ Collingwood
Cancer has claimed all too many of our rowing friends and colleagues lately. Sad to relate, therefore, its latest victim, Stan Collingwood, who died on Saturday, 12th October, at the age of 72, in St Theresa’s Hospice, Darlington.
Rowing is all about characters and one person who amply fitted the mould was Stan Collingwood. Many clubs can claim an association with Stan, but, at Cygnet, we like to think we got in on the ground floor, electing D.S.Collingwood as an active member in January 1973. Although his birth name was David, to the world of rowing he will always be remembered as ‘Stan the Man’.
Stan’s stay at Cygnet appears to have been brief and the club annals do not record him rowing in any competitive crews. Perhaps more surprisingly, he avoided any committee or organisational entanglements, although he would later return as an impressive finishing coach and organiser of the Business Houses Head in the late 1990s.
Stan would grace many Tideway clubs in his time, but no club could truly contain him, and he was always destined for greater things in the guise of umpiring, coaching, commentating and organising. Chairman of Thames Region was but one of the many posts he would hold in the rowing universe. One medium that was tailor-made for Stan was Regatta Radio at Henley Royal Regatta and he would spend many happy hours regaling listeners with ‘tales of the riverbank’ in between races before the drone took over.
Stan always brought experience, enthusiasm and bonhomie to all he did. In 1998 he accepted an assignment to coach an aspiring Cygnet entry for the Thames Cup at Henley, professing that it would be unrecognisable by the time his ten weeks were up. Walking over Barnes Bridge late one summer evening and watching a technically near perfect Vlll passing beneath, I can confirm that in this, as in all things, he was as good as his word.
Later in his working life, Stan was delighted to inform us that he had again become a Civil Servant and might even consider rejoining Cygnet. Although he never did, there was always a space at the Cygnet bar whenever he cared to stop by. He will be much missed.
Stan donated his body to science, so there will be no funeral. However, a Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the life of Dave ("Stan") Collingwood will be held at 10.30am, Saturday 16th November at Holy Trinity Church, Hounslow. Dress code: Colourful, as befits a celebration! RSVP to Linda Collingwood
Paul Rawkins, 16th October 2019
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 6th September 2019
1966 - 2019
Ian Stephenson passed away on Friday 30th August following a long and hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 53.
Ian, known to most of his Cygnet friends as Geordie, started his rowing career at Cambois Rowing Club in Northumberland, a few miles from his hometown of Morpeth. Having migrated south, he joined Cygnet for two years in 1988 before returning in 1997 via Curlew RC and Staines BC. On his return, he rowed in the Cygnet Thames Cup VIII at Henley Royal that year and remained a stalwart of Cygnet crews until 2013, when he slipped up-river to join the Quintin BC Veterans ‘Barflies”. Geordie continued rowing with Quintin throughout his treatment, only stopping in July, just a couple of months before his untimely death.
During his time with Cygnet, Geordie spent almost as much time at the bar as he did in a boat – and he was in a boat a lot – often combining the two activities, seemingly without ill-effect, as his collection of pewter will attest to. In retrospect, it may have been his fondness for socialising that accounts for his notorious reputation of always being late for outings, despite moving closer to the club.
Even after he stopped rowing for Cygnet and in a true demonstration of the club adage ‘Nobody ever leaves’, he could still often be found at the bar, getting a round in and talking to anyone that would listen; about the Glory Days; fishing; his latest eBay bargain; or his beloved Toon. Perhaps drawn there because it was in the boathouse bar where a particular Barnes Bridge Lady caught his eye and it wasn’t long before yet another boathouse ‘tradition’ was being observed: Geordie and T’s Wedding in September 2008 was well attended by members of both Cygnet and BBLRC.
During the early ‘noughties’ Geordie joined the Cygnet Committee as Social Secretary. This position combined his love of rowing and socialising and also formalised, for a while, his role as organiser of unconventional club events. These included an infamous and dangerously enormous bonfire one November, complete with a Guy made from kit abandoned in the changing rooms; an inter-club welly-wanging competition during Club Day; and the inception of the Cygnet darts team – which won its only match against the local pub team. He is also responsible for the gallon pewter tankard in the bar, from which many a-winning crew was required to take their victory drink – hard work for those winning in singles and pairs, much to Geordie’s amusement!
There’ll be very few people indeed that didn't like or get on with Geordie. Row hard, play hard appeared to be his philosophy yet he was a man who tried not to take life or himself too seriously. He was as comfortable taking the rise out of the venerable older members as he was the new novices, his closest friends or himself. And he had a lot of friends, most of whom will remember him as the unconventionally dressed northern bloke in the tight jeans and well-worn Led Zeppelin T-shirt, with a beer in his hand and a heart as big as his hair. His generosity knew no bounds and he will be sorely missed all along the Thames Tideway.
He is survived by his wife Tracey and young son, George to whom we extend our sincerest condolences.
Marjorie Israel & Neil Pickford, 6th September 2019
Ian's funeral will take place on Friday 20th September at 12:40 at Mortlake Crematorium, with a wake after at Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club. There is no dress code and faded rock band tee-shirts are optional! Please leave a message on Ian's Facebook page if you intend to be there. Failing that, please post a comment here and we will pass the message on for you.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 3rd July 2019
1933 – 2019
Richard Hext wrote to Cygnet recently to inform us that his father, Ronald Hext had died on 25th June, only days after his 86th birthday.
Ron joined Cygnet in January 1954 while working as a clerk in the Admiralty. Although he had no previous rowing experience, he quickly developed an affinity with the sport and soon found himself rowing in one of the most successful Cygnet crews of the 1950s, a Junior Vlll coached by Bill Peer and John Bull.
The crew made its debut at Chiswick Regatta on 26th May1956. Eric Wale, author of ‘Cygnet Rowing Club: The Fifties’, recalled that “The Vlll, meanwhile, had developed into an extremely effective crew – indeed good enough to win at its first regatta beating Westminster School in the final of Juniors by one length. This was an excellent result bearing in mind the large entry (17 crews) and clearly demonstrated that Cygnet again had a crew of considerable potential”.
That potential was amply borne out in the successive weeks and months of 1956 and early 1957. Thus, the crew won Junior Senior Vllls at Walton on 9th June, Kingston on 13th July and Staines on 28th July. These results continued a successful run of regatta wins since the early 1950s, echoing the ‘victory years’ of the Thirties.
C.H. Genever Watling, an earlier club history scribe, recalled Ron Hext "as a 'perpetual student' because of the number of years and different courses undertaken with various local authorities, to see him through from extra mural at Ruskin to a degree course at Keble". Ron subsequently taught economics at the local Further Education College in Rugby for many years.
His rowing career appears to have come to an end in 1957, but not before he rowed in the 1957 Head of the River Race, coming 34th in a time of 20.29, a very creditable performance. As luck would have it, Maurice Hart, who also rowed in the crew, recently sent the Club a batch of regatta and HoRR printouts from that period, along with a photograph of the crew. The crew was steered by Colin Dominy; both Colin and Maurice still appear from time to time at Leander lunches.
Ron was one of the longest standing members of the Cygnet 300 Club and continued to follow the Club’s activities with interest.
Richard Hext adds “Dad had a long and happy life, was a loving and generous husband to Judith, and father to Richard, Neil and Alison. He very much valued his time as a rower with Cygnets and his continued association with the club. He passed his love of rowing to his son, Neil and at least one of his nine grandchildren. He was very much loved by his whole family and will be sorely missed.”
Ron's funeral will take place at 3pm on Monday 15th July at Rainsbrook Crematorium in Rugby. Cygnet members would be very welcome.
Ron is seated first left in the front row.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 20th June 2017
29th March 1930 – 16th June 2017
Len Huggett, who has died at the age of 87, was one of the paid-up members of the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ set who gathered at the Boathouse every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, pontificating on the world through an alcoholic haze. Collectively and individually, they were a near perfect replica of the TV series of the same name. While there was never any doubt who ‘Foggy’ was (John Bull), a number of candidates vied for the role of ‘Compo’, not least Len and Mike AG.
Born in 1930, Len Huggett grew up in Stoke Newington and Edmonton amid the urban bomb sites of World War Two and the austerity years that followed. Upon leaving school at sixteen, Len joined the Central Telegraph Office in 1946, part of the Post Office, before doing two years National Service in
Following his ‘demob’ in 1950, Len returned to the Post Office and soon started devoting his leisure hours to Crescent Rowing Club, which was based on the River Lee in East London. Like Cygnet, Crescent was allied to the Post Office and it was here that Len would strike up life-long friendships with the likes of John Ellis and Peter Bailey, both of whom remain Friends of Cygnet.
Given the limited boating facilities on the Lee, Crescent members were often invited to Cygnet to gain experience of rowing in Vllls on the Tidal Thames and to make up crews for the Head season. Crescent also competed regularly in the Civil Service Regatta and was a force to be reckoned with in the 1920s and 30s. Over time, ambitious young Crescent members often defected to Cygnet and Len duly followed suit in the late 1950s. The first photograph we have of a young Len Huggett afloat was taken in 1959 and shows him seated at two in a Cygnet Vlll at Kingston Regatta.
The 1960s were not an auspicious time for Cygnet and regatta victories were relatively few and far between. Nonetheless, the era was not without its high spots. Thus, in 1961 Len stroked a Junior Eight to victory at the Metropolitan Regatta and subsequent years often found him stroking Junior-Senior Vllls at local regattas, some successful, some not. Among the regattas he often used to wax lyrical about were the Welsh Harp and the Serpentine. Like so many of us, Len did his time as club captain, in 1966. His rowing ‘swan song’ came in 1973 when, rowing in a coxed lV with Roy Ellison, Peter Jeffs, Peter Roche and Robert Henry (cox), he won at Vesta International Veterans’ Regatta, beating Barclays Bank and Frankfurt.
Although not a confirmed bachelor as such, despite having several long-term relationships Len never took the plunge and tied the knot. His friends would probably argue that ‘no woman would have him’ and, in truth, he was a contrarian to his core, impossible to pin down to any commitment large or small. Yet, through it all he remained a dedicated member of Cygnet, immensely kind to his friends and wholly unpredictable, often turning up out-of-the-blue at regattas far from home – St Neots was one of his favourites. And, no matter where you were, Len always knew of a hostelry just around the corner or in a far-flung country lane.
A North London boy through and through, Len lived at home in Edmonton with his parents until their demise in the late-1980s. Then, in 1993, on a whim (and allegedly after a late night with Mike Arnold-Gilliat), he ventured down to Henley-on-Thames to visit the Club’s late president, Peter Sly. Sly took Len to see his late mother-in-law’s house in Greys Road, Henley, which had recently gone on the market. Much to Sly’s surprise, Len agreed to buy the house on the spot: it was probably the biggest decision he had ever made in his life.
Len would spend the remaining twenty four years of his life in this house; few people ever saw the interior and he rarely drew back the curtains. Nevertheless, living in Henley actually suited Len quite well. Friends often visited and there was no shortage of agreeable hostelries nearby. He, in turn, was a frequent visitor at ‘Old Blades’, the Sly residence, and would never tire of relating the story of how in 1977 he alerted Peter Sly to an auction of two old workmen’s cottages on the Henley reach that would ultimately be reborn as ‘Old Blades’.
Like so many of his generation, Len Huggett remained fiercely independent, living alone until the very end, despite having suffered several strokes. In reality, of course, the Cygnet safety net was always close at hand, with Pat, Pru and Oscar Sly increasingly alert to Len’s wellbeing in later years.
For many of us, our abiding memory of Len Huggett in his twilight years will have been of him ‘holding court’ on the patio at ‘Old Blades’ on Henley Regatta Friday – he would never commit to going, but he always turned up, contrarian to the last, and invariably pronounced it to be ‘a lovely old day’.
20th June 2017
Please feel free to share your memories of Len using the Comments box, below.
(Len is at 2 in this VIII from Kingston Regatta 1959)
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 19th May 2017
Dame Di Ellis, who died on 18th May 2017, was a giant in our sport. Instantly recognisable to all in British Rowing, Cygnet always felt that it could claim a special bond with her by virtue of her marriage to John Ellis, who has been a life-long member of Cygnet since the 1950s.
Di and John met at the Civil Service Boathouse when she was rowing for St George's and he for Cygnet. Di subsequently went to on to represent Great Britain before becoming an umpire, an official, team manager and Chairman of British Rowing (then the ARA) in 1989.
Deservedly described as 'The First Lady of British Rowing', Di served on unnumerable committees and organising bodies in her time, finishing her career in 2012 as Executive Chairman of British Rowing after 52 years in the sport.
Di's huge contributioin to the sport was recognised in 2013 when she was named a ‘Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ in the 2013 Birthday Honours List.
The last Cygnet function she attended was in October 2013 when she was proud to pose with her medal and Cygnet was able to bask in some of her reflected glory.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 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.
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.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 9th March 2016
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.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 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.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 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
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 26th March 2015
The late President of our London friends has passed away. For those that knew him, this news is exceptionally sad, as Peter Sly was such a key part to our partnership with Cygnet Rowing Club.
Peter was a gentleman. Whoever met him commented on his imposing stature, as well as his larger than life gestures and facial expressions. One of my earliest memories is from the 70s: with his enormous hat and his cigar he was “The Godfather“ incarnate.
Peter Sly was a patriarch. I have a vivid memory from 10 years ago during a visit to Henley Regatta how Peter came down from his house above the Thames in order to greet the throng of visitors assembled on the patio by the river.
Peter Sly was a force for our integration and not just for members from his own club. He was always concerned about the Benrath rowers and their safe journeys while the UK. Through these acts of kindness both Peter and his wife Pat showed enormous hospitality.
These memories and descriptions of him can barely scratch the surface in describing the fond memories many of us hold for this gentleman, some of us as a result of over 50 years of his friendship with RG Benrath. He himself took great joy in this partnership between the clubs, a good example coming from his congratulatory speech for our 75th anniversary when he said: “Many lasting friendships have been made, although there have so far been no marriages!“. You could see him smiling when he said that. He also gave us occasion to smile a lot, for example through his speech to RG Benrath in German.
The older “Head“ competitors from Benrath will remember the “After Head Regatta“ at Peter’s house in Henley. From the 80s Peter was often in Benrath with his wife Pat, his children Prudence and Oscar as well as his mother-in-law (Peter couldn’t really pronounce the German for Mother-in-Law, *Schwiegermutter). Benrathers were always welcome as guests of Peter and Pat when they visited the Thames. And in 2005 we were lucky to enjoy this on a grand scale again at a big party in Peter’s garden by the banks of the Thames for the 40th anniversary celebration of the two club’s partnership.
Thank you, Peter. We shall not forget you.
Ferdi Picker, March 2015
(Translated from the original German by former Cygnet Captain Rob Henderson)
Author: blogster | Date: 12th December 2014
Dear Cygnet Friends,
Some of you will have known and some will remember
Fred Blasberg, who died a little over two weeks ago. He was involved at the very beginning of our partnership with the Cygnets and would very much have enjoyed celebrating our half century with you next year. Unfortunately that was not be. He died aged 81 after a long illness.
Fred was one of our few honorary members. He was an active rower for over 60 years and held various positions on our management board. These began with responsibility for our youngsters and culminated in three decades as club secretary and editor of our club magazine.
He held many rowing honours, and in 2004 was awarded the equator prize for having rowed 40,000 Km.
Because of his deep and constant involvement with our club and its members, both young and old, he held a very special place in our hearts. He had a prodigious and encyclopaedic memory, an open ear for our troubles and the twinkling eyes of a committed and enthusiastic rower. We called him, with great respect, Mr. RGB.
All the best